In the second season of Atlanta, each episode is proving to be more beguiling, texturally rich, and narratively inventive than the last. Thursday night’s episode, “Sportin’ Waves,” written by Stephen Glover and directed by Hiro Murai, is full of moments that showcase what the series does best: blend the uproarious and surreal to provide deceptively complex commentary on the specifics of black American life.
The episode spends a good amount of its run time tracking Earn (series creator Donald Glover) and the cousin whose rap career he manages, Alfred a.k.a. Paper Boi (Bryan Tyree Henry) on a series of misadventures. Alfred looks for a new dealer after he’s robbed at gunpoint by his mainstay, only to find that his newfound fame as a rapper makes life as a drug dealer frustratingly knotted. Earn gets roped into a money-making scheme by Alfred’s new roommate, fresh out of prison, Tracy (Khris Davis), involving gift cards. It has an disheartening outcome that acutely reflects the ways poor people get mired in weird deals in hopes of finding quick stability.
These story lines carry the trademark wit and ingenuity the series has become lauded for. Conversations flutter from casual, uncomfortable humor to bracingly honest territory. The humor draws blood, often revealing new corners of the characters’ psychologies and their place in the world. There are touches of the surreal and remarkable tonal dexterity. Each frame is rich with texture and mood. Yet the scene I keep returning to from “Sportin’ Waves” is its simplest and briefest, seemingly disconnected from the respective journeys of the leads.
Coming within the final minutes of “Sportin’ Waves” is a Yoo-hoo commercial starring rapper Clark County (RJ Walker), who is introduced earlier in the episode when the cousins visit a start-up for a potential music deal. It lasts for less than 30 seconds, but I found myself rewinding back to it again and again. First, because of its bizarre hilarity and the catchiness of Clark’s song. But the more I watched, the more I saw how it interrogated, with deceptive complexity, an overarching conversation that the episode — and Atlanta as a whole — considers: the fraught relationship between black art and white money, authenticity, and the compromises necessary for certain heights of success.
Let’s talk for a moment about the actual commercial and how it’s framed. Earn shuffles inside his second (only?) home to find Alfred and Darius (a lackadaisical Lakeith Stanfield) smoking weed on the couch, the television playing idly in the background. Earn is saddled with overflowing bags he carried back from the mall. The scene feels like a breather from the various small-scale tragedies that mark the bulk of the episode. When Alfred offers Earn a joint, a beat drops, and a soft clanging bell is heard coming from the TV in the background.
“Look at this dude. This Clark Country dude making money,” Darius says, as the attention of all three men in the room shifts to the bright commercial alighting the TV. It soon fills nearly the entire frame. Clark stands against a mustard yellow background with Yoo-hoo cans tumbling in the background, along with, occasionally, his own smiling, disembodied head. Dressed in camo pants, loosely tied high tops, and a fur-lined jacket, Clark bounces and skips across the screen. Sometimes smaller versions of him jut from the corner of the TV, like a carefully timed, living jack-in-the-box. The song is an immediate earworm. “I flex on a bitch like — Yoo-hoo!” he says at one point, with a smile as infectious as the song itself. “We drink Yoo-hoo like it’s dirty Sprite,” he says at another. The way Clark says “Yoo-hoo” in a higher pitch sparkles with immediacy. It lands not like a brand name but a rap ad lib, a catchphrase traded between friends. Actor RJ Walker moves with a cheeky effervescence. He has a carefree swagger and looseness that brings new energy to the episode. That’s part of the charm of this brief scene. He doesn’t feel like a corporate shill, but a friend letting you in on an inside joke, or forming one with you in real time. Earn and Alfred have very different reactions to the commercial — reluctant admiration and contempt, respectively. Their reactions, and the specific brand of black success Clark exemplifies, makes the scene feel like it is in conversation with an earlier sequence.
In the first half of “Sportin’ Waves,” Earn and Alfred travel to a gratingly hip tech start-up overflowing with predominantly white faces and the kind of cutting-edge technology that makes it nearly impossible for them to play his new song, which is burned onto a CD. They’re fans of Alfred’s “brand,” hoping to grow his “reach” through their music outreach program. The awkwardness grows as the scene continues. Earn, and particularly Alfred, are uncomfortable in this setting. At one point, Alfred is meant to perform his most well-known song, “Paper Boi,” on an elevated stage in the office, to workers who look on with mild bemusement if they look at him at all. He bails barely a minute into the song, unsettled by the spectacle he’s required to make of himself. It’s here that Clark County is first introduced. Unlike Alfred, his brand of unthreatening black cool seems at home in this environment. “Nice to see some black folks up in here,” Clark says to Alfred and Earn, before his (white) manager, Lucas (Matthew Barnes), joins the conversation to exchange pleasantries.
Meanwhile, in the background, a touch out of focus, is a tableau that exemplifies the very spectacle Alfred sought to avoid. Another lanky black rapper stands atop a table in a glass-walled office as a group of the white start-up workers encircle him, unmoving, listless. It’s a jarring spectacle that highlights the way black artists must perform a certain brand of blackness in order to find success within wider, white audiences. Clark’s introduction, and the Yoo-hoo commercial that follows, bristles with questions about black artists and white capital. This isn’t necessarily about “selling out” — an idea that holds little weight, as considerations of art have changed drastically in recent years — but something a bit more existential. What does it mean to be a brand as a black artist? How must we frame our blackness in order to gain riches? Is it possible to retain some level of autonomy and radical impact even as you’re starring in a silly Yoo-hoo commercial? This, of course, mirrors larger concerns the creators of Atlanta have grappled with throughout the young series about modern black identity, artistry, capitalism, and poverty. But the Yoo-hoo commercial and its place within the narrative also resonates on a meta-textual level given Donald Glover’s star image as a black creative able to balance autonomy and a so-called auteurism with wider recognition, alongside a small group of black elite artists making profound waves in Hollywood.
Critically, Atlanta has been framed most prominently by its relation to its auteur-driven, white-helmed predecessors. As Matt Zoller Seitz notes in his review of the second season, “Although Atlanta was part of a flood of auteur-driven shaggy-dog sitcoms that followed Louie, the show’s style, honed by Glover, his writer brother Stephen, and regular series director Hiro Murai, is more deadpan, surreal, and minimalist. It owes plenty to ’80s independent cinema from directors like Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train) and David Lynch but also to the kind of community news that never makes local papers.” Glover himself once framed the show as “Twin Peaks with rappers.” There’s a brief moment in the mammoth New Yorker profile of Glover that makes it clear placing Atlanta within a predominantly white artistic context isn’t merely the efforts of white critics, but something more profound and troubling. In the profile, Get Out writer/director Jordan Peele communicates the importance of the series saying, “For black people, Atlanta provides the catharsis of ‘Finally, some elevated black shit.’” When I first read this, I wondered, what black people is Peele talking about? Peele’s understanding of Atlanta and its relationship to black viewers acts as if up until this moment in history, black art in film and television is less than, pure entertainment lacking intellectual pleasures.
There has always been, to use Peele’s framing, elevated black shit. While it hasn’t been framed as such, Donald Glover’s work exists as much within the lineage of David Lynch as it does the work of writer/director Bill Gunn, whose experimental meta-soap opera Personal Problems was recently re-mastered with a revival at the Metrograph. Similar to how Howard Hampton describes Gunn’s Personal Problems in the March/April 2018 issue of Film Comment, Atlanta is also “inventing its language as it goes along.” But it’s a language that exists within a black lineage.
Often the way to find greater success as a black creative requires framing oneself as exceptional, the talented tenth that is more artistic and admirable than its brethren. But the reality has more to do with linking up with the right kind of white person and branding your blackness in a way that is entrancing, but not too threatening to the status quo. Perhaps this speaks to the diverging reactions Earn and Alfred have after watching the commercial. “Ugh, I hate this shit,” Alfred groans. Earn feels otherwise. “Man, this shit is good,” he says, with a blend of admiration and jealousy, which draws a glare from his cousin. Their reactions, and the commercial itself, become an intriguing conversation about the branding of black identities in white spaces for profit seen in micro. Like Atlanta as a whole, it is equal parts surreal, hilarious, and thoroughly honest.