Donald Glover’s ATLANTA makes an interesting shift this week, in the first episode directed by the show’s creator/EP/star/co-writer. Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) is the star of the proceedings this time around, and struggles to effectively let her hair down. The trouble starts during a demoralizing night out with an old school chum, the jet-setting, navel-gazing, athlete-banging “Instagram escort” Jayde (Aubin Wise). After a confrontational dinner, the evening is salvaged by some ill-advised “elephant shit” (read: very very strong Southern ganja) toking. The next morning, her damn phone reminds her that, today of all days, she’s pencilled in for a drug test at work. She frantically presses sometime-beau Earn (Donald Glover)’s cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Bryan Tyree Henry) for a quick-fix solution for passing said test. Things get gross in a hurry.
Let the record show, we never knew what Van’s job was before this episode. All the vocational information we had been privy to up till now was that she aspired to cultivate her own fashion line, and it was a sticking point in her relationship with Earn — even though Earn, too, harbors dreams of creative enterprise. Turns out she’s a school teacher.. at least, before her drug test…
The change in our driving character’s perspective is a refreshing touch; gone are Al’s extreme anger-management troubles, mostly absent are Earn’s faults. Instead, we witness Earn’s surprisingly competent fathering skills in a brief domestic scene; surely, Glover elected to limit his own time in front of the camera to better tackle the stresses he undoubtedly faced behind it as helmer. The self-styled mumbling philosopher Darius (Keith Stanfield), meanwhile, is completely MIA.
Since week two, precious little time has been devoted to the crucial inciting incident that kicked off Paper Boi’s ascent to celebrity. Earn or Al shot somebody, maybe fatally, outside a liquor store — their arrest gave Al instant credibility, and propelled his rise to a certain level of underground notoriety. Earn’s efforts to foster and grow that notoriety, and to orient it around Al’s music, are ostensibly the underlying story of the show. Point being — the murky potential homicide doesn’t seem to be weighing one iota on its accused perpetrators, and we have no sense of how close they are to a trial, after spending two episodes dealing with the fallout from their arrests. There are no moments of Earn or Paper Boi sitting in deep philosophic reflection, no paranoid night sweats, no chatter of buying two one-way tickets to some non-extraditing country. Honestly, that’s fine by me, since the darkest moments of the show’s serious side have always coexisted uncomfortably with the show’s low-key humor.
“Value” once again has absolutely nothing to do with that possible murder; rather, it deals in the subtler drama that Atlanta tackles pretty well. The simplicity of Van’s ticking-clock dilemma really works in the show’s favor this week. What works against it is the fact that Vanessa’s character is highly inconsistent from week to week — a few episodes ago, she was a lot like Jayde, the friend she secretly abhors who indirectly causes all kinds of trouble for her in “Value.” Here, Vanessa just as bitter and humorless as usual, but this time she has shirked a good amount of the responsibility that before she so ferociously lorded over the bumbling Earn. This newer, more fallibly human Vanessa is a welcome change, but she’s still a tough character to like. Here’s hoping we can see more of her development (like, say, her fashion line aspirations) in the weeks to come. It’s still a downer of an episode, and it drags in places. But as a possible harbinger of new storytelling elements to come, “Value” has… a lot of value.
Sorry, I had to do that. You understand, don’t you? Good. To reward your understanding, here is a terrifying still showing one of Vanessa’s students, wearing a creepy whiteface makeup.
Season 1, Episode 6 (S01E06)
Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10PM on FX
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor