Over the course of Paper Boi’s European tour, Alfred, Earn, and Darius (and sometimes Van, LOL) have faced high jinks and hauntings. This week, the boys are playing the blame game in Budapest. “I smell adventure,” Darius proclaims after finding a blueprint of the venue building. He tries to no avail to encourage the guys to uncover the ghosts that allegedly populate the grounds, but when Al’s phone goes missing following his set, they find themselves cast in a whodunit mystery. Darius’s prayers to the “rap gods” go unanswered when the entire venue becomes a minor crime scene, and the people who passed through backstage or lingered a little too long are now their prime suspects. Having often been met with suspicion or perceived as culprits themselves (the security guard at the venue keeps checking Earn’s ID every time he sees him), the trio indulges in the art of interrogation on their quest for the stolen smartphone. As they search the bodies of unsuspecting suspects and play “good cop, bad cop” with the potential thieves, Earn and Alfred team up to recover the device. As the phone has not been backed up in the cloud or registered on Find My iPhone thanks to the influence of Darius, a.k.a. “Conspiracy Jones,” who declares, “We don’t use that; that’s how they track us,” Al is particularly distraught. His life and music are on that phone, and without its return, he must go forth without access to his past and the art he crafted from it.
The first of the group’s presumed culprits is an unlikely suspect: a pediatric cancer patient who was gifted VIP meet-and-greet tickets through the Dream Foundation, a young white boy who comes to the show with his parents, wearing a hat on his chemo-balding head, and takes a bottle of brown liquor with him as a keepsake from his time with Paper Boi. When Al first realizes his phone is missing after the set, Earn suggests it may have been the child, whom they refer to as the “cancer kid,” who took it and is now on his way to the hospital with a “cancer attack.” Earn runs to find the boy and stops his family from lifting his gurney into the ambulance. The child, recognizing Earn as Paper Boi’s manager, sees this as an opportunity to pledge his fealty to the Atlanta star. “If it is for Paper Boi, I want to help,” the boy asserts. “What does Paper Boi need?” he asks, trying to be of help. Without answering, Earn begins to lift the boy’s blankets and search his clothes for the phone. “Get away from my son,” one of the parents shouts, as the crowd that has formed around the sickly child proceeds to boo Earn. (Get these people some tomatoes!)
Their second suspect is far more nefarious. The first time we meet the alleged thief, a white man named Wiley, it is presumed that he is the “unprofessional stage manager” who went onstage before Paper Boi to hype up the crowd. As it turns out, however, Wiley is not the stage manager but rather the nephew (by marriage!) of the man who was filling in for the stage manager. Though it is said that Wiley attended the event to interview for a job backstage, his cover unravels when the group learns that his résumé is filled with lies. After pulling teeth with the uncle to get Wiley’s number, Earn calls him up under the guise of arranging a meetup with Paper Boi and Wiley as a fan. Wiley is dubious about the reasoning behind their decision to call him hours after the show and suspects they have an “ulterior motive,” but nonetheless decides to return to the venue to discuss the whereabouts of Al’s phone. A “longtime admirer” of Paper Boi’s music, Wiley feeds off the proximity he has to his idol (with whom he shares a birthday of April 28. Taurus kings!) and displays a cold charisma. “Is there something special about this phone?” he asks Al coyly. When the guys get frustrated and threats of violence get thrown around, Wiley does not flinch but instead prophesizes their shared future were anything to happen to him. “If I die today, people will assume you did it,” he comments. “Nobody’s gonna die, Wiley,” Earn responds in the hopes of de-escalating the situation. “We all have to die sometime,” Wiley rebuts. “Maybe my end should come at the hands of Paper Boi.”
Though young in appearance, Wiley proves to be wise beyond his years (he says he’s 32, even though his uncle said he was 19) and manages to create unease in the men interrogating him. While musing about Paper Boi’s dreams of box-top Chevys and a girl named Rose, Wiley reveals insight into Al’s life that is pulled directly from unreleased tracks on his phone. Overwhelmed and perhaps outmatched by the mind games unfolding before them, Earn, Al, and Darius step out of the room with Wiley to regroup and debrief in the hallway. Darius notes that Wiley blinks every five seconds, while Al cannot shake the feeling that Wiley is leveraging information directly from his cell phone. Darius, who plays “understated cop” alongside Earn and Al’s respective “good cop” and “bad cop,” says very little throughout the interrogation, while the other two lean on Wiley in the hopes of getting him to confess. As the men revert to crime-drama antics, Wiley plays along, asking for his phone call, eagerly drinking his interrogation beverage, and requesting a cigarette to smoke mid-conversation.
In a moment of vulnerability, Al shares with Wiley that he needs the phone back because he recorded his first song in seven months on it. Speaking about his disillusionment with the industry and his craft, Al opens up about losing his sense of musical taste and feeling like it’s “too late” for him to pursue any other dreams. After having an acoustic guitar brought in and playing a surprisingly good song, Wiley stands up and walks out of the interrogation room (an office in the venue). “Thank you for seeing me. I hope you find your phone,” he says.
As the group boards the tour bus, accepting defeat and declaring the matter a cold case, the truth is revealed to the show’s viewers. What the group fails to anticipate is that the thief was someone among them for whom they had let their guard down — Socks, the yellow beanie–wearing white guy from the London episode who befriended Darius following his “12 Years a Slave” moment. Since “The Old Man and the Tree,” Socks has presumably been accompanying the trio on the last leg of the tour. As one might recall, Socks was established early on in the season as a powerful social force; he is a white man who crafts narratives and relishes in performing outrage.
Always prepared to launch a crusade on another’s behalf, Socks expertly deflects any potential for suspicion by taking on the status of the aggrieved party, in many cases embodying more frustration and rage than the victims themselves. First, he fought for Darius, whose experience with a microaggression at a party is exaggerated by Socks in order to corral a crowd of white empaths who don’t even listen to the Black man they’re supposedly weeping for. This time, Socks is activated by Al’s victimization. Taking the phone from Earn, Socks blows up on Wiley about the theft. Threatening him with “mob shit” and declaring that he is “the white Liam Neeson” and thus prepared to “track him down and [bury him],” Socks displays a dramatic sense of outrage about the smartphone’s disappearance that doesn’t even mirror Al’s expression. “Liam Neeson’s already fuckin’ white!” Al shouts at him (LMAO!). “I’m so mad; I could kill this ni-,” Socks yells, cutting himself off. Darius, Earn, and Al note that Socks came close to saying the forbidden slur but do not linger on the matter. Later, after apologizing for his behavior, Socks pulls Al’s phone out of his pocket and throws the gold encased device into the trash before hopping on the tour bus. Al lights a joint to calm his nerves while sitting next to the very man who robbed him.
In the end, however, Socks is not the enigma that festers in this episode. Rather, the mysteries that remain unsolved are the ones that plague Earn’s most intimate relationships. Earlier, Al looks to Earn, who has been vacant and lost in manager mode, and attempts to connect with his cousin. “How you been?” Al asks. “You seem busy all the time.” Earn has little to say in response. Consumed by his manager role, he has begun to reduce his relationship with Al to the art of anticipating needs and righting wrongs on his behalf. Perhaps, comforted by this sense of purpose, Earn cannot yet see the chasm he is forming between himself and his cousin turned client. “Busy’s good,” he remarks before leaving Al once more.
Even Van, who does not appear in this episode, haunts Earn in her absence. After six days of silence, Earn overanalyzes a check-in text that Van doesn’t even respond to until the end of the episode. He inquires about her wellness, and she merely sends an emoji thumbs-up in return. Genuine connection is evading Earn at every step, and to uncover the source of this absence, he will have to embark on yet another quest for answers, an interrogation of the self.
• Black Card Revoked for Earn: During their interrogation, Wiley notes that Earn doesn’t have the same Southern accent as Al and asks, “Were you told as a child that you talk white?” Taking on a psychoanalytic posture, Wiley comments on how alienated and “separate” Earn must have felt growing up not being a part of the “group” to which he desired entry. As a white Hungarian, he finds Earn’s alleged racial alienation to be “interesting.” Certainly, no one is crediting Wiley for this 2012 Tumblr diagnosis, and yet one is left wondering how far back Earn’s patterns of elusiveness and isolation go and to what extent they are inflected by race.
• We’re Not Really Strangers for Van: Van is having some major difficulty communicating her feelings to Earn and has resorted to using single emojis in response to his frantic texts. I think a round of this game might loosen them both up and get a conversation flowing. Those two have been acting like strangers lately, and it’s high time they rebuild their relationship and start acting like they know each other again.
• I Spy for Doja?: As a noted Doja Cat stan, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the songs that plays in this episode is “Doja” featuring A$AP Rocky by $NOT (a song that Doja herself had a strong reaction to) and that her name appeared in the show back in “The Old Man and the Tree,” when Earn tells TJ’s white sponsor that he has to check if Doja Cat’s team is already working on an influencer hostel. I can’t figure out yet if these references are made in good faith, but I’ll be on the lookout for any further mentions of Planet Her’s illustrious leader.