Sometimes you can get robbed without ever having anything in the first place. That’s what happens to Van (Zazie Beetz) when she goes with her girls to a blowout at Drake’s house—where Drake isn’t in attendance—that kicks her ass. This was supposed to be the night she rubbed Earn’s (Donald Glover) nose in her Insta-brag ft. the namesake of the Atlanta episode “Champagne Papi.” But then it all goes wrong.
It starts with fighting off hustling pizza boys and discussing the correct material for an IUD. Everything’s a shade sadder than it should be as the New Year rolls around. A whole season of looking out for number one—and even the fact that they have to spend a whole season looking out for number one—has left the celebrants bitter and bootied. That describes both what’s keeping the marble floors unscuffed and what everyone’s putting out there for appreciation, which is one of the many desperate absurdities the episode captures.
Most are tweaks on party tropes we’ve all either seen in real life or in our media. Someone gets too high and thinks they’re dying, someone tries to be someone else’s friend without reciprocation, someone runs off and gets separated from the pack. If you were at a party with me in college, all three could’ve been the same person—and yes, I gave in and drove them to the hospital. The ladies accompanying Van are not as tolerant. A call-out from a black woman tired of white women’s whole situation is hilarious, awkward, and kicks community theater while it’s down because nobody has time for that except for people who can afford it. It’s writer Ibra Ake’s first, beautiful, painful, platinum, barbed-wirey episode for the series, and director Amy Seimetz’s second after a the heartbreaking “Helen” earlier this season.
Seimetz and Beetz hit the same emotional specificity as in their first collaboration (who hasn’t hidden in a bathroom to get away from someone at a party?), constructing these particular feelings through shots, the set, and Beetz’s performance. Van becomes trapped and isolated, cautious yet mischievously curious—all through the act of moving through the mansion and how she reacts to it. Some of the funniest stuff in the episode is Van doing the most extra version of rifling through a date’s medicine cabinet. That and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield, sporting the coolest blazer I’ve ever seen) convincing Van’s stoned friend that she’s a Sim. And how does everyone know one of Drake’s random employees?
Nevertheless, his pool-bound scene is incredible to look at. The water, the light, the darkness. It’s all so ethereal that we can almost believe Darius’ claim that a higher intelligence is controlling us. At least, for Atlanta, Seimetz is controlling it. She constructs some gorgeous shots that watch people watching other people—because yes, this is what parties are—on top of luxuriating in the architecture. So, as far as meaningless simulations go, this one is pretty good.
Even if its quality doesn’t necessarily fill Van with hope for the future, at least its acknowledged emptiness helps her recognize that her own depression isn’t unnatural. Drake’s putting on a front. All the Instagram thirsters are putting on a front. This show is putting on a front, and these actors are putting on a front. There are times when authenticity seems important, especially to someone like Alfred, but the fakeness has been mounting this season to levels where it’s impossible to ignore. So who cares if Drake isn’t even at his own New Year’s Eve party? At the end of the night you’re gonna be walking home with the rest of the losers on your own social rung, so you might as well take the revelations where you can. And in that, there may be meaning. Even a terrible party can be worth something.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.