As indulgent as it is to duplicate one of my earlier headlines, I had to do it because of how much “Value” reminded me of the best episode from season five of Girls. There are several explicit connections between the two shows, including Donald Glover’s brief guest-starring role as Hannah Horvath’s conspicuously black boyfriend, and the involvement of Paul Simms, who wrote several fantastic episodes of Girls. But beyond that, the show’s have tonal similarities (except that Atlanta is much, much, much weirder) and the same unpredictable approach to storytelling in which you never know what each episode will bring.
We’ve been waiting to see more of Vanessa since Atlanta began, hoping she wouldn’t be reduced to a shrew whose main function was prodding Earn to do something with his life. Donald Glover, in his directorial debut, more than delivers with “Value,” a wry and ruthless peak into Van’s frustrations. Glover started off strong before a single frame was shot by bringing in staff writer Stefani Robinson to assist on the script, the first to give a writing credit to someone whose last name isn’t Glover. It seems like a little thing, but it makes such a huge difference to know that someone with insights about how black women communicate contributed to an episode that mostly consists of black women communicating and miscommunicating.
The episode begins pleasantly enough, with Van reuniting with her old friend Jayde (a perfectly cast Aubin Wise) for drinks and dishing. Almost immediately, the pleasantness drains out of the reunion when the meticulously coiffed Jayde goes in on Van’s natural ‘do. Then, she one-ups Van’s wine order by insisting on a bottle and opts for the likely market-price dish while Van orders a modest noodle dish. Once the classist gauntlet has been thrown down, the sniping between the old friends gradually escalates in one of the most masterfully written scenes in Atlanta so far. For a nearly eight-minute dinner scene, it’s absolutely riveting. Van and Jayde’s dynamic feels familiar and lived-in, almost like the viewer is dining with two mutual friends who can’t bear to admit that they love each other but don’t like each other.
Before long, the passive-aggressive interaction becomes outright hostile, and Jayde stops insinuating that Van needs to get on her level and says it outright. Jayde thinks it’s a shame that Vanessa has become the type of girl she used to make fun of, the baby mama trying to scrape by with little support from her shiftless co-parent. Meanwhile, Jayne is loving her life in the PJs—think NetJets, not the Marcy Houses—with all manner of generous professional athletes. She thinks Van’s ongoing entanglement with Earn means she’s not recognizing her value. Why be the “Thanks For My Child” girl when you can be the “Rack City” bitch? As if the well-crafted dialogue wasn’t enough, Wise is basically the spitting image of Basketball Wives’ Evelyn Lozada, who eventually became the poster girl for the black woman as a professional escort without the title.
Van and Jayde are having an old conversation in a new context, the latest example of Atlanta depicting the contemporary equivalents of old dialogues, like how much responsibility rappers who glamorize criminality have to the young audiences who consume their music. “Value” takes on the class warfare between black men and black women, which is as often about economic status as it is about respectability politics. The conversation plays out daily on Twitter, with goofy men posting memes that suggest black women have to be Madonnas or whores and black women pushing back against them.
Luckily the old friends are able to put aside their differences when Jayde offers an apology and woos Van with a joint. They smoke together in Jayde’s car and rekindle their emotional connection, as people who share drugs are wont to do. Jayde says it’ll be “just like old times,” and given how toxic their present relationship is, it’s refreshing for the audience to catch a glimpse of what their relationship looked like before they grew apart. But there’s got to be a morning after, and Van’s is pretty terrible when she wakes up and realizes she has to undergo a drug test for her job. Naturally, Jayde is no help and already has her hands full between her appointment with a Manhattan broker and her upcoming trip to London. Can we agree that Jayde is pretty much the worst?
Van first turns to the interwebs for advice, and then begrudgingly calls Alfred, who is all too eager to remind her of her past comments about marijuana use. He advises her to use the old “condom full of someone else’s urine” trick, but Van doesn’t know where to get clean urine on short notice. In a moment of pure desperation, she collects Lottie’s old diapers and wrings the urine out of them in the most bizarre montage I’ve seen in a very long time. Van might as well have been Heisenberg the way she was cooking up her illicit brew, but the effort is all for naught when she breaks the condom before she’s able to collect the sample. She shows her maturity by marching into the principal’s office with flop sweat and hotbox hair and admitting to her drug use. For a moment it looks like the admission will smooth things over, especially when the principal confesses that no one actually tests the samples. But it’s the admission that seals her fate and loses her only source of income.
“Value” is a tough break for Van, Earn, and Lottie, but it’s an outright triumph for Atlanta, which has officially allayed the biggest fear about the show going forward. Can these characters carry the weight of an entire episode? The answer, judging from the terrific writing and Zazie Beetz’ stellar performance, is a resounding yes.
- The music in this episode…my God. Where is this Thai place in Atlanta that plays The Ebonys? Can I get an address? I basically lost my shit when I heard the first few notes of “It’s Forever.” (“You’re The Reason Why” is the true sure-shot from that record, but I won’t quibble.) Between that, George Benson’s “This Masquerade,” and Jeremih’s “Oui,” one of my favorite singles of the past year, I was going the hell off from beginning to end.
- If the goal was to get me to hate Jayde, Glover and Robinson succeeded by having her correct Van’s use of chopsticks. Ugh.
- It’s even better/worse when Jayde ends their awkward silence by taking a picture of her snapper and snake bean salad for The ‘Gram.
- Last week I wondered who is the Killer Bob of Glover’s “Twin Peaks with rappers.” This week I got my answer: