A review of tonight’s Atlanta coming up just as soon as my mom says Dragon Ball Z is racist…
Right when season two seemed to be building towards some kind of climactic story arc about Earn and Alfred’s partnership, a curveball appears to arrive in the form of “FUBU,” a flashback episode following the two cousins as high schoolers in the late ’90s, and what seems to be a vintage Atlanta-style short story.
And if you just want to look at “FUBU” as a short story set in an earlier period of the characters’ lives (like Louie‘s “In the Woods” or the various Transparent flashback episodes), it works incredibly well. Stephen Glover’s script takes us back to a seemingly more innocent time to be a kid, before phones and before widespread use of the internet, when notes were passed in class and gossip had to travel physically from person to person. But if the technology’s more primitive, the level of angst and paranoia feels about the same, as the story of the eponymous shirt threatens to ruin the life of young Earn (played by Alkoya Brunson) until his much cooler and more confident cousin Al (Abraham Clinkscales) steps in to save him — and in the process perhaps contributes to a classmate’s decision to commit suicide.
Devin’s death was surely more complicated than just being bullied over wearing what people believed to be a bootleg FUBU. The principal explains that his parents were divorcing, and one of the episode’s more effective and fully-drawn background elements is the story of Earn’s classmate Danisha, who has problems we can only guess at (troubled home life? bipolar disorder?) without ever really knowing, to underline the point that we can’t know exactly what goes on in the lives of people we only see at school. Maybe it really was just the fear of being mocked about the shirt for the next few years that drove Devin to it, maybe that was just the tipping point at the end of a tough stretch, or maybe he wasn’t even thinking about the bullying at the time. But what’s important to the story is that Earn thinks it’s his fault — that his own fear of being made a laughingstock for the rest of his time at Stoneridge was enough for him to ask Al for help, and for his smooth ROTC-uniformed cousin to make Devin into their patsy. That’s a hard thing to carry, and it seems to be weighing on Earn much more than Al when the episode ends.
But part of the reason the flashback is so effective is because of where it falls in the arc of season two, after many episodes suggesting that Al would be wise to cut Earn loose, and immediately after an episode where he finally seemed ready to do it. If we’re now witnessing the end of their partnership, then it makes emotional sense to first go back to the beginning of it. The boys are far from strangers to each other when “FUBU” begins — they go to the same school, hang out at each other’s homes, and Earn knows to go looking for Al when he realizes how much trouble he could be in — but there’s a sense that this incident, and the lecture the moms give them after it about having each other’s backs, is what really bonds them, and makes Al willing to let Earn manage his career two decades later.
Will the cousins even be on speaking terms when the finale rolls around next week? Knowing the Glovers, the finale could just be Darius waiting on line for new sneakers for 23 minutes, and the status of Earn and Al’s relationship (personal and professional) won’t even come up. But it really does feel like the season has been building to something important between them, and this origin story was part of that, in addition to being a bittersweet nostalgia trip in its own right.
What did everybody else think?