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Amsterdam? I didn't know what to think when news broke that Atlanta's third season was to be largely shot in the capital of the Netherlands. The FX comedy's first two seasons are all-time-great television, with multiple perfect episodes that could shift focus to one single character or jump courageously from boundary-bursting racial satire into slippery magical realism. The swerves were the point. But Atlanta always felt unified by, well, Atlanta, an evocative setting that stood magnificently for every troubled, nightmarish, entertainingly busted facet of the American character.

So: Amsterdam? I've seen the first two episodes of the new season, which both air on Thursday. After four long years away, it's a relief to report that creator Donald Glover and his collaborators have not lost their capacity for vital tone-clashing comedy. There are laugh-out-loud moments right alongside skin-crawling bits of social awkwardness, plus some outright shocks. Everything has changed, but Atlanta minus Atlanta is still Atlanta.

Of course, the new setting could be a misdirect. There are a lot of left-turns in the stunner premiere, which is the show's boldest narrative experiment yet. "Three Slaps" opens with a riverboat scene that is (I think) a parody of the whole post-Get Out wave of Black-themed horror cinema. This funny sequence is also legitimately scary, which tells you something about the powerhouse talents on display. Director Hiro Murai is coming off the color-blasted apocalypse of Station Eleven, and his luscious-sardonic visual storytelling in the premiere matches the spiraling farce of Stephen Glover's script.

Donald Glover returns for season 3 of 'Atlanta'
| Credit: Rob Youngson/FX

Necessary Spoiler Alert, I guess, because it's impossible to discuss "Three Slaps" without addressing the most obvious surprise. None of the main cast appears at all, save one ambiguous late appearance by Glover as Earn. Instead, the episode follows the miserable odyssey of Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar), a grade-school kid who gets sent to the principal's office for a minor dancing outburst. From there, things spiral quickly. The details are wonderfully specific: The unhelpfully helpful white guidance counselor, the spaghetti in the refrigerator, the fact that the Atlanta Falcons and Domino's Pizza are apparently buying schoolchildren tickets to Black Panther 2 "in an effort to promote more Black history in the curriculum." (Nicole Lockley is outstanding as Loquareeous' mom, sketching a whole portrait of no-bull maternal toughness in just a few scenes.)

Child services pluck Loquareeous out of his house and place him in foster care. His new moms are Amber (Laura Dreyfuss) and Gayle (Jamie Neumann), olive-oil shampoo types who have turned their house into a pickle-everything kombucha distillery. They represent some outer range of Farmer's Marketeer progressives; they express gleeful concern when Rihanna Instagrams the term "spirit animal" despite not being an "Indigenous Person." They have three other foster children, all Black. Your suspicions start simmering. Then the kids get put to work in the garden.

"Three Slaps" carries all the allegorical richness of a racial horror film — slavery as an outcome of wokeness! — with the added benefit of nonstop hilarious sight gags and wordplay. (My favorite of the latter: When poor Loquareeous has to wear a "Free Hugs" sign at the Farmer's Market, a clueless white guy asks if Hugs is his father.) Farrar is the latest guest star to completely dominate a single-episode Atlanta appearance, reacting with slow-burn frustration to the escalating terror around him.

The premiere's bold leap has an odd side effect: It makes episode 2 feel like a regular Atlanta episode. "Sinterklaas is Coming to Town" exports the whole cast to a new city after an indeterminate passage of time, but its main achievement is familiarity. Earn still races around trying to manage his client-cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry). The difference is that Paper Boi is on tour in friendly territory, back in Amsterdam after a successful concert a year ago. So Earn can now resolve a lot of situations — a lost laptop, a bit of jail time — with the financial magic of "tour clout." This is not the guy who had to hustle some talent beds in a dorm room for a campus concert. Now he has drivers, spare hotel rooms, and blessed insurance.

Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) and Van (Zazie Beetz) are here, too! The former is floating higher than ever on the coffeehouse buzz. "This city is my Jesus," he says, unsurprisingly. Van's presence is somewhat hazier. She reveals some biographical details — a new boyfriend, a missed job opportunity — but I'm not sure even she knows why she's flown across the world.

Is that a problem? I go back and forth. Atlanta has been loopy since day one, but the main characters always felt rooted in extremely believable circumstances. They woke up in realism and then the world spun them into surrealism. Van carried the weight more than anyone, raising Lottie, her daughter with Earn, and struggling professionally while the boys ascended in the hip-hop world. Now Lottie is staying with Van's parents for a while. That is certainly a thing that happens in the real world. It's also the first time I can remember Atlanta taking an obvious TV sitcom story shortcut. (In this case: get rid of the extraneous kid so the adults can play.)

Atlanta turned all the leads into stars. Since the season 2 finale, they have become the kind of people who talk to Joker, Godzilla, and/or Deadpool. Stanfield got an Oscar nomination for Judas and the Black Messiah; Beetz and Henry both have roles in this summer's buzzy Bullet Train. Glover was the relative hermit, which means he merely had a lead voice role in The Lion King and merely won four Emmys. Right about now is when someone (or everyone) usually loses interest in the project that got them started together. So the lack of mission drift is a minor miracle. Stanfield rediscovers Darius' sweet-sad brand of mysticism. Earn's situation has improved a little, but Glover still makes a desperate straight man, forever putting out fires. Henry has to embody the most character evolution, with a rap career gone transatlantic. I continue to treasure his Nobel-prize-worthy eye-rolls. Beetz remains cool as hell, and Van continues to be either the show's beating heart or its baffled brain.

As the title implies, "Sinterklaas is Coming to Town" takes place around Christmas, with multiple appearances by Dutch citizens dressed as "Zwarte Piet," a "soot-covered" pal for St. Nick. "Feels like Santa's slave," says Earn, "but great rebrand." There's a great payoff, which is very hilarious, very disturbing, and left me feeling like the show had kind of done the whole vacation thing with several episodes still left to go. Or maybe it's like Mr. Robot season 4 where everything leads up to Christmas? (Did anyone else watch Mr. Robot season 4? DM me, please!)

A lot of history went under our haunted bridge in the four years between Atlanta seasons. The show's early years look prophetic now in many ways. It tapped a deep vein of racial disparity and capitalist brutality, all while nailing the complete existential ruin of social media right before hating Silicon Valley went mainstream. The first two episodes of season 3 find the show pushing its boundaries even as it rebuilds its core foundation (and tries to figure out if, like, Darius and Van even have anything to say to each other). The fourth and final season will premiere this fall. Forget whatever Game of Thrones or Star Wars spin-off is coming up. Half the entire series of Atlanta in one year is a genuine TV event, in Amsterdam and everywhere else. A-

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Created by and starring Donald Glover, this absurdist FX comedy follows two cousins and their best friend as they try to make it in the titular city's rap scene.

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