Who knew the life of a local rapper could be so tough? If you pictured it glamorously, Atlanta will unfortunately curb your enthusiasm a bit this week. Turns out people care just enough to take up all your time and money without giving you enough play to replace either. Funny how that works. In addition to Paper Boi’s problems, “Sportin’ Waves” also introduces us to one of his new (old, technically) buddies, has some fun with white people, and gives Earn a relatively good day.
Paper Boi’s Terrible, No Good Day, and Earn’s Pretty Good One
Fame has not been kind to Alfred. He started off the season under house arrest. He starts off this week getting robbed by his long-time weed dealer. Which might just have been the friendliest and funniest robbery ever, by the way. Unfortunately, things don’t really improve as the day goes along.
The story of the struggling rapper is nothing new, but like with most things Atlanta does, Paper Boi’s version of the struggle is just plain funny and entertaining. This show knows exactly how to present a real human conflict without bogging it down in familiar tropes or moroseness. I think it manages this through a balance. We see both the good and the bad of Alfred’s increasing fame.
He spends most of this episode trying to find a new weed dealer and running into trouble because of his local popularity. Newsflash: don’t post pictures online of you dealing weed to the famous rapper who just got off of house arrest. Also, don’t incessantly text said rapper like a stalker and give his number to your girlfriend.
When he isn’t trying to buy pot, Paper Boi is busy with a promotional opportunity at a local radio station. This should be a good thing. Unfortunately, it brings out Alfred’s self-sabotaging tendencies we saw throughout the first season, like when he got in the fight with black Justin Bieber at the charity basketball game.
Funnily enough for someone trying to make it big as a rapper, Alfred always comes across enormously uncomfortable with attention. I never feel like he actually wants to make it big. Or if he did, he had a different idea of how fame would change things. Rather than just improve the life he already had, he’s ending up in new circles he can’t stand while his old life vanishes. See the weed dealer. His discomfort and anger only increases when he sees other rappers, like the one he talks to at the station, who love this new crowd and the attention their careers bring.
Alfred’s rap career has displaced him and right now he’s trying to find solid footing again.
Meanwhile his cousin Earn has a pretty solid day. Where Paper Boi hates every second of the radio station, Earn feels more comfortable. He gets a substantial financial windfall from last season’s sale of his dog (I LOVE that this happened). He goes on a mall trip with Tracy that ends with him using a fraudulent gift card to go on a shopping spree. Sure, he gets left behind with an armful of stuff to carry, but it’s a minor setback.
Okay, good for him, but he’s not the headliner here. Tracy is. We meet him at the last moment of last week’s episode, and he was pretty funny. This week cemented him as a wonderful new character who reminds me almost of a more boisterous Darius. Like Darius, he’s quirky, but not in a socially awkward way. He also has this strangely in-tune connection to everything in the area and how it works, and somehow knew exactly the moment Earn used the fraudulent gift card. He looks and comes across gangster, but spends the episode talking about pedicures, his hairstyle, Bojack Horseman, and dressing nicely for a job interview.
(BTW, he’s right. You can’t feel too sorry for Bojack after what happens with Penny.)
Tracy was amazing. I can’t wait to see more of him. He’s yet another example of how Atlanta can both present the distinct black experience while also making its characters relatable and fun to anyone watching. I want to know how Alfred ends up friends with people like him and Darius.
A Journey in the Awkward White Experience
Perhaps I’m wrong about Alfred. Maybe the reason he’s so uncomfortable throughout this episode has nothing to do with internal issues and everything to do with the people he interacts with. Honestly, he had to spend time around people that would come across a bit strange to anyone, not just a semi-famous rapper from Atlanta. I suppose that’s the point, that the move from the familiar grounds of Paper Boi’s origin is presenting him with a world he doesn’t know, doesn’t understand, and that looks a hell of a lot whiter than he expected or wanted to be around.
The radio station is a hotbed of people Alfred plain doesn’t relate to or understand. It reminded me a lot of the TV interview last season. Fame has him and Earn running in circles with people who have distinctly different experiences than them and live in a different world. A world where a Paper Boi CD is useless because no one has a CD player. Where he has to watch white people tell him to record an ad spot as “cool” yet no one in the office reacts in the slightest when he performs a song.
He runs into the same thing with his second attempt at a new weed dealer. The dealer seems cool, until he’s forcing his number on Alfred, texting him nonstop the second he walks out the door, and sending him clips of his girlfriend singing acoustic versions of his songs. Yeah, it’s funny to see his visibly repulsed reaction to all this. It also feeds into the episode’s larger theme of discomfort.
What makes it worse is how they try when the white characters plain don’t know. You can feel Donald Glover really has something to say about white appropriation of hip hop culture (and black culture overall). Atlanta is full of these white guys in key jobs within the local hip hop scene that clearly make both Alfred and Earn uncomfortable with the way they act. They try too damn hard to “be black” and it clearly tunes the two of them out. It’s especially awful when they plainly just. Don’t. Get. It. Mainly by injecting their own culture into everything.
Yet the difference in their everyday realities could not stand out more when you actually look at the office, the people in it, and how they act around each other rather than Alfred or Earn. Well, more Alfred than Earn. Earn still puts off this vibe where the white people on the show feel comfortable doing and saying things around him that they wouldn’t around Alfred or Tracy. I’m sure Donald Glover is making a meta point about his own life, there, because people still expect him to be Community Donald Glover and see him as that.
To be clear, I don’t think Atlanta is pushing against the idea of white people participating in black culture. Rather the episode was just presenting the unfortunate realities of appropriation, and how the black community thinks of these situations. It’s a lesson that’s true for any race. You can feel how white people are often just as uncomfortable around Alfred or Darius as they are around white people. Both sides try to present a certain image so they appeal to the other side. Tracy does this while shopping for his job interview. He plain asks Earn how he should talk around white people to impress them.
Racially awkward settings are a thing most everyone has to deal with, whether they’re aware in the moment or not, and Atlanta always captures these moments in the best of fashion. Or worst, if such palpable awkwardness cringes you out.
Paper Boi may not be enjoying his life too much right now, but I’m enjoying the hell out of watching it. Atlanta may not always approach racial issues comfortably. There’s no doubt, though, that Glover and his team know how to do it right. They know how to spark an actual conversation without distracting from the entertainment factor.
Most of all, I’m just plain impressed by the characters Atlanta has built up. Alfred has become a fascinating character. He’s a constant dichotomy between the Paper Boi persona and a quieter, more reserved man not into the fame of his career. Along with the friends he makes, I just want to know more about him all the time. I want to see more of Tracy. I want him and Darius to go on at least one wacky adventure this season. If they’re put in strange situations with people they don’t know, even better.
Some people might cringe through episodes like this. Me? I love it. “Sportin’ Waves” was another solid hit to start off season 2. Here’s hoping Van gets an episode next week and that it’s as good as the first two were.