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

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s especially true in Atlanta, a show that’s most comfortable when its characters are in an awkward state of arrested development. In the season premiere, Earn was officially homeless again, while Van was desperately looking for new professional opportunities after talking her way out of her teaching gig, and it seemed as if there was likely some connection between the two. After all, in season one, the dynamic between the best friends turned co-parents was mostly characterized by Earn’s dire financial situation and Van’s frustration with it, which only intensified when she found herself unemployed. But apparently the storm has passed. Earn’s free to come and go from Van’s place as he pleases, while she’s financially comfortable enough to pop for a Beyonce ticket, even if it’s not one of the fancy VIP tickets her friend bought. It’s been quite some time since Earn and Van’s friendship felt this easy and comfortable.

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In fact, the last time we saw them in such a good space was in the third episode of season one, “Go For Broke,” which established their knack for turning a simple date night into a harrowing battle with universal chaos. Back then, the issue was that Earn didn’t have a dime to his name and really wanted to impress Van by taking her out to the sort of fancy dinner he hopes will one day become commonplace. “Money Bag Shawty” is yet another cursed date night, but this time the problem is that Earn has too much money. Or, to be more precise, the issue now is that Earn has the money to floss, but not the look and the presence to go with it. Clarke County is running around flashing Harriet Tubman twenties and Earn can’t even find a merchant to accept his watermarked big-face Benjamin. Money was supposed to solve all of Earn’s problems, but it seems to be doing just the opposite.

For one thing, the promise of the next big check is still quietly driving a wedge between Earn and Alfred. Earn’s come-up is based on the success of Paper Boi’s latest single, which gets a major boost after a conservative mom’s “Won’t anyone think of the children?” social media rant about the evils of rap music. (This bit is a note-for-note riff on the widely mocked testimonial from a woman who was reduced to tears by Vince Staples’ “Norf Norf.”) But the check is a different thing for Earn, who’s grown accustomed to scraping by on luck and the kindness of others, than it is for Alfred, who’s unaccustomed to having intermittent music checks as his only source of income.

So while Earn’s out on a date with Van, Alfred is having a professional play date with the surprisingly intense Clarke County and seeing the dramatic differences between how their affairs are being managed. Granted, Alfred has much different ambitions as an artist and isn’t totally comfortable shucking and jiving for corporate checks. But he has to be hurting after getting robbed by his supplier, and besides, it’s one thing to turn down Yoo-hoo money and another to never have it offered to you in the first place.

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Alfred seems to be struggling with Earn’s role in his career just as Earn is struggling with his place in the universe. It’s pretty clear by now that Earn is not the world’s best manager. Had it not been for Alfred’s direct intervention, Earn would have slinked away from his altercation with the club promoter in “The Club” without his client’s money. When they turned up for the meeting at the streaming service and Alfred got frustrated, Earn didn’t step in with a pep talk to convince his client that sometimes you have to do corny stuff behind the scenes to facilitate a successful music career. At the very least, Earn should be able to get a would-be collaborator to bugger off, especially when the dude is on the clock at a sports bar. Instead, the guy screams on Earn in front of his friends and convinces Earn the only way to set the universe right is to have an expensive night out on the town.

When Earn and Van’s first attempts to ball out go horribly awry, Earn decides to have the kind of night he imagined himself having all the time when he first approached his up-and-coming cousin about managing his rap career. He scoops up the rest of the crew in a prom-night limo and takes them to the strip club, an environment that caters to men eager to prove they have disposable cash. But even at the strip club, after showing up in a limo armed with a wad of bills, Earn can’t get any respect. He tries to salvage the night one final time when he and Van stumble outside and find Michael Vick looking to foot race people for cash. He thinks he has a shot, since Mike has just raced six other people. But it’s still Michael Vick, so he loses. If Atlanta is meant to have a throughline, rather than strand its characters in their weird, perpetual present, hopefully it concludes with Earn tapping into his inner gangsta.

Stray observations

  • It was also in the third episode of season one when Atlanta saw its first murder, and here’s presumably another one, though this time it takes place off-screen. Clarke County’s engineer couldn’t possibly have made it home that night.
  • I loved how Clarke turned down Al’s offers of weed and liquor only to go into the booth and “freestyle” about exactly those things. Even better were Clarke’s reactions to the offers. He goes to great pains to communicate “I love that this is your thing, but it’s not my thing.”
  • I’m not a strip club guy, but now I’m wondering if it’s a thing for strippers to have an “it’s my first night” shtick that lasts indefinitely. It’s actually a pretty smart idea.
  • It was great how they first showed Michael Vick shrouded in darkness, as if it wasn’t actually him. Given this show’s tendency to play with reality, it was all the more cool when out of the darkness came the actual Michael Vick.
  • This was a nice song placement for real-life Atlanta up-and-comer Berhana and his track “Grey Luh.”
  • Van has yet another friend (not Jayde) who lives to stunt on her other friends when it’s time to do something together. Who buys VIP concert tickets when their friends are getting regular tickets? There should be a reality show called Extreme Makeover: Friend Group Edition with each episode following a new person as their terrible friends are swapped out with less terrible friends.

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