The episode is called “Champagne Papi,” but that really isn’t who we’re talking about at all. Van, in her second solo-ish episode this season, is spending the night out with her girls, one of whom has the plug to get into a party with Drake. In the midst of getting ready for the night, she catches a blip of Earn on one of her feeds, and decides that she’s ready to “replace Earn with Drake.” So, once again, we’re given a quest! Get a photo with Drake. And we’re subjected to the ways in which people position themselves for a chance at fame — if not to have it, then at least to touch it, or even just to breathe the air around it — and the illusory nature of an ephermerally IG-able lifestyle whose means often outweigh the ends.
In virtually every episode, Atlanta has shown us how perception is often far from reality (if not in an entirely different galaxy altogether), and as with the Spotify episode and the Juneteenth episode and Teddy Perkins, no good comes from our protagonists’ exposure to vast, uncapped amounts of wealth. En route to the van that’ll take the women to their venue, after giving a secret code, with a number of other women who don’t really have any idea where they’re going, we’re led from a random parking lot to the foot of another sprawling mansion. A gentleman at the entrance to the venue says, “Welcome to paradise — IDs out.” A woman presents a sheet of paper, claiming that not only does it have Drake’s signature, but that she was personally invited. As she’s physically escorted away, we have the episode’s thesis in a metaphor: In an effort to get “put on” for a literal minute, folk are willing to give up just about everything else.
But the party goes on. After accepting gummy bear edibles, Van and her friends find themselves in varying degrees of intoxication almost immediately. It provides a nice segue each of their narrative threads: One friend is in pursuit of an actor named Devyonne Johnson (or, more specifically, to give his white partner a thorough read for being “cliché”); another friend, deemed a “nun” during their pregame, is just trying to negotiate her newfound god-high; the third friend is looking to solidify her relationship with DJ the Barber (who is, apparently, also a DJ); and then there’s Van, who says she’s looking for Drake. But, really, Drake is a stand-in for something she can’t put a name to, a thing that isn’t defined for the audience. It’s an intangible thing, and there’s no telling where she’ll find it, so we may as well be searching for the 6-God because, honestly, what could be more elusive than the idea of him?
But Van runs into trouble along the way. In an attempt to calm down her super-high friend, she runs into a guy who immediately and overzealously decides that he’s going to help her. There are few series on television as adept as cultivating doom onscreen as Atlanta, and there is a rising dread as we realize, right along with Van, that Brandon is not a good guy, that he could in fact be a bad one. He arrived a little too early. He knows the entirety of the mansion’s layout. He’s standing very, very, very close to Van, whom he immediately describes as his “friend,” and so our hero decides to make her escape into the bathroom, and then another floor of the house entirely. It’s worth noting that we haven’t really, not once in this entire series, seen what another television show might attempt to convince us is a good dude. Maybe that’s the point, that it’s less about our being told who they are via easy answers than our looking at them and deciding for ourselves. (Or, alternatively, men generally and specifically aren’t shit.)
Elsewhere, the structure of the party allows for other story lines resurface: Darius (who knows everyone) has made his way to the party like he’s teleported in from some whole other plane of existence, and in his own way is comforting the high friend who still hasn’t come down. He asks if she’s familiar with Bostrom’s simulation argument. They decide that nothing is real. And that conversation almost makes up for the confrontation between Van’s other friend and the white woman she’s made it her mission to read: It’s not that it isn’t a funny scene (it is), or an appropriately uncomfortable one (it’s that, too), but it is also one that we’ve seen many times before. Which makes it feel out of place. Atlanta has made itself a hallmark for subverting and innovating these kinds of tropes, and reiterating a theme that’s so well-trodden makes what would be a standout moment in any other series a weak one here. No lies came from either woman’s mouth, but the trope of a dark-skinned woman berating a white woman for having a black partner is almost as cliché as the “story” being called out. We’re not left with anything new to take away; you’re telling us what we already know.
Meanwhile, on her own end, Van continues her search, although at this point she’s beyond looking for anything in particular: She goes through Drake’s closets, changing his clothes, spraying his perfume, humming his singles all the while. And it’s all very nice. But as she wanders around the back of the mansion, Van runs into Drake’s grandfather. The guy is Latino, in the midst of a conversation on the phone, and trying to work an inoperable television. He looks at Van as if she’s an apparition, which, honestly, she sort of is. She has no reason to be there. But he is an amiable man, giving her all of the information she needs to each and every last one of her questions, except Van doesn’t speak Spanish. (There’s a certain irony in this man’s having all of the information that Van needs to navigate her situation, but her being entirely unable to understand what he’s telling her. Learn Spanish, friends!) For all of his wealth, Drake doesn’t even have a working television. At one point, the grandfather even tells Van, “Ay, mijita, if only you knew what’s waiting for you.” But in the midst of their mistranslation, they reach a sort of middle ground thanks to a nearby calendar, and Van finally realizes what this man has been telling her all along: Drake is gone. Drake is on tour in Europe. The whole party is a hustle.
And just like that, the veil is up. We won’t be seeing Champagne Papi after all. The mansion that held so much possibility at the beginning of the night is shown for the scam that it is. When Van confronts two women selling selfies with a pop-up Drake, they ask her if she really, truly, expected to meet Drake, telling Van about herself — and by merit of that, all of the women at the mansion, and by merit of that, everyone chasing the currency of Likes and Follows:
“You thought you was gonna have a meaningful convo with Drake or some shit?”
“You was gonna come to the party, ask for a pic, and post it on the ‘gram. So, here you go. You welcome.”
“Twenty dollars. The line’s right there.”
The episode’s magic lies in our expecting that Van could’ve pulled this off, but we all crash back to reality at the same time. Van reconciles with Darius and her high friend, and the three of them arrive at the same conclusion: This whole thing, all of the posturing, was a simulation.
“It’s all fake,” says Van. “There’s no Drake. So don’t ruin your high, just enjoy yourself.”
It’s one thing for Atlanta to slap its viewers on the neck, but in lieu of deriding its audience, the episode laughs from both ends of the joke. It isn’t necessarily laughing at the characters, but every bit is rooted in some sort of sadness. What is Champagne Papi here, really? Is Drake a stand-in for a certain kind of lifestyle? Is he tangible and Van just missed her moment? Or is the real winner here, insofar as there are any at all, the friend who skipped right along to T-Pain’s party, realizing early and quickly that the only way to excel in that life isn’t to stay in place at all?
We don’t end up learning much about Van in this episode, but she learns a little more about herself. There’s the hype before the show, there’s the posturing throughout, and then there’s the walking back to your car afterward: a journey we all make alone, at the end of the day, stuck inside of our own heads. It isn’t the most that we could ask for, but considering what we’ve already been given, I think that it’s enough for now.
And who, when the women ask to meet Drake, notes that, “He’s floating around somewhere.” (As we discover later, literally, “en al avión.”) It’s our first clue that something’s amiss.
“I know Drake’s chef, Guillermo, from the glorious days of pick-up soccer” is my favorite line of television I’ve heard this year.