While Paper Boi’s tour has provided a roadmap for this season, Black grievance and white guilt have made way for detours. This week, Earn, Al, Darius, and Van (she’s back!) are in London again, but this time, though there is no concert, the show does go on. As Al navigates the opportunities fame has presented for him, he is forced to ask himself what it means to perform off stage. When a London-based designer from Tel Aviv invites Al to join the diversity board for his brand, Esco x Esco, following backlash for their haphazard take on streetwear, he struggles to decide what it means to use his Paper Boi persona to aid in the absolution of a white designer. “We want to apologize to the community properly with your help,” the designer tells Al. The art of apology hinges on the authentic address. And yet, as Al finds himself immersed in the corporate and nonprofit world of social justice, he is quickly disillusioned by the antics that overwrite even the most well-intentioned efforts at producing social change.
Before these concerns emerge, however, Al and Darius initially relish in the spoils of corporate courting. They put in lunch orders (Al orders smoked ribs with a dry rub and a “simple-ass Mac and cheese”) with assistants and take designer clothing from the showroom. Al even negotiates to get three custom suits and three years’ worth of free clothing and tailoring upon accepting the terms of the unpaid position. Ironically, though the company declares it “disingenuous” to pay him, their generosity in donations is no less strategic.
Unlike Al and Darius, Earn is visibly uncomfortable with the deal. “This feels like an Uncle Tom photo-op … you’re not worried about what the streets think?” Earn asks, perhaps expecting peer pressure to inform Al’s decision-making. “Man, you know how hard it is for me to get designer shit free from my stylist in Atlanta?” Al responds. “Fuck the streets!” Before the press event where he and a panel of diversity hires will defend the company before the press, Al, feeling the judgment, asks his cousin-manager what he would do if he were in the same position. Earn muses how he’d use the opportunity to start a program that would teach Black people to reinvest in their communities. Al groans over Earn’s high-mindedness. “I don’t know why I asked cause I knew you was gon’ be on that ‘spook sittin’ by the do,’ Martin Luther King, Ebenezer Baptist church shit,” Al retorts. Reminding Earn of what happened to the original MLK, he calls him to recite the arc of history. “They killed him,” they say in unison.
Eventually, Al’s dreams of change-making are killed by the very structures that claim to support making change. When he meets Khalil, a Black influencer and nonprofit owner who introduces himself as an “activist, writer, foodie,” Al is quickly schooled in the ways of social-justice scams. “Is this your first time apologizing for white people?” Khalil asks him, sensing fresh meat. As Al learns, Khalil is well-versed in the dynamics that shape corporate diversity projects and knows how to take advantage of the gap between what corporations promise and what they’re actually willing to do — he “hasn’t paid for a meal in 73 police shootings.” Khalil escorts him into the event where the two of them sit alongside a group of “Black” board members (one guy on the board is questionably Black) who sit on a panel alongside the designer as he proclaims that he is not only “the least prejudiced person in the room” but perhaps even in the world as evidenced by the collection of Black people he has curated. Al, uninitiated in the ways of this world, does not play along at the press conference. When a French reporter asks “After this, is racism over?” Al goes off script and rejects the ridiculous nature of the question. “Fuck no!” he shouts. Khalil steps in and announces that their board is working on an initiative to end racism by 2024. The room is very excited!
At the closed committee meeting, Al discovers the board to be self-serving rather than community-oriented. When asked what they want in exchange for their service on the board, the group sidesteps talk of charity — They want Nikes, trips to Mauritius, tickets to Raisin in the Sun and Black Panther 2. “How does any of that help Black people?” Al asks. He borrows Earn’s idea for a “reinvest in your hood campaign” and suggests they do a commercial where a Black woman blows money at her community businesses. The group runs with his idea of “putting Black dollars in Black hands” and encourages him to pitch it to the company. Despite his earnestness, however, the corporate machine manages to churn out a vision of his campaign to include every possible identity. “Y’all All Lives Matter’d my shit,” Al yells, bursting into the fashion house to confront the designers and marketing staff who turned his pitch idea into a commercial in which numerous non-Black models declare, “we all from some hood.” Khalil pulls him to the side and schools him once more: “Why would a company make a project that would teach Black people to stop buying their products and reinvest in their own? Why would they fund their own demise? That’s not a business; that’s a charity.”
While Al is getting a crash course in institutionalized social justice, Darius learns his own lesson about how something pure can be easily perverted. After requesting jollof rice back when he and Al were putting in lunch order, Darius is met with a great deal of confusion. “It’s as if your taste buds are being scammed by a Nigerian prince,” he explains to the mostly white staff at the fashion house. A white assistant offers to take Darius to a Nigerian spot out of the way. When they arrive at the restaurant, they are waited on by a Nigerian woman named Mimi who takes a liking to Darius when he orders Moi Moi and liver, and she soon discovers he is also Naija and a “Rivers boy” from the Rivers State in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Unfamiliar with the culture or its customs, Darius shares details about Nigerian culture as they watch the 2002 Nollywood film Sharon Stone. The woman studies the environment, mentioning her husband’s work with commissary kitchens, yet Darius pays it little mind. But a few weeks or so later, when Darius comes back to the spot for lunch, Mimi and her restaurant are long gone, and in their absence, a food truck called “Naija Bowl: Taste of Nigeria” has been established in its stead. As Darius discovers, the white assistant to Esco x Esco has since quit her job and bought out Mimi’s place, where the landlord had been trying to push her out for months. Darius asks, “Where’s Mimi?” and the white woman has no answer for him as she went over her head to acquire her shop. The woman gives Darius a meal she named after him, “Peach BBQ reduction and chunks,” which he subsequently throws out, unable to reconcile how a seemingly innocent moment of cultural exchange had been turned on its head.
Earn, too, is overwhelmed by emotion when he runs into Van at a hotel reading on a couch. Shocked by her nonchalance, he confronts her about her distance and the cold emoji she sent when he reached out. He is attempting to convey the importance of communication to her, speaking to their shared status as the parents of Lottie, but before he can finish, they are interrupted by a white woman who accuses Van of stealing a wig from a boutique nearby. The white woman, who understands that whiteness is always already deputized, attempts to make a citizen’s arrest on Van, but Earn defends the outside attack and flips the ordeal into a room upgrade and a free night for their troubles. “You staying here?” Van asks. “I am now,” he responds. While Van and Earn enjoy their complimentary stay, they luxuriate in the opportunity racialized aggression has provided them. They close the distance between them in their fancy room, fashioning their trauma into an intimate moment. Yet, in the morning, when Earn wakes up alone to the violence of a phone ringing intensely. He picks it up and then slams it back down on the receiver. The world can wait.
You Wanna Be on Top?
• America’s Next Top Thief: After they are in the free hotel room, Van and Earn slow dance to “In Your Eyes” featuring Charlotte Day Wilson by BADBADNOTGOOD when Earn breaks the ice and asks, “Did you steal that wig?” Van, always a hot girl and a klepto, does not answer aloud but instead steals his attention by leaning in and kissing him passionately.
• Project Runaway: As Darius throws out his “Darius bowl” and attempts to flee the awful aftermath of Mimi’s restaurant, a white woman running with her dog stops to tell him to recycle the plastic container he just tossed in the trash.
• Making the Cut: In this episode, Khalil offers Al an extra ticket to Black Panther 2, which notably features Whoopi Goldberg and Larenz Tate in its cast. This is the second time the highly-anticipated release of the Marvel blockbuster’s sequel has been integrated into the fictional world of the show. If you remember “Three Slaps,” Laquarius’s excited outburst in class when his teacher announced a field trip to see the film was the impetus for his tragic tale in the foster-care system.