Review: ‘Atlanta’ welcomes a very different kind of Justin Bieber

Senior Television Writer
09.27.16 19 Comments

FX

A review of tonight's Atlanta coming up just as soon as I make sure that you die homeless…

After separating the trio of main characters into two groups, and two subplots, the last few weeks, Atlanta goes for a trio of short stories – one basically a one-panel comic sketch – in the wryly clever “Nobody Beats the Biebs.”

The title story is on one level a pretty basic one about Alfred coming to grips with both his relative level of fame and the public persona he's cultivated as Paper Boi. Though he gets to play on a charity basketball team with the likes of Jaleel White, he's clearly just filler – a local “celebrity” brought in to make sure the teams are even – and is being largely ignored even before “Justin Bieber” rolls up, looking very unlike what we're used to seeing – because he's being played by a black actor (Austin Crute), even though everyone treats him like the genuine Biebs.

This is another of Atlanta's surreal comic touches, but one in service of a very sharp satiric point. Imagine if the real Bieber behaved the way he always does, and got into the trouble he usually does, only he looked like the actor playing him here, rather than a slightly more androgynous Kate McKinnon? He would not be greeted with the same level of adoration, and his mistakes wouldn't get quite so many “boys will be boys” excuses. More people would be channeling Alfred and loudly screaming their hatred of him. But Atlanta takes place in a world that sometimes exists at right angles to ours, and on those occasions we get to see Black Bieber be a cuddly puppy who only infuriates Alfred while the rest of the crowd can't get enough of him.

Earn's subplot, meanwhile, spins out of a mortifying bit of racial face-blindness, as Earn gets into a VIP suite at the game because an agent named Janice (Jane Adams, embracing every awful word she has to say) has mistaken him for a former co-worker named Alonzo. Janice's confusion gives Earn a chance to network and collect business cards in a way that could pay off for him and Alfred down the road (it's the most professional progress we've seen him make since he bribed the DJ to play the first Paper Boi song on the radio), but it also puts him in her crosshairs, because she blames Alonzo for her recent career difficulties. On a more traditionally structured show, we might spend the next few episodes watching Janice carry through on her threat to destroy Earn's life – assuming the next day she doesn't mistake some other young black man with a “sharecropper smile” for being Alonzo – but with this one, I doubt we ever hear of her again.

And the Darius vignette – I hesitate to even call it that, given how brief it was – is the kind of thing I wish more comedies would be willing to try from time to time. There's just the one joke – Darius brings a poster of a dog to a shooting range, bewildered to discover that he has offended the other shooters – it has nothing to do with the plots of the Earn and Alfred stories (though you could read some thematic parallels with the latter, in terms of dogs just not being something other people are willing to think about shooting, just like the crowd can't fathom Paper Boi picking a fight with poor innocent Bieber), but it gets in, tells that one joke very well, in a way that expands our understanding of one of the characters, and gets out without wasting any time.

What did everybody else think? And did you enjoy Glover's vocals on the faux Bieber song at the end?

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