How Atlanta Nailed the Art of the BFFsplain

L-R: Aubin Wise as Jayde, Zazie Beetz as Van. Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX Networks

This week’s episode of Atlanta makes a notably bold choice, effortlessly shifting focus from its principal protagonists (Earn, Paper Boi, Darius) to the relationship between Van, Earn’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, and Jayde, Van’s longtime friend.

That episode, “Value,” devotes nearly its entire first half to shining a light on what I’ll call BFFsplaining: what happens when one female friend tries to tell another how to live — or not live — her life. (Note: It is possible for two women to simultaneously BFFsplain to each other. In fact, that’s usually how it works. Between true confidantes, being judgmental is always a two-way street.)

During a disastrous dinner date, both Van (Zazie Beetz, proving repeatedly that a facial expression is worth a thousand words) and Jayde (an effectively slick and self-righteous Aubin Wise) carefully pick at the stray threads in their friendship until the whole thing completely unravels. Like so many heated conversations, on TV and in real life, what each one says reveals as much about her own insecurities as it does about her feelings toward the lady sitting across from her. It’s a significant highlight in a very strong first season of Atlanta, not only because it’s so well acted, written (by Donald Glover and Stefani Robinson), and directed (by Glover), but because it unfolds in a show that, at least in theory, is supposed to be about dudes.

The minute Van enters that candlelit restaurant and sits down across from Jayde, it’s clear that each woman is familiar with her role in this lifelong partnership. (Jayde refers to a mutual friend from fifth grade, implying they’ve known each other since childhood.) Jayde is the flashy, well-heeled, seemingly put-together one who always gets her way and doesn’t fully listen when Van is talking. Van is the more down-t0-earth, somewhat bitter one who often feels inferior in Jayde’s presence but still shows up to have a bite with her every time Little Miss Private Jet rolls into town. They speak very directly to each other but also talk around the issues that divide them, in a way that only women who grew up together and are, essentially, sisters can.

The two primary sticking points between them involve the two m’s: money and men, which, for Jayde, rotate in the same orbit. (The episode eventually confirms that she’s able to live in such high style because she’s a paid escort.) Jayde practically pulls a muscle in her efforts to remind Van how well-off she is: She re-recommends an overpriced hairstylist, orders a bottle of wine for the table without asking, and talks up all of the amazing cities she gets to visit with such silky condescension that you just want to plunge your hand into the TV and wipe the high-end lip gloss right off her bragging mouth. “London’s okay,” she says. “Too much rain. Makes my hair frizzy.” Then she adds: “But I love Paris. Girl, have you been?”

The way that Van shakes her head and avoids Jayde’s gaze conveys the shame and inferiority that come with this admission. At the same time, you can tell that during all of Jayde’s conspicuous-consumption-based boasting, Van is thinking, Why are you so fixated on money? And why do you assume everyone can afford, or would even want, to live the way you do? There’s an irony in this since, just three episodes ago, at a similarly posh-looking restaurant, Earn was sitting across the table from Van having similar thoughts.

Eventually the trickling subtext of this conversation gushes into the text when Jayde drops this bombshell of advice on Van: “You need to think about your value.” She accuses Van of selling herself short by remaining involved with a noncommittal trifler like Earn, but by using that word — value — she’s also, again, reminding Van that she’s got less in her bank account than Jayde does. Van, not one to take any form of abuse without a fight, shoots back: “You don’t think that I’m running around? You don’t think that I ever decline his calls because I have some guy wrapped around me with his tongue down my throat? I mean, come on!”

Oh, it’s a daaaamn good fight. As these two circle each other and get in their jabs, it’s obvious how much they want to one-up each other, but also how much they each need to feel good about their respective choices. Van illustrates that by seeming embarrassed that she has a child and a job that requires her to get up at 9 a.m. Jayde does it by going on and on about her rich, heavily Instagrammed lifestyle, which conveniently glosses over any of her own self-doubts. This is how women undermine themselves and each other: by defining their success based on whether they can land a man or bring home the bacon without help from one, then feeling jealous or inadequate when a close friend seems to be scoring higher on either metric.

Similar dynamics and BFFsplaining play out all the time on television. In Insecure, which debuts Sunday on HBO, Issae and her bestie Molly are constantly up in each other’s business, attempting to guide each other toward what each defines as better choices. In season one of Girls, Marnie moves out of the apartment she shared with Hannah following an argument peppered with references to status-seeking as well as the status of their love lives. “What do you want besides a boyfriend with a luxury rental?” Hannah asks Marnie, a question that Van could easily have posed to Jayde. And on what is the godmother of modern television that explores female friendship, Sex and the City, Miranda constantly offers Carrie unsolicited romantic advice that quickly turns into harsh criticism. “He is bad for you,” she blurts out in season three when Carrie mentions she’s planning to have lunch with Big. “Every time you get near him you turn into this pathetic, needy, insecure victim, and the thing that pisses me off the most is that you’re more than willing to go right back for more.” Using different words, Miranda is essentially saying what Jayde says to Van in Atlanta: “You need to think about your value.” (For the record, Miranda is more right about this than Jayde.)

Despite the intensity of all these conflicts, all of these women work through their issues and reconcile with each other, because these friendships are too strong and matter too much. To Atlanta’s credit as a show that never does what you expect, I’m not sure if that’s exactly what will happen between Van and Jayde. Even though the two make up over a shared joint, the rest of the episode illustrates the consequences of that indulgence for Van. After forgetting about a scheduled drug test at work, she winds up admitting she smoked pot and losing her job. When she reaches out to Jayde for help during this debacle, she’s not particularly helpful, even though it was Jayde who persuaded Van to toke up against her better judgment.

I have no doubt that the next time Jayde glides into Atlanta, she’ll try to connect with Van, and Van will probably agree to meet up with her. After all, your best friend when you were a little girl is a friend for life, and the song that’s playing in the restaurant in the beginning of this episode — “It’s Forever” by the Ebonys — serves as testament to that.

But Jayde may have helped Van see that she’s often attracted to unhealthy, imbalanced relationships, not just with guys like Earn but with friends like Jayde. Jayde told Van to think about her value. Maybe Van will take that to heart and remember that she is worth something, which means that her valuable time should be spent on more important things than worrying about what an old, materialistic friend thinks about the life she’s made for herself.


How Atlanta Nailed the Art of the BFFsplain