Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m the only person getting annoyed by the multiple personality disorder symptoms on naked display in both of the rookie shows I’ve been keeping tabs on for The Tracking Board, FX’s ATLANTA and Crackle’s StartUp. But they are present, to the level that both shows should look into some serious cognitive behavioral therapy, get that all sussed out. On the one hand, StartUp is the story of the hiccups that go into developing a hot tech company. On the one hand, Atlanta is about one family as its Millennial contingent tries to stake out a place for itself in the entertainment world. On the other hand, the shows relay just how messy creating a new crypto-currency or breaking a new Southern rap star can get when soaked in their respective criminal underworlds.
By the end of its first season, StartUp had clearly gotten more interested in the crime side of the equation, to the point where it was turning software geniuses into mob shells. Atlanta, at least by episode three, just feels like two separate shows. That might have to do with its very distinctive tone, a dry pseudo-realism that emphasizes understatement and subtle honesty. It works wonders for the comedy, especially here — I found myself chortling out loud alone in my room like a crazy person at several different moments. The drama suffers, though, because, even though it’s tackled with gentle humor, that humor is so subdued that the scariness of some of these scenarios engulfs it. The crime-story arc of Atlanta, at least in “Go For Broke,” feels jarringly out-of-place. Violence can be funny, but when the full gravity of an ominous drug deal with a group of homicidal, trigger-happy baddies in the middle of a forest enclosure is felt, it isn’t funny. The humor in weighty moments hails, naturally, from levity — from relieving the pressure of some of that emotional heft! Darius (Keith Stanfield) and Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) are saddled with the aforementioned drug deal subplot this time, and outside of one memorable phone conversation on speaker phone, it’s just too serious to be funny (despite trying to be funny in minor key ways throughout).
This week’s comic Earn Meeks (Donald Glover) storyline, though, is hilarious and happens to hit very, very close to home for this writer. Working as he does purely off commission (via his crummy job selling mileage-rewards credit cards at airports), he’s dealing with a $96 direct-deposit payday that he needs to stretch across two weeks.
After trying to score a Kids’ Meal at McDonald’s in an inspired scene (and winning a small cash-saving battle, despite losing the Kids’ Meal war), Earn deftly maneuvers his way into a date with his on-again/off-again kind-of-ex (whom he occasionally lives with), Vanessa (Zazie Beetz). As someone who has 100% directly dealt with this exact thing — the phenomenon of a gentleman being so broke that he has to think of creative ways to stretch his date-night budget — this critic found Earn’s whole arc this episode to ring absolutely true and to be absolutely hilarious. After following an ill-informed co-worker’s restaurant recommendation (happy hour after 7 p.m. was promised), Earn faces off against a dangerously chipper, up-selling waitress (Caroline Arapoglou) at what turns out to be a very upscale, recently renovated seafood spot. He can’t afford their dinner before they even hit the dessert. At the end of the episode, he settles on an ingenious fix for financing their night out that this author has contemplated but never had the chutzpah to try. Kudos, Earn. If only his deft wrangling around money woes could also take care of his communication issues with Vanessa, he’d really be cooking.
I think Zazie Beetz is solid as the cold, cynical wet blanket that is Vanessa. But my big caveat with her is a physical one. She looks too young to be this hardened figure, let down by life and by men and self-righteous to a fault. I buy Donald Glover as Earn Meeks, an early-30’s wanderer with his head in the clouds at the detriment of some very very tangible responsibilities. But it’s a bit tougher to buy the impossibly fresh-faced, impossibly tall, impossibly beautiful Beetz as anything other than a 25 year-old New York model who’s never had to worry about balancing pragmatic issues against career ambitions. And that’s exactly what she is. Don’t get me wrong, Beetz is great in her combative moments with Glover, but it feels like he’s arguing with a model in a chichi SoHo hangout, not with the financially-constrained mother of his child at a local eatery.
Ultimately, my issues with the fit of Beetz and with the disparity between Atlanta‘s biting comedy jarringly intense crime drama content are nits that I’m sure will be picked much more thoroughly across future episodes, if they do continue to fester. This episode, though, made Donald Glover and Donald Glover’s comedy the focus, and dealt with a real topic in a fun and fresh way. At its peak, when “Go For Broke” is firing on all cylinders, it feels exactly the way I wanted the first two episodes to feel like. Here’s hoping that trend continues into week quatro.
Season 1, Episode 3 (S01E03)
Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10PM on FX
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor