In “Woods,” we follow Al on a journey across several planes. On the first, our hero ends up traversing a literal forest. In another, he negotiates the terrain between the life he thinks he’s still living and the persona that’s engulfed him. But eventually, Al finds himself in the midst of a ghost story, although the ghosts are combination of the world’s and his own, a spiritual assault that leaves him dried up on the shore. As a character investigation of a guy caught up in the nether region between fame and life as a pedestrian, the episode is masterful, even despite its more problematic bits. It’s the final precipice of a man before he falls into the rest of his life. By the time the credits roll, we’ve seen Al lean over the edge, his mounting existential terror, and the eventual descent.
The episode opens with the apparition of Al’s mother in his house. She notes, “You know good and well that I did not raise a son this lazy,” before fading out to the tune of a hymn. Her presence is never explained, and Al is only just aware of it, but her melody folds into a cell phone’s vibration — reality calling.
It’s Earn, “just checking in.” He hasn’t been doing a very good job as a manager this season, or the last for that matter. So Al promptly ignores him. And despite his manager’s insistence on signing some forms, Al says he doesn’t have anything on his agenda for the day. But, in fact, after talking to Darius in the kitchen, a horn blows outside calling our man for a date.
In the middle of making homemade pasta (which he literally puts his foot into), Darius says he thought Al was “allergic to girlfriends.” There’s tension and tentativeness in their exchange, recalling their unexplained disagreement in “Alligator Man.” Al responds that the woman waiting outside isn’t his girlfriend. There’s concern there for his friend, but Darius ultimately demurs, suggesting that Al at least recommend her his pasta.
What follows is the first of several pans of Al walking from one place to another. They’re entirely affecting: In an effort to retain some hold on normalcy, the mundanity we see onscreen contrasts with the hard-up image of Paper Boi. For the first time in the series, Al looks entirely out of place in this neighborhood. He’s outgrown it, so to speak. And when he meets Ciara in the car, she says as much. She is a woman who has flipped her job at a local strip club into a career as an Instagram model, and she’s warm with Al, although the interaction feels just slightly off. Al is uncomfortable with Ciara, so the audience is uncomfortable with her, too. (I won’t dwell on it, but if the intention here was to make Ciara’s case less than legitimate for Al, the script pulls it off at a pretty heavy cost. Because, in many ways, she’s a caricature, which is disappointing at best. Once again, Atlanta is giving its female characters the short stick.)
They spend the day together. Ciara mostly chides Al about his efforts to stay “real.” Shopping for shoes, she chastises him and throws rocks at his manager — rocks that are only heavier by merit of our knowing how valid they are. “That dope boy from the hood act won’t last long,” says Ciara. “People gonna get tired of seeing a sweaty nigga in a Polo and cargo shorts. Nobody wants someone famous to look just like them.”
Al and Ciara keep returning to the role that Earn plays, or should play, as Al admits that, “He don’t know how to do all of that.” Ciara notes that Al needs to get himself “a manager with a big dick” — Al nearly leaps out of his shoes with a “Girl, I don’t know nothing about all that!” — a suggestion that accelerates his cousin’s already rapidly ticking clock.
Later, when the pair sits down for a pedicure, Ciara approaches the question of branding: “I’m Instagram famous, boo,” she says. “I can’t be selling my wigs and out here looking janky. I’ve gotta compete with white girls with lip fillers and butt injections, selling lip gloss and spray tans. Everybody wanna be a black girl, but the black girls ain’t making no money from it.”
Ciara notes that he needs to focus on Instagram more, and after another nod toward Earn’s uselessness, she gets to the point of the afternoon: She’d like to Al to attach his brand with hers. It could be good for them. They’d probably make a little money. (Yet again during Robbin’ Season, the viewer plays audience to a hustle.) When Al nods again toward his realness, Ciara laughs that right off.
“Shit, you’re on the radio,” she says, “and you’ve been making money. You’ve been not real.”
She implores him to wake the fuck up. Al says that he doesn’t have to stop being real, claiming, “That’s something that boring-ass people like your ass gotta do.”
So Al takes off. What follows is the second of his long walks: He crosses a parking lot, and an underpass, before lunching on the curb of a fast-food joint. On the way to wherever he’s going, Al runs into three young guys acting out an artificial joviality. Their body language is the tell. The mood is clearly manufactured in a way Al’s previous encounters with fans this season haven’t been; at some point along his walk, Al must have been recognized walking solo.
When the guys ask what he’s doing out in the world, alone, with no car, Al asks if he isn’t allowed to walk.
The three guys just smile. Paper Boi’s keeping it real!
“Well,” says one of young guys. “Shit.”
The first of the three men pulls a gun on Al, and for the second time this season, the show manages to cultivate a sense of dread that has me fearing for the mortality of the episode’s protagonist. (I think it’s worth wondering whether the season’s structure of highlighting one character a time — and going whole episodes without checking in with the others — is what leans into that idea of temporality.) Al fights off one of the men, who escapes with his watch. He pushes off another, who makes off with his chain. Then, he struggles with the third, before delivering a headbutt that puts him on his ass and leaves them both bewildered. But Al is the first to realize he’s not the one holding the gun.
Al takes off, running down the road. The road leads to a forest. The forest molds into a denser fauna. Al twists and turns through the trees, jutting one way and pausing towards the other — a different trajectory than the last guy we saw running through the forest, after an encounter with Migos last season — until he runs into a man who claims that he’s high. The man could be homeless. Or lost. But, either way, Al quickly decides this is another interaction he’s not keen on having.
Except, the man is keen to talk. He walks Al down. The man tells Al that he’s lost his baby, and the statement is never followed up on. He calls Al “big old black boy deer guts.”
“You’re stubborn,” says the man. “You’re stubborn and you’re black.”
And then: “Boy, you is just like your mama.”
There’s a blip of a question on Al’s face. A tiny recognition. Then the man laughs it away, and it doesn’t come up again.
But we’ve seen this before: All of the older black men in Robbin’ Season have been ghosts. Ghosts of themselves, as with Teddy Perkins. Ghosts of their children, as with Darius. Ghosts of what they could’ve been, as Earn notes of his uncle. And now, Al has come into contact with his own ghost — although what he’s a conduit for, specifically, no one can say. All we know for certain is that Al wants nothing to do with him.
“I just need to think,” says Al. The man tells him that nobody can do that. And then, when Al finally grows tired of the conversation (of his whole life, it seems like), the man pulls a knife on Al, holding it just below his throat.
“Keep standing still, you’re gone,” says the man. “You’re wasting time. And the only people who’ve got time, are dead. And if you’re dead, I’m gonna take your shoes. And your wallet. And that shirt.”
Then, for whatever reason, the man drops his knife. Al makes a run for it, entirely bewildered, stumbling out of the forest intact. He is worse for the wear, but like Darius and Van before him, he is emerging from the latter half of Robbin’ Season as a changed individual: When he runs into a fan at the gas station, a white kid who looks entirely bewildered at his presence, there’s a look of resignation on Al’s face. The white kid doesn’t ask why he looks so beat up. He doesn’t ask what’s wrong. He doesn’t ask where Al’s going or where he’s been. But Al does offer him a photo with the artist Paper Boi, with the persona. He even goes as far as to make a suggestion that the kid switch his face up — a quiet line, but the most earnest we’ve ever seen him with a fan. When the white kid walks away, Al notes, “Be safe out here.” He knows what’s out there, now more than ever.
It’s worth wondering if this is the start of something new for Al, or an adjacent path. An entirely new journey would mean getting out of the house with Darius. It’d mean dropping Earn. But it might not mean reconciling with his mother, or the things that make him do things that he does. Al has made a choice, and we’ve seen him at what could very be his lowest point on the ascent to come, but it’s worth noting that this decision wasn’t jubilant. This was not something that he wanted to do. If anything, in becoming a star, Al has resigned himself to burning through everything else.