Brian Tyree Henry, Khris Davis, Lakeith Stanfield, and Donald Glover
Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

Nine episodes into Atlanta Robbin’ Season, each of the four central characters has lived their own surreal horror movie. In “Helen,” Earn was stalked by the Schnappviecher but ultimately succumbed to his fear of commitment. Darius witnessed the bloody final confrontation between Teddy Perkins and his brother after narrowly escaping the scheme to frame him as the culprit. Alfred endured a harrowing life-or-death ordeal in “Woods,” and in “Champagne Papi,” as Van self-tours Drake’s massive Atlanta crash pad, danger seems to lurk around every dark corner at what’s supposed to be a New Year’s Eve party. “North of the Border” is one of the few Robbin’ Season episodes that doesn’t take direct cues from the horror genre, and yet it represents Earn’s most dreaded nightmare.

Earn would probably sooner split a basket of lemon-pepper wings with the Schnappviecher than have his hip hop dreams ripped away from him. But that’s just what happens at the end of “Woods,” once it transitions from a relatively light-hearted romp into a serious conversation between Al and Earn about the future of their business relationship. The come-to-Jesus moment comes as a surprise to Earn, but is less of a shock to the audience, as we’ve seen conspicuous hints about Alfred’s unhappiness about his situation, but Al has never communicated his frustration until now. It’s a surprisingly painful conversation to watch. Granted, Earn’s not great at his job even on his best day and deserves some gentle correction at the very least, but Earn’s plan to piggyback onto his cousin’s success is the purest example of character motivation Atlanta has ever provided. It’s always impossible to guess what this show has in store, but Atlanta will become especially abstract if Alfred does wind up dissolving its central relationship.

What makes this series of events so heartbreaking from Earn’s perspective is that he gets the news that he’s doing a terrible job as he’s in the midst of what passes for a solid effort from him. Earn has arranged for Al to play a show in Statesboro, Georgia, best known as the home of Georgia Southern University. Al is no longer amenable to these kind of dues-paying engagements, hence his inability to put on a brave face for the streaming service performance. (Though the gig is apparently not too small potatoes for Clarke County, who’s in full force with his fancy pants manager.) But Earn is absolutely right about Paper Boi needing to take gigs like this one to maintain his profile and continue growing his fan base. There’s even the promise of another gig that could earn them 60 large if they play their cards right.

But aside from providing the general guidance that playing shows is good and not playing them is bad, Earn does his typically underwhelming job with the logistics. Rather than book hotel rooms (or getting the promoter to do it for them), Earn instead arranges for them to crash with a pretty student who just so happens to be a Paper Boi superfan. She’s also unhinged from reality, enough that she thinks telling Alfred she had a cannibalistic sex dream about him passes for pillow talk. My impression is that Earn is mostly into the gig so he has an excuse to rap to college girls, and he plays on Alfred’s vanity to sell the idea of the show. Whatever Earn’s true motivations, Alfred is right to be suspicious of them, as well as Earn’s qualifications and general suitability for the job.

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Earn hasn’t been nearly as self-critical as he should be, so as their night is going to shit, he sincerely believes that his only misstep is not pushing back harder against Tracy’s insistence on tagging along. As shambolic a manager as Earn can be, the events of “Border” don’t seem especially aggravating. Sure, the sleeping arrangements are less than ideal, and the Pajama Jam quickly goes left when the coed whose advances Alfred spurned chucks a drink at him. Tracy, Paper Boi’s self-appointed, underqualified bodyguard, confronts and ultimately assaults the wrong woman, they have to make a hasty exit without Al’s weed. The night grows ever weirder when they wind up at a frat house full of hip hop fans who happen to be hazing new pledges at the moment. If any activity is going to create unit cohesion between the new pledge class, surely dancing butt naked to D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” will do the trick.

Brian Tyree Henry and Donald Glover
Screenshot: FX

The point is, as odd and irksome as the whole night is, it’s also comfortably within the realm of crazy tour stories. Musicians love stories about this or that crazy show they played, and whatever Earn’s broader shortcomings, he’s provided Alfred plenty of fun anecdotes to tell in his old age. In fact, Earn and Al are having a laugh about the whole ordeal, but the tone changes quickly when Al explains that Earn, not Tracy, is the problem. This is the first episode in a while to be told from Earn’s perspective, so it was easy to miss Al’s interpretation of the events. But once Al starts running down his version of how they wound up in their current predicament, it makes perfect sense. Al’s complaints would be valid even if this was the first time Earn had let him down, but considering Earn’s track record, the Statesboro debacle is enough reason to put Earn on notice.

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“Border” delves into full-blown cringe comedy when the gang returns to their temporary quarters to find all their stuff strewn about in front of the locked apartment they left it in. Al is so furious all he can do is laugh, but it’s easy for him to stay in good spirits about the whole thing. Now that he’s let Earn know their arrangement may well be coming to an end, he feels unburdened. But Earn is furious, having lost his property and possibly his job, and he takes it out on everyone else. He starts with the girls who chopped all their clothes into craft-project snowflakes, then turns his ire to Tracy, who is in top form during the ride home. Earn sees an opportunity to regain some of his pride, but instead loses the rest of it when Tracy beats him into submission on the side of the road.

Atlanta thrives on the ephemeral, but not everything we see exists in a vacuum. It’s been long enough since “Woods” that the only evidence of Al’s trial is the bandage across the bridge of his nose. The next time we see Earn, his wounds will have begun to heal too. The question is how long it will take to mend his relationship with Al.


Stray observations

  • At the very least, a good manager would make sure he had weed for Alfred to smoke at all times. Had it not been for the missing weed, Al would have been far less irritable.
  • Maybe it’s just me, but I find Donald Glover at his least convincing when he’s trying to act angry.
  • Tracy can be forgiven for trying to yoke up Clarke County, who probably became popular when Tracy was locked up.
  • I forgot to mention this last week, but “Woods” was dedicated to Brian Tyree Henry’s late mother, which is a sweet touch.
  • Apparently Glover was pretty adamant about the frat house scene featuring full frontal nudity, but FX insisted on the pixelation. But anyone so inclined can see the clear-wanged version on FX Now.

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