Brian Tyree Henry
Photo: Curtis Baker/FX

It’s hard to tell if anything will ever truly stick in the Atlanta universe. At the risk of belaboring the point, we’re now two full episodes out from “Teddy Perkins,” and that ghoul-white visage continues to haunt my dreams, and yet here is Darius looking no worse for the wear. Hell, he’s even making fresh pasta, if the outcome of whatever dream-logic recipe he got from Mayor McCheese can be reasonably called “pasta.” What makes this show challenging is how it forces you to consider and reconsider the truth and consequence of everything that takes place. That said, it’s tough to imagine that Atlanta’s latest hard left into full-on horror won’t have lasting consequences for the characters. At the very least, there’s a potent message for Alfred in “Woods,” a rare example of an Atlanta episode that puts a clear, fine point on its off-kilter plot.

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The episode starts with what is best described as a lucid dream, with Alfred drifting in and out of consciousness and imagining his mother’s presence. It’s a heavy day for Al, either the anniversary of his mother’s death or perhaps her birthday, but he’s not prone to outward displays of emotion. Instead of spending the day moping around, Al decides to hang out with Sierra, a romantic interest he’s now spending enough time with that Darius is throwing the g-word around. Sierra is famous, but it’s never totally clear why, not that it matters. She’s big on Instagram, and like most social media stars, she sees every shopping trip, every mani-pedi, every moment as an opportunity to create new content for her rabid followers. Nothing gets blog attention like speculation about a possible celebrity couple, so it’s only a matter of time until Sierra is trying to snap a candid shot of her day with Paper Boi.

Sierra couldn’t have chosen a less suitable running buddy than Alfred, who has never wanted to be famous and shrinks from the spotlight whenever possible. He’s slightly exhausted every time he gets recognized in public, and even his ho-hum reaction to hearing himself on the radio suggests an artist who’s been in the game long enough that it’s just a job now. Because he’s so indifferent to fame, Sierra is speaking a language he barely understands. He’s baffled when she explains that a more competent manager would be able to get him free shoes just because he’s Paper Boi. And he doesn’t even give the impression that he’s terribly bothered by it. Sure, Al would prefer if Earn was a better manager, but his bigger priority is maintaining his sense of authenticity. Free shoes, as negotiated through corporate back channels by a business representative, are for fake people. Real people buy their own shoes, or lift them like Tracy, because they can’t even chase you. It’s an insurance thing.

Al and Sierra have fundamentally different worldviews, so their fun day derails after Sierra insists he’s being precious and naive for wanting to keep his life private. Al ends his pedicure early and elects to walk home, as he often does. Maybe he’s Uber-shy after being held at gunpoint by his plug? In any case, Al’s long walk home takes a terrifying turn with a chance encounter with a group of young boys who pass themselves off as fans, and probably are fans despite jumping Alfred and stealing his phone and whatever else they can grab. The fight sequence is beautifully staged and harrowing, yet another moment when I watched this show convinced an episode could end with the death of a central character.

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After Al breaks away from his tormentors, he runs into the nearby woods, where his ordeal turns into something like a lucid nightmare. He’s accosted by a deranged transient, who may be a manifestation of his own survival instinct, but if not, is more of a threat than an ally. Whatever the transient is, he manages to keep Al on his toes long enough to find his way out of the woods rather than crumble when he discovers he’s stumbled upon the same rotting deer carcass a second time. He finally manages to find his way to a gas station, where he applies a cold compress to his face before happily posing for a selfie with a star-struck fan as if he’s not bleeding from the mouth. There’s a lot to be said for the fake life if the alternative is being assaulted before nearly losing your mind while lost in the woods. Sierra may be terrible to wait staff, but she makes some solid points.

Looking back, the decision to kick off the season with that jarring botched robbery at the Mrs. Winner’s makes a lot more sense as a tonal prelude to the rest of this increasingly disturbing season. Even last week’s relatively light Van showcase took some tense turns when the ladies jumped into the mysterious van or when Van found herself alone with a sketchy stranger. “Woods” is arguably more disturbing than “Teddy Perkins” because of the direct peril faced by the show’s best character. Brian Tyree Henry is always magnificent but he really shows up here with a remarkably layered and nuanced performance. I can’t imagine how he would get passed over for an Emmy nomination again if he submits this episode.

What I’m most curious about is the lasting ramifications of these events on Al and Earn’s relationship, since the season has been strongly hinting at some kind of growing rift or lingering dissatisfaction with their arrangement. Al seems like he’s just as successful as he wants to be, financially comfortable and Atlanta famous. But if I was Alfred and had all that time in the woods to think, and my late mother was heavy on my mind, I’d probably think about whether I was living the life she would want for me. If Al asked himself that question, the answer would likely be no. Not because he’s a trap rapper but because he’s not being the best possible version of Paper Boi he can be. He’s not applying himself the way he should be, and he’s been happy with an underachieving manager because he’s fine with being an underachieving artist. Perhaps there’s no lasting consequence to what happened to Al, and that would come as no surprise. But it feels like a renegotiation of terms is on the way.

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Stray observations

  • Director Hiro Murai really is a genius. Every choice in this episode was great, but I really dug that long tracking shot of Al and Sierra in the boutique.
  • The use of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as a leitmotif was really effective. Equally sentimental and creepy.
  • Naturally Darius is out here literally putting his foot in the food he’s preparing. Bless his heart.
  • It’s pretty crazy how little time we’ve spent with Earn this season. Not that he’s the show’s most interesting character or anything, it’s just a surprising choice.

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