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Review: Atlanta Episode Five, “Nobody Beats the Biebs”

The fifth episode of FX’s Atlanta examines the politics that celebrities, and those who work for them, go through to reach the level of fame and respect they desire. The episode centers around a celebrity basketball game, one akin to the NBA’s All-Star Celebrity match or one that is hosted by rappers, typically Southern ones. While shows such as Entourage frequently had episodes that satirized the relationships that celebrities have with the entertainment media and each other, “Nobody Beats the Biebs” puts both a uniquely funny spin on it, and one that has a fully realized African American voice.

After witnessing a black version of Justin Bieber (Austin Crute) pee in public, turn to religion in an attempt to win back fans, act dismissive of reporters (all things the real Bieber has done), Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) realizes the celebrity world isn’t for him. Earn (Donald Glover) who is still trying to become his cousin’s (Paper Boi) manager, ends up meeting a delusional agent who brings him to the VIP lounge to mingle. Paper Boi’s verbal jabbing and physical altercation with Bieber is juxtaposed with the fight that Earn has with the agent who mistakes him for someone who wronged her. The message is that no matter what you do in the entertainment business, someone is going to try and take you down.

Celebrity roles, and the ability of the press to put certain figures in a box and keep them there, is a thoughtfully examined theme throughout the episode. Paper Boi, not famous enough to get an interview with a reporter (Paloma Guzmán), but famous enough to think that he deserves one, is told to “play his part.” Atlanta, a show about hip-hop as much as it is about anything else, shows the common trajectory of a rapper who is a normal person, gets linked to “gang life” and ultimately is unable to rise above the perception of him that is perpetrated by a media that is both uncomfortable with the culture, and doesn’t understand it. Paper Boi, unlike Donald Glover’s real life rap alter ego Childish Gambino, can’t yet transcend his city and his larger-than-life musical persona—something that has created some pacing issues in the season thus far.

Keith Stanfield’s tremendous performance as Paper Boi’s friend Darius, the too-smart-for-his-circumstances, idiosyncratic, spends the episode exposing the hypocrisy of gun culture. After having issues with the neighborhood dogs Darius goes down to the gun range and puts up a printed target of a dog, upsetting some of the other patrons. The store owner is so upset by Darius’ decision to shoot at a dog that he puts a gun to his back and forces him out. The understanded simplicity of the logic that Darius uses to question why it is ok that the white gun owners shoot at images of Mexican men, but he can’t shoot at a sketch of an animal is one of the moments that conveys why this show is so ahead of others on TV.

Unlike FX’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a sitcom that relies on over-the-top scenarios and dialogue to make viewers tune in, Atlanta takes much more of its cues from Louie, also on FX. The writing is devilishly smart, the characters all ones that we have at one time or another have encountered, and in the moments that skew much more towards comedy than drama, there is a finely tuned mix of absurdity and realism. Like Louie, Atlanta may occasionally feel like it’s dragging a little at times, but there has not been a comedy/drama hybrid as well acted, culturally in touch, or funny, since.

Grade: B+

Atlanta is on Tuesdays this Fall at 10pm (ET) on FX and available to stream at FXNOW

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