“I just kept thinking, why isn’t anyone stopping us? Why didn’t anyone stop us?”

Amber (Laura Dreyfuss) is addressing her wife (Jamie Neumann), deep into a scheme that has spiraled beyond either one of these two white women’s control. On their way to the madness of this moment, they’ve demonstrated both a powerful and shocking inhumanity and the grim whimsicality of racism – the manner in which new rules can be created by the people in charge breezily, as if for their own amusement.

This is, and is not, “Atlanta.” The show, returning to the air for the first time since 2018, has jettisoned its cast for this installment, stepping outside the plot to tell a story of startling power. Leave it to “Atlanta” to return after nearly four years off with an episode featuring effectively none of its ensemble cast, save for a brief appearance by Donald Glover — also the show’s creator — at the end. The show has played with form before: The first season’s “B.A.N.” was an episodelong work of media criticism that took the form of 30 minutes’ worth of broadcast from a fictional TV network. But reintroducing us to the world of “Atlanta” without any of the show’s familiar tools – the performances of Glover, Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield, and Brian Tyree Henry, as well as the social milieu in which they float – is a task only a show this confident in its ambitions might attempt.

And “Atlanta” rises to the occasion, with an episode that convinces you its story needed telling. The premiere episode’s powerful assuredness, as well as the deep concern with looking uncomfortably hard and finding the grim comedy and the outlandish sorrow within American life, is precisely that which that makes this show, once again, great.

The premiere focuses on Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar, exceptional), a young man who is exuberantly willing to act up in class; we see him impatiently twirling a pencil, lost in thought, until his teacher shares some good news with the class, at which point he leaps to his feet, cheered on by his classmates as he dances. It’s this dance that sets off a slow-motion tragedy: His mother and grandfather are called into school and, in their anger, respectively shout at and smack him (the “Three Slaps” that give this episode its title). A well-meaning – and, not incidentally, white-presenting – school social worker calls Child Protective Services, and, soon enough, Loquareeous is living with two white women, the fourth of their children. All are adopted or fostered; all are Black.

The episode is fairly direct in its storytelling. The social worker, for instance, faces down a complicated situation – Loquareeous’ mother and grandfather fear for his future as a Black man in this country and want better for him, even as their expressing that looks abusive or just improper. And she emerges with the bluntness of uncomplicated certainty. “Don’t worry, I’m going to get you out of there,” this self-styled helper mutters to Loquareeous. And where she gets him is a home that, from the first, is shown to be a place where Blackness is both fetishized and erased: It’s important that Loquareeous is Black, because that means he needed to be saved. But, in saving him, these white women want to make sure nothing of him remains, not even his name: They present him with a towel embroidered “Larry,” and that’s how they refer to him.

This episode seems plainly inspired by the 2018 massacre in which two white women, a married couple, murdered their six adopted children (all of them Black); that sickening story, like “Three Slaps,” exists at an intersection of race, class, and madness. Both the story and the episode improvising off of it are damning illustrations of the ways in which certain white adoptive parents see Black children as needing saviors, not simply needing love.

But something transformative is at work, too. The true incident is almost too bleak to contemplate, but in drawing out its elements not merely of abuse but of white parents’ attempts to dominate and to remake children of color, writer Stephen Glover finds painful insight. The show’s narrative might, in other hands, have been nihilistic; instead, there’s a searching, open curiosity that extends even as far as the women themselves. For all the clarity of the storytelling, there’s a willingness to be confused that has always suited “Atlanta.” The women at the center of this story are given the chance to explain themselves, and the best they can do is to say that some force more powerful even than whiteness should have intervened to stop them. What we’re left with is the baffling unlogic of racial hatred.

Stephen Glover and director Hiro Murai (both among the show’s executive producers) have crafted an episode that fits into the series by standing out. “Atlanta’s” willingness to reinvent itself isn’t limited to special episodes like this one: This season, the action around our central characters takes place not in the American South but across Europe, where Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) is on a concert tour for largely white audiences. The season’s second episode is more plainly recognizable as “Atlanta,” and, in some ways, looks a lot like America: Our characters are confronted at every turn by white Europeans in blackface, as part of a Christmas celebration that comes very rapidly to look and feel like a society-wide parade of mockery. Series lead Glover continues to find new ways to register a sort of unsurprised confusion, baffled at what’s unfolding around him but hardly shocked that it’s incomprehensible.

“Atlanta” has a careful eye for notes like these, the mind-boggling, predictable component parts of white misunderstanding of Black life. An early sign that “Three Slaps” is operating in the register of parable is the mothers’ preparing fried chicken in a microwave, which is an uncharacteristically broad bit of business. The show follows through, though, and this chicken meal becomes a symbol for all that Loquareeous is expected to swallow.

When the episode ends, viewers will likely think back to the way it began: With a seemingly unrelated vignette in which two friends, white and Black, fish on a lake, one that the white fisherman slowly makes clear was created when the government diverted water to flood a Black community. The ending of that story is too apt to disclose here, but suffice it to say that there, as throughout the early going of this new “Atlanta” season, the white desire to reform or remake Blackness, to reinvent it as something white people can enjoy (or own) for themselves, is a consuming force. And what it leaves in its wake is a destruction so complete, you’d never know something had been there in the first place.

After premiering at SXSW on March 19, “Atlanta’s” third season debuts on FX on Thursday, March 24 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

‘Atlanta’ Season 3 Is a Startling, Stunning Master Class: TV Review

FX. Ten episodes (two screened for review).

  • Production: Executive producers: Donald Glover, Stephen Glover, Hiro Murai, Stefani Robinson, Paul Simms, and Dianne McGunigle.
  • Cast: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz.