“Juneteenth” masterfully regrounds the occasionally surreal Atlanta, not only by exposing the tension between wealth and race, but also by finally diving into what makes Van and Earn tick as a couple. The episode starts off with Van and Earn heading to a Juneteenth celebration at a huge mansion owned by an intriguing mixed race couple. Using the extravagant celebration as the backdrop, the show challenges the history of Black TV stereotypes by showcasing realistic, grounded portrayals of various members of the Black community prominent in Atlanta’s upper class. “Juneteenth” gives Atlanta the chance to confront the show audiences expected Atlanta to be while letting Atlanta do what it does best.

“Juneteenth” is obsessed with appearances. The very fact that they’re celebrating Juneteenth — a holiday that celebrates the day slaves were actually freed in Galveston, Texas nearly two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed — is interesting. Juneteenth is a joyous occasion that represents the revealing of truth and the subsequent freedom that came with it. However, there’s little honesty or freedom at this Juneteenth party. Van and Earn have to appear happily married and present the promise of upward mobility so that Van can hustle for a new job. Monique and Craig, the hosts of the party, are an entirely shallow couple kept together by her love of money and his obsession with blackness.

Monique in particular works as a stand-in for Atlanta’s elite circle of wealthy wives. She has more class than the women of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, but her life isn’t too far removed from those displays of excess. Even though Monique knows her husband is fetishizing her, she takes on the role of “the Black wife in exchange for the comfortable life his money can provide her. Her wealth and performative blackness have removed her from the realities of lower income Black people so she sees no irony in the fact that she’s spending Juneteenth barking orders at an entirely Black staff while her white husband wonders why Earn has never been to Africa.

These tensions keep popping up between the characters Van and Earn meet at the party. There’s the church pastor who promises to show Earn how to treat a woman right, even as his own wife rolls her eyes and stands by silently without ever being introduced. Van and Earn see right through the pastor’s machinations and can barely contain their disdain. Van literally walks away from the conversation. They also run into a playwright who speaks of the Black community needing “good art” while talking about the play she wrote that only seems obsessed with Black tragedy. “That’s a real situation. I’m glad that story is being told,” Earn mumbles as the playwright describes a hostage situation in a strip club involving a pregnant teen and a drug dealer during Hurricane Katrina — a sight that triggers images of Black plight — as the backdrop of her piece.

These two guests act as stand-ins for Atlanta to address the type of content viewers have historically seen from Black shows. They’re either steeped in religious stereotypes (think anything by Tyler Perry or Greenleaf) or obsessed with Black trauma and grief. In its first season, Atlanta has proven that it doesn’t fit any preconceived notions. It has the freedom to mix surrealism, comedy, and drama as it sees fit without the worrying about how Black it seems. Atlanta simply is Black and asks us to expand our understanding of what a Black show can look like. Whether its characters are riding in invisible cars, dealing drugs, or hosting Juneteenth Jubilees — Atlanta is interested in honest, dynamic portrayals of blackness.

To that extent, its understandable when Earn finally goes off on Craig and Monique. When Craig begins to fetishize his burgeoning career as a rap manager and Monique asks if he’s going to shoot up the party, it’s clear he’s had enough of playing a role for these people. It’s telling that Van isn’t upset with Earn over this; in fact, the episode ends with them having car sex. Since she feels as though she’s pimping herself out at the party in order to get a job (and she’s drunk), it makes sense that she’d support Earn’s call out. In the end, Van likes that Earn stays true to himself, even if it means picking him up from another woman’s apartment while he’s not really high. Van may have big goals, but she’s not willing to sacrifice herself like Monique did in order to achieve them and Earn would never ask her to be something she’s not. It’s been easy to wonder why Van continues to put up with Earn over the course of the season and “Juneteenth” finally shows why she keeps him around.

Though Earn can go from another woman’s bed to telling partygoers he could never even dream of looking at another woman, it’s clear he still loves Van and would do anything for her. Earn and Van have been apart for a few episodes now, so it’s easy to forget that their connection goes beyond their having a child together. Earn’s quest for financial success is driven by his desire to provide for Van and their daughter, so it’s good to see the show ground itself in their relationship before next week’s finale. Stefani Robinson’s script adeptly balances the sentimental and humorous in “Juneteenth” to make an engaging statement on race while setting the table for the season’s end. I have no idea what that end will look like, but Atlanta continues to excel at being whatever kind of show it wants to be.

What else?

  • “It’s redundant to be both Black and sorry in the world. It’s kinda like that.”
  • “That’s from For Colored Girls.”
  • “Nigga, do I gotta explain alliteration?”
  • “It all takes place at a strip club. Two gangbangers hold up Hester, a drug dealer and, a pregnant teen hostage in the middle of Hurricane Katrina.”
  • “That’s a real situation. I’m glad that story is being told”
  • I would love to see Craig return next season. Earn calling him out while asking him to be less nice was almost as great as the spoken word scene.
  • That spoken word scene. Oh man. As someone who spent way too much time participating in poetry slams, that felt way too real.
  • Glover’s reaction to the valet’s sister’s underwear was perfect. Glover’s gave a stellar performance this episode, but that might’ve been the highlight.
  • This episode was directed by Janicza Bravo and is the only episode not directed by Glover or Hiro Murai. The episode certainly felt more traditional stylistically, but perfectly captured the expanse of Craig and Monique’s mansion. I loved how the conversations were framed differently. The midshot used while Earn gushes over Van almost makes them seem like a portrait addressing a still of socialites.

Ashley Ray-Harris is a Chicago-based pop culture expert with a degree in International Media Studies from Williams College. Her work has been featured on sites like The A.V. Club and Autostraddle. She can usually be found watching too much TV with her cats.