In tonight’s episode of Atlanta, racial politics are tackled in three distinct ways. In one instance, white people decide Darius isn’t worth their empathy. In another, Earn is mistaken for another black man, despite no evidence that they look similar. In the last one, Alfred’s dark skin, build, and music give way to biases that prevent him the chance to show who he really is.
Oh, and there’s a black Justin Bieber. But we’ll get to him soon enough.
While Paper Boi and Earn go off to a charity basketball game, Darius spends his time at the shooting range. The visual of Darius tipping to the gun store for playtime immediately made me miss the South. I know, I know — America needs gun control. I’m with y’all. However, leisurely trips to the gun range are very much a thing in many parts of the country. I’m still vexed you can’t go on a date to the shooting range in New York City without jumping through so many hoops. Sad!
Anyhow, Darius opts to use the image of a dog rather than a human target. The sight of him shooting a dog baffles other people at the range, and soon enough, two white men walk over to Darius to complain. “You can’t shoot dogs,” says one of the men, who needs to mind his business, before he starts whining about how his kid could have been there. Why would your kid be at the gun range, beloved?
Darius, played so well by Keith Stanfield, raises a fair question in response: “Why would I shoot a human target?” It’s a reasonable concern, though it doesn’t do much in the way of persuading this guy. “I’m not gonna let you shoot a fucking dog in here,” he says.
Moments later, another man who seems to be of Middle Eastern descent jumps into the argument. After siding with Darius, he proceeds to criticize the angry dog-lover for shooting a Mexican target. “America has taken so much. No more!” he declares. “A revolution will rise from within. Blood will spill!”
Darius waits a beat before his follow-up: “Well, I didn’t say all that, but, you know.”
Although Darius’s point is valid, it doesn’t matter. The store owner interrupts the conversation, points a gun at him, and escorts him right on out the door. Except for the lazy stereotyping of a Middle Eastern person — which is quite a bad look for Atlanta — the sequence is a funny illustration of double standards. I’ve often borne witness to white people advocating for animal rights before they do similarly for human beings, especially darker humans. PETA is a fine example of this occurrence, given how the group compares animal abuse to the African slave trade.
Darius could have been practicing to shoot Cujo, but heaven forbid a dog is shot instead of human target. This white man just can’t muster up a thoughtful response to Darius’s inquiry. Why is it okay to shoot at a human target, but not Scooby-Doo’s third cousin? He doesn’t care to answer. He just wants Darius to stop.
Moving on to Earn. While Paper Boi is hooping at a charity basketball game, his cousin/manager finds himself hobnobbing with agents, managers, and lawyers for the rich and famous. (Or, at least, the famous adjacent.) It all happens by accident, of course: An older woman (played by Jane Adams) mistakes Earn for a former colleague named Alonso, talks him up, and invites him to join her in the lounge upstairs. Sensing a business opportunity, Earn decides to play along.
In my mind, this Alonso guy looks like Earn’s polar opposite. I’ve certainly experienced such meritless comparisons myself. During Labor Day weekend, someone told me that they thought I looked like Usain Bolt. A Twitter troll once claimed that I looked like Chris Brown with Down syndrome. The point is, some people think us blacks all look alike even when we don’t share the slightest resemblance. Maybe this woman is an alcoholic. Maybe Earn truly does have a doppelgänger. I doubt it, though, and I’m done trying to excuse white people for thinking all black people look the same.
At least “Alonso” ends up making the most of his time. He listens as a group of agents discuss the industry. People ask him if his “client” wants to pursue TV opportunities. (“My client is interested in anything that pays money,” he says.) They hand him business cards. Ever quick on his feet, Earn says he is fresh out of his own cards, but he’ll be sure to call them.
Yes, Earn. Get your Joanne Prada on. As he walks away from that impromptu networking session, he’s actually grinning. He’s pleased with himself. He’s feeling confident. It’s good to see Earn smile for once, as opposed to looking like the physical manifestation of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Can it please last, Atlanta?
I also appreciated the scene that follows his little triumph. Earn goes up to the bar to order a beer, but promptly changes his order after the bartender tells him, “It’s gratis.” The new choice? Hennessy and Grand Marnier. Hell yeah, black man.
Minutes later, though, the good times settle down. After the woman who keeps calling him Alonso sidles up to the bar, she drops her pleasant façade. Still believing Earn to be Alonso, she calls him a “faggot cocksucker” and accuses him of stealing her clients and ruining her career. Even after Earn reveals that she’s got the wrong guy, she’s not done. “I’m gonna make sure you that you die homeless,” she promises. Well then!
Alright, it’s time for the episode’s main event: the charity basketball game. Let’s just first address how goofy Alfred can be. He is so happy to be playing in this thing. He practically bounces around the place. It reminds me of how Rick Ross looked and sounded in Trina’s “Told Y’all” video. It all screams, “I MADE IT.”
But, nah, Paper Boi, you haven’t made it yet. You got one hit to your name and it’s more like “212” than “Panda.” This truth is confirmed when Alfred tries to hit on a reporter before the game. “So what’s good?” he asks. “You wanna interview me? I’ll tell you my whole life story.” As a writer, I think it’s important you know how annoying such statements are. No one cares, playboy. (I did, however, chuckle when Alfred suggested, “I’ll even let you interview me somewhere fly like Benihanas.”) After some more prodding on Alfred’s part, the woman realizes she knows who Paper Boi is — but only as the dude who shot somebody.
Now, just to paint a picture, Alfred joins a roster of celebrity talent that includes Lloyd, Jaleel White, and Lil’ Zane. Yeah, that’s definitely a celebrity event in Atlanta. No shade.
The biggest star in attendance is Justin Bieber, but in the world of Atlanta, Justin Bieber is a black man. As played by actor Austin Crute, Bieber is essentially the same obnoxious pop star who annoys the world with antics like being carried across the Great Wall of China and snubbing fans. When someone in the crowd shouts, “I love you, Justin,” his response is telling: “I know, bitch.” And when Black Bieb spots Paper Boi, his oh-so charming introduction makes the point even sharper. “Hey, you that nigga that blew that other nigga’s brains out,” he says. “Cool.”
Alfred is immediately agitated by Bieber, though Earn suggests that it’d be good for his career if they collaborated. So much for any chance of that. They trash-talk on the court, things get heated, and Alfred ultimately tackles that small, irritating little person to the horror of every child in attendance.
In the episode’s closing scene, Negro Bieber holds a press conference in which he feigns regret about the fight. “I guess I’ve been trying to be so cool lately,” he says, “I’m not a bad guy; I love Christ.” In other words, he offers the same kind of lines that the real Bieber fed the press when he was trying to redeem his public image and salvage his career.
Seconds after that lackluster confession, we watch Bieber perform his new, redemption-themed single. A sampling of the lyrics: “Whatever I do, girl, just forget about it all night long.” Real deep stuff, Biebs. Things get interesting when Alfred walks up to the reporter who previously dismissed his advances. He tries to apologize for the fight, and she responds with some curt advice: “Play your part,” she says. “People don’t want Justin to be the asshole. They want you to be the asshole. You’re a rapper. That’s your job.”
Alfred wants people to know “the real him,” but it doesn’t matter to the outside world. He is a rapper, therefore, he is a particular type of black man. He can’t be complicated. He can’t have complex emotions. He can’t contradict his role. The reporter has already made up her mind, as have so many others.
Still, “Nobody Beats the Biebs” is an unfair presentation of this argument. You can’t shoot someone in the parking lot or tackle someone at a children’s charity game, then proceed to give sad, puppy-dog face when someone tells you to play your part. All black men must contend with stereotypes, but Alfred’s feeding into those expectations by shooting folks up and tackling youthful jackasses at charity events. No wonder that reporter had no interest in learning more about him. She doesn’t like “gangster culture” — insert cringe here, by the way — and he played into the role she sized him up for.
Paper Boi should try listening to Mariah Carey’s advice: “Ain’t gon’ feed ya, I’mma let ya starve.”