In Praise Of Paper Boi’s ‘Atlanta’ Scowl In ‘Sportin’ Waves’


A review of tonight’s Atlanta coming up just as soon as I turn off the child locks…

One of the great joys of watching Atlanta, ironically, is the look of withering disdain that Brian Tyree Henry can conjure up whenever Alfred’s unhappy with the world around him. It’s a look at once so pronounced and so pure that it wouldn’t be out of place in a sitcom from TV’s first golden age (Henry’s size, plus the sheer exasperation on his face, can feel positively Gleason-esque), even as it also fits perfectly into the half-surreal/half-raw world of this one.

Much of “Sportin’ Waves” is about Al reckoning with the many downsides to Paper Boi’s popularity, which makes it a particularly delightful showcase for that scowl of his.

The episode opens with Al getting ripped off by a longtime drug connect who assumes he’s too rich from the musical career to miss the money. The problem — beyond the guy taking Al’s car keys — is that the music business doesn’t pay the way anybody thinks it does, and weed is still where Al gets most of his income. This leads him looking for a new reup, but his fame keeps getting in the way: One guy sneaks a selfie of him (and posts it to Instagram even as he’s lying about doing it), while another is a big fan with a girlfriend who does a sensitive acoustic cover of Paper Boi’s single, and sends him so many texts in a row that an infuriated Al chucks his phone out the window.

The music biz does offer opportunities this time out, but they come with their own irritations. A good chunk of the episode takes place at the office of a music streaming service, who are offering Al and Earn a big check in exchange for a series of awkward meetings — the moment where no one can figure out how to play the new Paper Boi album was pitch perfect (I’ve experienced plenty of similarly mortifying and interminable technical glitches at technology companies) — and a performance for a group of bored cubicle drones who can barely be bothered to pay attention to this week’s celebrity guest meant to reward them for working too many hours for not enough pay.

At least Al comes out of the event with some money, albeit not as much as another local rap star, Clark, who in addition to getting a more enthusiastic response from the streaming execs lands a lucrative Yoohoo commercial. Earn finally lives up to his name when Darius gives him the belated payment for the dog trade he made back in season one’s “The Streisand Effect” — a nice bit of continuity on a show that can be agnostic about it — but blows it by getting too greedy and going along with Tracy’s(*) promise that he can double the money via a bootleg mall gift card. So instead of having four grand to spend as needed — say, to help make Earn a bit less homeless — the scam gets discovered and Earn has to race to spend whatever he can in about twenty minutes, which proves to be less than the original amount, much of it used to buy stuff he doesn’t even need. And Tracy, meanwhile, manages to walk out with several boxes of stolen sneakers, due to the store’s no-chase policy, though the job interview he’s so confident about doesn’t go quite as well, transforming his assured smile into an angry and profane rant about racist hiring practices.

(*) Game recognize game: Tracy, a character on one of TV’s best and most unusual comedies, offers a brief bit of critical analysis of another when he tells Earn his conflicted feelings about BoJack Horseman, and how he admires the show’s artistry but isn’t sure he can tolerate BoJack himself. A beautiful and unexpected TV nerd joke.

In not much time, Tracy’s proven to be a fine addition to the group, even if he’s cutting into the amount of Darius a bit. “Sportin’ Waves” didn’t have anything quite as surprising as the premiere’s fast food robbery or alligator saunter, but it’s one of the series’ most consistent — and consistently funny — installments yet.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.