Donald Glover and Zazie Beetz (Photo: Guy D'Alema/Fox)

Atlanta has been guilty of self-aware dialogue before, especially from its minor characters. Whether it’s Zan from “The Streisand Effect,” the bartender in “The Club” or the newscaster in “Nobody Beats The Biebs,” there’s always someone nearby willing to puncture Earn or Alfred’s delusions and soberly explain to them the nature of things. In “Juneteenth,” the self-aware voice of reason role falls to Earn, who calls the swanky party Vanessa has dragged him to as a “Spike Lee-directed Eyes Wide Shut.” That line was one of many that slightly took me out of the moment, but it was also helpful to understanding how Donald Glover and writer Stefani Robinson conceptualized the episode. Each episode of Atlanta is its own thing, so even when it’s a little jarring to hear a character speak directly to the episodic theme, in this show, a little context goes a long way.

It was also nice to hear direct acknowledgment of the Spike Lee motif kicked off with the music in the title reveal (Kamasi Washington’s “Change Of The Guard”) and followed through to the establishing shots of the Juneteenth party, the theme for which is apparently “the opening credits from School Daze but with bacon-wrapped shrimp.” The Lee remains heavy throughout, even in some of the visual choices by director Janicza Bravo. I couldn’t help wondering if and how “Juneteenth” might resemble the She’s Gotta Have It series Lee’s working on for Netflix.

Lee’s show will probably be a bit more earthbound compared to Atlanta, which stays in a lane all its own even while executing a very traditional sitcom plot. Vanessa forces an over-it Earn to accompany him to the party, held in a tony residential enclave, hoping it will lead to important networking opportunities. (Lest anyone forget, Van’s back on the job market.) To make a better impression on the guests, Earn and Van pretend to be a happily married couple rather than one that highlights the importance of Facebook adding an “Intervene immediately” option to its choices of relationship status. Based on that description alone, “Juneteenth” could be an episode of any traditional four-camera sitcom.

But this is Atlanta, so none of the story is about the risk of Earn and Van’s ruse being exposed and what that would mean for their relationship. Instead, it’s another opportunity to put Earnest in an uncomfortable environment and watch him attempt to slide out of his skin. Speaking of sliding out of one’s skin, the party is hosted by Monique (Cassandra Freeman) and her haughty white husband Craig (Rick Holmes), who has taken his passion for black culture entirely too far. Craig has no formal education in African or African-American culture and he works as an optometrist, presumably one who specializes in third eyes. Craig pledged a black fraternity, composes abstract paintings inspired by Malcolm X quotes, and has lots of feelings on how important it is for Earn to visit his motherland.

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“Juneteenth” is best filtered through Donald Glover’s quotes about how he wasn’t striving to make an “important” show out of Atlanta. There’s a lot to unpack in Craig’s clueless and condescending appropriation of African-American culture—he apparently passes off Ntozake Shange quotes as his own—but maybe, as with “B.A.N.” the provocative subtext isn’t really the point. (Put another way: “The price is on the can, though.”) Atlanta has been remarkably nuanced and delicate even in its broadest moments, so I’d like to think that if there were keen insights to be gleaned from Craig’s behavior, Glover and Robinson wouldn’t be quite as overt about it. As a statement about how white people claim and configure black culture, the Craig stuff is all over the place. The script can never quite decide if Craig is annoying because he knows too little, because he knows too much, or because he’s generally oblivious to how to appropriately engage with blackness. While the prison scenes in “Streets On Lock” felt like they were meant to provoke dialogue about masculinity, mental health stigma, and the prison system, the Craig stuff just feels like a goof.

But if the Juneteenth party is, in fact, simply another weird-ass environment in which to drop the characters to see what will happen, it’s a strong idea. Earn doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. He’s never been totally comfortable running in Alfred and Darius’ circle, but neither is he at home in this funhouse-mirror take on Atlanta’s black high society. He’s dressed like a mannequin in Marshall’s young men’s department and it’s clear he would sooner be anywhere else. But he does his best to mingle with the other guests and keep up appearances while trying to keep Vanessa in the right place on the alcohol intoxication spectrum. As always, the fleeting moments leave the deepest impression, whether it’s the elder pitching her high-concept gospel play or the pastor who extols the importance of respecting your wife as he treats his first lady like a piece of furniture.

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As I’ve said before, Atlanta is probably best enjoyed as if it’s a loosely connected anthology, because at this point it’s impossible to know how much of what happens is even objectively real, let alone how important it is to the broader story. It’s jarring for the episode’s third act to call back to the Paper Boi shooting incident, which is sometimes a looming storm cloud and other times a vague, irrelevant memory. It’s hard not to think about the narrative looseness during a moment like the closing scene, in which a soused Van tells Earn to pull the car over and initiates sex after hours spent needling Earn about their odd relationship. Their physical reunion feels heavy and earned, pardon the pun, but also like it might never be mentioned again. Atlanta is about savoring the moment.

Stray observations

  • As a black person who has spent years longing for nuanced representation of black culture in media, I never get sick of stuff like the mention of Jack and Jill, which I was in as a kid.
  • So many great drink choices on that cocktail menu, but I’d have had to go with the 40 Acres And A Moscow Mule.
  • Between this episode and the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend premiere, the Scott Joplin estate has been killing it this past week.
  • Does Lottie have sickle cell anemia? One of the society women mentions something about it before Van cuts her off.

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