Monday, May 27, 2024

A Pajama Jam Goes Wrong on Atlanta

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“North of the Border” was yet another excellent episode in an excellent second season for Atlanta. And yet again, it was an episode showing off the remarkable versatility of tone and genre this show is capable of. This was a wild ride from start to finish, an episode that took a few different directions and styles without ever losing the main thread pulling the characters through.

Unfortunately, they were pulled to a tragic conclusion built up all season.

A Tale of Two Worlds

Let’s start off with the light stuff, though. “North of the Border” sees Alfred, Darius, Earn, and Tracy head to a college campus to perform for a Pajama Jam concert. Rather than pay for a hotel, Earn arranges for them to stay with a student fan he met on Instagram.  The concert goes well, but afterwards the Instagram girl jealously pours a drink on Al while he talks to a couple other students. This starts a big incident where Tracy nearly maims the girl pushing her down a flight of stairs, her brother and his friends want to fight, and Earn and company have to run for it.

Once they lose their pursuers, Darius’s trained weed-detection skills finds another party at a frat house. You know, your typical frat party filled with white guys who love rap, hang Confederate flags on the wall, and torture pledges by stripping them naked and doing awful stuff to them. Things surprisingly go smoother at this party. Until Alfred decides to fire Earn as his manager.

Just the difference in the two parties made for a rollercoaster of an episode. And it was, of course; you can’t go from a party of predominantly black college students in pajamas to one comprised entirely of white frat boys torturing pledges without some sense of vertigo. The whole scenario was just so typically surreal Atlanta, though. I didn’t question a second of it because this is the kind of adventure Earn and crew find themselves in on a weekly basis.

Unsurprisingly, it was nothing but fun to watch go down. It was a strange, funny trip through wildly different circumstances that made me both physically uncomfortable while smiling almost the whole time. Atlanta has earned a lot of dramatic gravitas through its two seasons, and took full advantage of them here. I kept waiting for something awful to happen only to end up bursting out laughing.

Tracy pushing the girl down the stairs could have been tragic. Then Earn caught her, a bunch of guys were confronting them, Tracy threw a sucker punch, and suddenly we had a hilarious chase scene on our hands. You keep waiting for some dark twist to the frat party (especially because of the Confederate flag), but they genuinely liked Paperboi and wanted to chill with him.

These wildly different settings also gave Atlanta space to ask cultural questions without detracting from the fun or the eventual drama that goes down after Earn’s firing. What does it say that Alfred and company had more fun sitting beneath a Confederate flag with a bunch of douchey white frat boys than partying after the concert? It arguably raises questions about marginalized communities cannibalizing themselves and fighting each other for the privileges unfairly limited among them.

Alfred and the others spend every second at the concert after-party on edge. They immediately think the worst of the girl Earn arranges to stay with. In the end, they had good reason. The girl and her friends destroy their belongings and rob them. Meanwhile they have no such worries with the frat because they don’t believe they have anything these white college kids would want of them. The differences in status and privilege for Al, Earn, and their friends was sharply visible.

Yet again, Atlanta perfectly straddled that line between a fun time and important social statements that makes the show so damn good.

The End of Earn and Alfred

For all the fun times, though, “North of the Border” ended on a heavily dramatic moment the entire season has led to. Atlanta fans have speculated for weeks about Alfred firing Earn. With every new thing that went wrong, we felt more certain. After Alfred’s apparent acceptance of Paperboi last week, the question was not if but when Earn would lose his job.

No time was wasted this week. You could feel Alfred’s dissatisfaction the second he appeared this week. I would have been a little disappointed if Earn somehow made it through all the bad breaks to last another day. Thankfully, Atlanta is a better show than that. Not only did Earn lose his job, we saw the downfall, culminating in Tracy straight whipping his ass on the side of the road. Earn hit his low point and now begins the long climb back up.

Naturally, this episode is prompting fans to take a side between Earn and Alfred. However, just like with the breakup between Earn and Van, taking sides misses the point. Both sides are culpable in the dissolution of this relationship, and both sides will need to take a long, hard look at their behavior moving forward.

There’s no question Earn has been inadequate as a manager. Season 2 has shown him to be a person of questionable decision-making. He makes another questionable decision here that blows up in his face. Alfred and Darius warned him about this girl they stayed with. The risk was obvious, and Earn must have known it since he didn’t even tell Alfred until they were walking out the door on their way to the concert. Over and over he proves himself incapable of managing Alfred’s career the way he wants. Over and over he proves he lacks the connections to truly bring Paperboi to the next level.

You have to wonder if Earn’s idea to manage Paperboi was yet another example of something we saw with his insistence on fighting Tracy; his tendency to pick conflicts he cannot win. He did the exact same thing when he raced Michael Vick outside the strip club and played Van at table tennis. In both cases he had no real chance to win. He had no real chance to actually kick Tracy’s ass either. You can admire him for taking a stand, I guess, but I don’t think that was Earn’s goal. He was irrationally angry to the point of delusion. He directed his frustrations at Tracy the entire episode and in a moment of fury thought he would knock Tracy out, prove some point to Alfred, and stay as manager.

Instead he crawled beaten and humiliated back into the car, his fate sealed.

Don’t be confused, though. Alfred deserves just as much blame for his career stalling as Earn does. He half-assed or flat out refused every opportunity Earn brought him this season. He has fought against the things you have to do to move up in the music business. Earn was right about Tracy being a risk and Tracy being the one who escalated minor incidents into night-ruining events. A lot of Al’s frustration about his career should be directed at himself. If he hadn’t spent all this time fighting fame to “keep it real,” he might not have stalled in place.

All along Alfred has wanted the perks of fame without putting in the work. What happens when he gets a new manager who won’t put up with his shit? How many managers will Alfred go through because of his stubborn refusal to play the game? We’ll see if he’s really ready to take his career to another level, or if he thinks a new manager will just hook him up with free stuff and millions of dollars without Paperboi putting in the work.

Both men hold blame here, just like both Earn and Van held blame. Because relationships are almost always more complicated than one person being totally in the wrong.

Unfortunately for Earn, he will be the one to suffer. Alfred at the very least can continue as is, grumbling and putting in half-effort while another manager struggles with him. Earn, though, has lost everything. His job, his cousin, his girlfriend, and even the roof above his head. This is going to be a hard, hard time for him. An ass-kicking will seem tame compared to the hardships he’ll likely face in the near-future. This is Robbin’ Season. I won’t be surprised if he turns to theft himself in the next couple episodes.

Hopefully he finds a way to end the season on a high-note.

Closing Thoughts:

Only two more episodes left in this spectacular season of Atlanta. I’m running out of ways to compliment it without sounding repetitive. It speaks volumes that depending on the viewer, I could see any of the past 4 episodes being someone’s favorite of the season. This show has hit home run after home run lately.

Atlanta has also done something really interesting this season, especially considering Donald Glover wasn’t even sure about making a second season. They have really set up for the future here, for multiple long-term arcs for these characters as they struggle to find themselves in the aftermath of this season. At the very least Atlanta has set itself up as if Glover and his writers have a clear idea in mind for a third season, one built towards throughout this year’s episodes. I can’t imagine he wants to leave Earn, Al, and Van where they are right now. Things just feel too open-ended and uninspiring to leave here.

Does that mean a potential third season will come out sooner than the second? I don’t know. Could be that the writers have a destination in mind but none of the details. I’m excited, though. Atlanta seems to have a clear plan for its future, and based on this fantastic second season, that’s something all TV watchers should be excited about.

Images Courtesy of FX

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