Zazie Beetz
Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

Van is, now as ever, Atlanta’s most and least accessible character. She’s certainly been the most relatable, in that her daily life looks somewhat similar to that of a regular person. (Which goes a long way when Al and Darius are making backwoods drug deals with Migos.) In season one, Van was a working mother maintaining her tenuous situationship with Earnest. Whenever she wasn’t pressing him for something he was either unwilling or unable to provide, she was making vaguely responsible choices about her career and future. Though her efforts haven’t amounted to much yet, it’s clear that, at the very least, Van is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of forever being known as little more than “Lottie’s mom” and “Earn’s girl.” Now that Van and Earn have tabled their ambiguous relationship, Atlanta has its best opportunity yet to shed some light on a character that seems like someone you know and a total cipher all at once.

Whether “Champagne Papi” is satisfying depends on what you expect from it, which also applies to the show broadly. If “Teddy Perkins” proved anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as a departure too dramatic or a subject matter too thorny for Donald Glover’s “comedy” to tackle. That episode also served as a reminder that Atlanta can pull off an excellent episode with any of its characters as the focal point. Last season’s “Value” is the most intimate look we’ve gotten into Van’s life so far, and it remains a series highlight. “Champagne Papi” is a weird comedown after the tense mindfuck that is “Teddy Perkins,” neither wildly inventive as that episode or as intimate as “Value.” It’s a grab bag of frequently fun moments (including that killer final line), but it doesn’t do enough to illuminate a character I always want more of.

At least “Champagne” lets us know where we are in Robbin Season. Thanksgiving and Christmas have apparently passed, as the episode begins as Van and her crew are preparing to ring in the new year at an exclusive party held at Drake’s Atlanta pad. There’s no indication as to how much time has passed since Van and Earn’s high-stakes ping pong tournament in Helen. But the breakup is recent enough that Van is still scrolling through Earn’s social media photos, wincing as she catches glimpses of her baby daddy living his best life. Meanwhile, Van’s Instagram is clogged up with baby photos, and the New Year’s Eve party offers the perfect opportunity for her to score a social media win of her own. Just one selfie with Drake is all Van needs to show the world—or at least Earn—that she’s still out her living her life. Not as Lottie’s mom or as Earn’s ex, but as her own person.

Alas, this wouldn’t be an episode of Atlanta if Van’s effort to document her night with Drake was a simple, straightforward affair rather than a surreal game of Chutes And Ladders. What “Champagne” does differently than other Atlanta episodes is break up Van’s story by giving each of her girlfriends their own side plot, lending it the shape and the rhythm of a more traditional sitcom. Neither of those side plots is especially original, with one of Van’s friends on a vision quest triggered by a weed gummy and another stalking and confronting a black actor whose in attendance along with his white girlfriend. But the execution of both stories is still clever and deft, including an appearance from Darius that seems like a hallucination for most of the episode. The conflict with the actor and his girlfriend yields the funniest scene and the most insightful moment, when Van’s friend suggests the white woman’s choice to support her man when he was a struggling actor is one built on privilege.

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Van has her own odd interactions in the house, beginning with a sketchy partygoer named Brandon who initially comes off as a charming face to ring in the new year with. But he quickly becomes clingy and starts behaving suspiciously, and in Van’s efforts to ditch him and track down Nadine, who’s still on her gummy trip, Van winds up lost in Drake’s mansion. Van is still a bit of a cipher but she’s an adorable one. The scene in which she takes a jacket out of Drake’s closet and dances around in it while mumble-singing “Hotline Bling” is among the most candid, endearing moments we’ve seen yet. Equally endearing is the moment when she stumbles upon Drake’s presumably Mexican “grandfather” (or custodian) and finds out Drake’s not even on the same continent.

What have we learned about Van by the time the party lets out? Not much really, other than to get to know a few more of her friends, though none stand up to Van as a foil the way Jayde did in “Value.” Mostly we learn that Van isn’t over Earn yet, and while she’s figured out that she’s not just a mom and not just a glorified groupie for Earn, she’s still a long way from figuring out who she is. I just wish I was a few steps ahead of her.


Stray observations

  • From the girls’-night-out setup to the deification of Drake, “Champagne” feels like an episode of Insecure, right down to the appearance by Gail Bean as Nadine. But without that show’s traditional, serialized storytelling. I don’t take for granted that any of the events we see are happening in chronological order, but if that’s the case, Darius looks no worse for the wear after his encounter with Teddy and Benny.
  • The Drake in the Instagram photos turns out to be a standee, which makes sense considering it looks like a standee in the photos.
  • Seeing as how it was just a cardboard cutout, the weeping girl on the shuttle bus must be a really, really big Drake fan.
  • I dug the black actor’s response upon catching the tail end of his girlfriend’s confrontation. It was as if this has happened to him before and he’s learned to just roll with it.

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