Even at this early stage in the show, it’s fair to say that Atlanta is strongest when it’s illustrating the divide between how an individual defines their success, and how those around them understand (or misunderstand) their actions. The show has found a fluid comedic groove with the tension between the deadpan performances and absurd scenarios, but the key to its dramatic heft has been keeping the characters grounded and emotionally engaged with the consequences of their ambitions.
As last week showed us with Zan’s character, that becomes far more difficult when you expand the world and try to define larger forces like the internet. That broadness returns with episode five, “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” a decent installment that nonetheless falls back on some short-sighted conclusions. Here are two ways in which the episode works, and three reasons why it doesn’t quite pull it off.
The A-story of this episode is all about Miles being part of an Atlanta Youth Outreach charity basketball game, and it offers an excellent opportunity to showcase Miles’ ongoing attempts to negotiate his own public persona. It doesn’t matter how smooth or friendly he is, he’s still been placed into a box. And he discovers as much when he approaches Valencia Joyner (Paloma Guzmán), a local reporter, whose only familiarity with Miles is “the guy who shot someone.”
“You got me all wrong, i’m a gentleman first, and a gangster second,” he says confidently to a completely disinterested reporter. Her audience isn’t concerned with someone whose persona is based on rap, let alone, one rooted in violence. He’s just another rapper who she’s judged in the first five seconds of meeting him.
I didn’t get to mention Bryan Tyree Henry’s performance much last week, but he completely elevates these scenes. Henry has great comic timing—his first failed delivery of “You should go ahead and interview me…” to Valencia is so perfect. But it’s the way that his facial features perfectly communicate his internal tug-of-war between confidence and resignation that really makes these scenes pop.
He knows that nothing he can say is probably going to change minds, but he still tries every time. She’s far more interested in Justin Bieber (Austin Crute), an alternate reality version of the ubiquitous pop star who’s been transposed onto a black R&B star, and is just as obnoxious.
Atlanta has been vague about Earn’s day-to-day role in managing Paper Boi’s life. That partly seems to be intentional, but the B-story directly addresses that question as Earn is mistaken for an agent by a junket veteran, Janice (Jane Adams). Janice insists she knows Earn, calling him Alonso, and whisking him into the luxuries of the press suite. This is a comfort that we’ve never seen with Earn. So much of his time on the series has been about struggling, or at least a form of struggle, where there’s also no real physical consequences. But here, he’s in a den of opportunities, and able to sell himself at every turn.
“What is your client interested in doing?” a suited up agent asks earnestly during small talk. “My client’s interested in anything that pays money,” Earn pushes out, trying not to seem too desperate. This is Earn in his element. His low-key anxiety is mistaken for confidence, and he’s happily playing into their hands.
The dual conflicts of this episode involve Miles, and Justin, and Earn and Janice. Both are played for laughs, but they both leave a bad taste. The Miles and Justin fight is pretty much expected, but it’s still pretty funny to see Henry tackle Crute in mid-air, and get into a full-on floor tantrum. All these scenes are fine, if only for Jaleel White’s delivery of “He’s Just Trying To Figure It Out” while Bieber is urinating in a corner.
The Earn and Janice conflict is another story about confusion with the way of the world. After a successful day talking to other agents, Janice starts reaming Earn, believing that he’s Alonso, a person who betrayed her years earlier. Adams’ monologue is terrifying in its vividness, as she tells Earn that he’s going to die homeless and that she’s going to ruin his life.
But the problem with both of these storylines is that they both end in a place of unnecessary cynicism (more on this later) about these characters’ future with the media.
The C-plot of this episode, Darius going to the shooting range, is a masterful piece of visual misdirection that ends with an unfortunate bit of baked-in racism. Expertly interspersed through the episode, it first cuts to Darius changing clothes before he sits on the bed listening thoughtfully to the dogs barking in his neighborhood. On my first watch, I completely missed this detail, but the camera carefully connects the sound of the dogs and an insert shot of the poster holder.
From there, it’s equally controlled as the camera tracks along each shooter in the shooting range and their respective targets (My favorite has to be the “dad”). And then slowly, the joke is revealed as the camera obscures what was in the poster holder until the target mechanism activates and a paper dog target is revealed. He gleefully unloads two clips into the target in a cathartic fit, but the other shooters are horrified.
What follows is a pretty smart dumb conversation about why they’re allowed to shoot a human target, but he’s not allowed to shoot a dog—“The dogs in my neighborhood are crazy. They bite babies.” But then there’s this edge into racism, as two other men of vague Eastern European descent come over to defend Darius and then start talking about an oncoming revolution. It’s a weird scene, and Stanfield plays it perfectly—but like the rest of the episode, there’s a glibness here that feels out of place.
In the context of almost any other show, I would just view this as a funny episode that took aim at some easy targets. The problem is that as much as Atlanta is about watching Earn, Miles and Darius get into goofy situations, there’s an undercurrent of celebrity commentary. Miles may still be only a blip on the radar, but this show is about his emergence into a culture that doesn’t know what to do with him.
That’s a great premise for a show, and one that’s eventually going to require its characters to engage with influences like the media as more than simply a punchline. This is a single episode, but its cynicism is frustratingly reductive, whether that comes through Valencia Joyner, a news reporter who only wants to deal with star power, a fawning press conference, or Earn’s experience dealing with petty agents.
These characters are a drop in the ocean—the local press at a Charity Basketball Game—but it’s enough of a yellow flag to wonder how Atlanta is going to deal with larger, more complicated issues. This isn’t an episode that offers up open-ended questions about the show’s views on the media. It’s an outsized parody that’s treated with the same ironic nonchalance of any other episode.
Music from “Nobody Beats the Biebs”:
Billy Paul, “Am I Black Enough For You?”
Nappy Roots, “Feelin’ Like I’m On”
Sweatbeatz, “Put It In My Face”
Austin Crute, “Just Forget About It”
Michael Snydel is a Chicago-based writer who has somehow tricked other people into reading his thoughts on the things he loves. His interests include intimate psychological thrillers, teen soaps and Krautrock. He writes regularly for Paste Magazine, is a co-host of The Film Stage Show, and has had by-lines at The Film Stage, Vague Visages, and The Dissolve. You can follow him on Twitter.”