Review: On ‘Atlanta,’ Darius teaches Earn to trade in ‘The Streisand Effect’

A review of tonight's Atlanta (which FX renewed, along with Better Things, earlier today) coming up just as soon as I know who Steve McQueen is…

It's been a rough stretch for TV shows about the music business, with the cancellations of Vinyl (which had already been renewed!), Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll and Roadies, and the mixed reception for The Get Down. Atlanta has been doing well both critically and commercially, but it's also by far the least interested in actually exploring the music business, or how to get rich from it. Earn latched on as Alfred's manager because he thought he could find money and purpose in the job, but as Alfred notes in tonight's episode, it's very hard to actually make money in this game, and Earn isn't nearly the focused businessman he fancies himself as being. So Atlanta has very smartly told smaller stories, like last week's pairing of Earn struggling to play for a mid-priced dinner with Van while Alfred and Darius work through a drug deal, or tonight's duo of short stories, as Darius' offer to make Earn some extra cash proves more complicated (and far more time-consuming) than Earn expected, while Alfred foolishly tries to engage with one of his trolls.

The former story is a familiar one: I've been encountering tales of barter gone awry since I was a kid reading The Great Brain books. This take on it worked, like so many Atlanta stories have so far, because the filming and writing story feel so unique to this show and its characters, and because Darius has quickly become so much more complicated and wise than he seemed when we met him in the pilot. Earn fancies himself the brains of the group, but he's impulsive and often overconfident, whereas by the end of this story, he realizes how little he actually thought about the offer that Darius made him. Darius is pleased to have made a friend, and Earn could probably do well to start treating him like one for real. And the point that he makes about how poverty cuts you off from basic tools that non-poor people use to stay non-poor, like investments, was a sharp one in the midst of an otherwise charming and shaggy story (about a non-shaggy dog).

Alfred trying to reason with Zan was also a case of Atlanta taking an overused story (Roadies did its own episode about the characters trying to take down an online critic, and it was a mess that seemed to treat sexual assault as a joke), but filtered through this particular sensibility and group of people until it became its own thing. I've encountered a few people like Zan – whose entire life is built around expanding and trying to make money off of their social media profile – but I've never quite seen one of them captured in fictional form, at least not this well. Freddie Kuguru played the ethnically-ambiguous Zan with the kind of relentless enthusiasm made him hard to hate, despite his awfulness, and the scene where he and Alfred argue about their respective hustles gave much better and more articulate voice to his angle on things: he's a parasite, but one with few illusions about what he's doing and why, even if he's also oblivious, obnoxious, and is content to film his young partner Quentin(*) banging on the door of the guy who robbed him, rather than stepping in to help.

(*) Kids using curse words they shouldn't be old enough to know is such a tired gag that it's hard to generate laughs out of it, but the sheer length of the Quentin's alt-catchphrase – and the fact that it had to be both bleeped and pixellated – made it work.

What did everybody else think? And four episodes into Atlanta, how are you feeling about the series?