Donald Glover and Zazie Beetz
Photo: FX/Guy D’Alema

In most durable couples, there’s a dancer and a spectator, the person anxiously waiting for “Hot In Herre” to play at the wedding reception and the person who’s convinced themselves their body is a load-bearing pillar. In Earn and Van’s complicated situationship, it’s pretty clear which one is which. It’s equally clear that their biggest hurdle is their failure to understand the concept of strength through diversity. The traits they love about each other are the same ones that drive them nuts.

That’s a tough lesson to absorb for a couple as young as Van and Earn, especially one raising a presumably unplanned child. If not for Lottie, they would be forced to examine what makes them keep drifting back together in spite of their marked differences. Because of the responsibility they share, they have convinced themselves they’re only putting up with each other’s bullshit out of obligation. But in reality, they would probably be putting up with each other’s bullshit even if they didn’t have to. So while the end of “Helen” feels much more like a breakup than their previous hiatuses, this likely isn’t the last we’ve seen of Earn and Van as a kinda-sorta couple.

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If Van and Earn had set out to choose the day trip most likely to derail their relationship, they couldn’t have done much better than Helen, a weird little tourist attraction about 90 miles north of Atlanta. Helen was once a bustling logging community, which borrowed its lilting name from the daughter of the railroad surveyor who paved the way for the settlers who eventually inhabited it. Once all the timber was cut, there was a mass exodus, and in 1968, a group of local business owners agreed on a plan to goose tourism by renovating the entire town in the Bavarian architecture style.

There’s a town ordinance in place that requires most businesses along the main drag to comport to the style, hence the Alpine-style Super 8. Naturally there’s a huge Oktoberfest celebration every year, since Helen is basically what would result if Oktoberfest became sentient and imposed its will over a desolate logging town. Earn and Van head north to enjoy the festivities, an idea that extends naturally out of the writers’ shrewd decision to bake Zazie Beetz’ German heritage (and language fluency) into her character.

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Practically, it’s another opportunity to highlight the couple’s differences as Van drags Earn into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable environment only to act surprised when he behaves like a brat. That’s not to blame Van for Earn’s behavior, but if “Juneteenth” was any indication, Earn has done everything in his power to communicate to Van that he’s not the guy you take to events. It’s okay to want that guy, but it’s not okay to try to bend Earn into unnatural positions because it seems easier than finding and acclimating to someone new. The irony here is that Earn, because of his aspirations in an industry that rewards gregarious schmoozers, would genuinely benefit from changing in exactly the ways Van wants him to.

But those are realizations for another day, because on this day, Van is still convinced that she can turn Earn from the guy who smokes you up and eats you out to the guy you take to places your snobby high school friends will be. They manage to make it through the hour-plus road trip without any drama, probably thanks to the combination of cunnilingus and wake-and-bake. But things go left almost immediately, and honestly that’s kind of Van’s fault for not explaining the traditions to Earn a little more before their arrival. At the very least, Earn deserved a full disclosure about the legend of Zwarte Piet, the hella racist Dutch Christmas tradition. Though admittedly her failure to do so creates one of the episode’s few big laughs when a reveler congratulates Earn on his ultra-realistic blackface only to realize he’s an actual black person.

Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

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The trip to Helen goes downhill from there, and while Darius is always sorely missed, it’s a good thing LaKeith Stanfield isn’t around for this one. His presence would feel too on-the-nose for an episode with such tonal similarities to Get Out. “Helen” is also a story about the horror of feeling othered, and manages to turn an innocuous celebration into a Kafkaesque nightmare. At least that’s the experience for Earn, who walks around with a Jason Voorhees-style, non-regulation hockey mask, lest people mistake him for Black Pete and hit him up for spice cookies. He’s forced to play disorienting games, listen to impenetrable German conversations, and expected to dance to music he doesn’t even get when he probably wouldn’t dance if his favorite Goodie Mob song came on. And all this in front of a group of masked weirdos and a terrifying, demonic hobby horse called a Schnappviecher.

The experience is much different to Van, of course, but she doesn’t have much more fun than Earn does. Being at the Oktoberfest celebration stokes both Earn and Van’s anxieties and insecurities about their relationship. While that part is predictable, the details of their current situation is not. Apparently Van never started working again after losing her job at the school, so now she’s raising Lottie full-time and hanging out with Earn at Paper Boi’s concerts. When Van needles him about refusing to go with the flow like she does at Al’s shows, he reminds her that those shows pay her bills. This is a pretty dramatic role reversal from season one, when Van was urging Earn to pull his shit together and he was hoping Paper Boi’s big break would make him the family breadwinner.

It’s a bit easier to understand Van’s behavior within the context of how their relationship dynamic has changed. Van is depending on Earn more than ever before. They love each other. They have a kid. Why not round up from “it’s complicated” to “in a relationship?” Earn doesn’t have much of an answer for Van, all he can say is that he’s happy with the way things are and doesn’t want anything to change. In this game, the roles are reversed: He wants to bounce the ball to other people, and she would sooner just hold onto it and put it in the bucket.

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It’s at moments like this that I wish Atlanta had more of a traditional narrative, because this feels like a really heavy conversation, but Earn’s reasoning is inscrutable. We haven’t seen much of Earn bedding, or even approaching other women. So while it’s implied that Earn wants to be free to do his own thing, it’s hard to tell if that interpretation is based on anything more than Van’s reaction. A scene like this would have packed a bigger punch if we had more detail about their respective stakes in the relationship, but without that grounding, the scene is like overhearing a random couple loudly arguing on the sidewalk. It’s morbidly fascinating but you never feel all that invested in it.

Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

Meanwhile, there was a much zestier conversation brewing between Van and Christina, who now that she’s been introduced, is absolutely the girl who says “Oh sorry, I just assumed we were all buying VIP tickets to the Beyonce concert.” Van tries to talk to Christina about her frustrations with Earn, which instead comes out as venting at Christina about introducing her as “Lottie’s mom.” But Christina, who is also biracial, misses the point of the conversation and instead takes it as an opportunity to remind Van of the consequences of “choosing black.” It’s such an extreme and jarring comment, and I wanted to hear a lot more of that exchange.

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I wanted to hear more of that exchange to the point that I started to sort of resent the prominence of the drama between Earn and Van. Their scenes together are terrific, particularly the ping-pong games. But Atlanta has given me more reason to root for Earn and Van as individuals than as a couple, even as I think they would make a good couple. It’s a subtle distinction, but the show more generally emphasizes ideas over relationships, and I’m now conditioned to that. (I don’t anticipate ever finding out what Alfred and Darius were fighting about, for example.)

As a result, while I’m nosy as hell and would gladly pay inappropriate attention to a couple having the argument Earn and Van were having, I’d immediately refocus my attention if I overheard two biracial women talking about how one of them “chose black.” When neither relationship is especially grounded, the more interesting idea wins, and Van’s conflict with Christina is way more interesting than Earn’s imposter syndrome or commitment phobia or whatever it is.

After another fateful ping-pong game, Earn and Van appear to split romantically for an indefinite period. If this is Donald Glover’s funhouse-mirror version of the will they/won’t they sitcom romance, this must be the part where Ross and Rachel decide to take a break. Honestly, this show is far better at exploring its characters as individuals than it is at shading the relationships between them. So it’s probably for the best that Earn and Van start to focus on themselves.

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Stray observations

  • Helen is actually kind of fun in its own weird way but I could never sleep there. I got in a huge fight with an ex of mine in Helen and we didn’t speak the entire way home. He got pissed at me because I kept checking my phone and it turned into a whole thing. I told my friends about it, and they were like, “Yeah dude, you’re actually pretty rude with your phone most of the time.” The point of the story is, I need better friends.
  • I wish I knew more about Paper Boi’s career and how Earn is involved in it. Because when I hear him tell Van that Paper Boi’s shows pay her bills, I’m like, “Oh...wait, what?”
  • Also: Is Earn now effectively homeless again?
  • This episode is the first of at least two this season directed by Amy Seimetz of the fantastic The Girlfriend Experience.
  • Super interesting music being played at this Oktoberfest, everything from Troye Sivan to Kendrick Lamar. And polka, of course.
  • There are enough creepy masks in this episode to start a look book for the next installment in the Strangers franchise.

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