As Donald Glover’s ATLANTA approaches the finish line of its up-and-down inaugural season on FX with penultimate episode “Juneteenth,” I find myself wondering why it’s been so darn erratic, and where the heck it’s going to go next year.
Atlanta has always had cleverly artful title cards, but it outdoes itself here, framing the show card against a derrière in clingy black lingerie. Make that lingerie pink and you’ve got the title card for Lost In Translation. I see you, Atlanta title card designers. Nice reference.
The proceedings kick off with Earn Marks (Glover) saying farewell to a one-night stand hookup, the owner of said black lingerie. He has finagled a ride from Van (Zara Beetz), his on-again/off-again lover and baby mama. Theirs is a tense car ride, and we get a nice bit of comic business surrounding Earn’s car window.
Van and Earn meet Van’s African American friend Monique (Cassandra Freeman), a potential business connection, and her husband Craig (Rick Holmes), a white optometrist who uncomfortably appropriates black culture with the celebrating Juneteeth, in remembrance of Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 post-Civil War freeing of the slaves.
Van has established Earn under false pretenses, as her “fancy Ivy League husband.” Although she hasn’t taken the time to get them wedding bands. Earn deals with a crotchety bartender, insistent that he make a selection from a weird emancipation-oriented menu, before finding a strange interpretative painting of a Malcolm X. Earn gets really, really into masquerading as Van’s hubby — and suddenly Van is the one struggling to cope with the lie, in a clever wrinkle on our expectations.
In another surprising turn, Monique opens up to Van about her relationship with Craig, the Tyler Perry-quoting slam poet-cum-optometrist Craig: she married him for his money and his magnificent mansion, he married her for her cultural cache. She is comfortable with the compromise, though Van wonders about Monique struggling to have a real partner to confide in. It seems like she’s made her peace with it.
Following Craig’s incredibly uncomfortable slam poetry reading, where Earn has been pressured into sitting front-and-center, he is recognized by the party valet’s as being up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi (Bryan Tyree Henry)’s manager; the reality of his job seems to embarrass Van. Craig of course is very excited to hear this news, and Monique judges him harshly — especially after hearing that, well, Earn and Paper Boi were involved in a violent and potentially lethal shooting eight episodes ago (although, ya know, Monique doesn’t mark time by episodes of Atlanta, since she has no idea she’s on TV). After Monique demeans his station, Earn can’t quite hold it in anymore. He pointedly unleashes his honest opinion on the Juneteenth couple, quite possibly jeopardizing Van’s chances at booking a gig via one of Monique’s connections. The door of vocational opportunity for her is left somewhat open, since Craig remains creepily smitten with Earn’s blackness, but it looks like that’ll be resolved at a later date. We figure Earn’s due for a reaming once Van more or less forces him out of the party and into her car.
We are quite wrong. All I’ll say is.. a Sam Cooke song is involved.
After last week’s underwhelming one-joke premise episode “The Club,” Atlanta finds itself back in business with one of its strongest episodes yet, a fantastic blend of earnest social critique and Larry David-level funny discomfort. Do I still want to see more of Paper Boi’s journey, from a musical perspective? Of course, but maybe that’s not what this show wants to be. Maybe Paper Boi and the Atlanta underground hip-hop scene are just window dressing, and Glover is more interested in exploring these vignette moments as he hops from episode to disparate episode. “Go For Broke” (episode tres) might still be my personal favorite (although that scene of the deep-woods drug dealer’s murdered naked captive still feels jarringly out-of-place), but “Juneteenth” is nipping at its hilarious heels. This week’s episode really gives Van a chance to shine as a character, and we begin to get a full sense of the gravity of this moment in her life — her aspirational intentions are being weighed down by a far-too-keen conscience, as Earn continues to frustrate her by blissfully pursuing exactly what he wants and total self-awareness, while at the same time bringing very little financial support to the table. Theirs is a weird dance, and it’s interesting to watch it deepen and develop new wrinkles. I have absolutely no idea what to expect with Atlanta‘s final first-season episode, in terms of both quality and content. And that’s kind of exciting.
Season 1, Episode 9 (S01E09)
Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10PM on FX
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor