refresher course

Where Did We Leave Off on Atlanta?

Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

As Atlanta returns tonight with its long-awaited third season, you may be asking yourself, “Wait, what happened in the last episode?” The finale of Robbin’ Season aired almost four years ago, and even then, the last scene featuring our main characters was a subtle and cryptic exchange necessitating extensive analysis. The plot of Atlanta isn’t hard to follow: Earn’s cousin Alfred is starting to make waves as the rapper Paper Boi, and Ivy League dropout Earn wants to be his manager. Earn’s commitment to this role often tangles with his relationship with Van, his ex and the mother of his daughter Lottie, as well as Darius, Alfred’s lone entourage member. The cloud forever hanging over Earn’s head is money: He’s broke, and by becoming Paper Boi’s manager, he might finally have a shot at a better life for himself, Van, and Lottie.

If relationships define Atlanta, objects are the trigger points that force them into new directions. Heading into season three, these are the key symbols to remember.

The Gun

The entire series kicks off with a parking-lot shootout: A passerby jacks Alfred’s rearview mirror, and as Al jumps out of the car to confront the transgressor, Earn grabs a handgun from the glove box. It’s our first glimpse at Earn taking steps outside of his comfort zone to back up his cousin by any means necessary. It’s also Earn’s first screwup: When Alfred sees the gun held awkwardly in Earn’s hands, the confrontation escalates.

In the first episode, we get the core of each character’s interaction with each other: Van and Earn have a dysfunctional relationship, Alfred isn’t sure Earn can pull off being his manager, and Darius has a closeness to Alfred that Earn wishes he had. Earn reaching for the gun shows his immediate commitment to Al, but his arrest after the shooting strains his standing with Van, whose house he crashes at almost every night.

The Briefcase

We see brief glimpses of Alfred’s rising notoriety: He receives lemon pepper wings with the sauce on them; a man shows up at his front door in a Batman mask to case the joint. It’s the briefcase, though, handcuffed to Darius’s wrist in the third episode, that fills in the gaps: In order to make ends meet, Alfred has been selling drugs. It’s the first time this is laid out plainly to Earn, and as long as Al is dealing to make money, Earn isn’t going to get paid as a manager. Earn warns Alfred that he needs to be more careful now that his profile has risen. Shortly after, Darius lets Alfred know he’s going to handcuff himself to the briefcase full of money for their latest deal because “it’s professional.” What’s not professional is forgetting the key for it back at home, and it’s clear as Alfred and Darius meet up with the suppliers out on Buford Highway that they’re not cut out to be full-time dealers. For Earn, his near-empty bank account almost ruins his attempt to take Van on a date, but a call to Al for $20 moves the off-again couple toward reconciliation.

A Condom Full of Baby Urine

Earn and Darius have a bonding experience as they pawn a phone for a katana, then trade that katana for a purebred Cane Corso in a money-doubling scheme. But it’s Van’s condom full of baby urine that really defines the mid-season character development. While reflecting on the frustrations of her relationship with Earn, Van smokes weed the night before a drug test at her school. The condom full of Lottie’s just-squeezed-from-a-diaper urine breaks when Van attempts to untie it in the bathroom, and when she admits she smoked to the principal, she’s fired. Van tries to accept responsibility, but it’s hard to ignore Earn’s stressful impact on her life, and their relationship continues to fray.

The Keys

After a rocky start, Alfred’s career as Paper Boi begins to take off thanks to Earn’s behind-the-scenes moves (landing Al a spot in a celebrity basketball game, booking a club appearance). When success catches up to Earn on a wild night out and he loses his favorite blue jacket, he resorts to a wild goose chase to track it down. Al is growing more and more annoyed with Earn’s mishaps, but after the two witness police gun down a weapons dealer wearing the missing jacket, Alfred finally pays Earn his cut of the Paper Boi money.

As Earn heads to Vanessa’s to deliver that money, he runs into his former co-worker Justin, who hands over what Earn was actually looking for in the jacket: a set of keys. (Turns out Earn gave them to Justin for safekeeping the night before.) Vanessa invites Earn into her house, but he declines, later using the keys to open a storage locker revealed to be a makeshift apartment.

At the end of season one, Earn’s proven he can provide — somewhat inconsistently — for Van and their daughter, but his commitment to Alfred continues to put him in dangerous situations, and as he works harder to find success for his cousin, Earn moves further away from Van. Meanwhile, Darius keeps inserting himself into situations that add a layer of difficulty to Earn’s role as manager. In a show centered around personal relationships and how they intertwine, Earn has found himself clashing with everyone around him in pursuit of financial success. Though he’s achieved a small win as the season closes out, he’s more isolated than ever.

The Ping-Pong Table

As season two develops, Earn and Alfred bond over family ties and an alligator, the arrival of Tracy adds more stress to Earn’s life, and a disastrous night trying to spend a $100 bill brings Earn and Van to their breaking point. When the pair finally face off at a Ping-Pong table during a German festival with all her friends, their entire relationship is put to a wager. If he wins, she’ll acquiesce to his no-strings-attached approach to their relationship. If she wins, they’re kaput: co-parents, and that’s it. After some furious volleys, we get our answer when Van closes the door on Earn’s face that night.

We don’t see Earn lose at Ping-Pong, but we don’t need to. We also don’t see him lose in a footrace with Michael Vick in the previous episode. The aftermath of both situations — Van delivering a biting comment in the limo; Van shutting the door on him — is when the viewer sees Earn lose Van’s confidence. That’s way worse than the wounded pride of a lost sporting event. In all his efforts to establish stronger ties with Alfred, Earn keeps pushing Van away, and his constant corner-cutting and amateur mistakes are persuading Alfred to replace Earn with the slick manager of competing rapper Clark County.

The Passport

There are many mythical objects that define key moments in this series: Darius adding more stress to Alfred’s life by pursuing the piano at Teddy Perkins’s mansion, the life-size Drake stand-up that represents Van’s attempt at finding a life without Earn, the counterfeit FUBU shirt flashback that cements the root of Alfred and Earn’s relationship. However, it’s Darius and Earn running off for a last-minute passport renewal that marks a turning point for Earn. While waiting for the documents, Earn reflects on his strained relationship with Van, Lottie, and Alfred, telling Darius that he’s messed up his whole life. Darius suggests that Alfred will always take care of family, but Earn counters that he doesn’t want a handout. It’s in this moment that Darius offers some wisdom: Earn has to make mistakes in order to learn how to be a better manager, but when those failures impact Alfred’s livelihood, the stakes are much higher than just letting himself down.

It’s the first moment we see Darius and Earn have a heart-to-heart, but at the same time, Darius is suggesting Earn take a position like his: a life without any personal responsibility, as long as Alfred’s priorities come first. Earn tells Darius that he wants to be a provider, and the audience knows from an earlier scene that the money from this tour could pay for Lottie to go to private school. While the expired passport may have created more tension between Darius and Earn, it also gave the two a chance to finally speak openly about their roles in Alfred’s life. Even if they don’t see eye to eye, they at least have a better understanding of each other.

The Golden Gun

The first season begins with Earn handling a gun, and the second season ends with Earn handling a gun. In line for TSA ahead of the start of Clark County’s European tour, for which Paper Boi is opening, Earn realizes he forgot to dispose of the gold handgun his uncle gave him at the start of the season. He avoids disaster by stashing the gun in Clark County’s bag. On the plane, Al acknowledges that he saw what Earn was willing to do to protect him, and that he needs someone nearby who understands his needs as a family member.

Over 21 episodes, we’ve see a new confidence take over Earn — in that split second, he knew what to do and executed his plan, taking charge in a way we’d never seen before. Earlier in the episode, he mentions to Alfred that Paper Boi should be headlining the European tour. If Clark County gets pulled by TSA for handgun possession, Earn will have directly manifested an opportunity for Paper Boi to take over the headlining slot. Both guns serve a distinct purpose: The first causes Alfred to doubt Earn’s readiness to manage a rapper, and the second proves that Earn is finally ready to execute that role.

But Clark County appears on the plane. His manager, the one Alfred almost left Earn for, took the rap for the handgun in the luggage. As Al realizes Clark County’s manager is also willing to do whatever it takes, he rolls his eyes slightly. He’s made the choice to stick with Earn as his manager, but there’s a moment when he wonders if he made the right call.

And with that, Al, Earn, and Darius are off to Europe and the start of season three.

Where Did We Leave Off on Atlanta?