It would’ve been foolhardy to try to top last week’s episode, so the Atlanta folks seemed to have bypassed that expectation entirely. If “Helen” excelled in character development, tension, and emotional resonance, “Barbershop” proves to be a whole other thing. The episode is an extended bit, which would be a pretty big gamble if the jokes were unfunny or dumb, but the paradox of the relationship between black guys and their barbers is a world unto itself, a premise the entire series could’ve been built on.
In this case, Al and his barber, Bibby (played by the comedian Robert S. Powell) go on an adventure throughout the city — or, as Bibby later says, they have a “good day”). Al’s got a photo shoot coming up, so he drops in to get his regular cut, but the thing about appointments is that, depending on the barber, they are an abstract concept. If you don’t have one, you’re not getting in the chair anytime soon. If you do have one, it’s not unreasonable to say that you’re in the same situation. After Bibby shows up late, he gets a phone call from (one of) his partner(s) and tells Al that he needs to run an errand. If Al wants his cut, he’ll come with him. But it’ll only take a minute. Real quick.
The episode is a gem because it highlights such a specific experience. It takes on the question of what it takes to find a good cut from a black barbershop in Atlanta (although it could be any major American city, really), and flips it to the extreme, in a way that the Barbershop films, let’s say, simply couldn’t have. Because the thing about black hair is that it’s an art, and while (white) media has just begun to come around to this fact in the last few years, what hasn’t been conveyed as thoroughly is the difficulty of finding a barber who matches you price-wise, aesthetic-wise, and personality-wise. Most of us only get two of these things! For Al, shepherded along by the very funny Bibby, it’s the third factor that drives this episode. In this episode, as with “Alligator Man” a little earlier, the series has given us an archetype so prevalent in black life that Bibby really could warrant a series of his own.
So how hard is it to get a haircut in Atlanta? What roads do you have to crawl under and over and through just to get the usual? In this case, it makes the most sense to just list them all out, as they escalate in ridiculous fashion — but a thing being absurd doesn’t make it any less accurate. If anything, it’s the absurdity that makes it true.
(1) Bibby can’t even hold a greeting conversation with Al for starters, because he’s got another chat simultaneously on one of those annoying phone earpieces. This is not a good way to start an appointment! But the real joke is that, in actuality, this is so commonplace to the point of banality.
(2) Bibby has to do something across town really quick! And Al may have an appointment, but of course he can’t get the cut he needs from anyone else in the shop. So he (reluctantly) hops in the car to Bibby’s partner’s place, where Bibby actually has another appointment waiting for a young boy. Which means Al has to wait some more. After that cut, the power in the house goes out, which Bibby was supposed to have paid (sorry!), which means Al and Bibby must make their exit … again. They are officially on their way to the barbershop.
(3) But actually, is Al hungry? Bibby wants to know. He asks Al if he’d like some Zaxby’s, and Al, who is absolutely beside himself, agrees. But what Bibby didn’t say is that the meal he’d offered is actually only the leftovers of a meal from who knows when, in the microwave of the lot of a house that’s still being built. Also, they need to throw some unused lumber in the car! The quicker they do that, the quicker Al will get his cut! But as they’re moving the wood, a white woman (the wife of the property’s contractor) approaches the pair, calling foul. Bibby informs her that despite his being a contractor, there is actually no contract because her husband was cheap. Before the woman can wrap her mind around that fact, Al and Bibby speed away with the lumber.
(4) They’re going to the barbershop for real this time! But on the way, Bibby finds his son cutting class on the side of the road. This one, it appears, really does happen by chance, and the shot of Bibby leaning over Al in his truck will surely be some sort of GIF by week’s end. After running down Bibby’s son and his friends, we see the barber irate for the first time in the episode: He is truly disappointed in the young man for skipping school, and doubly so for not at least canvassing the posters with his newfound free time. And Bibby is so upset that he calls on Al to exit the car and “inspire the youth.” After Bibby’s son notes that Al “looks raggety as shit,” “out here looking like a Super Saiyan,” Al takes it upon himself to read the high schooler in the parking lot (“I’m a regular-ass person … famous people need to eat and shit and person they goddamn teeth. I’m regular, bruh.”), but only before the kid asks Al if he can put him on a track!
(5) Okay! They are really headed to the barbershop now! And there’s a new member in their party: Bibby, Bibby’s son, and Al. But in the middle of driving, while also talking down his son, while also warding off Al’s warnings, Bibby runs into an Asian woman’s car on the highway. He rear-ends her sedan, totaling the rear bumper. And, for a moment, the three black men find themselves in the very real position of fearing what might happen if they talk to the authorities in a moving vehicle. But it’s worth noting that before Bibby takes off (and he does take off), he stops to take stock of the woman’s condition … except once she steps out of the car, slowly, and then places her hand on her lower back and howls, the situation is sealed. Is she really injured? Or has Bibby, as a professional scammer, recognized the beginnings of a scam in progress?
(6) Yes. Wow. Now they have finally reached the barbershop. After one last attempted run-out, Bibby sits Al down to cut his hair, although the latter is understandably reluctant to pay him for doing so. (On Al’s way out, Bibby shouts, “No tip?!”)
There are many different avenues the Atlanta crew could’ve taken for a barbershop episode, but this one is remarkable in its specificity. Do you know how hard it is to find a good barber in this country? For your head, specifically? “Barbershop” pokes at the image of the black barber as an artist, probing the question of who we allow, in media, to hold onto their eccentricities. Bibby’s are pretty extreme, sure, but what televised white artist with their own series or movie adaptation isn’t? If we were to swap Atlanta for, let’s say, London, and Bibby’s profession of barbering with, I don’t know, dressmaking, how would the language surrounding our conversation of the episode change? Would we think of it as more elevated? More refined? Do some faces not get to exhibit that eccentricity? As Bibby notes in the episode, “Key and Peele put a movie out with a cat in it, [and] they put the cat on the poster! They dressed the cat up like a nigga instead of putting the two niggas that made the movie on the poster … shit’s nuts out here.”
Ultimately, any slights against the barber as a character are forgiven in the shots where hair is actually being cut: There’s real care taken as Bibby sprays his alcohol, as he trims the edges of Al’s lineup. The frenzied soundtrack slows down, becoming intimate. He is in a very beautiful space. When Bibby brushes the top of Al’s head, there’s love there. Unfortunately for Al, Bibby has his problems, but he truly is the best at what he does. That pride for his craft doesn’t surface until the episode’s end, when Al sits in another barber’s chair. It’s reflected dually across the two men’s faces as Al realizes what Bibby tried to tell him in the episode’s outset: He is the only man in this world who can do what he does for him, the way that he wants, a gift and a burden all the same.