A review of tonight’s Atlanta coming up just as soon as I learn to make pasta in a dream featuring Mayor McCheese and the girl from Dharma & Greg…
After the first few episodes of “Robbin’ Season” felt ever-so-slightly more serialized in the way they caught up with Earn and the crew, this year made a quick turn towards a collection of self-contained short story-type episodes, focusing entirely on one (or, in the case of “Helen,” two) of the four regular characters. This has led to some of the show’s best half-hours ever, particularly “Teddy Perkins,” but it’s also been impressive how season two has been able to subtly but unmistakably keep various character arcs moving forward in the background. Earn has barely appeared since “Helen” — in the four ensuing episodes, he’s been absent entirely from one, sitting silently in the back of Al’s car in anothr, in an Instagram video Van watches in the third, and a brief voice on the phone with Al tonight — yet we’ve kept close track of the state of his relationship (or, these days, lack thereof) with Van, just as we’ve been able to see the inexorable rise of Paper Boi’s celebrity, even though it hasn’t been a primary topic of conversation since the season’s second episode. He’s bigger than he was last season, and clearly bigger now than he was at the start of this year, but his success has played out almost entirely off camera, with the nature of his interactions with fans as the only way to chart it.
For a more conventional show, seeing the rise (and, maybe one day, fall) of Paper Boi would be the primary topic, and at times the only one. Atlanta is only interested in his fame to the degree it helps generate stories about these characters, or provides a spot of comic relief in a primarily dark episode like “Teddy Perkins.” But at the same time, it doesn’t keep that story or any other static, always letting you know that things are happening when we’re not looking, like that brief spat Al and Darius were having when the season began, but which has resolved itself by now.
Al’s level of fame finally returns to the forefront in “Woods,” but even here it’s done in that bank shot Atlanta fashion where it seems like it’s going to be all that the episode is about, then seems like it’s nothing to do with the real meaning of the episode, and then makes clear by the end that it’s the prime topic.
Earn’s on the phone, Van’s absent, and Darius is busy cooking pasta with his feet, so after a prologue where Al struggles to sleep while his mother cleans the apartment, we get to spend an afternoon with him and his not-quite-girlfriend Sierra (Angela Wildflower), an Instagram star who stresses her own degree of celebrity far more than Alfred likes to. It’s striking to see how much more relaxed and even happy Al is around her at first — she laughs at his jokes, he actually lets loose a half-smile at the elation she expresses when his single comes on the car radio — before things start to go awry at the strip mall. First she questions Earn’s work as his manager — yet another thread this season has pulled on ever so gently throughout, as a reminder that just because he went to Princeton and is played by a very smart man, doesn’t mean Earn himself is suited to this job — and then at the nail salon proposes turning their casual relationship into a more elaborate and public production to boost their respective brands. “I’m just trying to stay real,” Al insists, before storming out when Sierra tries to post a selfie of the two of them without his permission. To Sierra, social media is the entire hustle, and also something Paper Boi could be making better use of if he had a smarter team in place. To Al, it’s just another invitation for people to hassle him when he’s out in the world, as has been the case for him in nearly every episode featuring him this season.
And, sure enough, Al’s attempt to walk home — to be his realest possible self, not even needing a fancy ride to get him from place to place — leads him to another group of fans eager to chat him up about how long they’ve followed him and how much they love his music. Only this one proves to be more than just a nuisance, as the trio remembers this season’s subtitle and decides they’d rather stick up Paper Boi than just get a picture. Given that he’s outnumbered and one of the kids has a gun, Al acquits himself very well (Atlanta has been very consistent about him not being a man to be trifled with), but still ends up bruised and bloody as he runs into the eponymous woods to escape the gunman.
“Woods” doesn’t quite turn into the Atlanta version of “Pine Barrens” or “4 Days Out” at this point, if only because Al’s time in the forest is relatively brief. But there’s a similar sense of a city man wildly out of his element (even if parts of Atlanta — city and show both — involve fairly rural and/or desolate-looking areas), just trying to make it to the other side alive, and Hiro Murai shoots this sequence in a way that plays up how foreign it all is to the streets Alfred usually walks. The afternoon light slides in at odd angles, filtered by mist, and an overhead shot of the treetops makes the roof look so big and impenetrable, it seems as if Al will never make his way out.
When night comes, the ordeal grows somehow worse, thanks to the arrival of Old Wally (Reggie Green), whose brief moments of apparent wisdom — or recognition of Alfred and his problems — are inevitably revealed to be the ramblings of a junkie who’s been living outdoors too long. But Wally’s last rant seems to offer more insight than intended, as he holds a box cutter to Al’s throat and warns him to make a decision about moving forward out of the woods. “Keep standing still,” he concludes, and “you’re gone, boy!” Al follows the literal advice and takes off, the dirt under his feet comfortingly transforming into the concrete outside a gas station where he can feel safe, cool down, and even volunteer to pose for a selfie with a fan who’s a bit more shy than most of the ones he’s encountered throughout the season, and this episode.
Why does Al offer to do this on his own, even flashing a blood-stained smile for picture after picture until the guy gets the perfect shot? It’s proof of life, to a degree, but also an acknowledgment that both Sierra and Old Wally were right: Al can’t just stand around, scowling and assuming everything will work out for him while he’s here being real. He has to actually work to keep climbing the ladder so he can get free stuff, have someone who is not his disapproving mother cleaning his house, and avoiding random encounters on the street with guys looking to rob him.
UPDATE: The episode’s writer, Stefani Robinson, said in an interview that Al’s mom isn’t actually there, but a ghostly hallucination appearing on the anniversary of her death, which is why his phone is so filled with calls and texts from people like Earn wondering how he’s doing. I have to admit to utterly missing that aspect of it, though even Robinson acknowledges it may not have been very apparent.
Of course, to do that, he may have to take another piece of Sierra’s advice and cut his cousin loose in favor of a more experienced manager. Will that happen? And, if so, will it happen on camera, or as yet another aspect of Paper Boi’s career marching forward while we’re focused on weird but memorable smaller stories like this one? I’ve given up trying to outguess this show, other than assuming each week will give me something to love. “Woods” didn’t disappoint in that area.
What did everybody else think?