Now that Atlanta has concluded its run with last night’s series finale, here are the five best episodes that sum up the idea of the show, and that prove that it was a wholly unique experience from week to week.
5. The Club (Season 1, Episode 8)
The thesis statement for season one of Atlanta was in Paper Boi’s continued quest for respect in the rap game and in the titular community. The Club is just another bump along that road and therefore doesn’t initially stand out, but it’s probably the funniest of that bunch. The show has always been adept at incorporating characters and actors who appear once and are never heard from again, and The Club is chock full of them. Earn spends the majority of the episode chasing after the shady club manager, who finds increasingly surreal ways to give him the slip. Along the way, he gets some sage advice from a bartender who reminds him that he’s no better than any of the other lowlifes that spend their hard-earned money in the club, so it’s best if he just checks his ego at the door. Meanwhile Al, always the self-perceived underdog in need of extra clout, finds himself competing with Marcus Miles, a fellow rapper with a bigger VIP section and all that entails. It all culminates in what may be the funniest visual gag – or at least the best use of Chekov – in the show’s run, a payoff to a throwaway gag about the goofy shit that the rich and famous deem necessary of buying. The first season provides a nice mirror to where the characters are now, at the end of the road, from scrappy hustlers to comfortable pieces of the establishment, and no season one episode showcases that mirror better than The Club.
4. Born 2 Die (Season 4, Episode 3)
What’s left after we’re gone, after the spotlight fades away? What happens to fame when you’re no longer famous? It’s the perfect question to ask in the final season of Atlanta, and it all comes together in this episode’s dueling storylines. First, you have the more comical/surreal story where Earn tries to meet and sign D’Angelo after his talent agency tries to strategize various ways to defend a white woman who threatened a defenseless Black man. The visualization of the Dada-esque holding space (along with the hilarious D’Angelo “bathroom” sign at the Rally’s) is inspired as Earn first must realize “what is D’Angelo” before he can actually meet the washed-up artist. It’s a poignant moment of discovery for Earn, sandwiched in-between an absurd series of developments, when he realizes that the comfortable lifestyle he’s fought so hard for may not last as long as he thinks it will. Al is confronted with the same hard realities in a much more biting bit of satire that fits within the show’s modus operandi for its final two seasons. For as much respect as he’s gained from the streets, and as comfortable as he is now, he’ll never attain the level of security as he could if he doesn’t conform to the new reality of the rap game. Naturally, that means attaching himself to a rich white kid who buys their way to the top. Al and Earn have always had doubts about the sustainability of their success, but with Born 2 Die, the show finds a brand new way to embody those doubts, with some sharp social commentary and character development rolled into one.
3. Money Bag Shawty (Season 2, Episode 3)
The tragedy inherent in Atlanta is that Earn, Al, Darius, and Van are all outsiders in one way or another. Whether it be the rap game, or the corporate establishment, or the community of Atlanta at large, or… whatever Darius has going on… the core quartet will always be fighting uphill battles. In Money Bag Shawty, Al and Earn’s outsider status is confirmed in dueling storylines after Paper Boi’s single goes gold because a hilariously over-the-top white woman complains about the lyrics. Most of Al’s time is spent in the recording studio with Clark County (RJ Walker), a rapper who’s experienced a level of success Al secretly dreams of, including commercial deals. The reveal of Clark County’s true nature is not only hilarious but fits into how Al just may not be cut out for the rap game. For as much respect as the streets give him (despite being robbed at gunpoint earlier in the season), he still has to hustle to get anywhere in his chosen profession. Meanwhile, Earn finds that the one thing he’s craved since the beginning of the show – a hefty paycheck – doesn’t automatically equal respect. It’s a callback to season one’s Go For Broke, as Earn takes Van out for a night on the town that he can actually afford. The problem is that, due to increasingly erroneous reasons, nobody will take his money. Or, worse, they’ll bilk him out of more of it for semi-legitimate expenses. If Money Bag Shawty has a unifying theme, it’s that it’s unwise to “stunt” on people in Atlanta. There are no easy lessons in Atlanta and Money Bag Shawty is full of them.
2. Three Slaps (Season 3, Episode 1)
A lot of shit went down in America between the finale of season two and the premiere of season three of Atlanta. Half the country transformed into Trump sycophants, a global pandemic happened, and the entire conversation about race relations changed drastically. It’s a bold idea to base your season premiere around characters we’ve never heard of and will surely never see again, and even more bold to do so with a show coming back from a four year break (yes, I’m aware the episode originally aired as part one of a two-episode premiere). But Three Slaps stands out amongst the third season’s “anthology” episodes because it sets up the expectations for the things to come by examining a central question: what does it mean to be Black in America, and around the world? And perhaps just as importantly, what does it mean to be white? Hiro Murai, working from a script from Stephen Glover, directs the episode as a slow-burning horror film, all about the over-woke white people that will do anything to “save” Black youth. The heart of satire is truth, and the heartbreaking truth of Three Slaps is that it was inspired by a true story. The episode may not rank amongst the funniest of the show, or the season, but it hones its satirical edge like a knife because it so thoroughly looks at all the ways that the white savior complex is allowed to endure and, in some cases, thrive. Every season premiere of Atlanta keys us into what’s in store conceptually going forward, and Three Slaps showed us what kind of a twisted world Donald Glover & Co. had in store for us.
1. Teddy Perkins (Season 2, Episode 6)
It’s true that any number of spin-off shows could be made about many of the characters that only appear once in Atlanta. At the top of that pile is Teddy Perkins, one of the show’s most uniquely bizarre creations, and one of the best of the past decade, at least. As with the best of the show’s episodes, Teddy Perkins starts out simply (Darius goes to pick up a piano) and spins out of control from there. The show had already dipped its toes into one-off episodes like B.A.N., but Teddy Perkins touches on themes of artistic pain and sacrifice that had become an understated theme to the show overall. Director Hiro Murai touches on fame in a way that the show hadn’t yet, dealing with the often fraught relationship that great performers like Marvin Gaye, the Williams sisters, and the Jackson Five have had with their demanding parents. Underneath all of this is Donald Glover’s mesmerizing performance as Teddy, who injects the character with a real sense of soulful yearning. Yearning to be understood, to be out in the open, to be normal. But don’t sleep on LaKeith Stanfield in the episode either. Darius hadn’t really been given the spotlight beyond a few subplots and quips, and the episode gives him the opportunity to truly flesh out Darius as a person (try swapping out Earl or Al for him and the episode just doesn’t work). Now that Atlanta is over, plenty of TV shows will give us one-of-a-kind characters that will make us scratch our heads and want to know more about them. But no show will ever be able to give us another Teddy Perkins.