FX screenshot

Atlanta has thus far been able to paint a lush picture of black life for television, a portrait that includes the various shades of black masculinity and how it can sometimes feel pigeon-holed to certain stock archetypes, essentially robbing black men of their humanity. The show through use of stunning cinematography, stellar scripts and sharp tonal shifts has created a world where the life of a black man can be examined and celebrated. Atlanta has done a lesser job so far of painting this portrait for black women.  Earn’s on again- off again girlfriend, Vanessa, has played the sideline the past few episodes and has been under-utilized for the better part of the series' first season. Tonight’s episode, “Value”, places the spotlight on her character and what she is willing to do to keep her life and the life of her daughter intact.

What does it mean to have value as a black woman in America? Is it strictly something that can be determined from a monetary perspective? Maybe how attractive we are in comparison to one another? These are certainly identifiable if not rudimentary ways for us to determine the value of one human. The larger society has a problem with how we value women even beyond the intersection of race and gender. Are we to deduce that the value of any and every black woman lies between what’s between our legs like white Feminism has been railing against for decades? If Instagram is to be believed (and it isn’t), that’s where our value lies. Still, maybe the value of a black woman is solely determinant on how many plates she’s fixed her man in her lifetime, or if she even has a man. Who determines our value? An episode centered-around Van reconnecting with an old friend answers that question.

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From her decision to order a bottle of wine, to her meal choice, to her hair stylist Fernando, Van’s longtime friend Jayde, who just dropped back in town, finds new and impressive ways to shade her friend. She flaunts her affluence in homegirl’s face, questioning her value, her allegiance to Earn, forcing a semi-public confrontation between the two before setting Van up with the Love and Hip Hop equivalent of Waldo Geraldo Faldo, an “L” Van is used to taking for her girl.  I wondered last week if Atlanta would stumble with a black woman-centered episode. Did the writers room contain enough voices from powerful woke black women to create just the same amount of complexity to the female characters as to the male?  It turns out I shouldn’t have been that worried. The confrontation between Van and Jayde was messy as hell but it’s played very real for the audience. I can recall having similar conversations with friends; people I consider to be sisters to me. Friendships are complicated.  Sometimes they can be very one-sided and you never know which side you can end up on in any moment. This is especially true when lives and careers take divergent trajectories.  When one is a mother and the other is single. The choices we make which bond us or break us. It can be hard to maintain friendliness when pride and the gender-rules that say women should always be in competition with each other get in the way.

“Women need to be valuable. Black women have to be valuable. “

In a recent article over at the AV Club, 2 Dope Queens podcaster Phoebe Robinson discusses a majority culture that is not interested in “validating women of color” which is true when you realize our favorite movies and T.V. shows that deal with celebrating black womanhood came out at least a decade ago. It was so refreshing to see two black women portrayed as complicated but reasonable. Nobody splashed a drink in anybody’s face either which is sort-of cool.  As if we were just regular people who make choices like everybody else, amirite? Van and Jayde butt heads but at the end of the day, they family. The ladies make peace over a joint in Jayde’s car and Atlanta allows us to really see Van for the first time. She has a very human moment of self-doubt when she compares her life to her friend but she also recognizes an emptiness inside of Jayde, despite her class upgrade, who doesn’t seem as satisfied by her Cardi B-Lite lifestyle as she proclaims to be. Jayde’s character represents a version of the constant struggle black women find themselves in to succeed in a society where we are the most educated but least respected. Again, choices. Van knows that Jayde is right to make her question her value but she knows who she is and the worth in her struggle (her daughter).

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“But weed is for people that aren’t going anywhere, though.”

Van is sent crashing back to reality the next morning when she is reminded that she has an office-wide mandatory drug test that same day. She may be slightly jealous (if also slightly hypocritical) when she sees a picture of another woman in Earn’s phone but she doesn’t feel a level of intimacy with him anymore that would allow her to honestly ask him for help. Instead she asks for Paper Boi’s number so she can blow his spot up a few times and grill him on how to pass a tox screen after Jayde proves no help. Al says he’ll work on it but Van is the kind of woman to take matters into her own hands instead of waiting on some man to do it. She fails spectacularly. Ethical implications of distilling your own daughter’s urine to pass a drug screen aside, I was rooting for Van to get away with it. The show pulls a wonderful bait and switch by having it be the woman who gets hemmed up in life due to our biased marijuana laws. I don’t think I’d have the ingenuity to perform the alchemy Van performs when she puts on those rubber gloves. As we watch her strut into her elementary school job, glorious 4A crown teased to the gods, musical score swelling through our speakers, we’re meant to cheer for her. I don’t know what that says about me but  I cringed more at the Administrative Bish firing her then immediately asking if she was ,”all right” than I did at that balloon exploding in Van’s face. Well, almost. It was a pretty jarring way of revealing the sometimes ugliness and desperation of poverty. Plus, it was all for naught as Van got fired anyway.

Donald Glover takes director credits for this episode from music video–maker-turned- FX golden ticket, Hiro Murai, delivering on an impressive script that examines how black women are valued in society and how we value ourselves and each other. Men are seen primarily from the periphery with Glover’s Earn and Brian Tyree Henry’s Paper Boi playing bit parts this episode. Darrius is currently upstairs with Judy Winslow.

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While the story focus shifts temporarily, it is clear Glover and Murai have a symbiotic vision toward where the Universe of Atlanta is headed.  Both men are skilled at capturing the beauty in the mundane such as the day to day goings of an elementary school faculty while crafting surreal set pieces around normal black lives. The image of the almost aberrational black boy with the white face strikes the perfect level of incongruity and WTF did I just watch-ism that I was unable to look away.  Tobias in white-face was such a startling yet hilarious cut away (and cleverly the second use of “white-face” in the series) that I almost wish the writers had decided to cut his reappearance in Van’s classroom at the end as it played a bit too much like your standard sitcom.

But Atlanta gets the tone right more often than not and this is largely by Glover’s design. In an interview with MTV, Murai confirms that Glover’s persistence and star power allows both men the creative control with the network suits to go places “Black T.V.” has never gone before.  They’ve masterfully crafted an element where we really have no way of telling where this show will go next and for the meantime, I’m happy to go along for the ride.

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.