As it’s progressed, Donald Glover’s ATLANTA has taken special care to pare down its focus from episode-to-episode. And when I say focus, I mean that as it applies not just to tone or story, but to location and character. The four “regulars” have not all appeared in the same show for at least three episodes (this week, Zazie Beetz’s Van is absent), and each time they are supplemented only by a handful of comic or dramatic foils. Outside of a tiny diner-based coda sequence, this week’s episode, “The Club,” follows that blueprint too, taking place wholly in Primal Night Club. Primal is a fictitious Atlanta hot spot, paying Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) and the much more popular rapper Marcus Miles (no relation to Paper Boi) appearance fees to draw in the masses. Paper Boi sits around and tries, desperately, to reel in an entourage of babes (he could care less about the fan who recites his one hit, “Paper Boy,” verbatim at him). On the other hand, babes just kind of float over to Marcus Miles. It could be his pet peacock (mentioned, but sadly never shown), hard to say.
Meanwhile, Darius (Keith Stanfield) waxes philosophical as usual, and Paper Boi’s cousin and manager Earn Marks (Glover) spends the entirety of the episode following a promoter for Primal, who has promised Paper Boi a $5,000 take for an appearance fee and is doing his darnedest to weasel out of paying any of that sum. Earn tries to intimidate him with stoicism and general, pragmatic reasoning, but it fails to really take until a kindly, buxom bartender clues him in to the promoter’s Batcave-esque club hideout digs.
In recent weeks, I was convinced Atlanta had turned a provocative corner, becoming a weirdly watchable referendum on culture and race that was much less the comedy it was hyped to be and much more a drama. Sure, it satirized its marks, but the satire rang melancholically true, to the point where it wasn’t so much gut-busting as it was emotional gut-check-inducing. This episode marks a massive step backwards from that. Why can’t we get into Paper Boi’s music at all? What’s with all this boring ancillary stuff? Why should we care about Earn spending an entire episode mishandling a relationship with an oily promoter? Yes, their arc is interesting, but it would be even more interesting if it occupied five minutes of the show’s total run time, not the bulk of it. The dealings at the periphery of the music industry are fascinating, this kind of stuff does have a place in a show about Atlanta’s underground hip-hop music scene for sure, but I’d really like to know about Paper Boi’s music career. The events he’s been attending since gaining infamy from a mysterious shooting in the show’s pilot have been one-offs: a charity basketball game, this club appearance. What exactly is Earn curating here? What is Paper Boi’s next step? He has a single and a music video and a rap sheet, so now what? Is he going to make an album? An EP? Is he going to get signed to a high-level indie hip-hop label? Is he already signed to one? And what the hell is the point of Darius in this show? As things go on, he feels less and less like an interesting addition, and more and more like a crutch — an unfunny distraction who paralyzes the action and momentum of each episode he inhabits. He’s also psychologically inscrutable — it’s hard to know what he wants or why, outside of being a hipster with a general interest in getting high and tweaking the system. Although I guess that could describe some people I know, so maybe that’s an unfair criticism to level at poor Darius, to an extent. Still though, he’s fairly inessential.
Also, while we’re here: why the heck doesn’t Earn try to talk up that gorgeous bartender a bit more? Shouldn’t collecting the club money just be a MacGuffin, a narrative red herring to drive the characters towards each other? In this show, though, simple, easily resolved goals are the end game. Episodes have their own arcs, and once those are resolved, we aren’t much closer to discovering a lot of new elements in the overall plot.
All in all, Earn, Paper Boi and Darius have a fairly uneventful night at Primal… until an eventful moment outside it at the very end of the episode. I wonder though, if that new plot wrinkle will lead anywhere meaningful — or if, like the shooting that kicked off the series as a whole, this latest development will fizzle out, and become but a memory in ensuing episodes. I don’t know what to expect anymore as we hit the home stretch for Atlanta. I thought it was going somewhere, and all of a sudden it’s stuck in the mud again. For what it was, this episode was totally fine, but for what Atlanta has been, it’s a big bummer.
Season 1, Episode 8 (S01E08)
Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10PM on FX
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor