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Yes, That Celebrity Cameo on ‘Atlanta’ Is Exactly Who You Think It Is

A review of this week’s Atlanta, “New Jazz,” coming up just as soon as I have to watch the movie Cats sober…

With “New Jazz,” Atlanta returns to Amsterdam, which was the locale for this season’s first stop on the European tour in “Sinterklaas is Coming to Town.” But the episode is less a sequel to “Sinterklaas” than it is to the Season Two episode “Woods,” as Al once again spends a long day and night walking around and being reminded of the hassles of celebrity.

We begin with Al and Darius preparing to consume some “Nepalese space cakes,” a rare baked treat featuring weed mixed with Nepalese hallucinogenic honey. The barista at the cafe that sells the stuff suggests that Darius looks like he’s seen the other side, but that Al should be wary. Yet Al spends most of the episode seemingly unaffected by the drug…

… or perhaps he spends all of it so high that he dreams up various encounters, including being chased by violent fans, discussing racism with Liam Neeson, and getting a lot of advice from a mysterious new friend named Lorraine (Ava Grey), who happens to share both a name and a certain busybody quality with Al’s late mother.

Al imagined his mom at the start of “Woods,” which took place on the anniversary of her death. And he spent that episode being warned about Earn’s management of him, being terrorized by his own fans, and then having an odd and ultimately threatening conversation with an initially wise older man. The individual beats are different, but the shape is close enough. Couple that with the seeming time loop of the whole escapade, where Al at the start of the story passes himself at the end of the story, and it’s fair to wonder whether any of this is real or simply Al tripping balls, revisiting many of his worst insecurities about being famous, letting Earn run his career, and simply about being Black in this world.

Given that this is a fictional show with an elastic sense of reality, does it even matter if any of this happened to Al, or if he just spent the whole 24 hours huddled in a doorway wearing a Goofy hat in place of the purple fedora that “Lorraine” said was too goofy for him? Not especially, and it turns out that things have evolved since the “Woods” days. Where Al’s influencer girlfriend was right on target with her assessment of Earn in that earlier episode, we’ve seen over and over this season that Al’s cousin has the whole business on lock now. He has maneuvered around all kinds of problems during this tour, has done his best to set Al up for business success outside his rap career, and here disproves Lorraine’s suspicions by explaining that Al does, in fact, own the master recordings of his songs. Whatever other problems Alfred Miles has in his life, Earn has ceased to be one of them(*).

(*) On the other hand, Lorraine is dead on about Darius being an inveterate moocher, and some of this episode’s funniest bits of business involve him trying to reframe his own cheapness as a spiritual thing.

And simply relocating the story to Amsterdam makes it feel very different from “Woods.” Though he has been here previously on the tour, this is not Al’s city and these are not his people. The English kids who chase him are almost cartoonishly evil — when he evades them, they steal a baby and begin tossing it around like a football to have some fun — and there is something off about Lorraine well before Earn points out the link to Al’s mom. “I came at the perfect time,” she boasts, after Al admits he doesn’t know anything about his masters. “I swear I’m an angel!” And perhaps she is. (When Lorraine’s friends Cammy and Flo suggest that she might be looking to seduce Al, he sounds dismayed by the idea in the way you would if someone started trying to fix you up with your own mom.)

So much is happening that the Liam Neeson encounter could almost feel like an afterthought if it wasn’t, you know, Liam Neeson, playing himself and publicly reckoning with the fallout from the 2019 interview he gave where he admitted he once went looking for a “Black bastard” to kill after learning a close friend had been raped by a Black man. As Neeson reiterates here, the interview was coming from a place of shame, and an attempt to demonstrate how much his thinking had evolved from that ugly place. That was not how it was received, however, which explains why Neeson is now drinking at a secretive Amsterdam spot known as Cancel Club. But of course cancel culture is much more myth than fact — Louis C.K. just won a Grammy, movies keep casting Mel Gibson, etc. — and Neeson’s career wasn’t affected. The version of himself that Neeson plays here isn’t so much chastened as defiant. When Al says it’s good that Neeson no longer hates Black people, the actor instead confesses, “No, no, no, I can’t stand the lot of ya… I feel that way because you tried to ruin my career. You didn’t succeed.” Desperate to find anything positive to come out of the experience, Al then asks if Neeson at least learned that he shouldn’t say things like that. He acknowledges that he did, but also learned that the best part of being white is, “We don’t have to learn anything if we don’t want to.” It is a chilling and darkly funny conversation, and also a bold choice by Neeson to not only remind us of a scandal that’s been largely forgotten, but to play himself as smugly unrepentant about the whole thing. Of course, when you are beloved — and, yes, white —  action hero Liam Neeson, you can say or do whatever you want without real consequence. And he’s very good here.

Does Al become one with the universe? Does he meet the star of Darkman and The Commuter? Has he, in fact, always been known as “New Jazz”? Is Lorraine his mother, an angel, a pushy stranger, or none of the above? “New Jazz” — the first episode of the series with the Donald Glover/Hiro Murai writer/director combo since “Teddy Perkins” — is more experience than mystery, and doesn’t seem hugely concerned with the truth of these questions. But it’s also an engrossingly weird, funny, and sad spotlight on our main character. This season’s occasional detours back to America have been interesting, but Atlanta with the regular cast remains on another level.

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