Paper Boi Gets Lost In The ‘Woods’ In A ‘Pine Barrens’-Esque ‘Atlanta’

Senior Television Writer
04.19.18 11 Comments

FX

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.

Around The Web