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From the left, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred 'Paper Boi' Miles, Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, Zazie Beetz as Van, and Donald Glover as Earn Marks in Atlanta.Oliver Upton/FX Canada

Having to re-explain one of television’s most critically acclaimed shows might seem ridiculous, but in the case of Atlanta, it’s necessary. First, its mood and tone are unique. Second, it is finally back for its third season, four years after the second season arrived. The return was delayed by creator/star Donald Glover’s hectic schedule (a music career, a Spider-Man movie, a Star Wars movie) and then by the pandemic.

Atlanta (Thursday, FX Canada 10 p.m., two episodes) doesn’t feature the city of Atlanta much in the early going. Besides, the city is more of an idea that the core characters carry around. When the series first began, Earnest (Earn) Marks (Glover) was a young man drifting along, trying to scrape together enough to stay alive. He was living with Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), his daughter’s mother, who wanted him to help pay the rent, but he couldn’t. Working a dead-end job, he saw a possible way out in turning his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), known as Paper Boi, into a hip-hop star. But Paper Boi already had a sort-of manager in Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), who was usually stoned. Drugs, money, side-hustles and the vagaries of life were part of the texture.

Catch up on the best streaming TV of 2021 with our holiday guide

That’s how it continues. The series has evolved on a strange path to here, with standalone episodes that seemed disconnected from the main plot and characters (only FX would have allowed this wandering), but were not. Some have been parable, subtly pushing forward Glover’s main theme – the capriciousness of racism, the fickleness of Black existence in a white world. It is all connected, always startling in its storytelling assuredness, turning humorous, surreal and quietly poetic. It is one of the most astonishing creations of this TV era.

The first new episode is a standalone and gracefully stunning. Called Three Slaps, it features none of the ensemble cast, apart from a brief appearance by Glover at the end. We meet Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar), a young teen who behaves badly at school. He likes to dance at any opportunity, you see. This is seen as disruptive, and his mother and grandfather are called into the school. A moment of casual punishment leads to the boy being put into foster care. His new home is run by two white women who rename him Larry. This new world for him is strangely privileged and sinister. “We pickle our own veggies from our organic garden,” his new “mom” tells him with pride. There isn’t much to eat, except pickles. What happens is unnervingly like a horror story told casually, but watch until the very end to grasp its full meaning. It is made even more chillingly strange by the knowledge that it is loosely based on a real incident.

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From the left, Lakeith Stanfield, Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry in a scene from the comedy series Atlanta. The program was nominated for an Emmy on Thursday for outstanding comedy series.Guy D'Alema/FX via AP

The second episode on Thursday, Sinterklaas is Coming to Town, catches up with the show’s core ensemble in Europe. Paper Boi has hit it big. That is, he’s got a cult following in several European countries where he plays mainly for a young white audience. He’s the centre of the action but Atlanta, as ever, goes down sideroads and takes tangents that, remarkably, make total sense.

Europe is fantastically alien to this crew, they approach everything wide-eyed and curious, and Amsterdam feels especially odd seen through their eyes. There’s a lot of drugs, a fair amount of sex and while some of them embrace the implied hedonism of the adventure, all of them are taken aback by how, while they’ve escaped the city of Atlanta and the United States, they haven’t really escaped at all. There is sublime humour in this journey, some of it pessimistic and rather sad, and at times it is deadpan, laugh-out-loud hilarious. There is nothing like it, for ambition and its full-throttle intention of challenging the viewers. Sometimes an epic of disillusionment and sometimes fastidiously positive, it remains a masterpiece of unconventional storytelling and all the critical acclaim, plus Emmy awards, are deserved.

Finally, don’t forget that Canada’s men’s national soccer team plays Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying (Thursday, Sportsnet, also streaming on OneSoccer, 10 p.m.). A win, and Canada has definitely qualified for this year’s World Cup. Before that, two other key qualifying matches are available here: Italy vs. North Macedonia airs on TLN, 3:30 p.m., and Portugal vs. Turkey is on Univision Canada, 3:30 p.m. TLN and Univision Canada are on major cable carriers nationally, and stream on, which offers a free week-long trial right now.

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