Tuesday night, 10pm, inside-clothes, airplane-mode, TV, FX, #Atlanta. This weekly ritual has become somewhat of a sacred rite, an understated, dazzling light in my working week, matched only by payday and the delivery of Sunday evening's take-away of calorific shame, ahh #modernlife.
In a year that's seen the release of Westworld, O.J.:Made In America and The Night Of, giving the coveted crown of 2016's best new TV show to Donald Glover's "Twin Peaks with Rappers" may seem a little left field, but then again, it's not often that you get to watch the future of Television in agonizingly short twenty minute nuggets once a week.
With the Season Finale, 'The Jacket' premiering last night, Atlanta has now completed its first cycle and, like saying goodbye to an unexpectedly great one night stand, we're left basking in its fuzzy afterglow with the unnerving feeling that we might have learnt something about ourselves. Or at the very least, about how switching from shots to juice after midnight can sometimes be the greatest gift you can bestow upon your future self. However, along with a sense of closure and of characters emerging from a cathartic cocoon of subtle transformations, the Finale also confirmed a niggling theory that's been steadily developing in my mind since the Pilot: Atlanta is actually all based on a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.
But, before I explain how, let us first reflect on Earn's spectacularly untactical-vom, a heady reminder of the perils of shots:
Stick Or Twist: How To Rig A Game Of Rock-Paper-Scissors
On the surface, Rock-Paper-Scissors is one of the simplest games in the world. Often used as an alternative to flipping a coin, this zero-sum hand game is one of the oldest in the book, dating back to between 206 BC and 220 AD. However, it is one of the few games based on the illusion of chance that can actually be manipulated by a degree of skill. In fact, scientists have dedicated their lives to exploring the complex psychology embedded within this deceptive game and they've discovered the following:
- If a player wins a round, they are more likely to stick with the same action in the next round.
- For example: If Earn plays the scissors and beats Alfred's paper, he is more likely to play the scissors again in the next round.
- If a player has lost two or more rounds in a row, they are more likely to switch to the action that will beat their opponents action from the last round.
- For example: If Earn has lost two or more rounds and in the last round he lost by playing a rock to Alfred's paper, in the next round he is more likely to switch to scissors to beat Alfred's paper.
To Summarize: If you win a round, switch to the object that would beat the object you just played for the next round. I.e. If you win with the scissors, switch to the rock.
Wait, How On Earth Is This Relevant To Atlanta?
If there's one summary of Atlanta that makes me want throw my hands up in despair, go home and lose myself in a thrilling game of Zoo Tycoon, it's that it's a TV Show "about nothing." Like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, while Atlanta may seemingly have a simplistic premise, Paper Boi chasing fame, Earn chasing his next pay cheque, Darius chasing...Texan dogs, this is a deceptive ruse, a thin veneer just barely concealing the bubbling cauldron of complex thematic content fermenting beneath.
Not only do they share the same misconceptions, but the psychology behind the game is also incredibly applicable to the premise of the show and is prevalent in every Episode. Let's take a look at some examples.
If A Player Wins, They're More Likely To Stick:
- The Win:
Taking Episode Three 'Going for Broke' as an example, in his humiliating interaction with a savage burger-joint cashier who publicly berates him for only being able to afford the Kids Meal, Earn turns this situation around and manages to "win" by stealing a cup of fizzy pop from the drinks dispenser behind her back.
- The Stick:
As the entire Episode basically acts as a colossal metaphor for the inescapable trap of poverty and a life of crime, having acknowledged that cheating the system feels like a "win," by the end of the Episode we see Earn continuing with his mildly criminal behavior and committing minor fraud by calling in his debit card stolen, even though he'd just maxed it out trying to take Van on a date.
If A Player Looses Two Rounds, They're More Likely To Switch:
- The Loses:
In the very next Episode, 'The Streisand Effect,' we see Earn after making two significant loses. The first being that he hasn't been able to make enough money at his job at the airport to support his family. The second being that trying to recuperate his loses, he changes his focus to becoming Alfred's manager, which also fails to bring him the money his young family so desperately need.
- The Switch:
Giving up on the actions that have repeatedly gotten him into the same situation, Earn instead decides to make a shift and take a chance on Darius. As he is about to trade his phone in at the pawn shop for some cash, Darius alerts him to a valuable sword which, if he traded it up, he believes could make him much more money in the long run. Earn trusts him as this play seems to be working for Darius who always has enough cereal to nourish him through his gaming marathons, and so he switches, but as we know, things do not exactly go to plan.
Three Outcomes: You Win, You Draw, You Lose
- Each Character In Atlanta Is A Player
Just as in every game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, in each Episode of Atlanta we see at least one character win, draw and lose, but not necessarily in that order. In Episode Eight, 'The Club,' we see Darius win by being giving free drinks for just being "that guy." We see him draw as no one takes his mysterious beliefs seriously, even though they nearly always turn out to be true, and we see him lose as he's denied access into the VIP area which makes him view the whole club experience as "meaningless."
Similarly, in Van's solo Episode, 'Value,' we see her win by regaining her old friendship and letting her hair down with her ultimate frenemy Jayde. We then see her draw in a savage frenemy battle with her over dinner and then we see her lose quite spectacularly as she's fired after confessing to failing a drug test that was never actually going to be sent to the lab while dripping in her daughters urine. The list of examples weaves itself through the entire Season, and once you notice it, you will be incapable of unseeing it.
- How Atlanta's Season Finale Played The Ultimate Game
However, nowhere is this done more to perfection than in the Season Finale. Here we see Earn finally win by receiving a nice roll of cash from Alfred meaning he is able to provide for his family. Then we see him draw by eventually finding his jacket which he is searching for for most of the Episode, but then watching his Uber driver-turned-wanted criminal get shot to death in it. Then comes the crushing loss. In the Season's heartbreaking closing scene, we see that Earn, when not crashing at Van or Al's, has been secretly living in a cramped storage unit.
As it turns out, Rock-Paper-Scissors, and by extension, the game of life can be a tricky game to master, even if you think you've managed to crack the psychology behind it. Atlanta is a testimony to the importance of the everyday. To the struggle to keep your head above water, to the absurdity, the hilarity and the tragedy latent within our modern day society (#Zanlife). But most of all, Atlanta is a testimony to the belief that we're all winning and we're all losing in our own unique ways, every single day, and the risks, the chances and the fun of it all, make it a game that's absolutely worth playing. Roll on Season Two.