It’s hard to overstate how good “Atlanta” is. (Indeed, it’s also hard to merely state how good it is — it’s such a subtle and complete show that saying more feels inept and superfluous, like tacking on post-its to a framed painting.) Tuesday’s finale, “The Jacket,” is no exception — a delicately plotted story that brings the season back to some of the ground where it started and also lays groundwork for the future. “Atlanta,” like a lot of recent half-hour shows, draws from the cinematic grammar of independent film — and indeed, there’s a way in which the restrained and elegant ending, where Earn (Donald Glover) goes to bed in storage unit 425, could serve as the end of the story that began with the shooting incident of the pilot, “The Big Bang.” It won’t, fortunately. But the show’s ability to draw such a spare and strong arc in 10 episodes — while navigating the minefield of race, politics, and comedy that it both sought out and entered into — displays uncanny confidence for a debut show.
“The Jacket’s” climax is a mid-episode scene where Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), and Earn are waiting outside last night’s Uber driver’s house, waiting for him to show up so Earn can get his jacket back. Paper Boi gets antsy at the eerie quiet, but before he can react, cops swarm out of the placid Georgia undergrowth to surround them, pointing guns at their car. It’s a terrifying shift from MacGuffin search to cop-chase, but — despite being actually wanted by the police — Paper Boi and his crew aren’t the target. It’s instead the Uber driver, who is wearing Earn’s jacket when he’s shot several times by the advancing police. The appearance of the police, the sudden murder of the driver, and the shifting statuses of our lead characters makes the interlude with the cops hard to process, and before we know it, Earn is asking the cop to check the pockets of the jacket, because there was something in them he needed. There is something horrible — and funny — about how the bloodshed was just a brief blip in an ordinary day.
“Atlanta” has played with undermining expectations and shifting reality all season, though it was the fifth episode, “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” that most obviously introduced an element of surreality. The show presents a fictional Justin Bieber — who is just like the real-life Bieber in every way except that he’s black — and then accompanies his appearance with a dreamlike subplot where Earn is mistaken for someone else and ends up sidestepping into a high-powered cocktail hour.
That set the stage for more experiences in the realm of the not-quite-real, like Marcus Mills’ invisible car in “The Club” or “B.A.N.’s” bewitching fake advertisements. Also in “The Club,” Earn discovers a secret passageway in the club, opened by pulling on the fire alarm. The door swings open noiselessly and he slips inside without anyone else noticing, in a series of actions that belongs in a maze in a videogame. So many times in “Atlanta,” the viewer is forced to ask — is this really happening?
At the same time, some episodes of “Atlanta” cleave to a classic sitcom structure. “Go for Broke,” “Value,” and “Juneteenth” — all episodes heavily featuring Van (Zazie Beetz) — have plot arcs that are almost schematic, as first Earn tries to salvage a failing date, Van has to confront a successful friend from her past, and in “Juneteenth,” the two have to pretend to be married. There’s a seductive element of the familiar in these structures, but they are quickly complicated by character and place.
The combination of both of these factors makes “The Jacket” a particularly fascinating episode. It starts out with the premise for any number of stories — looking for something lost — and ends up with the thing found, but riddled with bulletholes, and eventually not even being the thing that matters. And while a police shootout occurs so randomly that it becomes forgettable, Earn’s look back at Van in the final few minutes of the episode takes up precious, weighty airtime.
“Atlanta” plays with the familiar and the fantastical — almost like myths and fairy tales do. The elements of fantasy create a heightened kind of watching for the audience, where nothing is quite what it seems to be, or reality functions by a different set of rules. It’s a rather elegant metaphor for the difference between an institutionally oppressed worldview and an institutionally upheld one; nothing quite behaves the way it should, and the world has an at-times comical, at-times tragic sense of justice. “Atlanta’s” ability to shift its tone from funny to horrible and back again makes the most of these weird grace notes. There’s both a sense of truth-telling and one of imparting life lessons that sometimes comes through “Atlanta’s” dryly observant perspective; Earn, the guy who opens doors in walls to follow the bad guys, is the fable’s hero and its fool, a trickster who sometimes lacks investment in his own scams.
And at the risk of saying anything overarching about the black experience — or to reduce “Atlanta’s” brilliance to merely a question of race — there is something significant to making fairy tales out of the lives of a set of people who would never have been cast in “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s all a different kind of danger and a different sort of magic, yes. But Earn, like Frodo, just wants to go home; by the end of this season, as makeshift as it is, he finally finds where he can put his head down to sleep.