There Are Two Ways to Read Earn’s Choice in the Atlanta Finale

Donald Glover as Earn in “Crabs in a Barrel.” Photo: Curtis Baker/FX/FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

“Are you gonna eat or are you gonna be eaten? I think that’s something people don’t realize. Black people have to make a choice. That choice defines who you are.”

Back in January, during a session at the Television Critics’ Association press tour, Donald Glover made that statement while discussing the stakes of Atlanta: Robbin’ Season, the string of 11 connected-yet-separate episodes that culminated with Thursday’s “Crabs in a Barrel.” When the season began, that subtitle appeared to refer to an actual season, one that Darius described in the season premiere as that time of the year when “Christmas approaches and everybody’s gotta eat.” But the season-opening holdup of a Mrs. Winner’s, a Southern fast-food chain whose name feels relevant to Atlanta’s themes, isn’t about people stealing because they can’t afford to eat. The guys who break in through a drive-through have at least enough money to keep their refrigerator stocked with plenty of orange juice. They just want to get their hands on some drugs that they can, presumably, flip around and sell. The hunger they’re trying to satisfy has nothing to do with eating and everything to do with not getting eaten in the larger sense.

Even though every episode of Atlanta’s second season functions effectively as a stand-alone, it’s not possible to fully understand the story Glover and his fellow writers are telling until you’ve watched all 11 of them. The season, as a whole, announces over and over again that Robbin’ Season isn’t a single season at all. It’s happening every day of the year for black men and women who routinely have things taken from them — cash and other belongings (“Sportin’ Waves,” “North of the Border”); time (“Barbershop,” for sure, but “Champagne Papi,” too); dignity and, also, more cash (“Money Bag Shawty”); even life itself (“FUBU”). As Glover said: Black people have to make a choice. In the closing moments of the finale, Earn (Glover) has to make a choice, too: get rid of the gold-plated handgun that his Uncle Willy gave to him back in “Alligator Man,” a gun he realizes is still in his backpack just as he’s about to walk through airport security, or run away and risk severing his professional and personal relationship with Al, as well as his opportunity to ride along on Paper Boi’s European tour.

We know what choice he makes: He ditches the weapon, which lands in the implied custody of Lucas, the manager of rapper Clark County that Al had threatened to hire because Earn wasn’t working out. Earn winds up on the plane and Lucas is, most likely, headed for jail. Because that gun came from Earn’s uncle, what Earn does with it carries extra weight. His decision declares, I am not going to be another black man like so many black men in my family that came before me. Back in episode one, Earn even says as much to Willy, played brilliantly by Katt Williams, a comedian who has had his own run-ins with the law, including one that involved an incident at an Atlanta restaurant. “What I’m scared of is being you,” Earn told him. “Someone everybody knew was smart but ended up being a know-it-all, fuck-up jay that just let shit happen to him.”

By pawning off that gun on someone else, Earn not only avoids a bad situation for himself, he basically — though inadvertently — bumps off his competition. It’s a Tony Soprano move, and Al gives him props for it. “Niggas do not care about us, man,” says the adult who, as a kid, didn’t seem all that concerned when a classmate killed himself after being bullied over a FUBU shirt. “Niggas gonna do whatever they’ve gotta do to survive, because they ain’t got no choice. We ain’t got no choice, either. You my family, Earn. You the only one that knows what I’m about.” Director Hiro Murai never uses a two-shot during this speech. Al and an empty seat are what fill the frame, a choice that suggests that, as much as Al is saying that he and Earn are in this together, he’s still mostly thinking about is himself.

Still, on the surface, it seems like Earn made the right choice. Fences are mended with Al. He’s on his way to Europe. He’s still got his job. But Atlanta being Atlanta, it’s not that simple.

First of all, the whole reason Earn is too distracted to notice that the gun is still in his backpack is because he’s spent half the day leading up to the trip taking Al to see lawyers that aren’t “Jewish” enough and helping Darius get a last-minute passport, which, frankly, should not be Earn’s problem at all. Earn is smarter than his cousin and his friend, but his career, at this point, revolves around keeping those two in line and organized. He’s at their beck and call instead of calling the shots.

In that conversation with Uncle Willy, right before Earn tells him he’s afraid of turning into him, Willy tells Earn that Al is “Mr. Moneybags. You gotta stay on his good side.” That observation, ten episodes later, still has some truth in it.

How should Earn define success? Is it by riding on the coattails of Paper Boi and, hopefully, at some point, making some decent cash? Will staying on the good side of Mr. Moneybags make him a Mr. Winner? Or is it, as Lottie’s teacher says earlier in “Crabs in a Barrel,” by becoming a more present father in a two-parent home where Lottie’s gifts will, theoretically, be more capable of flourishing? If the latter is the right answer and where Earn’s focus should be, then he’d probably need to find more reliable ways of earning a living. That might even mean going back to pushing credit-card deals in the middle of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport like those people Earn zooms right by in “Crabs in a Barrel” in his rush to make it to the gate. There is never a question that Earn loves his daughter. But he also doesn’t want to go back to doing stuff like that.

Like Glover said, knowing what the quote-unquote right thing to do is hard, and even harder for a black man like Earn whose relatives are so intertwined with his prospects and sense of self. If family represents where you came from, Earn can’t get away from that even when he’s about to head to a new continent for the first time. He can ditch his uncle’s gun, but his cousin is still on the airplane, sitting two seats over.

Not only does Atlanta not answer the questions posed above, it makes it very easy on first viewing to not even realize that it’s asking them. As paradoxical as that might sound, it’s what makes the series so brilliant: It’s so low-key that it’s easy to watch an episode and not grasp the layers and depth in it the first time around. In a way, Atlanta could be seen as the 21st-century black Seinfeld in that it can be construed, on the surface, as a show about nothing. As well-off white New Yorkers, the “nothing” that Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer concerned themselves with was invariably superficial and trivial. They fretted over which type of babka to take to a dinner party or how awful it is to sit in coach when your traveling companion is living it up in first class. Earn is worried about just getting into coach when he shows up to the airport with a gun that’s fraught with symbolic meaning. Atlanta is a show that seems like it’s about nothing, but is actually about everything, particularly with regard to systemic racism, something far, far removed from the experience of Seinfeld and other classic network comedies like it.

The title of this finale, “Crabs in a Barrel,” describes what happens when a bunch of similarly clawed creatures are trapped in the same environment: Each one tries to make his way out but keeps getting dragged down by the other crabs that are stuck in there with him. You can watch “Crabs in a Barrel” and think that Earn finally got out because he’s flying off to live it up for the next few weeks in cities he’s never seen before. He’s in that position because he didn’t just let shit happen to him. He took action. Or you can conclude that he’s still being dragged down by the cousin and the friend who, despite the appearance of having success and a blissed-out Zen attitude, don’t necessarily have their shit together. They’re carving a path and Earn is taking it with them. But is that really climbing out of the barrel?

I’m still not sure. And it’s to the credit of Glover and everyone who works on Atlanta that I don’t.

There Are Two Ways to Read Earn’s Choice on Atlanta