Movies & TV Shows

Why Atlanta Has So Many Anthology Episodes

Atlanta season 4 took another anthology detour, reigniting debate about a divisive storytelling approach. With just two episodes to go until the series finale, Atlanta sidelined the main cast to tell an alternate history of what it might look like if a black man accidentally became CEO of The Walt Disney Company. Titled “The Goof Who Sat By the Door,” the episode is not the first time that the series has left the lead characters behind to instead tell subversive social commentary that’s only tangentially related to the titular city. Atlanta season 3 featured four episodes – out of 10 in total – that took on a similarly anthological format.

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It’s been widely assumed that the change has to do with the fact that the Atlanta cast has become some of the busiest actors in Hollywood. Brian Tyree Henry, Zazie Beetz, and LaKeith Stanfield have been part of some of the biggest films in recent years since they started their respective roles as Paper Boi, Vanessa, and Darius. As for Donald Glover, who plays Earn, the multihyphenate has a deal with Amazon and is set to star in the Mr. & Mrs. Smith reboot. Still, when he was asked about the anthology approach, frequent Atlanta director Hiro Murai did not mention the actors’ schedules. He instead described it as a creative choice, explaining to TIME, “It just felt like the best way to tell this story was these weird little offbeat parables.”

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Why Atlanta’s Anthology Episodes Have Upset Some Viewers

Atlanta season 3 debuted following a four-year absence, in part due to COVID-19 restrictions. After such a long hiatus, certain fans of the show understandably wanted more time with the central foursome that was key to the success of the first two seasons. Coupled with the news that Atlanta season 4 would be the last, it was felt that the series didn’t have the luxury of branching off into unrelated alternate histories when so much of the main conflict was left unresolved.

Murai and the rest of the Atlanta team anticipated the negative response, as he admitted in the same interview with TIME, “There were conversations about, ‘Is this a bad idea? Will people be upset that they’re not seeing Paperboi in the show they love?’” It was even argued among some viewers and professional critics that the anthology episodes were to blame for the fact that the FX comedy declined in the ratings, compounded by the fact that the show didn’t have a strong showing at the Emmys.

Atlanta’s Anthology Episodes Are Secretly Perfect (Even In Season 4)

The negative response to Atlanta‘s anthologies doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s possible to want more with Earn, Vanessa, Paper Boi, and Darius, while still acknowledging that the show’s format-breaking has allowed it to take big swings that have resulted in some truly compelling television. The first anthology episode, revealed to be a dream that Earn is having, was inspired by the tragic Hart Family murders. It re-imagined the outcome, essentially wishing a happy ending for the black children that were abused and murdered by their adoptive white mothers. “The Goof Who Sat By The Door” is a similar feat of storytelling — an alternately hilarious and heartbreaking tribute to A Goofy Movie, depending on how you look at it, and a sly indictment of the internal and external pressures faced by black men.

It is also untrue that the show has forgotten its central group. Atlanta has carefully examined Earn and Vanessa, while highlighting Paper Boi’s anxieties as a rapper aging out of relevancy. It has mixed and matched within its group, offering a pair of gut-wrenchingly funny subplots for Earn and Darius, as well as Darius and Vanessa. While it’s the case that Darius has yet to receive the same solo spotlight, there are still a few chances to rectify that.

Related: Will Donald Glover Return For The Community Movie?

In many ways, Atlanta season 4 has been more traditional about providing straightforward resolution and answering lingering questions than it has been at any point in its history. At the same time, Glover — who directed “The Goof Who Sat By The Door” — and the rest of his team clearly have challenging ideas about race and privilege and hypocrisies that they’ve been able to bring to life because of a daring decision to depart from their winning formula. It may be divisive and frustrating at the moment when there is so much quality TV competing for attention. Down the road, with the benefit of hindsight and distance, it will hopefully be more fully appreciated.

New episodes of Atlanta season 4 air every Thursday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX and release on Hulu the following day.

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