A review of tonight’s Atlanta coming up just as soon as I show you the gun room…
“I think we need to talk about the real problem.” -Al
And there it is: the serialized story that had been hiding in plain sight all along among the seemingly random short stories Atlanta has been telling throughout this superb second season.
We think of Earn as the show’s hero because he was introduced as the protagonist, because he was presented as the smart guy who got into Princeton (even if he dropped out) who was going to make his cousin a star, because Donald Glover created and frequently writes and/or directs the series, and because, well, if we’re watching the show, we probably have some pre-existing affection for Glover. So, of course, the show has to be about Earn living up to both his name and his promises to Alfred, finally finding a purpose and proving his many doubters wrong.
But what if it’s not about that at all? What if Earn dropped out of school because he couldn’t hack it? What if he has no idea how to manage an artist as famous as Paper Boi has apparently become? What if he’s just an arrogant jerk who has bought into his own hype, causing him to not only blow things with Van, but with the whole music career?
It could well be that Earn really is the hero of this underdog story, and that the events of this episode are just the second act struggle before he triumphs by the end of our tale. But season two as a whole has been not so quietly skeptical of his worthiness as both manager and protagonist. He’s been largely absent from the show for weeks on end, and when he does appear, it’s usually to screw things up, as he does throughout “North of the Border,” an episode that both features some of the funniest moments of the season and some of its darkest.
On what’s meant to be an easy, albeit unpaid, college gig that will set Al up for a nice spring break payday, everything that can go wrong, does. Earn tries to blame the Murphy’s Law of it on Tracy, who talks his way into coming as Al’s security — for $200, no less — at the last possible second, and who shoves their hostess down the steps (as Nina Simone’s “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter” plays), kicking off the disastrous chain of events that wrecks Al’s car, everyone’s clothes, and costs Earn his laptop. Al astutely points out that their troubles began when Earn decided to pocket their travel expense money so they could crash with crazy Violet in the first place, where Al comes to quickly understand just how erratic she is when she tells him about her dream of her (as a crocodile) swallowing him (as a crane) as an intense light shot through her belly. (The shift in Brian Tyree Henry’s expression from contented to barely concealing his terror at this woman’s ramblings forced me to pause the scene until I could stop laughing. It’s even more perfect than Al’s many scowls at Bibby in “Barbershop.”) Tracy makes matters worse, but Earn starts everything off because he still hasn’t learned the lesson that Al did in “Woods”: Paper Boi is famous enough to be a target, which means he has to be protected from the Violets of this world. Earn doesn’t understand that, doesn’t understand how to get Al the opportunities and freebies that Clark County’s manager knows all about, and worse of all doesn’t even understand how little he understands.
Al tries laying it out for him in an amazing sequence that demonstrates the breadth of what Atlanta can be and do, even in a single scene in a single location. We start out with the stunning, hilarious tableau of the guys on a couch in an all-white frat house, the Confederate battle flag hung behind them, and two rows of naked(*), hooded pledges standing in front of them, awaiting their next humiliating order. It is ridiculous and sad and pointed, particularly as one of the frat guys reveals himself to be a huge fan of both Paper Boi’s music and snap in general, even as he lives in a house decked out with accoutrements of a pro-slavery government and systematically humiliates a group of naked and dehumanized men like they’re his property. This would be uncomfortable enough, but somehow the scene gets worse for Earn after all the frat guys are gone and Al has a chance to hit him with all of his shortcomings and failures on this trip, and as his manager in general. It’s just tremendous, with the conversation framed by Hiro Murai just as evocatively as that initial shot of the whole room, this time with Earn and Al shot so that they can barely see each other, and we can only faintly read their expressions. They’re family, and they’ve been through a lot together, but at the moment neither gets where the other is coming from.
(*) My understanding is that the version that airs on FX tonight will have blurred nudity, whereas the screeners (and perhaps the various digital versions) put everything on full display. The contrast is funny either way (as Arrested Development showed repeated, sometimes pixellated nudity and bleeped profanity is funnier than the R-rated version), but it would be very new territory for a basic cable channel to show it all.
Because Earn’s been gone so long, because Al’s been even more prominent than last season, and because the arguments he makes are perfectly reasonable ones, we’re now inclined to agree with him. Certainly, Earn’s actions the morning after — pulling a fire alarm in a desperate attempt to get his laptop back, picking a fight with Tracy even though Tracy is bigger and stronger and has done time — only bolster Al’s point of view that his cousin’s judgment isn’t to be trusted by now.
Maybe Earn learns from this particular brush with rock bottom, and Atlanta now chronicles his redemption. Or maybe he’s just stopped being the hero of the story, and handed that role over to Alfred, who’s been ably playing it all season.
What did everybody else think?