With Donald Glover’s Atlanta having come to an end, these are the 15 best episodes across its four season run.
Prior to Atlanta making its premiere back in September 2016, series creator Donald Glover had described it as “Twin Peaks for rappers.” Although one could argue it deviated away from this at times (especially with its divisive third season), it’s a description that held up across the show’s four seasons, as viewers watched Paper Boi rise from local rap sensation to global rap star with help from cousin and manager Earn.
Through its journey, Atlanta offered a surreal take on the joys and dangers of being a rapper. How could we ever forget Paper Boi’s first taste of stardom in the form of a glowing box of complimentary lemon pepper wet hot wings? Or, more recently, him having to push an aspiring rapper hoping to have his Kanye-discovers-Big-Sean moment as someone is trying to kill the now well-known rap figure?
But that surrealist lens is present throughout all of Atlanta‘s core characters. Whether that be Earn finding himself in the middle of a shootout between police and an assailant while trying to retrieve his jacket (that has the keys to his home, a storage unit), Darius (Paper Boi’s right hand man) trying to pick up a piano from an enigmatic (and clearly troubled) musician inspired by the tragic backstories of artists like Marvin Gaye or Michael Jackson, or Van trying to extract her and Earn’s daughter’s pee in hopes of passing a drug test. In Atlanta, there’s just as many hilarious moments as there are heart-pounding ones, where you never really know how an episode will begin or end.
Now, six years since its premiere, Atlanta has come to an end. So, what better way to celebrate and reflect on the legacy it leaves behind than deciding what are the series’ best episodes? Chances are you won’t be surprised by some of these. Others might catch you off guard like the cost of an of Arizona Iced Tea being more than what’s labeled on the can. These are the 15 best Atlanta episodes across its four season run.
15. “The Club”
The secret wall door. There are moments scattered across Atlanta that speak to the show’s surrealist spin on the often mundane annoyances rappers (and the people that oversee them) endure, and this scene from “The Club” (and really most of the episode) is one of the best examples of this. Still adapting to being his cousin’s full-time manager, Earn is tasked with tracking down a scheming club promoter intent on not paying him. The promoter does everything he can to evade Earn, culminating in the moment where he disappears to a secluded part of the club through a secret wall door.
It’s a hilarious scene that occurs in one of the funniest episodes of Atlanta, as Paper Boi — equally unenthused about being in a club as his cousin — is overshadowed by Marcus Miles, an Atlanta Hawks player, whose fame eclipses that of the rising rapper. Ultimately, Paper Boi has to take matters into his own hands to get the money he’s owed, as he confronts the promoter.
“That boy’s gon’ be a star,” the promoter says of Paper Boi after the rapper slaps him with a stack of cash, only to then tell a woman he was with to call the police on Paper Boi. By the end of the episode, it seems that the gang’s club night was, for the most part, a success. Not only did they get paid, but they got out of a shootout that occurred outside of the club (and were able to witness Miles’ invisible car in action) right as they were leaving, too. Then they overhear on the news that the police are looking for Paper Boi. It’s an ending that puts a damper on the episode, a testament to how effective Atlanta was with juggling comedy and drama in a way that made it such a distinct series.
14. “Work Ethic!”
The Van and Lottie-centric episode from the show’s fourth season, “Work Ethic!” pulls at the complacencies of colorism, solidarity, and abusive rhetoric in large conglomerates, as well as the dangers of child stardom. What starts out as an innocuous acting opportunity for Van quickly spirals out of control, as she loses Lottie after Mr. Chocolate, the man behind Chocolate Studios, sees potential in her as a child star. “Work Ethic!” tackles the idea of “I’m rooting for everybody Black,” and assesses the appraisal of any and all Black filmmakers and directors for their work, regardless that these people are complicit in using their power to further hinder Black people.
It also emphasizes the casualty that we as a people can have with figures who’ve created media that is essentially modern minstrel shows. Sure, the episode is clearly pointing a finger at Tyler Perry (but not as scathing as Aaron McGruder was with The Boondocks). But it also highlights how a handful of notable Black figures in pop culture could be a Mr. Chocolate, too — whether they realize it or not.
13. “The Homeliest Little Horse”
By the beginning of Atlanta’s fourth season, Earn has gone through some significant lifestyle changes. He’s parlayed his job as Paper Boi’s manager into working at a cushy talent agency, drives a fancy SUV, and has even decided to get therapy. Speaking with his therapist across multiple sessions, Earn delves into family trauma, the reason why he left Princeton (a question the series has never answered up until this point), and an incident at the airport where he, Van, and Lottie were turned away at the gate due to racial profiling. The woman responsible is named Lisa Hahn, an aspiring author that Earn swears revenge against, going so far as to get her a fake book deal and a gig reading to children at a local library that ends in humiliation. It all plays out Truman Show-style on screens at a bar, with Earn and all his actors watching and celebrating this petty victory.
“The Homeliest Little Horse” is a top-tier Atlanta episode because of its contrasts. What starts as warm therapy sessions between Black men — all too rare in television or film — devolves into a convoluted revenge plot just for its own sake. Earn’s lot in life is much greater than before, but he goes through the motions almost as if he can’t help himself. By the time he’s sitting at the bar, drink in hand and watching this woman get her (still well-deserved) comeuppance, he smiles and delivers a devastatingly funny line to close it out: “I need to go back to therapy.”
The tenth episode in Atlanta’s second season travels back in time to Alfred and Earn’s early school years. This episode stretched the veils of the characters we’ve become familiar with, allowing us to see inside situations that have played a hand in who they are now. Earn’s dilemma in this episode is that his classmates are going on an inspection to find out who has the real FUBU jersey between him and a fellow classmate, Deven Myers. Earn enlists help from Alfred, who is able to get Earn’s classmates to believe that his shirt is the real one.
The plot point of the FUBU jersey directs us to how Earn and Alfred’s relationship has been the same since they were kids, as Alfred has remained one of the only ones Earn has had to be truthful to. This episode also represents how toxic material items can be as they are used to announce or demote those who either have it or don’t, which is shown by Devon’s suicide as a result of the bullying he experienced for having the “fake” jersey.
11. “The Big Payback”
Yes, “The Big Payback” is practically the spiritual successor to Dave Chappelle’s infamous “Reparations 2003” sketch, but that doesn’t take away from how good it is. One of the more suspenseful episodes from the third season, “The Big Payback” finds a white man by the name of Marshall Johnson having to owe a Black woman, Sheniqua Johnson, reparations because his family owned her ancestors. Black people throughout the episode are seen rejoicing in the opportunity of receiving reparations, hilariously punctuating the somber mood of white people having to atone for their ancestors’ wrongdoings.
What adds to the overall thriller-esque tone of “The Big Payback” is the music. An unsettling and sparse score is present throughout, serving as the perfect soundtrack to Sheniqua stalking Marshall. And then there’s Minnie Riperton’s eerily triumphant “Les Fleur” at the end. It’s just as beautiful as it is unnerving, the camera panning out to show a group of predominantly white servers tending to a group of patrons largely made up of people of color. It’s a dream (or nightmare depending on who’s watching) that Atlanta succeeds in playing with, leaving you to reflect on what a world could be like for a concept that has actually gained some ground in real-life across the U.S.
Told in black and white, “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga” follows a young biracial protagonist in his senior year of high school, who’s modeled his outward appearance to be in favor of white privilege. Nonetheless, his perfected ambiguity cannot save him because his father does not have the means to pay for his college tuition. This all changes when a new donor for the school, Robert Shea Lee (played by Kevin Samuels), grants one million dollars to the school and proclaims that he will pay a full ride for every graduating student with one very specific caveat — they have to be Black.
From there, the episode hilariously calls out cultural ideologies that have been subjugated in popular discourse about what it means to be Black, with Lee (alongside a couple of other judges) asking contenders to prove their blackness, which they try to do in the most absurd ways possible. “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga” is just as funny as it is sad, speaking to the complex issue of how blackness is perceived by those who are — and aren’t — Black, and making it one ofAtlanta’s most bizarre but fascinating episodes across its four seasons.
8. “It Was All A Dream”
Honestly, it’s unsurprising that Atlanta ended this way, with an episode where you’re left wondering if what you’ve watched from the very beginning has been one long Inception-esque dream from the show’s beloved weirdo, Darius. Yes, many of us wanted the neatly wrapped-up in a bowtie season finale, where any and all questions we had left would somehow get answered. Instead, we get an episode where Darius may or may not have gone on the deep end with his weekly sensory deprivation tank spa visits, and get guilt-tripped about our next Popeyes visit.
Atlanta has always subverted expectation to the point where it feels like they’re trolling us (although they would say otherwise). At times that subversion works, and others times it hasn’t throughout the series. But here, it works. There’s just something about the episode’s final moments, and getting to see the core group together and happy in a way that we’ve never really seen before. Was it all just a dream? Does it matter? After all the bullshit we saw Earn, Paper Boi, Darius, and Van go through, it’s nice to end on a note where we’re seeing them laugh and smile — whether it was all a part of the simulation or not.
7. “Teddy Perkins”
Near the middle of “Teddy Perkins,” the titular pianist is taking Darius on a tour of a makeshift museum he built to memorialize his father. “Great things come from great pain,” Perkins says in an unnerving falsetto, as he explains why his father used to beat him and his brother Benny if they fell behind on their piano lessons. Darius only came to this disturbed man’s house to pick up a piano with rainbow-colored keys he found on Craigslist, but unknowingly walked into the most quietly haunting piece of writing Donald Glover has ever conceived.
We learn of Teddy as an isolationist celebrity in the Howard Hughes or Michael Jackson sense. He survives off raw ostrich eggs and years of parental gaslighting that manifest in a latent self-hatred despite his (seeming) success. Eventually, Teddy plans to kill Darius, but not before the two share a powerful dialogue about the cycle of trauma. The way Atlanta leaned into this creeping sense of dread was shocking at the time, and while the show’s gone in this direction since, it’s never been this chilling or sad. Hearing Darius, ever the philosopher, try to bring Teddy back from the brink before Benny sets off a murder-suicide is powerful beyond words. “Teddy Perkins” was a sharp left turn for the series, and its skin-shredding horror remains one of Atlanta’s best surprises.
6. “Three Slaps”
The third season of Atlanta upscaled its horror aspects, with the writers blending magical realism, terror, and racism into one experimental smoothie. An epitome of this vision board was seen in the season premiere episode “Three Slaps.” The first five minutes of the episode roll a shiver down the audience’s spine by breaking the race wall upon the perspective of black and white. From there, the horror continues, as we witness a young boy forced to live with an adoptive white family after a guidance counselor calls child services on his mother. But his situation with the white family isn’t any better, as he and a few other Black children are subjected to uncooked chicken, and essentially being slaves working for the white couple.
The writers play on the horrors of white heroism from the guidance counselor to the adoptive parents, critiquing this form of allyship as a diluted weapon. The horror of the entire premiere is kissed with finesse knowing that the core of “Three Slaps” is built around two real-life tragedies: the 1912 “racial cleansing” of former Georgia town Oscarville (which became Lake Lanier) and the 2018 Hart family murders, the latter of which the episode provides a poignantly happier retelling of the tragic real-life ending that came of the incident.
5. “The Goof Who Sat By The Door”
One thing about the Atlanta universe is that it goes out of its way to feel lived-in. Few episodes accomplish this better than the late season four entry “The Goof Who Sat By The Door,” which takes the media-based satire established in episodes like “B.A.N.” and “Work Ethic!,” and ramps them up to their logical extreme. The episode is told through a fake documentary (airing on the B.A.N. network) about the making of the 1995 Disney animation A Goofy Movie. However, there’s a twist: in the Atlanta universe, the film was spearheaded by Thomas Washington, a Black animator who was made the CEO of Walt Disney Studios due to a clerical error. The story is 100 percent fake, but the lengths they go to make it seem real — from blending in actual archival clips and news footage to getting actual real-life Black celebrities like Brian McKnight and Sinbad to contribute to the “documentary” — is astounding.
“The Goof Who Sat By The Door” is essentially a bottle episode in a similar vein to most of season three’s controversial one-off episodes. But “Goof” succeeds where most of those others failed by being a focused, nuanced, and hilarious manifestation of a long-accepted theory within the Black community — that A Goofy Movie is the Blackest movie of all time.
4. “North of the Border”
After what Paper Boi endured in “Woods,” it’s understandable that the episode’s follow-up, “North of the Border,” finds him wanting to make significant changes to his burgeoning career, specifically with regards to his management. The episode builds up the inevitable talk he ends up having with Earn toward the end of the episode, whose decision to have the gang stay with a deranged fan of Paper Boi’s instead of at a hotel, leads to a domino effect of unnecessary bad things happening to the group. Sure, this is just the straw that breaks the camel’s back, with the entire season dropping hints of Paper Boi’s frustrations with Earn’s management (especially in comparison all the opportunities fellow rapper Clark County has gotten through his white manager, Lucas). But when it’s broken, all Paper Boi can do is laugh, catching Earn off guard when he blames his cousin for all that went wrong instead of Paper Boi’s friend, Tracy. When the group returns to the fan’s apartment only to see their belongings destroyed (and Earn’s laptop stolen) outside, it’s essentially the nail in the coffin for Paper Boi and Earn.
In a way, “North of the Border” is Earn’s “Woods.” Like his cousin, Earn is also pushed to the brink and left a bloody and disheveled mess by the end of the episode, and the way Glover captures all of this is so heartbreaking, as we’re left to wonder if he’ll adapt to the growing pains required to stay his cousin’s manager, or break from the pressure.
“Juneteenth” revolves around a celebration of the titular holiday commemorating the end of slavery, but the episode feels like something out of a distorted new-age Jim Crow fantasy. Earn and Van arrive to see Black men lining the steps and singing negro spirituals; the bar serves punny drinks like Plantation Master Poison and Emancipation Eggnog; and Craig, the white dentist husband of Van’s friend Monique, flaunts an obsession with Black culture rooted in stereotypes and horrible slam poetry. Earn and Van pretend to be newlyweds and grimace their way through these banal horrors before Monique talks down on Earn and Paper Boi’s relationship (“There’s always one trifling thug in the family”), and Earn completely loses his cool.
Atlanta is well-known for its bouts of magical realism, but “Juneteenth” scales it back for a more grounded take on ideas of performance, class mobility, and the allure and weight of blackness as a cultural force. But most importantly, it’s one of the best showcases of Earn and Van’s still-budding relationship. They start the day mad at each other and neither of them truly want to be at this party, and that honesty and rejection of upper-class complacency (a contrast to Monique being perfectly fine as a tether to her wealthy wigger husband) only brings them closer together.
“B.A.N.,” represented a buffet of many ideas. The episode used paradoxical reflections of cancel culture, the absurdity of trans-racialism, and comical satirical commercials to propel discourse around news and the overall media. To zoom in, Paper Boi makes a controversial tweet that prompts him to do an interview on Black American Network’s (B.A.N) the Montague show. There, he goes back and forth with Dr. Deborah Holt, an activist for trans rights, on the ideas of race and gender.
The mixed reactions to the episode reflect the mixed opinions that are constantly festering over ideologies of race and gender. “B.A.N” formed critiques on how individual remarks become the allegory for overall movements, presenting how Black people are forced to be the living embodiments of the communities they belong to. It’s able to present the existence of transphobia in Black and Brown communities, while angling how “trans-racialism” is not indicative or even worthy of actual thought — all while poking a little bit of fun at Black networks like BET and OWN.
Sometimes, life can throw you a day that is just unrelenting. Granted, Paper Boi has had a handful of these days across the series, but none of them compare to “Woods.” Hoping to distract himself from the anniversary of his mom’s passing, Paper Boi’s day slowly starts to unravel before picking up speed at the episode’s half point, where a group of men who initially seem like fans of the rising rapper proceed to beat and rob him. In trying to evade one of the men, he ends up in a forest, where he’s followed by a mentally unstable man named Wiley, who threatens to kill him if he doesn’t find his way out.
Luckily, he escapes, ending up outside of a gas station, where he meets a fan and takes a picture with them, despite having one of the worst days of his life. The episode is a heartbreaking moment that finds grief and unfortunate events colliding in such a terrifying way for Paper Boi. He’s had the sobering realization that he’s a rapper people now acknowledge and recognize, for better and worse. Whether it’s a group of hostile men or a sincere fan, they both see him as something larger than how he sees himself, disregarding his humanity in the process. “Woods” is the moment we see Paper Boi become aware of this, as he reckons with the fact that he’s no longer a regular person anymore and has to move different going forward.