In its Best Episode Yet, 'Atlanta' Finally Lets Viewers Breathe

In the fourth episode of 'Atlanta,' Earn learns the hustle and the series showcases its comedic roots.

Atlanta has been a tense show. It opened with a gunshot and has kept up the anxious rhythm since. Even last week’s episode managed to turn a date night into an uncomfortable, nail-biting affair that nearly rivaled the intensity of the drug deal that accompanied it. This week’s episode finally gives the viewer a chance to rest, allowing us to take in the fact that Atlanta is one of the best comedies to premiere this year. Atlanta definitely deserves critical analysis based on the serious issues it tackles, but its comedic core has always been potent.

“The Streisand Effect” proves that Atlanta has found its footing faster than most shows. Even though the episode is lighthearted, it accomplishes a lot. Earn and Darius are given a chance to build their relationship and the results are glorious. While the pilot hinted at Paper Boi’s insecurities around his talent and career, he’s able to speak somewhat openly about it when he runs into his first real hater. On top of that, the show still dives into topics like black elitism, the exploitation of rappers, and the cycle of poverty.

In only four episodes, Atlanta has established a mythos and mise-en-scène that already feels like the show creating its own signifiers. “The Streisand Effect” employs visual tactics seen in the premiere and in earlier episodes. After the in medias res opening of the pilot, we’re introduced to Earn lying in bed, listening to music through headphones. In this episode, a similar scene occurs, but he opens his eyes to the barrel of a gun instead of Van. After last week’s fallout with Van, Earn is more isolated than ever, and this moment serves as a great juxtaposition to the earlier scene’s warmth. In last week’s episode, director Hiro Murai gave us an expansive overhead shot that followed Darius and Alfred’s drive down a winding road to a dangerous drug deal. This week, Murai uses the same tactic with Darius and Earn as they reach the conclusion of Darius’s wild plan to up-trade Earn’s cellphone. Similar to the drug deal, the audience isn’t sure what kind of situation our protagonists are getting into, but the final destination is entirely different. Instead of the dark, claustrophobic forest of “Go for Broke,” there’s a bright, open farm. There’s no serious twist or danger; Darius is just selling the dog he bought with a sword. It isn’t dog fighting or a puppy mill but a breeder who seems to have entirely good intentions.

While Darius’s trek to upsell Earn’s cellphone seems outlandish and unhelpful to Earn, he’s not wrong. He got Earn more money and has the instincts and resources to make the right moves. Darius isn’t just some random, comedic character; he has instincts and knowledge that make him a helpful guide in the reshaping of Earn and Alfred’s current states. The conversation Earn and Darius have about Steve McQueen gives us a glimpse of Darius’s background while simultaneously addressing identity politics in black communities. Atlanta is so good it can easily combine these topics and still be funny. He assumes Earn will know about Steve McQueen because he went to college and should be acquainted with things most black people don’t know about. When Earn points out that Darius is black and knows about Steve McQueen, he quickly responds with, “Yeah, but I’m Nigerian.” The moment shows that Darius may share Earn and Alfred’s experience as black men, but there is a distinct difference. There are intricacies within the black community that are represented here.

Earn is used to hustling for the here-and-now against the constant threat of poverty. He can’t even fathom the pawn shop employee taking his singular valuable possession away from him for even a minute and asks if he can hold the employee’s driver’s license when the phone has to be inspected. Darius sees options. They’re in similar straits, but have had to find different ways to survive. There is only the singular black male experience of survival. It also helps that his Steve McQueen theory is confirmed by the pawn shop owner who uses a McQueen poster as a safety measure. Darius is a character based in an interesting reality, and it’s great to see him move beyond confines of the “weird, quirky sidekick” trope. Just like the fake-out from the previous episode, where viewers thought Darius might lose a hand so the Migos could get their money, Atlanta makes us question our preconceived notions of its characters. Hustling isn’t all schemes and solemn life lessons, it can also be a funny bonding experience between pals.

Atlanta doesn’t just respect the hustle, it understands how easy it is to love the hustle. When Darius locks eyes with a sword in the pawn shop, you can see the scheme building in his head immediately. The eventual payoff shows how worthwhile the hustle can be. On the other hand, Atlanta uses Zan, a fame-obsessed Instagram hustler, to show how exploitive and horrible the business of making a living can be. He records everything because he only sees his life and experiences in terms of dollar signs. He’s fine with letting a little kid get robbed because he knows it’ll get him those likes. In the middle, there’s Alfred. He doesn’t seem to know where Paper Boi falls in the hustle. Is he exploiting his circumstances, or is he doing this because he doesn’t have any other choice? His admission that he scares people at ATMs is heartbreaking, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has to be a drug dealer-turned-rapper. Alfred will figure this out on his journey to fame, but at least he knows he’s better than someone who exploits children.

Atlanta’s ease on the gas pedal feels nice. Moments like Alfred revisiting the gas station that was previously unsafe are treated casually. Even the wardrobe of the show seems to take on new depth as Earn and Darius wear their life mottos on their shirts. Earn’s says “Keep on keepin on” next to Darius’ simple “Profound.” Without the tension, elements like this can be fully appreciated. While there are certainly more twists to come — a bartender mentions an unsavory, no-weed-Swisher-smoking stalker looking for Paper Boi — the show doesn’t need to rely on tension to maintain its premise. If this is Atlanta’s version of a “breather episode,” it delivers on all fronts.

Other Notes:

  • FX announced that Atlanta was renewed for a 10-episode second season!
  • Atlanta isn’t the first show to take on internet fame, but I felt like their take was more realistic than most. Zan was exactly as annoying as he should’ve been, and his overuse of hashtags was perfect. Atlanta’s young writing staff really knows how to capture internet culture the right way.
  • Brian Tyree Henry’s delivery of the line “Take that over there.” in the opening accurately nailed that special Atlanta accent.
  • Seriously, this episode was so funny. Everyone will have a favorite line. Mine is the kid’s alt-catchphrase featuring FX’s longest bleep, culminating in a simple “…in everybody’s face!” The look on Alfred’s face during that tirade was the cherry on top.
  • There was great music in this episode, but I loved the use of Keith Ape’s “It G Ma Remix.” Keith Ape is a South Korean rapper and the remix features Atlanta favorites like Waka Flocka Flame and Father. It was a great choice for Earn’s introduction to the seedy side of Atlanta’s underground Asian antique black market. I hope they release a soundtrack at the end of the season.
  • I can’t wait to see how Earn’s investment plays out later in the season. I hope he takes Van out to a proper dinner.
  • I would love to see Donald Glover play the recorder.
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