The Tragic Real Life Story That Inspired Atlanta's Season 3 Premiere

Donald Glover's "Atlanta" has always been a masterclass in surprising audiences, but this week's premiere episode included a different sort of shock. After four years off the air, the series returned with "Three Slaps," an episode that left its main characters almost entirely off screen. By centering someone else's story after such a long time away, Glover, director Hiro Murai, and episode writer Stephen Glover make it clear that whatever they're about to show matters — a lot.

"Three Slaps" tells two stories, and both of them are at least partially true. The episode opens with a pair of men fishing on a lake at night. One man — a white man — explains to the other that the lake has a whole Black town beneath it, and that it's likely haunted by the bodies below. By episode's end, two more people claim the lake as their watery grave, but before we hear that story, we see the lake take a victim in a more literal way, as the cold open ends with dark arms dragging the fisherman from his boat.

The lake these men are talking about, Lake Lanier, is a real place in Georgia. The body of water stands on Forsyth County, where in 1912, NPR reports that white "night riders" violently displaced nearly 1100 Black residents in the wake of two alleged violent crimes. As a result of this act of terrorism, Black residents lost their land, safety, and livelihood. Decades later, a dam was built over the area. Lanier Lake, named after a Confederate soldier, has since become a site of heavy superstition and real danger, with Complex reporting that 145 drownings occurred there in roughly two decades.

A nightmare adoption

The bleak story of Lake Lanier and its deadly pull sets the backdrop against which we meet Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar). When his class gets tickets to "Black Panther 2," Loquareeous celebrates by dancing on a table, a benign action that sets off a disturbing chain of events. After his mother is called in for a disciplinary meeting that sets off alarm bells in a meddling white teacher, CPS ends up on the family's door. Just like that, Loquareeous becomes part of a flawed and dangerous care system, where he's quickly adopted by a white lesbian couple.

The true story "Three Slaps" seems to be clearly referencing is a heartbreaking one. In 2018, Sarah and Jennifer Hart killed themselves and their six adopted children by driving off a California cliff. According to Investigation Discovery, five of the childrens' remains were found, but 15-year-old Devonte's body has never been recovered. This one detail is the imaginary space "Atlanta" slides into in order to tell its ultimately hopeful version of the story, in which Loquareeous sneaks out the back of the vehicle at the last minute and helps the other kids escape with him. There's a small triumph in seeing this rewrite — in seeing Loquareeous make it home and witnessing the look on his would-be killers' faces as they realize they're only killing themselves.

Still, the specter of the devastating true story inspiring "Three Slaps" hangs over the episode. Loquareeous' nightmare adoption unfolds slowly enough that it may take a few scenes for viewers — even those familiar with the Hart story — to realize where it's headed. But one sequence pulled straight from the headlines makes the Hart family comparison abundantly clear. In one scene, Loquareeous runs to a police officer at a farmer's market, seeking help and asking him if he can go home. By this point, Gayle and Amber have already forced him to work for them, underfed him, and disconnected him from any of the comforts of his upbringing, all while projecting racial stereotypes onto him. These details echo real abuses within the Hart family that were only publicized after their deaths. When Loquareeous clings to the cop, someone snaps a picture, and it ends up on the front page of the paper.

A viral photo cries for help

When Loquareeous runs to the cop, he's looking for help, but what he gets instead is a photo op to make white people feel better. Devonte Hart also ended up in a photo that went viral, only in reality, he and his adoptive family were attending a protest related to the shooting of Michael Brown when it happened. In a look back at the picture in the wake of the family's murder-suicide, The Outline explains that freelance photographer Johnny Nguyen caught the photo after seeing Devonte carrying a sign that read "Free Hugs."

The photo is painful to look at now, but even as it made the rounds in 2018, it was taken by some as broadly symbolic to the point of potentially dehumanizing its subject. Millions of people saw Devonte's fear and hurt, but no one successfully helped him. As Ann-Derrick Gaillot writes for The Outline, "Now, it's hard to look at photos of their smiling, interracial family and see tragedy and trauma inseparable from the toxic racial harmony fantasy that Devonte was used to promote."

"Three Slaps" is a heart-wrenching, painful episode of "Atlanta," one that raises questions about, among other things, the broken systems that claim to help facilitate care for children of color. It also lets its lost boy become a hero, saved by his savviness and good instincts and the bits of Black community he can salvage among his siblings, who talk to him only with their thoughts in the episode's last scenes. I wish I could say the nightmare ended the same way for the Hart siblings, but sadly, that isn't the case. 

Rest in peace Ciera, Abigail, Jeremiah, Devonte, Hannah, and Markis.