We’re nearly halfway into the first season of Atlanta, and on the surface, it doesn’t seem like much has happened. The backdrop has changed as Earn (Donald Glover) has gone into a partnership with his cousin and rising viral rapper, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Bryan Tyree Henry), but he’s still just barely scraping by, worrying about overdrawing his bank account with every purchase and sleeping on Miles’ couch after pissing off Vanessa (Zazie Beetz). This isn’t the glamour that Earn imagined with the hip-hop lifestyle.
But the show has been less about physical growth, than it has been an opportunity to explore the intersections between authenticity and ego through the perspective of two men with different priorities. Episode four, “The Streisand Effect,” is all about facing Earn and Miles with concrete representations of these conflicts, whether it’s Miles grappling with his own place in hip-hop, or Earn realizing that it takes more than ambition to succeed. Here are five of the most memorable moments from the episode.
One of the ongoing themes of this season has been Miles’ discomfort with his growing public profile. We’ve seen that play out in humorous and surreal fashion in scenes where he’s seen kids pretending to re-enact the shooting of the first episode, or in encounters with overly intense restaurant employees who pin him as the spiritual successor to Tupac.
But this is the first episode where Miles feels like he needs to confront other people’s perceptions of him. Enter Zan (Freddie Kuguru), a loud and cocky viral parasite, who’s trying to piggyback off Miles’ fame, whether that means trying to befriend Miles or trash him online. In the opening scene of the episode, Zan doesn’t just barge into a conversation between Earn and Miles (on a hoverboard no less), he’s propositioned a business partnership after thirty seconds.
For Zan, there’s nothing that can’t be commodified into a meme, whether it’s a hat with a sticker that says #zansexual, or posting vine videos on Instagram as Zanlivesmatters. This is a character who lives on the popularity of the moment. And as much as Miles just wants this doofus out of his life, he’s not so easily ignored.
Miles grows increasingly angry when Zan starts flaming him online. It starts with a confusing blanket statement online: “Paper Boi, who getting a lot of hype in the streets for getting involved in a murder, is how you say, not as talented as people think.” Earn and Darius tell him to leave it alone, but he’s responding within seconds. He is not about to let this random dude ruin his reputation.
The best and worst thing about Zan is you almost certainly know someone like him. He’s a person who weaponizes his online presence every second of every day—and he’s that online persona that you can’t help but hate-read. Miles can’t help wasting the early part of the day creeping on Zan’s Instagram feed and his corny ploys for attention. And that’s before Zan starts posting non-stop vines about hating Paper Boi’s music.
While playing pool, one of Miles’ friends says, “It’s just the internet, it don’t matter,” to placate him. But this is about more than music to him. This is about pride and making a stand—or at least that’s what he thinks this is about. As we’ve seen, Miles is not particularly stoked about being raised as the avatar of real hip-hop. His bonafides as a criminal are less about being ruthless than not wanting to be a doorstop. And when that’s combined with instant fame, it all gets just a little more confusing when people on the internet start attacking you.
The B story of the episode is way less thematically important, but it gives the show a great opportunity to team up Earn and Darius (Keith Stanfield), who’s been stealing this show since episode one with his bizarre persona. Rest assured, he still has plenty of unspoken conspiracy theories and weirdly existential nuggets.
In this episode, he talks about the myth of Genghis Khan influencing the genetic height of Chinese people, and his belief that AIDS was invented to keep Wilt Chamberlain from beating Steve McQueen’s sex record. He, of course, delivers both these beliefs with the utmost sincerity.
The general plot of this secondary story is a classical bit of escalation, as Earn goes to sell his phone at the pawn shop for some badly needed quick cash—especially after the dinner disaster of the last episode. Darius has other ideas though, and suggests swapping the phone for a samurai sword that’s on the shelf. He has plans for making money that will take them all over Atlanta from what could either be an artist collective, or underground crime syndicate (You never know when they’re needle dropping Keith Ape), to a Cane Corso breeder (More on that later).
Miles finally has a stroke of luck with his obsession when he finds out that Zan works as a delivery boy at a local pizzeria. He goes to talk some sense into him, but he’s placed into a situation he never expected, as he rides along with Zan and a young boy in the backseat to a delivery.
It turns out that Zan is far more self-aware of his own provocations. “You’re exploiting your situation to make rap, and I’m exploiting you exploiting that,” he says, after Miles goes into a heartfelt monologue about feeling trapped into rapping and his fear of losing his livelihood. These two men talking about their goal is the most literal visual symbol that the show has used in encapsulating the thesis. These are two people who are coming at the same goal from totally different perspectives.
One views it as a way of life, while the other is viewing it as a way to pay the bills. The show plays it off as a joke as the episode reveals that the boy in the backseat is actually Zan’s very foul-mouthed business partner, but this seems like one of the biggest moments of the season thus far.
It’s fair to say that Earn fully expects to get his money at the end of his adventure with Darius. He needed that money today. But the hypocrisy of his statement at the end of the episode is found in the fact that all of his moves in the last few episodes have been about the long game. He’s trying to make money quickly, but he’s been going about it in the most unusual ways, whether it’s getting into Miles good graces by bribing a radio station boss or ending up in prison for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He may finally have some people who he can count on, but that can only take him so far. He needs another way.
Atlanta is a show whose identity is deeply rooted in its musical choices. Here are all the songs I could identify in episode four:
Xavier Wulf, “Philosopher’s Throne”
Beach House, Silver Soul”
Keith Ape, “It G Ma”
Michael Kiwanuka, “Home Again”
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.”