“True, I've got more fans than the average man / But not enough loot to last me.” —“Elevators (Me & You)” by Outkast
Atlanta, which ended its excellent first season on FX Tuesday night, has been rightly and frequently praised for its authentic, naturalistic portrayal of black culture in the titular city. During the pre-fall Television Critics’ Association press tour, creator Donald Glover even specifically stated that the show’s thesis was to “show people how it feels to be black.” In ways that felt very different from every series that’s made a remotely similar attempt, it succeeded. (At least I, a very white person, think it did.)
But Atlanta succeeded at something else equally important: portraying economic struggle and the role that perception plays in achieving a certain status. Aside from showing people how it feels to be black, I’d say this was the central concern of the entire first season, and one that has something in common with the show’s race-related mission statement. When you’re poor, it can be jarring and frustrating when people mistakenly assume you have cash, just as when you’re black, it’s disconcerting and downright maddening to keep dealing with prejudice while being told that America is post-racial.
We’ve all seen shows about people who clearly are wealthy and live accordingly, as well as shows about people who don’t have a lot of money, but, often, still live like they do. Television, especially on cable or streaming platforms, has gotten somewhat better about this by creating environments that seem more aligned with their characters’ circumstances — Issa’s modest L.A. apartment on Insecure is exactly where a woman working for a nonprofit and her unemployed boyfriend might actually live — or that at least explain those circumstances more clearly. The spacious but unostentatious house where the divorced Sam resides with her three daughters on Better Things, for example, is believable because Sam has said she earned and saved a decent amount of money, presumably from her work as a child actor.
But Atlanta gets at another financial reality that feels very tied to the present moment, which is the experience of not having much at all, while sometimes being perceived as a success.
Atlanta establishes in the very first episode that Earn (Glover) is a man in pretty dire straits. He’s trying to scrape together funds by signing up airport commuters for credit cards but not having much luck. He’s got no place of his own and has been living with his on-again, off-again girlfriend/baby mama Van (Zazie Beetz), an arrangement that’s about to end. He’s broke, he’s essentially homeless (even his parents won’t take him in), and he has no prospects. Then he realizes that his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) is successfully releasing rap tracks as Paper Boi. Pretty soon, Earn’s got a new career path as Paper Boi’s manager.
On any other show that begins within this framework, Earn would proceed to embark on a journey from have-not to haver-of-everything. By the end of the first season, he’d be wealthy, living in a sick condo next door to Cam Calloway from Survivor’s Remorse, hitting the clubs, and about to ride Paper Boi’s coattails to the BET Awards red carpet. But Atlanta is not any other show, so that is not at all what happens.
Instead, in just about every episode, Earn continues to be poor while bumping into situations in which he’s expected to have more cash and/or status than he does. That happens in episode three, “Go For Broke,” when he takes Van to a swank restaurant only because it supposedly offers an extended happy hour, then gets stuck with a bill he can’t afford thanks to Van’s assumption that he can pony up for pricey entrées. It happens in episode four, when Earn relies on Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) to help him get the most possible money out of a phone trade-in and winds up with a long-term dog-breeding investment because Darius doesn’t get that Earn badly needs those dollar bills, like, yesterday.
It happens in episode five, when Earn is mistaken for an agent and gets briefly treated to a cocktail reception at a celebrity basketball game, only to be berated by the same woman who acted like he was a VIP moments before. It happens in episode eight, when Earn actually does hit a club as the manager of a celebrity guest, but spends most of the time trying to track down the owner who owes him and Paper Boi their payment; the only way he finds the ducking and dodging dude is by discovering a secret passageway and even then, the guy still tries to stiff him. It happens in episode nine, when Earn finally decides to fake it completely by pretending to be Van’s Ivy League–educated husband at a Juneteenth party hosted by an elite couple. But even buying into the fakery doesn’t help Earn (or Van) climb the social ladder; eventually, the truth comes out, and he’s immediately deemed deplorable once the party’s hostess realizes he manages a rap artist. (In one of the show’s many subversions of expectation, it’s the black wife who looks down her nose at Earn, while the white but clearly desperate to be black husband seems to think even more highly of him based on his chosen profession.)
And then there’s the remarkable season-closer that sends Earn on a post-party odyssey to recover a missing bomber jacket. At first, the episode leads you to believe that the jacket must be valuable to Earn, either for sentimental reasons or, more likely, because he invested what little money he has in it. But the big reveal at the end is that what was in the pocket of that jacket — the key to a storage unit where Earn often sleeps — was actually what mattered. It’s a perfect, full-circle moment when Earn retrieves the key thanks to his buddy from episode one, the fellow credit-card salesman who first clued him in to Paper Boi’s success.
It takes a couple of minutes for this to set in, but eventually it will dawn on you: Earn has been homeless this whole time. You forget that the guy has constantly been crashing at other people’s places and never managed to secure one of his own, because the episodes have shown us what Earn is doing every day, not where he lays his head every single night. Atlanta makes us do to Earn what so many people do: make assumptions about aspects of his life that we don’t see, based on our own unconscious bias. We know this guy is struggling. We’ve watched him do it and say it for several episodes. But we still don’t fully grasp what that means until we see how grateful he is to crash on a dirty blanket inside a bleak storage facility.
Earn is not the only character whose experiences illustrate the disconnect between actual and perceived status. At that club where Earn keeps trying to chase down a check, Darius steps out of Paper Boi’s VIP section for a minute, then can’t get back in because the bouncer doesn’t recognize that he belongs with the folks behind the rope. Van is disdainful of her jet-setting, bed-hopping best friend Jayde, but also clearly craves the company of people who have made it, whether it’s Jayde or Mr. and Mrs. Juneteenth, because she wants some of their pixie dust to rub off on her. Paper Boi is constantly dealing with the whiplash that comes with achieving a minor level of fame, sometimes believing he’s more of a star than he is (he gets annoyed when Black Justin Bieber and NFL player Marcus Miles attract more attention than he does, and can’t stand being blasted on social media) and keeping a tight lid on the fact that he’s earned more from drug-dealing than any rapping he’s ever done.
“Most of this rap shit is appearances,” Paper Boi says in a conversation during the finale. Adds Darius: “Appearances are money.” They’re basically describing their blueprint for success, which is the blueprint for achieving the American Dream circa 2016. You fake it for a while by making yourself look like a success, on social media and elsewhere. Then people perceive you as a successful person, and, pretty soon, you actually start getting paid real bucks based on the reputation you’ve built.
Atlanta both demonstrates how that path can work and how the inherent falseness of it doesn’t always benefit everyone. As Earn says in the season premiere, “I just keep losing. Are some people just supposed to lose?”
The final moments of that last episode seem to suggest otherwise. As Earn settles into his storage unit and yanks a couple $100 bills out of his shoe, for the first time it feels like faking it has started to get him somewhere after all.