There comes a time at night when the only people left awake are drunk or high or want to take advantage of the first two. This is the scene in Money Bag Shawty, the thirteenth installment in Donald Glover’s hit FX series Atlanta. Glover plays Earnest “Earn” Marks – a chronically impoverished Princeton dropout who has just received his first check as a manager for his perpetually abusive cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), aka rapper Paper Boi. Earn spends the entire episode blasting a bag only to be stopped or scammed at every turn.
As Earn and his occasional girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) leave their last stop for the night, they spot former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick out on the street competing against patrons for money. “It’s just a good rush,” says one viewer. Fueled by the frustration of a night that didn’t go his way, Earn decides to try his luck. “Sometimes you just have to stunt people,” he says. His arrogance receives a satisfying and predictable humiliation in the form of a smash cut on the Van ride home in their limousine. Her silence is broken by her sharp delivery: “It is Michael Wick.” cue credits. It’s a brilliant part, made even better by the consolidation of one of the show’s driving themes: the absolute mindlessness of money.
Guarantees are rare in the world of television, however Atlanta is a special flash in a bottle. Part of this could be due to the all-black writing team; something almost unknown in the field, especially when most authors were newbies in this form. Maybe it’s because of that Atlanta breaks the traditional rules of sitcoms so often, such as the almost self-evident fact that every episode should feature each of your main characters. Earnest and Van are absent throughout the series, as is Alfred and his roommate Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), who has become the show’s most cited character for his wacky aphorisms and conspiracy theories – such as his belief that “AIDS was invented to save Wilt.” Chamberlain from breaking Steve McQueen’s sex record.” Atlanta’s The second season took this character-centric approach to the next level, devoting solo episodes to each of its four protagonists, aided at most by a small cameo from their co-stars.
It’s okay if you don’t always “understand” Atlanta.
By all accounts, this rule-breaking is intentional and has resulted in award-winning results — including two Golden Globes and two Primetime Emmys — though the series certainly has its fair share of confounding moments. But it’s ok if you don’t always “understand” Atlanta. After all, some of his actors didn’t. Stanfield confessed to initially hating the show and his character until continued viewing brought him to a better understanding of both. In his case, Mysterium has produced some intriguing results, particularly in the case of AtlantaBiggest Mysteries: Teddy Perkins.
Teddy Perkins, introduced in a self-titled episode, is a reclusive musician to whose house Darius travels in hopes of securing a novel piano. Viewers immediately saw his performance as a late-stage emulation of Michael Jackson, with shades of both the King of Pop and ’70s soul singer Marvin Gaye manifesting in Perkins’ personal backstory of growing up under the heel of an abusive musician father. In one of the series’ greatest departures from form, this captivating Gothic isolates Darius with this sinister figure in an investigation of sacrifice and identity. By the way, the true identity of “Mr. Perkins” was kept away from Stanfield for the breadth of production. It was Glover wearing heavy prosthetics and makeup, but Stanfield only learned the truth after questioning pretty much every person on set until the beans spilled. He was behind the charade at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards, where Glover had someone in full Perkins regalia attend the ceremony.
So much from Atlanta feels like it – an inside joke you just had to be there for. Most of the time, being there is blackness. It’s Earn, stunned that a white man felt comfortable saying the N-word in front of him while telling a story, later inviting him to tell the same story for Al and Darius and seeing the blood pour out of his face raft. It’s Al giving up his flaky barber for a new one, then quietly realizing he has no idea how to communicate the type of cut he wants. Atlanta conveys perspectives of blackness in a way that doesn’t feel didactic, which helps authenticate the show for its intended audience.
As for his more surreal excursions? Glover attributes these to a simple source: cannabis. “The effortless chaos of Atlanta…is definitely influenced by weed,” he told Tad Friend of The New Yorker in 2018. Glassy and reddened is the winking eye this series stares at viewers with. It takes us into an environment so filled with fear that an outstretched blunt is the easiest way to escape. But the stimulants of that stress are just as important to the show as its sinister side effects, and sooner or later the gentleness fades and life floods in before the characters have a chance to flare up again.
Atlanta conveys perspectives on blackness in a way that doesn’t feel didactic.
It’s no coincidence that the character, nicknamed Earn, spends most episodes living on the brink of abject poverty. And yet someone who needs money so often can be extremely careless when it comes to getting it. After Darius takes him to a dog breeding business to earn dividends later, Earn scolds him that “poor people don’t have time to invest because [they’re] too busy not being poor.” But later, when Darius gives him his share of that very investment, Earn is easily tricked into a gift card scam by Al’s paroled girlfriend Tracy and ends up losing most of it. We find out early on that Earn is smart, but he’s not very wise.
The criticism doesn’t just apply to men, either. Van also gets caught up in the hype after a nasty fight with Earn when a girls’ night out turns into a quest to get over her ex by taking a selfie with Drake. Of course she doesn’t, and soon the boredom of her everyday routine breaks back to greet her. But her position on the show is understandable in her lack of glamor and is an important piece of the tapestry Glover is trying to weave. As the song by Jazmine Sullivan says:
This one’s for all the baby mamas and the down ass chicks
Remember you used to take bathroom photos, in the crib
And he said if he ever gets rich, we’re gonna bang that bitch
Believe that shit
But now you live well while I sit…
Sometimes Atlanta satirized with a celebratory tone, as in “FUBU” (S2E10), an episode that follows Earn over the course of a few days in junior high, when the most devastating thing one could be accused of was wearing a counterfeit tag. When another boy walks into class wearing an almost identical yellow jersey, accusations of first-class cheating fly through the building and it soon becomes the only thing everyone can talk about. The incessant molestation eventually leads to the other child taking his own life. Upon returning home, Earn and Alfred are admonished by their mothers to always look out for each other. When we last saw the two of them, Al was about to fire his cousin and with that Atlanta Season 3, which takes them on a European tour, will test their pact more than ever.
Donald Glover sold Atlanta no more than a black sitcom, but what FX actually got was something way beyond definition that has caught the attention of millions. Even Jordan Peele has praised it for being the “upscale” content black audiences deserve. Its genre may continue to defy easy description, but on the cusp of its penultimate season, there couldn’t be a better time for a rediscovery Atlanta than what it ultimately is: part of a renaissance of essential Black storytelling.
Atlanta Season 3 starts March 24, 2022 on FX and is available to stream on Hulu the next day. Here’s how to watch it for free.
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https://stylecaster.com/atlanta-season-3/ Season 3 of “Atlanta” is here – her return means everything for the culture