Just like the moon, life and your dishwasher, Donald Glover’s Atlanta works in cycles. Having established itself as one of the breakout shows of 2016 with approximately three million viewers watching its double-episode season premiere, Glover was under considerable pressure to maintain momentum in this, his third installment. Does he deliver? Yes - but not in a way any of us were expecting.
Episode three, ‘Go For Broke,’ is markedly less funny than Atlanta's double debut. Gone are the myriad of minor characters who carried us across a sea of complex issues ranging from drug culture to transphobia. Gone are the more overtly surreal moments in which Atlanta’s urban city backdrop seemed to overlap with the rural obscurity of the Twin Peaks landscape. Gone (at least for now) is Dave.
Instead, this latest episode operates more rhythmically. It pulsates and reverberates in such a way that for the entire twenty minutes the narrative spirals outwards like ripples of water after an energetic cannonball. Instead of receiving an angry tirade from the on-duty lifeguard however, you receive moments of awe and wonder as you watch how Glover and his team have structured the entire episode to operate as a series of concentric circles, each building upon and revealing something new about the one that came before.
This may sound complicated and/or borderline pretentious, but bear with me. The way ‘Go For Broke’ unravels like an onion of despair and delight deserves a second look, and if nothing else, scroll down and make sure you listen to the killer Cheryl Lynn track which featured so majestically in this week's show.
Cycle No.1: Poverty, Crime and Kids Happy Meals
Episode three's opening scene manages in just one and a half minutes to perfectly encapsulate the cycle of poverty and crime all within the confines of a burger joint and all within a succinct three step structure. Let’s unpack it step by step.
- Strike One: Humiliation
Shuffling up to place his order, protagonist Earn (Glover) mutters under his breath that he’d like to buy a kids meal. However, like all selectively deaf pharmacists who make buying condoms over the counter a living hell, the cashier feigns a hearing impairment and in the process completely embarrasses Earn who has to reveal how broke he is to a complete stranger.
- Strike Two: Being Punished for Being Poor
Going on the defensive, Earn begins arguing with the cashier and, to be honest, makes some valid points. If a kid can order an adult meal then why shouldn’t it work the other way round too? Why should he be denied a meal which he can actually can afford just because society deems it to be cheating somehow? But it is in his closing desperate plea that we can all hear ourselves:
- Strike Three: A Life of Crime
Realizing he’s lost the battle but not wanting to leave the counter empty handed, Earn defeatedly asks the cashier to give him a cup for a water. Walking towards the drinks dispenser he is just about to select the water option before he hesitates, looks over to see if the cashier is looking and moves his cup along to select a coke instead. In that brief moment Earn is the victorious winner. He has cheated the system and received some small token of teeth rotting retribution, but by doing so has completed the poverty/crime cycle, inadvertently becoming a criminal.
Cycle No.2: Stereotypes Reinforcing Stereotypes
Rippling out from the cycle of poverty and crime is the unending cycle of reenforced stereotypes. Returning to his ex-wife Van’s home after his altercation at the burger joint via cousin Alfreds', Earn is confronted by Van who is getting increasingly frustrated with his lack of economic stability. However, in by doing so, Van also gets mad that Earn is putting her in a corner, asking him:
And here in lies the crux of this second cycle. By playing up to the negative stereotype of a young black father who is unable to support his child, Earn forces Van to play the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman,’ which she naturally resents. Whilst the reality of this simmers under the surface, Earn manages to distract them both away from the spiraling implications of this by instead focusing on the ironic benefits his particular stereotype affords him:
All of which feeds perfectly into the third concentric circle.
Cycle No.3: The Myth of Masculinity
It’s no secret that Donald Glover is also known as established musician Childish Gambino, and that Atlanta's director, Hiro Murai, has directed an impressive catalogue of music videos. Consequently the soundtrack plays a pivotal role in the series and is masterfully woven into the fabric of this episode in a way that we hadn’t really seen in the previous installments.
Take for example the mini story arc in which we watch Paper Boi and Darius enter and leave a comically farcical drug deal held in a creepy mobile home in the rural suburbs. Here Glover manages to effortlessly expose the fragility of what it means to be ‘male’ by incorporating the cycle of poverty and crime with the vicious cycle of reenforced stereotypes all by simply laying three expertly chosen tracks over the elongated scene.
Track 1: Cheryl Lynn - Encore
- Scene: Paper Boi and Darius are relaxing in their car, smoking some weed and signing along to Cheryl when a member of the crew they’re dealing with rolls up, making them turn Cheryl off and engage in a brief monosyllabic dialogue.
- What This Tells Us: The shift from Paper Boi and Darius as two guys singing along to Cheryl to two guys engaging with a drug dealer is in a nut shell the shift between public and private ideas of masculinity. When they’re not being watched they have the freedom to embrace a more ‘feminine’ element of their personalities, but when other eyes are on them they have to silence the Cheryl within.
- Flashback: To Earn and Van reinforcing each other as negative stereotypes which neither of them feel comfortable fully embracing.
Track 2: Shabazz Palaces - An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum
- Scene: Following the man from the crew into the suburbs we watch as Paper Boi and Darius’ car snakes around deserted roads into the wilderness.
- What This Tells Us: The switch from Cheryl to Shabazz Palaces is abrupt. We’re now entering a world of drugs and crime, but most importantly, a world of men who know what it’s like to be humiliated by poverty, trying to make something of themselves in a society which has constantly persecuted them for being poor.
- Flashback: To Earn stealing coke from the burger joint in his flimsy paper cup.
Track 3: Max P. - Gang
- Scene: Immediately getting out of the car Paper Boi and Darius can hear the crew playing this track at their secluded mobile home in the woods (obviously). The leader of the crew frees a half naked man from a holding in the side of the mobile home and pushes him to the floor. The scene cuts and resumes with the same song playing as we watch the crew leader shoot this man in the woods.
- What This Tells Us: We’ve jumped from the idea of man turning to crime to make a living to man as cold blooded killer within the space of this much more aggressive track. What’s more telling however is Paper Boi’s face as he watches the shooting. Striking a pose eerily similar to the way he watches computer games at home we can see the silent despair on his face as he has to maintain his front of being a tough guy whilst feeling scared, vulnerable and upset.
- Flashback: To the relaxed Paper Boi singing along to Cheryl Lynn just two tracks before and we can see how the idea of masculinity is both dangerous and a myth.
Having delved deep into the complex layer of circles which Atlanta's third episode is built around, it becomes apparent that Glover has achieved many things. Not only has he created a universe which is at once funny and tragic, profound and face-value, he has also run rings around his audience, leading them spiraling into a vortex of crime, poverty, stereotypes and Cheryl Lynn, and so subtly you barely even realize it.
What did you think of the third episode of Atlanta?