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‘Atlanta’ Director Hiro Murai on Darius’ Backstory, the Danger of Popeyes Sandwiches and Being ‘Contrarian’ in the Series Finale

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SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from the series finale of “Atlanta,” now available on FX and Hulu.

“Atlanta” finally feels like it’s back … right as it’s ending.

When Donald Glover’s surrealist FX comedy premiered in 2016, its mix of high-stakes and stoner comedy sensibilities earned it instant acclaim. By the second season in 2018, the show was being discussed as one of the greats of television history (though comparisons to “The Sopranos” were mostly started by Glover himself). But after a four-year hiatus due to delays both COVID-related and otherwise, “Atlanta” came back as a different show. Season 3 took place almost entirely in Europe, with several one-off episodes that didn’t feature any of the main characters, and while Season 4 returned to Georgia, Earn (Glover), Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) and Van (Zazie Beetz) are different people than they were before. (Darius, played by LaKeith Stanfield, remains more or less the same. More on that later.)

The series finale “It Was All a Dream,” however, makes a partial return to the original spirit of “Atlanta.” It’s a hangout episode that places the newly big-shot characters into more ordinary circumstances: Earn, Van and Alfred go to try Atlanta’s new Black-owned sushi joint where a key investor, hoping to impress Alfred in particular, snaps when he realizes that the group would rather be eating at the Popeyes. After trying to force Alfred to eat some “poison fish,” he orders his staff to lock everyone in.

Meanwhile, Darius is at his appointment in a sensory deprivation tank, where he floats in a pool of water and has intense, lifelike dreams. He has a bizarre run-in with the cops, then wakes up again, visits his brother, then wakes up again. Though the experience feels sinister, the ever-kooky Darius calls it spiritually cleansing earlier in the episode, and says that he can always figure out if he’s awake or still in the tank by watching “Judge Judy”: If she’s become Thick Judge Judy, with enlarged hips and a teeny waist, he’s dreaming. (Yes, the way Leonardo DiCaprio spins a top to check his reality in “Inception.”)

Darius ends up being the one to save the crew from the evil sushi shop, busting in and escorting them away in a pink Maserati. Later, while everyone’s laughing on the couch and eating Popeyes, he says that the Maserati was stolen — but there’s no need to worry about consequences, since this is just a dream. Earn, Van and Alfred tell him he’s in real life, then leave the room. So Darius turns on “Judge Judy,” but we don’t get to see her body on the screen. Is she thick? Was this whole episode a dream? Was all of “Atlanta” a dream, or was it real? And as longtime director and executive producer Hiro Murai puts it, “Does it matter if it’s real?”

With the final episode of the series out now, Murai spoke to Variety about how it feels to say goodbye.

What goals did the creative team have for the finale? How did you decide what those last moments and images would be?

Wrapping up a whole series in a single episode is always hard, always polarizing. We liked the idea of giving the audience a multi-episode finale; we’ve been wrapping up the whole show for the past three or four episodes. For the finale, the idea is that it’s just a regular “Atlanta” episode. There’s obviously an existential dread undercurrent through it, like the whole series, but beat-by-beat, it feels like the kind of hijinks you’d see in any episode of the show. 

This episode, originally, was not going to be the finale. Donald just started writing it and it got more and more obvious as the way to leave things. Also, as a collective of people, we’re little contrarians. So we leave the finale in a heartfelt, but also silly and flippant, way.

Darius is the emotional center of this last episode, which is interesting because Earn, Alfred and Van’s conflicts usually take center stage. The appearance of his brother and their discussion of their parents is the first time he’s gotten any kind of backstory. Why leave the show with him?

We didn’t even realize it, but once we thought about the idea that Darius is our perspective character for the whole world that we’ve created for the last four seasons, it just made sense. His worldview seems to be central to how the world changes, and is elastic around these characters. We’re always living in this semi-heightened dream state, not that the finale tells you explicitly whether it is a dream or not.

Darius always felt more in sync with the world of “Atlanta” more than any of the other characters. In so much of the show, Earn and Al and Van fought against the absurdity of this world, but there’s an ease navigating it that Darius has. Like in Season 2, in the Drake mansion episode, where he’s talking about simulation theory. Maybe Darius belonged to the show in a way that the other characters didn’t.

His experience with the sensory deprivation tank feels like a reference to “Inception,” where the totem that tells him if he’s awake or dreaming is whether he sees regular “Judge Judy” or “Thick Judge Judy” while watching TV. Can you talk about directing the actors through the nightmares and comedy of that?

It’s a very weird episode, because if you take it too seriously it becomes too absurd to handle — but if you don’t take it seriously enough, it’s like, why is it the last episode of the show? And as we were finding the tone of that episode, it was also really loaded for us because it was the last episode that we shot as a group. We were mourning the show as we were making it. We never explicitly talked about how we wanted to approach the performances as LaKeith is watching “Judge Judy” at the end of the episode. But a lot of the pent up feelings we had — we’d shot 20 episodes of television that year, so by the end of it, we’re loopy here — just naturally came out. 

Time has always been nonlinear in “Atlanta,” but there’s still a feeling of finality in these last few episodes. What was the very last day of shooting like?

Because TV schedules are strange, you never get to one culminating moment of closure, but the last big day we had together was the apartment scene at the end of the episode where everybody’s eating Popeyes. That was Brian’s last day, and he gave this lovely speech. A lot of tears. Very much last day of school energy — everyone was ready to graduate, but also mourning and celebrating the last four years.

But we probably shot for another week of just, like, inserts of doorknobs. 

The Popeyes storyline shows how long ago this was written and shot, because the craze where people literally died over Popeyes chicken sandwiches was very specific to late 2019 and early 2020. It seems very “Atlanta” to commit to a reference that will almost certainly fade from pop culture. Is that part of the joke? You’re laughing.

I think of this show as us trying to bottle cultural moments. Like, you’re scrolling through social media, where there are pockets of culture, and you don’t necessarily need the full context to enjoy it. Like the season opener, the woman in the wheelchair with the knife. A lot of people didn’t know what that was a reference to, but you can also just take it at face value as a strange horror trope. We’re trying to make the feelings materialize. You can either investigate further or not, but you can enjoy it both ways, hopefully.

“Atlanta” as a whole tends to play with the idea that either you get it or you don’t. During the first two seasons, the show was often discussed as a gamechanger for the landscape of television, but after the long hiatus between Seasons 2 and 3, that hype has died down a bit. What do you make of that? Why are things different now?

I think it’s a different show. When we came back, we knew we didn’t want to repeat what we have done for Seasons 1 and 2. The characters are in different places. It felt false to have Alfred still living in that apartment, selling drugs — it’s been six years! The first two seasons were very [focused on] the struggles of an up-and-coming local rapper, and it was very easy to digest. It’s a much easier entryway than Seasons 3 and 4. For it to be gratifying for us, there had to be a reflection of where we were at that moment, and the show had to change. To talk about polarizing, we knew going into Seasons 3 and 4 that people were expecting the show to be the same, but we always hope people will take the ride with us. All you can do is be honest at any given point in your life. 

The Tyler Perry parody in Episode 5 almost feels like a nod at that idea that making art for the sake of being liked can be dangerous. Is the critique in that episode directed at the audience?

We’re generally a pretty well-meaning group of people, and we’re not making something to be disliked, obviously, but we just think it’s interesting that we’re making TV about people who make art. We think a lot about what it means to make something and put it out into the culture, like a snake eating its own tail. It’s not coming from a place of wanting to tell people how to consume the show, but a lot of it is meditations on Black art and how it intersects with Blackness and whiteness and mainstream culture. It’s sort of distilled from Donald’s own perspective on working in multiple mediums and the experiences he’s had. I don’t know if it’s so much a thesis statement as just inherent to the show’s perspective.

Given that perspective, it’s interesting that you’re one of the main people responsible for the look and feel of this show. As someone who isn’t Black or from the city of Atlanta, what do you feel that you brought to this world? And what did you take away?

It certainly helps that I’ve been working with Donald for 10 years at this point. We share a lot of sensibilities about what it is to make something and release it into the world. The show is built on the experiences of Donald and his brother Stephen [who also writes and produces the series] growing up in Atlanta. I’m acting as a tour guide to their hyper-specific experience of living in the city you know. It’s a strange role, depicting somebody else’s memory. 

Earn is an outsider. A Princeton dropout having to navigate this world as a bridge between different subcultures. That’s something I could latch on to very easily. I’m an immigrant kid. I’m used to being the person that doesn’t belong in a circle of people. In the show, either as a Black person in a white space, or Princeton dropout in a local rap scene, the perspective of the show is very much as an outsider.

I took that as my way in, and the rest is just having conversations and trying to imagine what it’s like to be someone else.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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