Flashbacks aren’t a tool that Atlanta turns to often, or ever. From time to time, the show will give an overt nod to the death of a relative, or the hint of a hint of familial strife through snippets of conversation. We’re not told that Earn is a negligent father, but we hardly see Lottie, so we know that this is the case. We’re not told that Earn and Al’s financial situation has grown more dire, but we see the refrigerated leftovers and the rising tension within the house, so we know that this is the case. We haven’t, not once, heard the entirety of a Paper Boi song, but we’re asked to believe that he’s the next big thing — and the thing is, we do. We believe it. It’s taken me a few months to condense the feeling into words, but I think Donald Glover, Hiro Murai, and company create illusions so all-encompassing that they’ve created a world with its own mechanisms, functioning independently, in tandem with, and in spite of its viewers. That’s what the show does better than anything else on television.
All of that preamble is to say that “FUBU” is a masterpiece. It simply can’t be overstated what an achievement this episode is. It would be easy, I guess, to view Earn and Al’s middle-school jaunt as an interruption in the otherwise linear story line — the revelatory flashback before the Robbin’ Season’s conclusion. Which, implicitly it is, by merit of its existing at all. But that’s not all that this episode gives us. We see, for the first time in who knows how long, the perspective of a black kid in school, and without a white gaze overhead, or the constant stabilization of a laugh track, or a teaspoon of medicine waiting in the wings, or with our hands held by a now-knowledgeable omniscient entity, or as the overlong preamble to some overly tidy bit (with the most obsequious of punch lines: x means y because they’re black! Haha!).
Over the course of a couple days, we’re able to surmise the entirety of Earn and Alfred’s childhoods. Given this snippet and what we already know, we’re able to construct their lives. The danger with placing it after their rupture in “North of the Border” is a slow-down in the narrative, but there wasn’t a single moment in “FUBU” that I found myself wondering whether Al would drop Earn from his managerial role in the present, or whether Earn would get his shit together for his family, or whether the men’s respective ailments would resolve themselves. Instead, I was deeply invested in the authenticity of Earn’s shirt. Inconceivably, I cared about FUBU.
The episode begins by introducing us to Earn and his mother in Marshall’s. We’ve only met her once, and we’ve heard of her several times throughout the course of the show. Their relationship has accrued layers in the years since. We now know that it’s complicated. But what we have here is hardly that: This kid just wants a cool shirt, then he and his mom play the eons-old dance of stepping around the request before she ultimately acquiesces. From there, over the course of two days, we’re shepherded through Earn’s world. He goes to school. He has friends. He deals with bullies, he flirts with his crush, a kid asks to copy his homework. He hasn’t accrued the residue that the years ahead have waiting for him. The stakes of
“FUBU” are comparatively low, but watching Earn navigate his youth, it seems nothing could be more important. For this kid, at this time, what could be more important?
A chunk of the episode’s weight comes from its handling of Earn’s daily minutiae. The camera bounces across his face as he walks to the bus, a nothing event to an adult viewer that’s charged with tremendous possibility for an adolescent. There’s the quip from Earn’s white acquaintance that “he’s worn the same shirt twice this week,” which both disincludes the white boy from the episode’s primary conflict and provides a succinct thesis statement on the rift between their two realities. There’s the incessant harassment from Earn’s peers, depicted as an expected part of his day-to-day situation. There’s Al’s mid-day jaunt in the principal’s office, dodging accusations of theft while rocking an ROTC uniform (and calling out “snitches” immediately afterward). There are the supportive friends, who we’ll never see again but play an oversize role in Earn’s schoolhouse travails nonetheless. There are allusions to parental discontent over Mr. Popo’s appearance in Dragon Ball Z (Al is quick to point out that it’s “weird”; it’d be worth investigating how they feel about Piccolo). There’s the unspoken agreement that although Earn and Al are family, they don’t much associate with one another in public at school. There are the OutKast posters in Earn’s bedroom. There’s the young woman (Denisha!) who’s confrontational with the teacher (while rocking a Baby Phat sweater! My God!), only for their ensuing discussion to act as a soundtrack for the classroom.
Notes are passed. There are heckling boys, who are both the episode’s primary instigators and also responsible for heightening its atmosphere. All of these events happen independent of one another, without much visible pull on the episode’s narrative — but the thing is, everything matters. It’s all a part of Earn’s childhood, the foundation for his life as we know it. It’s how he came to be.
One of the real stars of this episode is neither Earn nor Al but Devin, the kid with whom Earn finds himself inadvertently pitted in the feud of authenticity. Neither of them goes after one another, but they’re dragged into the conflict regardless. There’s dread on their faces as the episode progresses, and the knowing grin from Devin, mid-episode, when it looks like he’ll come out clean on the other side. But in the first of the episode’s two culminating moments, Earn is approached by the bullies following him throughout the episode. They’ve finally found Johnny, who can decipher their jerseys’ validity offhand and calls bullshit on Earn’s ware. (Isn’t that another trope? A young man who’s built an entire persona off of one perceived skill that he surely can’t have?) But then, as ever, Al comes to the rescue. Projecting a certainty that we’ve come to know intimately, Al assures everyone that Earn is, in fact, the owner of the “real” FUBU.
When the kids stare each other off, there’s a beat of uncertainty. But pitted directly against Al’s word, Devin folds, and is immediately derided.
And what does Earn do with this newfound deliverance? Our dude runs. It’s the only time this season that we’ve seen him do the thing that’s most in his self-interest (although, of course, it occurred over a decade ago). He runs despite the young woman who stops him to hand her his number. He runs despite the dap he receives from one of the friends who’d stayed in his court. And, in the solace of the bus, he looks on as Devin receives the harassment he so narrowly dodged. The emotions play across his face: relief, resignation, and discomfort.
When we see the administrator step into Earn’s classroom the next morning, we almost don’t even need to by told why. The silence is that palpable. The Glover brothers — Donald directing, Stephen writing — simply could not have gotten it more right. From the half-heard assurances of the teacher who encourages her students to seek help if they need it, to the brightness of Denisha, who’d been so pressed the day beforehand (and having missed the news entirely), it all seems to reiterate that life would go on, that it was already going on, that the moment had already passed.
Earn’s and Al’s mothers are waiting for them at home. The latter hits Earn with a soft reprimanding, and a chiding look when he talks back to his own. Al cools out in the corner, just slightly offscreen, not privy to Earn’s schedule of piano lessons and a belt — and, once again, the contrast doesn’t have to be explained. The kicker is in their being so close, by merit of blood, but so far away from their respective expectations. Earn’s mother tells him that his clothing is what will ultimately make him (although it’s worth noting it was Earn who picked that specific jersey off of the rack to begin with). There’s another FUBU jersey on his bed. We can’t help but ask if that one’s real.
In the episode’s final shot, we don’t need to know that Earn and his cousin are stuck together, however reluctantly. They don’t need to say it. We see it as the kids slimp right next to each other, bound by happenstance and geography and so bound for life. We don’t need an explosion to feel it all.
It occurred to me more than once while watching “FUBU,” that there are viewers for whom if you had asked them to give a fuck about this, they would not have believed you. And they still won’t probably. And that’s okay. But in the particular place and time depicted by this episode, if you were a young black guy, stunting with a brand meant everything. It could literally tip the scales for the next five to seven years of your life. This episode is a solid reminder that not all stories are everyone’s stories, that everything on television doesn’t have to be tipped with a dash of whiteness, but these stories can be everyone’s stories. With this episode of Atlanta, plenty of viewers found themselves privy to a world they hadn’t known. Even more found themselves reflected, deeply, for the very first time, without compromise or judgment. You can’t help but be thankful.