Honestly, this entire recap could be all about Van. Partly because it’s her first appearance in Robbin’ Season, but partly because, Darius aside, she’s the show’s most enigmatic character. It’s not even close. Earn, we can wrap our heads around: He’s searching for himself in a new-old environment. Al’s situation as a dude coming to terms with his rapidly changing life is honed with every episode. But Van is loads more nebulous: She’s still with Earn, sort of, except for the times when she’s not. She’s raising a child mostly on her own, although we don’t catch wind of the kid in “Money Bag Shawty.” She’s vaguely conscious of where she’d like to end up, which is a lot more than any of the show’s male characters can say, but she isn’t disillusioned by the fact that she may not find herself there, or that her current situation might be as good as it gets.
Van is Atlanta’s most elusive character, which is to say that she’s the least autonomous. That’s my issue with this episode, as with this series so far: We rarely get to see her on her own. Yeah, Van’s hanging out with the guys now, and this is a happy reintroduction, but where has she been? What’s happened since we saw her last? Has her job situation changed? And her romantic prospects? We don’t have any of that, at least not yet. We only watch Van within the context of a disastrous night out with Earn.
But, again, we’re only on the third episode of the season. There’s time to make this right. The narrative we do find ourselves with is Earn’s ongoing odyssey. He starts “Money Bag Shawty” in a pothole, beginning with a dressing down by a random waiter. Talking to Al afterward, Earn says that it must be great to have a rapper’s instant street cred (it isn’t), because Earn’s only ever been stunted on. He wants to be the guy who stunts. But even after Al’s protests (“Welcome to Atlanta — all you need is some money”), Earn still wishes that he could be that guy. When some money makes its way to Van’s house, Earn figures he’ll take that theory on a test-drive: He decides that, this weekend, he and Van are gonna buy the town, claiming, with a check in hand, that “the stunters have become the stunted.”
Of course, it doesn’t work like that. In fact, nothing works at all. Earn tries paying for movie tickets at a bougie theater with a $100 bill, and the cashier doesn’t accept it. Then, they card him when he offers his debit card. Then, when he spots a white guy paying with the same bill, he’s flashed with a pistol (because Georgia, or at least white Georgia). Then, at a hookah bar, after he’s shaken down by the doorman, Earn is taken for a $100 bill forger. And he loses the bill. Then he’s told that he also has to pay, again, because he’s already in the bar. Afterward, a cop pulls him aside to note that everybody knew the bill was real — the owner just wouldn’t calm down.
Meanwhile, as with last week’s episode, Al is still navigating the authenticity question: When he spends an afternoon with Darius and Clark County in the studio, he runs into the paradox of who the young man says he is. After refusing a blunt and a bottle of Hennessy, Clark steps into the booth to rap about partaking in both. He’s warm and cordial, in direct contrast to his claims of trapping. Insofar as he’s anything like his persona, it’s with the sound engineer, the lone white guy in the room: After the engineer botches the sound file, Clark steps out so his crew will beat the shit out of him, in a bit that’s set up in a masterful way. (You can’t help but wonder why the sound guy didn’t just leave when he noticed the flub.)
Maybe that’s where this episode’s emotional crux lies: the relationship between who Earn and Al need to be for one another, and who they actually are. Because although we’re hardly a third of the way into this season, nearly everyone has already, in some shape or fashion, been stunted on by this city. And unless Earn gets his shit together, it’s looking more and more like he’ll be left behind. Sure, we all came up watching Earn learn and grow, but with all of the evidence on the table, you’d be hard-pressed to fault Al for doing it, right? In their respective mishaps, they’re robbing themselves and those around them. But watching those miscommunications onscreen, delivered in a non-prescriptive way, we’re privy to something you just don’t see on television: two black men learning and growing, however haphazardly, chronologically and in real time.
That’s an engrossing story. And it’s moving steadily along. But what really makes this episode (and the series as a whole) shine are the mundane details of daily life. There’s Van’s story about scoring some Beyoncé tickets with her friends, as she relays the whole conversation to Earn mostly offscreen. There’s the slow falling of Al’s shoulders as he realizes the severity of Clark County’s temper. There’s the glassful of white tears that begins the episode, from a white woman who takes more insult in Colin Kaepernick’s name than the “nigga” that slides right off of her tongue, and the building of tension as we progress from one patch of microaggressions to another: Van prompts a joke about being caught red-handed, and later, an African club owner who refuses to fall for one of Earn’s money forging “tricks.”
Like always on Atlanta, the story is allowed to meander. But this time around, the episode ends with both narratives coming together in a strip club, where Earn claims, “People definitely know how to treat someone with money.” (You’re wrong here again too, my dude!) The scene begins with a shot of the recurring cast meeting outside of a limo, in what’s probably the loveliest half-minute I’ve seen on television in some time, but just as significantly, Earn soon finds that he isn’t stunting at the club at all: From service charges to bottle charges to VIP to charges to “pity dances,” the cash runs right through Earn’s hands. If this is what it means to stunt, it wasn’t what he was looking for at all. But when he laments about this situation, Al and Darius can’t help but shake their hands, noting that “money is an idea, man. Look, there’s a reason that a white dude dressed just like you can walk into a bank and get a loan, and you can’t even spend a $100 bill, man.”
“You need to start acting like you’re better than other niggas,” says Al, “and they’ll start treating you better than other niggas.”
“Because, otherwise,” Darius jumps in, “You’re just another nigga.”
And so we continue the trend of Earn figuring things out that everyone else around him already knows … but not before he challenges the actual Michael Vick (!) to a race. As a sort of side hustle, Vick is racing clubgoers in the parking lot. One guy tells Earn that Vick ran six races in ten minutes. Another guy tells him that the odds are three to one. Earn, given a final opportunity to flex, decides to take up the challenge: He even implores the crowd surrounding him to “make this quick.”
The real story of the scene plays itself across Van’s face: There’s the initial disbelief, the slow turn toward dread, and then the curious resignation that she’ll allow herself to be surprised. After Earn gets his ass beat — because, yo, come on — we see Van with her arms crossed in the limousine, facing the other way, noting the obvious (“It’s Michael Vick”) before the credits run on out on yet another man who doesn’t have it in him to listen.