The season finale of Atlanta begins the same way as the pilot, and with a few exceptions, the same way as nearly every episode this season—with Earn waking up groggily from a fitful sleep. Atlanta is a show that’s invested in visual symmetry and callbacks, and it’s no doubt intentional that “The Jacket” feels so much like a bookend to the pilot. But it also feels retroactively significant, a key to understanding a show filled with surrealism where the main character’s only response can be reaction.
Earn isn’t usually very happy, and he often seems to be in a state of perpetual exhaustion. For a few moments at the end of “The Jacket,” though, that fogginess recedes, and Earn can just sit still. It’s a temporary moment of contentment, one that epitomizes the show’s disinterest in conventional hero trajectories.
As a writer, there’s a tendency to want to slot shows into comfortable readings, but even as Atlanta flirted with aspects of fame, it’s not really a power fantasy. And while it embraces exaggerated views of the media, and the engorged perceptions of ordinary people thrust into the spotlight, it’s not a satire. If anything, the show is a refutation of those expectations, in which even the most dramatic scenarios—a surprise SWAT sting—are just things that happen. No matter how strange things become, these are still just ordinary people living their lives. Here are five ways “The Jacket” plays with our expectations for a season finale.
Just as “Juneteenth” began with Earn waking up in a foreign location, “The Jacket” opens with him in a house he doesn’t recognize, as a very angry man starts ranting about the damage caused in the course of the previous night’s party. The man can’t stop repeating different ways to say that he’s disappointed, but Earn is concerned with only one thing—his jacket. It’s a simple concept for an episode, but one that sets up an immediate motivation for Earn, as the audience at once wonders about the significance of the jacket and where this journey will take him.
It’s a plot that’s right in line with the rest of the season, and one that’s handled with similar ironic detachment. Earn moseys over to a strip club and encounters a characteristically apathetic bouncer, who refuses to look for Earn’s jacket despite his pleading. The best the bouncer can do is feign a serious search by walking in the door for five seconds and then coming out. Earn finally gives up, and agrees to give the guy a ten, before striking up a conversation inside with a waitress who’s unable to help even after asking twenty questions about the physical description of the dancer who was grinding up on Earn.
Out in the light of day, Earn believes he has another revelation as he pulls out his phone and digs into Alfred’s extensive Snapchats from the night, remembering that they took an Uber to get to the strip club. There’s a whole bunch of great individual character moments in the Snapchats, like Earn rapping “Ride With Me” word for word and returning to his old complaints about shots, but leave it to Darius to steal the scene by expressing his belief that cameras can steal your soul.
Soon, as the episode turns to the slow, deliberate conversation between Earn and Alfred and Darius, who are soaking up the sun on their signature outside couch, the camera lays back and observes the action with a total lack of urgency. They’re reminiscing about the night, and the trashcan they set on fire, until Earn starts criticizing Alfred’s choices. The last few episodes have given the impression that Earn has become best friends with Alfred and Darius, and they are all friends, but there are still ideological divides to here to navigate. Earn can’t stop being serious, and Alfred and Darius can’t stop messing around. They’re tired of the lectures, and while they may be family, Alfred is far from hiding his annoyance when Earn is always asking for something. It’s a subtle way to show this relationship, even as the conversation itself is about nothing.
They all pile in the car and drive to get Earn’s jacket, but nothing is ever simple in the world of Atlanta. What ensues is a scene that’s totally in line with the rest of the season, as their simple rendezvous becomes ground zero for a covert stakeout by authorities. It turns out that Fidel, their Uber driver from the previous night, is wanted on some pretty hefty drug and weapons charges.
It’s a bizarre moment as their Uber driver is blotted out in a blur of bullets on his own lawn as he runs out the door, fleeing past a phalanx of vans. The guys are horrified at the extent of the violence. “Y’all really need all them bullets, man?” Alfred says, before the authorities approach the dead body and a group of family members come out the door. And it’s only stranger that Earn needs to ask somebody to check a dead man’s pockets for a mystery item.
Making their way back home, Earn is still in a desultory mood, while Darius and Alfred try to cheer him up. It’s still unclear what’s been lost, but the day is looking up as Alfred passes over a wad of cash. It’s Earn’s piece of the pie, something he’d seemingly forgotten about in the course of living his life. It’s a sweet moment, even as it’s undercut by Darius’ reveal that he ate two blunts just before being searched by the police. Alfred has always cared about his cousin, but he can only show that vulnerability for a moment—and then he’s making fun of Earn again for his daddy time.
And just like that, they’re a happy family: Earn makes dinner for Vanessa and Lottie, and snuggles Van while they’re watching TV. There’s a knock at the door, and who is it but Justin, the next-door neighbor and co-worker from the first episode. It turns out he had Earn’s keys the whole time. And while it may be corny that “The Jacket” focuses on a symbol of home—concluding the first season of a series that’s all about finding your place—it’s never what the episode was really about. It’s yet another zig in a show that keeps convincing you to expect a zag.
But that’s before one last detour, as Earn hands Vanessa the wad of cash rolled up with the rubber band. Her first response isn’t excitement, but worry. “Are you selling?” she asks incredulously, as Earn keeps a straight face for as long as possible. When he lets it go, he jokes about how bad he’d be at dealing. “You’re a good daddy,” Vanessa says.
But that’s not the end.
There are about five points in “The Jacket” where other shows would have comfortably ended the episode, and the season: There’s the potential foreshadowing of the scene in which Paper Boi is invited to go on tour with the heretofore unknown Senator K; there’s the idyllic sight of Earn in Vanessa’s kitchen, scooping out dinner on Lottie’s plate, perhaps the closest to home he’s been all season; there’s the moment Vanessa calls him a “good daddy,” a final karmic victory. Maybe it should be his, “I’ll call you tomorrow,” as if he and Vanessa could be in high school or college, with their whole life left ahead of them.
But the final sequence of “The Jacket” is far more honest. After a season of long nights and harsher days during which Earn struggled for his own self-worth, he journeys through the desolate night to Outkast’s ethereal classic, “Elevators (Me & You)”—before the track cuts out for the sound of clanging keys and back again a few seconds later. All season long, Earn’s learned the hollowness of stardom, and his final roost is the modesty of a storage locker. The last image is a reversal of the tragic lives of the powerful that epitomize “peak TV,” as Earn looks with befuddlement and contentment at his remaining dollars, two crumpled Benjamins lodged in the bottom of his shoe. This isn’t the normal arc of fame or a pivotal chapter of some grand success story. Earn’s a narcissist, but his sacrifices aren’t for his ego. This is the only kind of victory he wanted.
“Flippin All Night,” ILoveMakonnen
“Ride Wit Me,” Nelly
“What’s Luv,” Ja Rule, Ashanti, Fat Joe
“Other Side of the Game,” Erykah Badu
“Elevators (Me & You),” Outkast
Michael Snydel is a Chicago-based film and TV critic who has somehow tricked other people into reading his thoughts on the things he loves for years. 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, Ebert Voices, Movie Mezzanine, and Vague Visages. You can follow him on Twitter at @Snydel.