Atlanta has always been a show about today’s current cultural climate. The way the award-winning TV series interprets pop culture is as a living, breathing phenomenon. Understanding its importance, especially in the internet age, Atlanta depicts memes, viral sensations and jokes within subcultures through subtle, nuanced ways.
Amongst many brilliant references, last season had a Black Justin Bieber. The season premiere "Robbin Season" featured a take on the “Florida Man” meme, while last week’s episode had callbacks to Bobby Shmurda performing for white label heads, YouTube acoustic rap covers and even Oscar-winning movie Get Out. The show continued this with the cold open the third episode "Robbin Season," “Money Bag Shawty.”
During the time Atlanta's first season was running on TV, a video featuring an angry, white, Christian mother went viral. She was reciting Vince Staples’ song “Norf Norf” word for word, including “the n-word.” A track about Staples’s rough youth in Long Beach, she was furious that radio stations were playing "Norf Norf" repeatedly. Affected by the content the track, she seemed to be oblivious to black culture. Her video was then mocked without mercy after the internet got its hands on it.
Atlanta recreated this cultural gem in a near pitch-perfect parody. A white, blonde woman recites lyrics by Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). Just like the original, she fails to omit the n-word; oscillates between fury and sadness before breaking down at the end, almost poetically, after reciting, “Shoutout Colin Kaepernick.”
Though this video does nothing but resuscitate a meme and remind viewers the naivety most people have towards black culture, it sets up the episode perfectly. The fame from the video gives Paper Boi’s track more traction, making it go Gold, and we find Al, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and Earn (Donald Glover) celebrating over nachos and shots. A server approaches their table, fering free drinks with his true intention getting “put on” by Al. After Earn attempts to intervene, he gets shut down by the server.
Earn then states that it must be great to have a rapper’s instant street cred. He wishes he could be that guy, the one in the spotlight, rather than the one always getting stunted on. After finding himself flush with cash, again, he decides that on the weekend, he and Van (Zazie Beetz) are going to stunt. While last week’s episode centred around Al’s problems, this time, it’s Earn who keeps taking L’s.
A $100 bill neatly ties in all the events in the episode, a subtle reminder how everyday actions translate into racism in America. First, Earn tries to pay for movie tickets with the bill at a bougie theatre that sells alcohol. The cashier doesn’t accept it and becomes suspicious Earn, asking for further identification when he tries to pay with a debit card. The white patron after Earn pays for tickets with a similar $100 bill and flashes his gun when Earn approaches him about the situation.
At a hookah bar, the $100 bill resurfaces. This time the irate club owner, another black male, accuses Earn being a bill forger. He loses the bill and is told he has to pay, again, because he’s already in the bar. A cop then pulls him aside to let him know that, yeah, everyone knows the bill is real, the owner just wouldn’t calm down.
While it’s kind hard to start taking Earn’s money problems seriously, especially with him throwing away cash two episodes in a row, Al and Darius have a sub-plot their own. They’re at a studio where Clark County, making another guest appearance, is recording a track. After fering him a blunt and Hennessy, both which County turns down, Al then gets to see a side the young rapper that isn’t in line with what he raps about. There’s the severity his temper coupled with his f-beat, awful freestyling which seems to appropriate Paper Boi’s life.
The deeper the show goes into the hip-hop world, the more you begin to sympathise with Paper Boi and his philosophy towards music. His quest for authenticity in the hip-hop world is leaving him with a sour taste. Every time he seems to get closer to collaborating with an artist who is successful by Al’s metrics, the morality said artist comes into question. With Clark Country, the dismissive and temperamental way he treats the engineer working on the track along with the lyrics his latest “track” speaks volumes. He’s taking advantage a life he says he’s leading - drinking Hennessy, smoking blunts - by rapping about it. For Paper Boi and a lot other rappers, art is a reflection their reality. Not so for others.
Earn, meanwhile, continues not to catch a break. After finding himself in need a stunt after so many losses, he rocks up to Al’s house in a limo with Van in tow. Tracy, Darius and Al join them and they head to Onyx, a well-known strip club. He gets fleeced at every corner by strippers, his friends, his girlfriend and even the DJ in the club who calls him out on his “whack ass Coca-Cola t-shirt” and for not giving the stripper enough money. It’s getting kind hard to sympathize with Earn and when he complains about money. Last week, he blew it on mall gift cards. This time around, it’s stretch limos, the strip club and betting on himself winning a foot race against Michael Vick.
Though his story-line did a great job in highlighting racial and economic tensions suffered by average African-American, we hope that the brains that got Earn into Princeton kick into gear. At one point in Onyx, Earn angrily says, “You told me the only thing I needed to run this city is money.” Al, clearly the wiser the two, corrects Earn: “Money is an idea, man. There’s a reason that a white dude dressed just like you can walk into a bank and get a loan and you can’t even spend a hundred dollar bill.”
“Money Bag Shawty” portrays how everyday interactions can be loaded with racism, class divisions and ignorance other cultures. From the cold open to Darius’ attempts at burning money after a discussion on its frivolity, the episode is packed with humour. But it feels half-full by the end it, either purposefully or not, with the weight Van’s storyline being left in the dust. The most enigmatic character on the show, there are so many unanswered questions about her: Where has she been since the end last season? What’s happening with her? Has she got a job? Are her and Earn seeing each other regularly? Why does she so easily enable Earn’s reckless money-spending behaviour?
Though we were told "Robbin Season" would enhance the plot the characters, it looks like we were duped, as yet. The plot does not seem to be the priority for Donald and Stephen Glover and the various other people behind Atlanta. There were always larger issues at hand that needed dissecting-- racism, sexism, the portrayal hip-hop in a white culture-- and these important issues are taking priority.
- Van’s crossed legs. The silence. Earn looking out the window, sad. “It’s Michael Vick.” The last scene the episode was laugh out loud hilarious. Atlanta, yet again, shows how so much can be said with so little.
- Earn needs to learn from Tracy. The brokest them all, he has the confidence to order for everyone when they hit the strip club and proclaim that he is Al’s manager. This is what Al was talking about: “You better start acting like you better than other n—a’s. So n—-a’s be treating you like other n—a’s.” And Darius, as always, wraps it up poignantly, “Otherwise, you just another n—a’s.”
- The Harriet Tubman bills are a gem, another subtle reminder to viewers things that should’ve happened but haven’t happened, yet.
- Van says to Earn, “Nobody uses cash like that anymore. What are you? Gucci Mane?” in reference to him using $100 bills. It’s another great Easter Egg as Gucci is referenced throughout the episode from the title it (a Gucci track) to a washed out "I Get The Bag" that plays in the strip club.