The dance known as the cakewalk — which first emerged on slave plantations in the U.S. South in the mid-19th century — refers to a processional promenade that merges musicality and mimicry. On some occasions, the dance would be executed during “prize walks” judged by slaveholders, where a cake would be awarded to the best dancer. A Black dance that privileged fluidity and poise, the cakewalk in time would be integrated into minstrel shows to be danced by white and Black performers alike. In his 1963 book Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) wrote of the cakewalk and asked, “If the cakewalk is a Negro dance caricaturing certain white customs, what is that dance, when, say, a white theater company attempts to satirize it as a Negro dance?”
Throughout the third season of Atlanta, this question of power and the limits of satire have weighed heavily on the show and the writing of its characters. This week, as Al goes on a cakewalk of a different sort — walking around Amsterdam under the influence of “Nepalese space cake,” which Darius claims is made with weed “harvested from monks in Denmark” and Nepalese hallucinogenic honey — his high is overwhelmed by the history of Black performance and the anxiety that fame, new money, and industry exploitation produce. In his break from reality, Al gets real with himself about the fears that consume him as a Black entertainer tasked with keeping his cool and selling it. And as it turns out, performing ease is rarely easy. Even the original cakewalk was no cakewalk.
The episode begins in earnest. Al and Darius sit in a café and discuss their plans to pick up the Nepalese space cake and start their synchronized trip through the “city of dreams.” Ever the professional, Earn shows up at the café and maintains a manager’s distance before giving them a set of spa passes to enhance their experience. Before they leave the café, the matter of splitting the bill is raised. Darius waits until Al has paid the bill in full before offering to split it. Al brushes past his irritation, and the two leave in anticipation of adventure fueled by “spiritual-expanding apparatuses” (Darius’s alternative to the word drugs). As they walk through the streets, they see a man on drugs wearing a Goofy hat sitting in a nook on the street. “Don’t be like him,” Darius remarks, clocking the man as a tourist.
Before the duo drinks their coffee and space cake, Darius tries his best to prepare Al for what may come. “Hey Al, whatever happens, just know that I love you very much,” he proclaims before they indulge. “Let’s do this,” Al says. Darius has brought two iPod Nanos fit with playlists to “help guide the honey through us.” As they walk through the city, passing other tourists in Goofy hats and a dead rat in the middle of the street, the high hits Darius almost immediately, making him a particularly bad guide for the anxious Al (“I’m too high to not rap”). Soon enough, Darius’s highness gets the best of him, and Al is left all alone without security in the red-light district, where a woman behind a window takes a picture of him. A group of adolescent white boys recognize him as Paper Boi, and Al has to run to escape their entitlement, hiding out in a black-box theater as the teens terrorize their next target (Sidebar: These boys are evil! They literally take a baby out of its stroller and toss the child around as the mother screams.)
Al exits the theater and finds himself inside a museum where he meets his “angel,” Lorraine, a quick-witted and sharp-tongued young Black woman who practices a flippant form of tough love. Lorraine hates art but loves reading people, particularly Al, whom she eats up several times in the episode. “Damn, your hat looks dumb,” Lorraine tells Al. The hat in question, a purple wide-brimmed hat, had been a source of pride for Al up until this point as he’d received Darius’s co-sign and assessed that the color looked good with his skin tone. “You need a friend,” she asserts, setting out to put him on game and aid him in escaping further detection. Although she exclaims that she is emphatically not a fan of rappers, Lorraine is very well versed in the ins and outs of the music industry they occupy, claiming that Al still has no clue about his finances. “So who owns your masters?” she asks. “It’s potentially the most lucrative part of making music, babe.”
The question shakes Al as he doesn’t have an answer for her. The fact that he has never thought to ask this question himself troubles him. And though he does not know Lorraine well, she presents an alternative to the financial manipulation and familial dynamics that cause tension in his relationships with Earn and Darius. Following her out of the museum, he takes her advice to change into a Goofy hat so he can pass as a tourist and blend into the crowds in the street.
After following Lorraine’s voice through the dark streets of Amsterdam, a panicked Al ends up at the Cancel Club, where she introduces him to two friends and tells the bouncer his name is New Jazz. Naming Al after the innovation of a musical genre whose Black roots were infamously deracinated, Lorraine collapses the history of past musical appropriations into a stage name for a contemporary Black artist who is perhaps just as vulnerable to bribery and manipulation as the Black artists who preceded him.
When the group gets seated in the lounge area, Lorraine runs off somewhere, and her friends immediately start talking behind her back. “You’re not her first rapper, just so you know. They all come out here. Don’t worry, she’s discreet,” one friend (played by Chaneil Kular from Sex Education) tells Al before going on to call Lorraine’s apartment “106 & Park.” Hinting at their own fakeness as well as the economy of desire that shapes who rappers like Paper Boi are most likely to sleep with, these friends read Al as yet another man in a series of Lorraine’s alleged (and ironic!) groupie patterns. Visibly uncomfortable, Al escapes from the conversation holding him hostage and finds himself at the bar next to the master of hostage negotiation himself, Taken star Liam Neeson.
Neeson begins to recount his “transgressions” — which refers to the Irish actor’s unprovoked confession that he once set out to kill any Black man he could find following the sexual assault of a white female friend. Al brushes off Neeson’s admission of anti-Blackness, assuming that he doesn’t “hate Black people now.” (I’m sorry, why are we doing this?) “What? I can’t stand the lot of you,” Neeson clarifies, citing his failed cancellation as a new source of hate. Al is confused by his lack of remorse. “Didn’t you learn that you shouldn’t say shit like that?” he asks. “Yes, but I also learned that the best and worst part about being white is we don’t have to learn anything if we don’t want to,” Neeson answers. In keeping with the whiteness-studies arc of this season, this Neeson cameo joins Chet Hanks’s appearance in a collaborative effort to piss me off. Between last week’s platforming of the nepotism minstrel and this week’s unfunny (it wasn’t even laughable, and that’s what irritated me the most) attempt to undermine a man’s admission of murderous anti-Black rage, I am left to ask, What came first, the space cake or the end of critical thought?
Just as Al’s wave of shock wears off, he hears Lorraine whispering to him to leave with her just before the club host announces his performance. As they flee into the morning air, Al remains cagey toward Lorraine and her brutal honesty. “I been telling you what you needed to hear, not what you wanted to hear,” she says, explaining the difference between herself and the yes-men who typically surround artists in the industry. Of Al’s own circle, she questions their capacity to be proper supports given their “vested interest” in keeping him in the dark and easier to manipulate. Suddenly, Al begins to lose all sensation and motor control. “You can’t move. Your legs don’t work. Your arms? They don’t work,” Lorraine says coldly as Al slides to the ground in a nook on the street. She puts a blanket on him and dips. Before Al passes out, he sees himself and Darius walking down the same street. “Don’t be like him,” he hears Darius say just like before. But this time, the tourist tweaking in the street is no mystery man: It’s Al himself.
At the episode’s close, Al wakes up in a hotel with Earn. After finding him in the street, cleaning up his vomit, and changing his clothes, Earn tucks his cousin-client into bed, where he’s knocked out for ten straight hours. “Earn, who owns my masters?” Al asks, still groggy from his space-cake coma. “You do,” Earn explains, unknowingly silencing Al’s fears that he was being taken advantage of. “Where’s Lorraine?” Al wonders. “Your mom?” Earn asks, referring to his deceased matriarch.
This is not the first time Al’s mother has appeared in a hallucination. Back in season two, in the episode “Woods,” the fuzzy likeness of his mother emerges when Al, whose house had become a pigsty indicative of a dead depression, conjures his mother and her criticisms. “You know good and well I did not raise a son this lazy,” she remarks before telling her son to get up. For Al’s mother to reemerge a season later in the form of another Lorraine, this time a fishnet-wearing know-it-all who rescues Al but rubs him the wrong way, is an interesting turn. Lorraine 2.0 is no mother, but she is certainly a nag. Where Al’s real mother got on him about the external signs of his depression, this Lorraine calls him out about the internal mess, namely his numbness. “You don’t feel shit,” she tells him. Zeroing in on how his new life as an artist has only heightened his fearfulness and emotional avoidance, Lorraine takes up the mantel of his mother in challenging him to face his own woundedness. Having embraced the art of ridicule, Lorraine is an artist against art, and ironically, this makes her a rather nihilistic angel. And perhaps this is why she embodies the specter of grief that consumes Al not only with the losses of his past but also with the losses to come. After all, as her friends put it, Lorraine looks like the future.
• Race & Rumors Rum Cake: Lorraine calls an artwork in the museum a “White Lizzo” and then implies the actual Lizzo is basically white. My eyes rolled so hard! Are we gonna do this every time Black artists make pop music?
• Levitating Key-Lime Pie: One of Lorraine’s friends asks Al if he knows Dua Lipa. And even though he says he does not, she goes on to ask that he “protect her, okay?” I just know my Albanian queen would not want this evil done in her name!
• Apple Pie With White Hennessy Whipped Cream: When Al orders a drink at the Cancel Club, he asks for a Hennessy Pure White, and the bartender refers to the drink as a “Chris Evans.” Now I could be off, but Captain America gives me more beer than brandy vibes!