A review of the Atlanta series finale, “It Was All a Dream,” coming up just as soon as I tell you how many seasons of Homeboys in Outer Space there were…
The thing about Atlanta is that the series is so fluid, and so unpredictable in terms of subject and tone, that it could have ended in almost any way, and it probably would have felt appropriate on some level. Could have been something dark, something silly, something thoughtful. Could have focused on any of the regular characters, or even revisited the Justin Bartha character from last season’s reparations episode. Heck, “The Goof Who Sat By the Door” would have been an incredible mic drop. No matter what Donald Glover and company(*) did, we wouldn’t be able to say that we hadn’t been warned.
(*) For the last time (and the only time this season), Glover wrote the script, and Hiro Murai directed. I spoke with Murai about the finale and the overall experience of making the series. Look for that interview here tomorrow morning.
Yet after watching “It Was All a Dream,” it’s hard to think of a more fitting conclusion to this incredible show.
After two of the previous three episodes provided emotional closure for Earn and Van, and then for Al, the finale largely turns its attention towards Darius. But how on earth do you wrap up the arc of a character as eccentric and inscrutable as Darius? Closure for Earn and Van is easy; they want to be with each other, even if it’s been hard to admit that after all their starts and stops. Al discovering that he loves the farming life is perhaps a surprise, except that we know how uncomfortable he is around almost all people. Darius, though? Darius is a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, buried under a pile of jollof. We know what he is like, but not necessarily what he wants, what drives him, or what lurks beneath that chill, empathetic exterior.
But if Earn was our introduction to this world, and if Al at some point became the show’s central character, the finale reveals Darius to be the creative touchstone for the whole endeavor.
Among the elements that has made Atlanta so special is the way the series lets dream logic exist side by side with both farce and a degree of gritty realism. And none of the three male leads is more comfortable moving from one space to the next than Darius. So of course the show has to conclude with him sliding back and forth between all these tones as he struggles to figure out what is real and what is a hallucination brought on by his latest experience in a sensory deprivation tank — or, as he dubs it, dep sesh(*).
(*) Not to be confused with a Depp sesh, which Earn assumes is an underground Johnny Depp film edited from all his other films.
On his way there, Darius first stops at a pharmacy, where he and a woman named Cree (played by Cree Summer, most famous for A Different World, and a recurring player on Better Things) discuss their respective experiences with deprivation and hallucination. Cree has given up on the practice because she fell too deep into one fantasy or another. Darius, though, claims to have a cheat code: “Thicc Judge Judy.” Since Judy Sheindlin’s TV shows are playing all the time wherever he goes, Darius has forced his unconscious mind to picture her in a more voluptuous fashion, as a way to differentiate fact from fiction. After a discussion of anxiety and antidepressants — among the more implicitly revealing conversations Darius has ever had on the show — he tells Cree, “You have a beautiful spirit. Thank you for sharing your time with me.” For all his foolishness, eccentricity, and unapologetic mooching, Darius can also be lovely and charming like this in a way that Al and Earn are, respectively, too grouchy and too goal-oriented to be.
On the way to his appointment, he runs into an old girlfriend named London (Naté Jones). She remembers him as a perpetually high party animal, but the Darius of the last few seasons has been much more mellow and, if not a teetotaler, then at least someone who picks his spots with what he ingests, and when. He does not want to backslide, but he lets the brash London goad him into the car, where she is both drinking and smoking. Things spiral quickly: a white cop pulls them over for an illegal tint, and even after London improbably passes his off-brand field sobriety test, she decides to snag the cop’s gun, accidentally hits a kid on a bicycle with her car, and then runs away, leaving the gun in Darius’ hands. It would seem a horrible final fate for Darius…
…except that he wakes up in the deprivation tank seconds later. Thicc Judge Judy did not save him, but the sheer horror of the incident did — or so it seems. The rest of the episode is a Russian nesting doll of hallucinations, with each one beginning in relatively understated fashion before spiraling out of control. Even when it appears that he has misjudged the situation — like when he freaks out over how often the other deprivation clients keep saying the phrase “tea room,” then gets kicked to the curb because it does not appear to be a hallucination, after all — we eventually see that he’s just floating in the tank, having dreams on top of dreams.
In one, he goes to visit his brother Chi (Flatbush Misdemeanors star and co-creator Kevin Iso), who is sick and estranged from their parents. It is implied but not explicitly stated that he’s gay, and midway through the visit, Darius whispers to himself, “I miss you, man” — a tell that in the real world, Chi is not sick, but already gone(*). It’s a sad little reminder that Darius is more than just the court jester of Al and Earn’s world, but a person with his own life and his own traumas. (Early in Season Three, he mentioned having his balls crushed during his childhood in Nigeria, then abruptly changed the subject to the movie Food Fight, because of course he did.) He is more complicated than he so often lets on to his best friends, and sometimes he just needs to turn everything off and climb into the tank.
(*) This is something of a callback to when Al imagined his mother cleaning up his apartment on the anniversary of her death, back in Season Two’s “Woods.”
All of this plays out in between an amusing subplot where Al, Earn, and Van attempt to enjoy lunch at a Black-owned sushi restaurant that one of Van’s friends has invested in. The sight of a Popeye’s across the parking lot from the sushi place is a cruel taunt to Al, especially when the sushi turns out to be unusual, at times bordering on inedible. With Van and Earn acting mostly as straight men, it is one last time for the show to unleash Brian Tyree Henry’s brilliant comic gift for playing silent disgust and longing.
But what starts as a lighthearted but relatively realistic story takes a strange, very Atlanta turn when the three friends attempt to leave the restaurant early to beat the mid-afternoon rush of high school kids to the Popeye’s. The restaurant’s mysterious owner Demarcus (Calvin Dutton) emerges, clad in the same kind of suit and bow tie that the creepy Ahmad White sported in a few episodes of Season One(*). Demarcus is fed up with having his culinary methods questioned, with the Black community’s failure to support one of their own, with the level of distrust coursing throughout that community. His oratory seemingly gets through to Al, but Demarcus follows it with an order for his staff to lock the doors so that these three wayward diners will be forced to eat the potentially poisonous blowfish his chef has prepared for them.
(*) Ahmad is the guy on the bus in the series premiere who offers Earn a Nutella sandwich, then gets out and randomly stands on the edge of the road, staring silently at the woods in front of him — perhaps the first sign that this show would not be what we expected. Ahmad later appears in Season One’s “B.A.N.,” where his commercial promised answers to anyone calling into his hotline.
And then, just when it seems like things are escalating as much and as rapidly in the real world as they have in Darius’ hallucinations, Darius himself bursts in, yells for the others to jump into his pink Maserati, doing donuts in the parking lot as he drives them to safety.
It is so hilarious, so random, that it seems as if the episode is explaining that most of what we have seen so far has been part of Darius’ dep sesh experience, and that he has for some reason been dreaming about events where he’s not present…
…which, more or less, turns out to be how Darius is interpreting things. When the gang goes back to Al’s place, he explains that it’s no big deal that he stole the Maserati, because it’s just a hallucination, much like the one where London stole the cop’s gun. None of this is real, so no one can be hurt. It’s not an unreasonable assumption after the day he’s had, and if you follow Darius logic, it becomes possible that much — or even all — of Atlanta has been happening inside his head. It would certainly explain the oddness of things like Black Justin Bieber, the invisible car, or even Teddy Perkins. It would explain how this show’s seemingly mismatched pieces almost always fit together perfectly.
But what fun is that? Atlanta makes sense, not because it is a long dream Darius is having in a sensory deprivation tank, but because it just does — because it is written with such imagination, and directed and performed with such precision, that it all inevitably seems of a piece. You can read the episode’s concluding, Inception-esque moments — where Darius looks at Judge Judy walking away from the bench and smiles, without us seeing whether she is thicc or normally-shaped — as a sign that he understands that this is all real, or perhaps the opposite. He could be smiling because Darius is a strange enough cat to embrace the idea of experiencing a perpetual fantasy world. But I prefer the former interpretation — that the smile on his face is him embracing the life he has, the friends he gets to be with, and the periodic opportunities he gets to share his time with beautiful spirits like Cree.
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Is this all fake? Well, it is in the sense that this is a scripted show about fictional characters, even if they draw on elements of the lives of the people making the show. If you interpret the ending as Darius recognizing that the entire series exists only in his head, then it is perhaps sad. Or maybe, like the famous (or infamous) final scene of St. Elsewhere — in which we learn that the whole show takes place in the imagination of a boy with autism as he stares at a snow globe all day, then see him place that globe on top of a TV set — it is simply an acknowledgment that this show springs from the minds of Donald Glover, Stephen Glover, Hiro Murai, and everyone else, and that it’s okay to let go of our emotional investment in Al, Earn, Darius, and Van.
But if it is all meant to be “real”? Then life is, for that moment, pretty great for Darius. And it’s been great for those of us lucky enough to watch this special, special show, and this all-time classic final season. Now let’s all fire up a new episode of Judy Justice and see how our favorite courtroom personality looks.