Alkoya Brunson and Myles Truitt
Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

“FUBU” has a vestigial quality, which probably sounds like an insult, but it’s not intended to. Perhaps it’s because Atlanta has acclimated its audience to ten-episode seasons, and Robbin’ Season features 11, including “FUBU,” the first episode of the show in which none of the regular cast members appear. But it feels less like a standard installment of Atlanta and more like a canonical, full-length webisode, one that, like many episodes of this show, could be inconspicuously plucked out of the episode sequence. That said, it’s a mostly pleasant surprise that shades in characters we’ve seen a lot but still don’t really know that well.

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Surprisingly, “FUBU” is the first episode of the show to be directed by Donald Glover from a script by his brother Stephen. If there was a right occasion for the Glover Brothers to join forces, it was this one, given the episode’s biographical feel. I currently live in Stone Mountain, Donald’s hometown, and I watched “FUBU” with a neighbor who grew up there and spent the running time freaking out. He attended Stone Mountain Middle School, where the episode was filmed, and said watching it was surreal, literally like watching his pubescent memories play out on cable television. That speaks to the authenticity “FUBU” is able to create, the logical result of two brothers collaboratively piecing together a shared childhood trauma.

That trauma revolves around a shirt, a bright yellow FUBU jersey that a young Earn convinces his mother to buy from a Marshall’s-style discount department store. He doesn’t even care that the less-than-ideal color is the only one available. It’s a brand name shirt, an opportunity to salvage his sartorial reputation around school. If the episode is not literally autobiographical, it does a fine job of observing the little details of the tragedy to come, including a shot of Earn impatiently waiting in bed before. He’s so excited to, as he’ll later put it, be the stunter rather than the stuntee, that he can’t even sleep. And the day starts off in triumph with a walk down the high-fashion runway that is the middle school bus aisle. Earn gets the accolades he was hoping for, including the attention of a pretty girl in his class.

Of course, it doesn’t take long before Earn’s big moment turns into a contemporary version of The Cosby Show’s “A Shirt Story,” with Earn struggling to prove he’s wearing the equivalent of an authentic Gordon Gartrelle. Devin, his better heeled classmate, strolls into class wearing a nearly identical shirt, just close enough to Earn’s to spark a controversy about who came to school in counterfeit threads. Earn plays it cool despite being well aware of the improbability of stumbling onto a designer shirt cheap enough that his mother could be convinced to buy it for him. The lack of confidence makes it all the more heartbreaking when Earn’s shirt starts to literally come apart at the seams as a defiant Devin glares at him from across the room.

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Earn’s in need of rescue, and luckily he attends school with his cousin Alfred, who’s been trapping since childhood and is already hip to the importance of salesmanship. Al tells his cousin he has to have more confidence, and when the shirts are compared by Johnny, their eagle-eyed Filipino-American classmate, Al’s confidence wins the day. With Devin “exposed” as the fraud, Earn lives to fight another day. Devin is another story. The next day comes news that Devin has committed suicide for reasons the community is still trying to gather. The twist is surprisingly heavy, and with a script that goes out of its way to lay the responsibility for the tragedy at Earn and Al’s feet, “FUBU” winds up being something like a cross between My Brother And Me and Better Call Saul.

The young version of Alfred is almost too on-the-nose, unless the dude is the exact same person he was at 12. But there was a certain charisma to the boy who would become Paper Boi, as played by Abraham Clinkscales. His performance, along with that of Alkoya Brunson who plays Earn, captures the essence of the man his character will become, evoking a narrative version of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s The Limit” video. A time-travel exercise like “FUBU” relies on inspired casting, and Alexa L. Fogel really outdid herself in finding the right kids for the roles. The casting job is so impressive that I wish there had been a little less text and a little more subtext in the way Earn and Al’s younger versions are drawn.

Devin’s suicide doesn’t land as hard as it should, perhaps because he’s featured so briefly, but there’s a certain hollowness to the choice. The Glovers are pretty open about their influences and creative impulses, so we’ll likely get an explanation about what inspired “FUBU” and why it feels like an attempt to recreate real-life events. (The generic bully characters have first names, for example.) If it is, I’m happy to rescind that criticism. If not, the ending represents a missed opportunity to show Earn and Al during a time when life was simpler, or at least differently complicated. That’s the thing about watching this show as it continues basically churning out a new pilot episode week after week. There will always be points of criticism for a show that has never done the same thing long enough to perfect it, but that’s part of the charm.

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Stray observations

  • Donald and Company are having a hell of a time with the title reveals this season, including this well-concealed Atlanta logo in the department store.
  • The white kid with the Salty Dog T-shirt he’d worn three times that week was a nice touch, though it wrongly suggests that white kids don’t deal with their own class struggles.
  • I’d love to know more about Danisha. Did she really just have a bad headache that day? In any case, that was quite a dramatic turnaround.
  • I was super confused by the lunchroom sequence. Why are the lunch staff apparently up on the kids’ gossip and in-jokes? And what’s up with Al B. Sure’s “Nite And Day” as a musical cue? It’s neither tonally or chronologically appropriate for the scene.
  • Earn, on why he missed Dragon Ball Z: “My mom saw the black guy with red lips and now she says it’s racist.”
  • In Earn’s defense, experienced Maxxinistas do catch a break from time to time.

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