This week, Atlanta delivered its first standalone episode, “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” and it was different than anything the show had offered so far. Rather than continuing to unspool the narrative, the episode breaks Earn, Darius, and Alfred up and gives them separate storylines. This tactic works best for Alfred, who is left on his own to navigate the realities of fame and media expectations. Earn and Darius’s adventures feel far more one note. While Atlanta’s first four episodes did a lot to define its characters and their relationship dynamics, motivations were not at the core of the latest episode. Stuff just happened.
Since the pilot, we’ve known Alfred is insecure about his talent and music. There’s a clear chip on his shoulder whenever he has to remind people of his music with a, “You know, ‘Paper Boi, Paper Boi, all about that paper, boy,’ before they remember him. In this episode, we see Alfred interact with fame on a new level. There’s media interest and, most importantly, there are other celebrities. With the media, Alfred does his best to present the sincere, nice side of himself that viewers have seen, but he’s written off as a gangster anyway. It should have been a powerful moment, but it fell flat because it made perfect sense. Alfred isn’t a dangerous guy, but he got famous because he shot someone. No wonder people think the worst.
Alfred’s need to prove himself is even more clear when he’s paired with Justin Bieber. It’s a genius move on the show’s part to have Bieber played by Austin Crute, a black singer from Atlanta. In one move the show addresses the privileges afforded white musicians over black ones. In the world of Atlanta, black Justin Bieber is given the same privileges of the white Bieber — he can harass interviewers and piss on floors while onlookers excuse it because he’s young and he’s “still figuring it out.” Bieber is a jerk in the episode, but by the end he is forgiven. This is Atlanta’s way of asking us to imagine what it would be like if Bieber was actually black. Would he be given the same opportunity to bounce back from his mistakes?
Black pop stars are routinely held to a different standard by the media and this casting choice shines a light on that. It also addresses the real Justin Bieber’s use of appropriation. Since 2014, pop culture has attempted to make the point that Bieber is an “honorary black person.” This ignores the fact that his whiteness helped him achieve the level of success he’s attained, and it allows him to freely appropriate from black culture without being viewed as a gangster or jerk like Alfred. Beyond making a strong case, the casting choice is also hilarious by the time the episode ends on Bieber apologizing and pathetically singing and dancing to win the crowd over. “Nobody Beats the Biebs” doesn’t quite stick the landing on Alfred’s Justin Bieber encounter, but it raises interesting questions. That’s something.
As for Earn, he’s whisked away to a VIP press room after being mistaken for someone else. Earn seems at ease among the TV and film agents, but the moment is more focused on his interaction with Jane Adams’s struggling agent character rather than showcasing an opportunity for Earn. Adams is incredible in the role and her mistrust of Earn is constantly boiling under the surface of their dialogue, but her threat to ruin him falls flat. She doesn’t feel like a credible enemy. Perhaps we’ll see Earn put those business cards to work in the future, but for now, it’s just another middling turn of events for a character who could really use more momentum.
Finally, there’s Darius and his strange trip to the shooting range. The episode proves Darius is a character who can thrive on a solitary plotline, but he’s not given much plot to work with here. Instead, the show uses Darius to drive home a point about the value of minority lives. The other shooters in the range have no issue using Hispanic or very specific “Dad” targets, but protest when Darius pulls out a dog target. The disgust on their face is clear as they simply repeat, “You can’t shoot a dog!” The lives of animals are more valued than minority lives and even the thought of a dog getting shot is enough to upset people. Yet the gun shop owner has no issue pulling a gun on Darius, an actual human, and putting his life in danger.
This is an excellent point that’s been brought up by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the show addresses it perfectly with this bit. The only issue is that it’s so far removed from the A-plot that it simply feels like a vignette with a point to prove. At a later point in the show, maybe this would’ve been okay, but we simply don’t know these characters well enough for the moment to have the weight it deserves. The use of militant Middle Eastern men to defend Darius as they go on a tangent about the “American blood that will spill” feels sloppy and muddles the point of the scene. There isn’t enough here to move the portrayal beyond “Middle Eastern men play terrorists-lite” and thats disappointing for a show that usually twists stereotypes into something more interesting.
“Nobody Beats the Biebs” features clever comedy that takes on complex race politics, but at times the jokes feel one-note, heavy-handed, and repetitive. It’s an episode with little character development, but it works as a standalone. It still manages to be entertaining without relying on the tension and fear of earlier episodes. Perhaps the episode would’ve been stronger if it hadn’t just come right after “The Streisand Effect,” another breather episode that drops the momentum of the show’s first three episodes and focuses on our main trio. The trio has been separated from their world for another week now and it would be great to see them interact with Vee or Earn’s parents again. After two weeks afloat, Atlanta needs to ground itself.
- Austin Crute shines as black Justin Bieber. I cannot reiterate how much I love the casting of a black Justin Bieber. There will probably be upset people who think they should’ve cast a white actor, but that would’ve lost the show’s point.
- Donald Glover is a great straight man when Jane Adams finally cracks and threatens to ruin him. The momentary pause after he reveals he’s not Alonso begs Adams to really look at his face and it’s perfect.
- I wish Darius had been given the chance to stand his own against the other shooters. His words were more effective than the Middle Eastern men who came to his defense.
- Hey, that’s Lloyd! He’s a singer from Atlanta who got his start in the boy band N-Toon. You might be most familiar with his 2007 hit, “Get it Shawty.”
- Hey, that’s Lil Zane! He’s a rapper from Atlanta. Its a testament to Atlanta’s ability to feature deep Atlanta talent because I’d forgotten all about him. His song “Callin’ Me” ft. 112 was a favorite of mine in adolescence.
- Hey, that’s Jaleel White! He’s not from Atlanta, but I’m always happy to see him pop up. His recent turn in Survivor’s Remorse was great and he’s wonderful here as Paper Boi’s frustrated teammate.
- “I love you, Justin!” … “Bitch, I know.”
Photos via FX