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Review: Atlanta, "Going for Broke"

Photo from YouTube trailer. 

Episode three of FX’s breakout hit, Atlanta, entitled “Go For Broke,” lives up to the stellar start of the series and tells an engaging and all too true story about chasing your dreams while dealing with harsh realties. Donald Glover’s aptly named character, Earn, attempts to win back his girlfriend Vanessa by taking her out to dinner, while his cousin, Paper Boi, partakes in a comedy of errors while trying to sell drugs. 

The episode begins with Earn at a fast food restaurant where he runs into trouble trying to eat on a budget with a cashier (Candace Harris) who refuses to allow him to buy a kid’s meal. Harris’ inflections and subtle body movements demonstrating frustration and energy immediately steal the scene. The two posters on Earn’s side in the shot, one blue, one orange, help to convey a running theme of playing it cool even if you might want to get upset. Earn does what many people looking to save a buck at a restaurant do: get a water cup and fill it with soda. Even the soda Earn gets, Diet Coke, conveys Earn’s nature—someone who is willing to take a risk by defying the cashier but is not bold enough to lose all his inhibitions and get a non-diet drink. Glover’s character might not be ambitious enough to get a Coke, but he’s not willing to settle for just water either.

Paper Boi, and the ever philosophical Darius, get into a discussion about sexual politics and the word “daddy” while cleaning their guns. Something that Glover’s writing does well is adding humor to real, sometimes Atlanta specific, situations. Sure, any crime writer can do a scene that involves getting prepped for a drug deal, but Glover is able to provide funny, witty elements to almost every scene no matter how grim. When talking finances on the phone, Earn is asked, “how are you broke on payday? What are you, 12 Years a Slave?” showing just how far he has to go to reach his financial goals.

On Earn’s quest for redemption, he runs into numerous obstacles that seek to get a piece of his $96 direct deposit from the airport. A rather suspect parking valet uses a replica Luke Skywalker lightsaber to direct cars into spots, but when Earn hears the ten dollar fee, Vanessa decides money is best spent elsewhere. Like Skywalker in A New Hope, Earn is someone with little means but serious ambition.

Earn tries, and ultimately fails, to remain cool in the seafood restaurant as he deals with a particularly irritating waitress played by Caroline Arapoglou. He is forced to come to terms with the fact that his current salary is not enough to provide for his family, but that the rap game may be a risk he can’t afford to take. The show’s powerful sense of cultural awareness is on display again when Earn tells Vanessa that wanting to run a fashion boutique is no more unique than wanting to be a rapper is foolish. These days, it seems like everyone from Kanye to Jaden Smith wants their hand in the fashion world, whereas just over a decade ago, hip-hop culture stayed far away from fashion week. While his outburst was not very laid back, scenes like this show Glover’s range and energy that make his character a relatable one, if not always likeable. 

Paper Boi’s drug deal is the most ironic, uniquely Atlanta and funny thing about the episode. He tells Earn that he has a drug deal with the Mexicans, but it turns out that the sellers are Atlanta trap rap superstars the Migos. Quavo, the most successful of the members, plays himself in a totally convincing way. At one point, the Migos free a prisoner who Quavo dresses in camouflage and promptly shoots with a hunting rifle, exemplifying the dual nature of Atlanta’s culture and the irony of the whole situation. On the one hand you have a large African-American population, known for their musical history, soul food and hospitality. On the other, you have the more affluent white population who, from time to time, go hunting in the surrounding woods.

Time will tell whether or not Earn and Paper Boi get their lives turned around, but this episode is surely a catalyst for some sort of change in their respective lives. Paper Boi knows it’s not safe to keep doing drug deals with his partner Darius, while Earn knows that he can no longer please his loved ones while working at the airport. 

Glover and his team have done an excellent job casting minor roles and staying true to their characters. Atlanta is a flurry of dramatic and comedic scenes that take ordinary moments and turn them into fascinating displays of smart writing and an Atlanta flavoring. Hip-hop staples like having a girlfriend and several “side” women are almost exclusively shown with a twist. A phone call between Earn and one of his friends features the man talking about where he takes his side woman while being driven by a woman who appears to be his girlfriend. Moments like this that show the ridiculous, seedy, sometimes lucrative world of hip-hop culture are where the show shines the brightest.

Grade: A

Atlanta is on FX on Tuesdays this fall at 10 p.m. EST. The show is also available on FXNow.

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