We’re watching two separate journeys on Atlanta. Earn’s story is about how he might overcome being broke as hell to provide a better life for himself and his family. Of course, he can only accomplish this feat by latching onto his cousin Alfred’s burgeoning rap career. As for Alfred, we’re witnessing the story of an artist who must navigate fame and all that comes with it.
“The Streisand Effect” continues to develop each of these threads, though yet again, Alfred is more the driving force than Earn. The episode begins with both of them standing in a parking lot — no gun violence this time — as they talk about a potential song. (“Pussy relevant, so intelligent” is a sample line, if you’re curious.) Seconds later, a racially ambiguous character named Zan walks up to Alfred and says, “My nigga.” Alfred gives pause, like most black people would, and asks, “Are you even black?”
Zan says yes, though for much of the episode, others wonder about his exact background. Is he Dominican? (Which you know, is a nationality, not a race, but I get what they’re angling at.) Or maybe he’s half-Chinese? Is he Indian? If so, as one of Alfred’s friends notes, “I don’t like Indian dudes who say ‘nigga.’”
Neither do I. If you’re not a part of the diaspora and none of your kinfolk can be traced to those slave ships, keep that word out of your month. But yeah, I don’t know what Zan exactly is, but I do know that he’s an annoying jackass. Kudos to actor Freddie Kuguru, who plays the part extremely well. In any event, Zan introduces himself to Alfred and Earn, asks them to pose for Instagram, Snapchat, and every other social-media app known to man, and then makes his exit. The next morning, though, Zan starts talking shit online about Paper Boi — which drives Alfred crazy.
Earn tells him not to worry about it, but as many of us know, that’s easier said than done. It is incredibly difficult to avoid the temptation to curse out annoying strangers online. Sure, it is “just the internet,” but trolls are trolls because they know exactly which buttons to push.
Zan definitely knows how to drive Alfred crazy. In one scene, he posts a picture of Alfred holding a trash bag next to the dumpster while his energetic voice narrates, “Oh, look, I found all my mixtape! Let me put them back where they belong!” You get the message: Alfred’s mixtapes are trash.
Maybe I’m giving Zan’s method of trolling too much credit. You don’t have to spend much time on the internet to find crueler examples of trolling, but it’s effective enough in the episode’s story line. To wit, Alfred cannot stop watching Zan’s antics. He checks his YouTube page while pumping gas. He shows his Vine clips to friends at the pool hall. He obsesses over every video Zan uploads to clown him.
More commentary from Zan: “The first L this dude took is naming himself Paper Boi,” and “This is the problem with rap right now: Every nigga can’t sell drugs.”
Alfred feels a way ‘cause, you know, he actually does sell drugs, but as his friend at the pool hall reminds him, he needn’t be concerned. It’s not like you want everyone knowing you hustle, right? I guess it’s just the principle. Then again, if you’re a rapper and you sell drugs, but you can’t take someone playing you online, you’re about to have a hard-ass road ahead.
Moments later, an older bartender who looks like he listens to nothing but Zapp, Angela Winbush, and Earth, Wind & Fire realizes he knows Zan and where he works. So, Alfred rolls up to his job at the pizza spot. Zan is not shaken in the least. He greets Alfred with a grin and extends his hand.
Alfred tells him that they need to talk. Zan is totally casual about it: “Yeah, sure, we can talk. I just gotta deliver this [pizza], though. Ride with me, we’ll talk.” There’s a little black boy sitting in the back of the car, by the way, but we’ll get to that CPS case in a second. After they hit the road, Alfred wastes little time getting to business.
Alfred: “I’m getting tired of niggas online harassing me.”
Zan: “I’m helping us get money.”
Alfred: “Nigga, there is no money anywhere near rap.”
I feel personally offended by this assertion because I still have dreams of becoming the gay Future to pay off my student loans. Offense aside, the conversation becomes more interesting when Alfred speaks more about what motivates him. He says, “I scare people at the ATMs,” thus, “I have to rap. That’s what rap is: Making the best out of a bad situation.”
Zan offers a counterpoint: The game is the game. “You’re exploiting your situation to make rap,” he explains. “And I’m exploiting you exploiting that. Money, bro.” As for the little boy sitting in the back, he’s not Zan’s son. “That’s my business partner. We make Vine videos together.” In other words, Zan isn’t trolling for sport or because he truly means it. He’s doing all this for the sake of financial gain.
I get the point Atlanta is trying to make in this sequence, but I’m not sure a little black boy who says funny things on Vine is the best example. Last winter, Doreen St. Felix wrote an article entitled “Black Teens Are Breaking the Internet and Seeing None of the Profits” for Fader. In that piece, St. Felix explains how young black creatives are using social media to shape culture, but they don’t own their words — in this case, a phrase like “on fleek” — and other entities are making money off their genius.
I suppose Zan is exploiting this child, but if that’s the case, he doesn’t need to be lecturing anyone. He just deserves a fade for the culture. Whatever the case, once Alfred watches Zan send the little boy off to deliver pizza — and refuses to help when the kid gets robbed — he exits the car.
As for Earn, he spends most of “The Streisand Effect” running around with Darius. They go to the pawn shop because Earn needs some quick cash, and on the way, they keep debating as to whether or not black people know Steve McQueen. Inside the pawn shop, they immediately see a poster of … Steve McQueen. The guy running the shop explains: “I keep that there for protection. If some dude come in here asking about that poster, I know he in here trying to get me to turn around so he can rob me.”
I’ll admit it: I didn’t know who Steve McQueen was until Atlanta. Thank you, Donald Glover. #TheMoreYouKnow
With the McQueen debate finished, Earn decided to pawn his phone for money. He ends up getting a sword, though, based on Darius’s advice. (“If you need the money, take the money. I’m just saying I can get you more.”) The two end up driving all over town, swapping the sword for a dog, then delivering that dog to a guy outside a rundown barn. As the episode ends, though, Darius reveals the big money won’t be coming until September: “He’s gonna take that Cane Corso and breed it with his other Cane Corso. They’re gonna have Cane Corso puppies. They gonna sell them pups for $2,000 each. You get half. Man, you ‘bout to come up off that phone, bro.”
Earn tells Darius that he needed the money for Van and his daughter. After some additional back and forth, Earn explains, “Poor people don’t have time for investments because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor. I need to eat today, not in September.”
With that struggle in mind, the very kind Darius hands Earn his cell phone to pawn for the money he should’ve taken the first time. It’s a nice gesture, for sure, but Darius notes that he gets a new one every month anyway to make sure he isn’t being tracked. After gifting his phone to Earn, Darius pauses to consider the moment, then concludes, “We’re friends now.”
One of the things I like most about Atlanta is how the story develops like short ribs cooking in a slow cooker. Even so, I don’t really think that deliberate pace works especially well for “The Streisand Effect.” The Zan story line could’ve been executed differently; he seemed like an inspired character at first, but he quickly went flat. I’m still very interested in seeing how Alfred deals with fame, so perhaps he’ll return with more depth in a future episode.
As for Earn, I want to know exactly how he ended up in his position. How did he go from Princeton to the pawn shop? Also, he asks Alfred if he can sleep at his house for another night. What happened? Did Van kick him out?
Until we find out why Earn’s in this spot, Alfred’s story line will overshadow most of his cousin’s struggles. That’s not to say “The Streisand Effect” is a letdown, though. Brian Tyree Henry adds more depth to a terrific performance, and I’m glad to see Earn and Darius develop such a peculiar friendship. This is a fine episode, even if it’s not as superb as the ones that came before it. Let’s just hope Atlanta gives us something magical next week.