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*This story contains spoilers for Atlanta Season 3, episodes 1-2
Zazie Beetz’s Vanessa “Van” Keefer has always been one of the most captivating characters in Donald Glover’s hit series Atlanta. No matter how you feel about Beetz’ past problematic roles or how Glover has portrayed Black women (in his music and in Atlanta), it’s undeniable that there’s something special about this character. Standing out in an all-boys cast — Glover’s Earnest “Earn” Marks, Brian Tyree Henry’s Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles and Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius Epps — Van often pops in to ground the show, provides some sage advice to her on-again, off-again boyfriend and give the show a lens into a thirtysomething Black American woman’s experience.
In previous episodes, she’s longed for excitement (“Champagne Papi”), found herself lost in an ill-defined situationship with Earn (“Juneteenth”) and wrestled with her worth as a woman — beyond parenting and romantic partnership (“Value”). Beetz tells Variety that Van’s newest arc will further explore her identity in those roles, showing “a new angle and take on that narrative.” But in season 3, the once (semi) responsible and (mostly) confident Van now seems completely adrift — and it’s the most relatable she’s ever been.
After a four-year hiatus, the new season resumes with a dark double-episode premiere. The first is a nightmarish reimagining of the tragic story of Devonte Hart, whose picture of him hugging a police officer went viral in 2014, only a few years before his adopted white mothers drunkenly drove the entire Hart family off a cliff. But five minutes into the second episode, we’re finally reunited with Atlanta’s sole female lead, who’s just landed in Amsterdam after a failed job hunt.
The once (semi) responsible and (mostly) confident Van now seems completely adrift — and it’s the most relatable she’s ever been.
All the general questions raised by her arrival are answered thanks to Darius’ usual eccentric-but-gentle probing: Where and how’s her daughter Lottie? She’s really good and with her grandparents (in the season two finale, Van decides to move back home as Earn struggles, and they learn that Lottie is gifted). Are Van and Earn back together? Nope, she has a new boyfriend. Is Van okay? That revelation doesn’t come until Van and Darius’ mini shopping trip leads them to a bizarre, cult-like ceremony that happens to be Tupac’s funeral hosted by a death doula.
In a short conversation with the doula, Van’s aimlessness is palpable, and she confesses that she’s been having panic attacks. But it isn’t until Van is comforting Tupac through his transition (anyone worried Atlanta would loose its wonderful weirdness, you have your answer) that we see she’s searching for the same unwavering reassurance.
Much like her relationship drama and career pitfalls, it’s comforting to see an on-screen fave struggle with a common problem that affects Black women at high rates. Many women, like Van, avoid being entirely vulnerable about their anxiety and depression and are even treated for it while others some are unaware of these disorders entirely as the symptoms present differently in Black women than in their white counterparts — more intense and chronic. So the change in Van isn’t as jarring as it is relatable. Black women are often expected to have it all together — despite the constant and oppressive pressures of everyday life — especially in a social media-centric world where you’re supposed to have your shit together and make it look effortless. Black girl luxury! Black girl magic! Black excellence! It’s understandable that Van would be railing against these impossible standards, intentionally or not.
Black women are often expected to have it all together…especially in a social media-centric world where you’re supposed to have your shit together and make it look effortless. Black girl luxury! Black girl magic! Black excellence! It’s understandable that Van would be railing against these impossible standards.
Not having a clear sense of purpose or knowing specifically where your life is headed can be disorienting and anxiety-inducing. Add to that watching your friends cement their dreams (Paper Boi is on, what looks like, a successful, multi-stop tour) as you’re flailing? Things can get lonely. So perhaps Van is seeking familiarity among Earn, his friends, and their usual shenanigans. But if she’s looking to reacclimatise to the foursome’s usual shenanigans, she’s in for a rude awakening. Things are a bit different: The guys are revelling in the spoils of their newfound success overseas both professionally and financially — Earn’s management duties are more direct and effective these days, a now blonde-haired Darius dresses in high-fashion threads (and, of course, pairs them with traditional dutch clogs) and Paper Boi romps with random women and pulls out $20K like it’s two ten-dollar bills (we see the latter in episode three “The Old Man and the Tree” airing this Thursday, March 31).
Thankfully, Earn spots that Van’s a lot more troubled than she’s leading on in the coming episodes as her behaviour turns from aloof to highly questionable and randomly menacing, which seems to signal a deeper exploration of Black women and mental health, a conversation we rarely see handled with care and intention on television. Atlanta’s unpredictable return and anthology format promise not only new creative heights for the show but, as a result, its characters, so there’s no telling where Van’s story will go.
But if anyone was paying even remote attention to episode 2, the one question this season better answer is: What’s going on between Van and Darius?
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