Brian Tyree Henry
Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

Atlanta goes heavy on the callbacks, which is to be expected of any sitcom that strives to build its own alternate reality. But Atlanta has never done a callback quite as overt as the moment in “Barbershop” when Alfred’s gifted-yet-troubled barber Bibby (standup comedian Robert S. Powell III) forces him to watch a viral clip of the invisible car assault from “The Club” as a condition of providing Alfred’s much-needed haircut. Bibby’s ultimatum serves as an early reminder that anything can happen in Atlanta, but highlighting that moment seems like an odd choice considering the ordeal that follows isn’t as surreal or absurd as it is just kind of...annoying. There are no demonic horse visages, no Nutella sandwich oracles, and all the cars are visible (though that won’t necessarily prevent you from rear-ending them.) For as much content as “Barbershop” has, it’s ultimately an episode solely about a weird consumer experience that doesn’t lend much to the larger story or the Robbin’ Season theme.

“Barbershop” is an underwhelming episode, but my lack of enthusiasm might be a result of the title alone. Considering there’s already three movies and a short-lived television show with the same title and concept, it’s understandable why writer Stefani Robinson and director Donald Glover would want to avoid a similar format featuring a large ensemble of characters using the barbershop as a watering hole. (To say nothing of the iconic barbershop scenes in Coming To America.) And yet I can’t help but wish “Barbershop” had spent more time in the titular setting rather than turning into an arbitrary scavenger hunt. The “barbershop as the hub of black life” thing has been done before, but so has the holding cell tableau, and yet “Streets On Lock” remains one of Atlanta’s best episodes. I would have loved to see what the title promises: Donald Glover’s vision of the microcosmic black barbershop. I might not have responded to the episode more favorably had it been called “Bibby,” but I’d have felt like I got what I bargained for.

Al’s nightmarish visit to the barbershop begins when Bibby stumbles in late and can’t be bothered to finish his wireless conversation. That would be enough to get a negative Yelp review, but the experience devolves in a hurry when Bibby says he needs to rush out for an emergency and convinces Al to go along for the ride, promising to deliver the haircut as soon as they get to the destination. Naturally it’s nowhere near as simple as that, and the itinerary expands to include a trip to haul some lumber in exchange for half-eaten Zaxby’s. Then the outing becomes an MTV teen wish fulfillment show when Bibby cruises past his truant teenage son before introducing him to Paper Boi. Nearly every leg of the trip gets Alfred a little closer to criminal peril since he’s still on probation and Bibby, who has warrants of his own, likes to ride the razor’s edge. Only after Bibby rear ends a woman and peels away from the scene can he be convinced to return to the shop and finish Al’s in-progress haircut. After everything they’ve been through, Bibby still demands payment for his services, and Alfred immediately regrets his decision to go to another chair on his next visit.

“Barbershop” feels a little off-kilter the whole time, in part because Bibby isn’t that great a character by Atlanta standards. He’s a lesser version of the fast-talking hustlers we’ve seen plenty of in Atlanta, whether it was social media gangster Zan or the club promoter who disappeared behind a secret door shortly before all those folks got hit by an invisible car. He’s prone to bullshitting, and he has a pot on every burner of several stoves in different houses. And while Bibby’s as capable of a terrific line as the others—”He’s a magician,” he says to explain Al’s cape—he doesn’t make as much of an impression. That’s no fault of Powell, who does a nice job bringing the character to life as written and standing up to Brian Tyree Henry’s performance in what is essentially a two-hander, which is no small feat.

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The problem is the writing, which isn’t bad, but pushes the scenario too hard and not hard enough at the same time. A more representative experience of going to the barbershop, as seen through Alfred’s perspective given his newfound fame, would be really interesting. And Atlanta always excels at pairing off two characters in a bizarre video-game quest, so that could have worked well too. But “Barbershop” tries to combine the two, so it neither represents a relatable barbershop experience nor defies expectations enough to root it in Atlanta’s surrealist tradition. Bibby is not obnoxious enough to be memorable, but he’s obnoxious enough that you mostly spend the episode wonder why Al doesn’t take his business elsewhere. You can toss a black fist pick in any direction and hit a barbershop in Atlanta, and there’s just no way Bibby’s clipper prowess is enough to justify his behavior.

But perhaps the point here is that Alfred operates with loyalty as his guiding principle, which would certainly explain his relationship with Earnest. When Alfred returns to the shop to toss his free agent status in Bibby’s face, he’s frustrated when his new barber asks him what height setting to use on the clippers. That’s objectively not the way that conversation is supposed to go unless you’re at Supercuts, but Al seems more annoyed by the principle of having to build an understanding of and rapport with a brand new person. Al’s reaction is similar to the one he had when he got robbed by his plug. He was pissed off about losing the money, but he was more upset about being betrayed by someone he shared a history with. If that’s the correct interpretation, Earnest shouldn’t worry about his place in Alfred’s life despite his considerable shortcomings. Maybe Clarke County’s manager knows how to tap into that Yoohoo corporate money, but Earnest would never open his mouth to ask if Alfred is a 2 or a 3.

Stray observations

  • Bibby’s younger son was pretty hilarious. “Are you a magician?” *power cuts out* “Is that your trick?”
  • I’m obsessed with Zaxby’s and based on the dialogue, I’m going to assume Bibby ordered the Wings ‘N’ Things meal, which is a lot of food if he only ate the wings and not the things. That’s not a defense of someone offering Zaxby’s only to remove leftovers from the microwave of an unfinished house, but context is important.
  • I liked the simple look of Bibby’s shop. Not all black barbershops are generations-old institutions straight out of an August Wilson play. Most of them are austere, unremarkable storefronts where people get groomed and keep it moving, so there’s something refreshing about seeing a barbershop that looks like an actual barbershop.
  • I’m wondering where the Flying Lotus/Thundercat-style music comes from. Is it actually him/them? Original score for the show or repurposed from earlier work? (My Shazam isn’t working, y’all.)

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