Atlanta Recap: In the System

Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred. Photo: Guy D'Alema/FX
Episode Title
Streets on Lock
Editor’s Rating

Earn is the kind of person who stresses everyone the hell out. Yet for all his faults, you still hope this fool figures himself out. That clearly won't happen in "Streets on Lock," given how the episode begins: Earn and his rapping cousin are in jail, mere hours after he got Paper Boi's single on the radio.

While they're sitting there, Earn turns to Alfred and says, "I've never been arrested before." And he wasn't even arrested for fighting the struggle, so it's a big ol' L all around. I'm not sure what I'd do if I got locked up in similar fashion. I'd probably sing Ja Rule's "I Cry" — in my head, for safety reasons, obviously.

In another #poordat situation for Earn, Alfred is let out of jail faster than his kinfolk because someone handled his paperwork for him. When Alfred tries to see about bailing Earn out and inquires about why exactly he's been arrested, a very matter-of-fact black women quips, "What's the charge? Nigga, this ain't a movie. You better wait until he's in the system."

His ass sure waits, too.

I love Atlanta's unabashed use of nigga. Maybe Paul Mooney no longer believes saying it makes his teeth white, but many of us haven't stopped using it colloquially. Some will understand it's the culture, others will feign confusion and whine about double standards. I'll just be over here saying na-na-na-na-na-na, white people still can't say it.

You hear it again when Alfred makes his way out of jail, after a thirsty cop approaches him — well, Paper Boi — and asks for a picture. At one point, he asks, "You listen to Gucci Mane? Man, I locked that nigga up." How many Atlanta-area police officers can make similar boasts? To get a good estimate, multiply the number of lies Donald Trump has told this month by half the number of headlines featuring "Hillary Clinton" and "email." The answer is too many damn people.

That lust for fame follows Alfred for the rest of his day. Fresh out of jail, he and his hilarious friend Darius go to grab food, and he is approached by a very enthusiastic waiter who informs him that he is "the nigga." Why? Well, "I heard about that shoot-out you had on Twitter. You're one of the last real rappers, man." The waiter then goes to speak about being an old-school cat who listens to Mobb Deep and dead rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac. Not surprisingly, he also slams "singing-ass rappers" like Fetty Wap before noting it's "good to see a rapper blow a nigga."

The end result is that Alfred and Darius don't just get lemon-pepper wings, but WET lemon-pepper wings with the sauce. Now, lemon-pepper wings are already a cherished meal in certain sects of the community, but with the sauce, too? Oh, you poppin'.

Before leaving, the waiter warns Alfred, "Don't let me down. If you let me down, I don't know what I'd do." You'll grow up and get over it is what you'll do. What a picturesque visual encapsulation of the old heads: They cling to bygone days of hip-hop while bitching about how much they hate Drake, Kanye West, and artists like Childish Gambino all day long.

Of course, the scene is not exactly subtle commentary. I'm typically not a fan of shows being so overt, though in this instance, it's not a weakness. Thank God this one doesn't practice Tyler Perry–style moralism, in which you are beaten over the head about the way you ought to be thinking. And I suppose I'm a bit biased because I absolutely agree with the point being made. Atlanta wants to be sure that everyone knows how violence and a specific strain of masculinity can benefit rappers like Paper Boi when they're bursting onto the scene. The same goes for another scene where Alfred sees a little boy with a toy gun, emulating the parking-lot shooting so he can be just like him.

While Alfred tries to stage an impromptu after-school special to teach the boy why he shouldn't celebrate such behavior, a wise black woman snaps, "Who are you and why are you speaking to my children?" Perhaps she's seen enough episodes of Law & Order: SVU. When he says he didn't mean to get in their business, she notes, "But you did."

And yet, once Alfred reveals who he is (and raps the hook of his song to confirm it), the woman flips from handing him his ass to flirtily requesting a picture — with her hand on his chest — where it will surely land on the Instagram pages for the Shade Room and Baller Alert.

In these scenes, Atlanta makes keen observations about how quickly people will shift their attitudes and morals when it comes to celebrities, or more specifically, when it comes to famous rappers with songs we love. The scenes also add more layers to Alfred, who struggles to reconcile the Rick Ross–like mythology being attached to his rap persona with his actual identity.

Earn is the focal point of Atlanta, but his rags-to-riches tale is directly tied to how far Paper Boi rises as a rapper. In the first episode, Paper Boi hates the song that made his cousin decide to latch onto his rising success. In "Streets on Lock," he's visibly uneasy with the clout and cred he receives for shooting up a parking lot. A lot of rappers talk about violence, but they're not really about that.

I'm curious to find out if, much like drug dealing, the music is just Alfred's means to an end. Would he rather be somewhere else? So far, he looks like he'd rather be working at a bank. I want to learn how Alfred got to this point; I find his story most interesting. Yeah, I like Earn and I'll root for him to finally pay his baby mama's rent, but the story of a Princeton dropout just makes me want to shake a table.

Back in jail, we watch Earn bear witness to the ugliness of our justice system. At one point, we see a mentally-ill man dance around the waiting area to the amusement of other people who've been arrested. We then learn that he's there every week; when Earn correctly notes that the man should be somewhere other than jail getting help, he's told by a police officer to shut up. Not long after, we watch the man drink from a toilet, spit the water onto a police officer, and subsequently suffer a vicious beat down. His screams and shouts made me think of Ronald Reagan's disastrous dismantling of America's mental health-care system, and prompted an urge to lead a séance just to curse him out for the damage he's done.

Another scene involves Earn being the unintentional third wheel between a man who reunites with his ex. He's incredibly happy to be reunited with her, until he's told that she's a trans woman. The other men in the room think he's "gay as hell," and he tries to rebuff their claims by saying, "Y'all niggas fuck guys up in here anyway!" An older man is quick to respond, "That ain't gay. That's just jail. You was on the outside fucking booty holes."

Earn tries to help by offering, "Sexuality is a spectrum, you can really do whatever you want." It doesn't work. The man gets up, then angrily says, "I know what you think she is, but I ain't on that faggot shit."

As a southern gay black man, I suppose I can appreciate Atlanta's attempt to needle at the ridiculousness of homophobia and transphobia. However, if we're to assume Lisa was arrested for prostitution in the year 2016, in a city with a black LGBTQ population as hefty as Atlanta's, how naïve can that dude really be? There are streets like Peachtree in Midtown where many a working girl like Lisa hooks. Is he really that slow about the fluidity of sexuality? Wasn't he just fawning over her a minute ago? His reaction and this story line feel a bit dated. I mean, maybe the dude went to Eddie Long's church, hence the denial and confusion, but there are more contemporary ways to address homophobia and transphobia. I find it very hard to believe that someone who dated a trans black woman would not be up on game in Atlanta, of all places.

By the end of the episode, Van shows up to bail Earn out of jail, and she wears the face of disappointment when he slips into her car. As he looks to his daughter in the backseat, he jokes that one day they'll laugh about it. Yeah, good luck with that.

Earn may be failing, but Atlanta is not. For a show to tackle a rapper's ambivalence about fame, mass incarceration, the plight of mental health care in America, homophobia, and transphobia in 22 minutes without overwhelming its audience is quite impressive. I know, I know, the show is not trying to make a statement. I like that Glover has repeatedly made that plain. It removes the pressure to live up to other people's ideals about his art. Still, "Streets on Lock" is a good example of how Glover and the Atlanta writers convey complex themes within the half-hour format. And it's worth noting these subjects might otherwise not be addressed in scripted television — certainly not in shows with a young black man at the helm. Atlanta is a very rare creation, and I look forward to seeing more of it.