FX screenshot

Atlanta hasn’t been afraid to tackle race in America head-on, specifically how black men are forced to walk the delicate line between being individuals and being a statistic in a country that assumes they have already lost this rigged game. Atlanta doesn’t just tackle the capital “R” racism, however. It delves into the murky waters of microaggressions that are all too familiar to us in our daily lives. That it is able to tackle both with such aplomb and humor is again a testament to Donald Glover’s writing staff and a well-deserved slap in the face to the Matt Damons of the world who don’t see why representation in front of and behind the camera are imperative.

“My client’s interested in anything that makes money.”

Not everybody in life gets to be the star of the show. Some of us have to be the other guys.  The character actors. The Bokeem Woodbines. The Paperbois. I’m embarrassed to admit it took me almost five full episodes to realize what it was about Paperboi that I was so drawn to. Sure, Brian Tyree Henry has been putting in that work, hitting it out of the ballpark in not just this role but his supporting role on the just-wrapped HBO hit series Vice Principals, but there’s a familiarity to Henry’s Paperboi that is often even more relatable than Earnest Marks. Paperboi is ordinary as hell. Yes, he sells drugs and he’s a semi-famous rapper known for shooting a guy but there is a level of Generation Y struggle that is captured so brilliantly here. Just like many of us, watching as millennials seem to snap up all the opportunities we thought were still ear-marked for us, Paperboi is the guy putting one foot in front of the other every day, hoping he finally makes the come up.

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Atlanta further delves into the surrealism of the entertainment industry in the tight “Nobody Beats the Biebs” and farms laughter from every angle. Earn, Paperboi and Darrius are isolated from each other for the better part of the episode but they each deal with the recurring theme of the psychological limitations of white supremacy in different ways. Earn uses it to his favor, Darrius is perplexed by it and Paperboi…? Paperboi  is incredulous that he must play by the rules of this Universe. Also, did I mention in this Universe that Justin Bieber is a little Damon Wayans –looking ass nigga? I threw my house shoe across the room in respect like my  Grand’Mere used to do when I realized Black Bieber (BB) wasn’t some rap pseudonym and that Atlanta fully intended to play this whole thing straight. Black Bieber is not any “harder” than real life Bieber and he’s just as annoying. Atlanta treads just the right balance of Voltaire-level absurdity with the very real fact that America is willing to overlook just about anything from a person as long as said person just so happens to be a heteronormative, white male between the ages of 18 and infinity. {cough~ Donald Trump~ cough} Somewhere I’m sure the point of and nuance of newcomer Austin Crute’s performance was lost on the real-life Bieber.

However impenetrable it seems for those rules to be broken, a new generation of black folk has been able to bend them as far as they can go. It’s not just the Jaden and Willow Smiths of the world living carefree. Now, your neighbor’s son has a septum piercing, a Freddie Brooks tattoo and a football scholarship and doesn’t care how you judge any of those things. What should be seen as a step in the right direction is often met with seething animosity from Gen X and even those of us in Gen Y. Why should millennials feel carefree enough in their blackness to Cosplay or make Metal music or market their own brand of home-brewed kimchi when we had it so hard just trying to be ourselves back in the day? The reality is that we are just hating, of course, but it can seem like an entire generation of kids are coming up without an appreciation for any of the effort we put in just trying to lay the groundwork. Nowadays, the world is just one big AfroPunk festival. Paperboi is experiencing this firsthand and we follow him from the step and repeat to his failed attempt at flirting with a woman reporter to his elegantly -crafted and hilariously-scripted breakdown on the basketball court against BB.

“Wipe that sharecropper smile off your face.”

Meanwhile, at the same event, Earn gets mistaken for some other black guy named Alonzo by a chain-smoking Dwight lady agent and uses her own casual racism to get into an industry-exclusive event. He does some critical networking and the show sets up a potential love interest that I am sure is going to go over suuuuper well with Van back home. Elsewhere, Darrius has taken the day off to go hang out down at the shooting range. His serenity is short-lived when two stereotypically-drawn rednecks come over to admonish him for his chosen target. You see, Darrius has chosen a print out of a dog as his target practice and Darryl and his other brother Darryl are livid. “You can’t shoot at a dog!” they bark. Darrius fails to see the infraction here seeing as how they are currently shooting at human targets, some of which are racially categorized.  Atlanta allocates time to speak on the hypocrisy of some white folk’s love for animals over their fellow man{cough~Mike Vick ~cough} A Muslim stranger jumps to the defense of Darrius but soon takes things several steps too far, crying out about the blood of infidels flowing. Darrius can’t get on board with all that. He just wanted to come down to the shooting range and blow off some steam. I don’t know how I feel about the punchline there being Islamophobia. I trust that the writers can remain clever satirist without falling for the trap of punching down (punching sideways?)

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“Is it too late to get your hairline done?”

I’m not trying to say Paperboi was out there looking like all of our uncles at the cookout pickup game this past summer but he was totally out there looking like all of our uncles at the cookout pickup game this past summer. Black Bieber is not above trading insults with Paperboi in between hamming it up for the fans and their lightning-fast devolution into an actual schoolyard fight is some of the funniest stuff I’ve seen on T.V. this year. As much as they claim to hate each other, Paperboi and BB are actually cut from the same corny nigga, U.S.A. Polo Assn. cloth. I wouldn’t even call their scuffle a fight. Screams of “I hate you!” and open handed mugs to the face, do not a fight make. I like this pairing a lot and here’s hoping we get to see more of Black Bieber this season if only for Crute’s pitch-perfect  line reading of the episode (“Nigger!!!”)  alone.

Black Bieber has a hotter career to maintain so he stages a press conference after the fight that wasn’t really a fight to apologize to his fans, reiterate that he is a good Christian soldier and to premier his new single as I did a literal spit take from my couch at home. Let me just say, I am super on board with black folk trolling white people in this way. And for any white folk out there offended that the Biebs is being reimagined as a black kid, just take a second to be reminded of the reimagining of little Michael Jackson as little Donnie Osmond. If black people have to sit through a debate where a narcissistic, racist sociopath covered in Hawaiian Tropic and cocaine residue imagines he can solve police brutality through expanded (and highly unconstitutional) Stop and Frisk programs, white viewers can sit through a brilliant inversion of black versus white male expectations via some Damon Wayans looking nigga with a lazy dab.

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Episode 5 has some vexing continuity issues.  I can believe that Earn was able to secure this charity event for his client that fast but are we just abandoning the storyline from a few episodes back where Paperboi is legit scared for his life? I’ll be looking to see how Atlanta closes its loose ends and ties these stories together over the course of the next five episodes. I anticipate that Glover and his team will continue to imbue Atlanta with the same level of absurd fun that scenes like this episode’s ending did so effortlessly. It is here that the show is able to elevate the genre and speak to the often absurdities that come with being black in America.

What did you think about Episode 5? Have you ever met an Uncle Ruckus Jr. like the guy that interrupted Paperboi when he was talking to the reporter? Do those guys still exist?

Until next time…

Jordan Kauwling is an early thirties Philadelphian but she tells everyone she's in her late thirties because she doesn't understand how math works. When she's not busy writing, singing, eating all the falafel or unsuccessfully finishing another craft project you can catch her talking junk on Twitter.