During “Sportin’ Waves,” the episode of Atlanta that aired Thursday night, Earn received a generous and unexpected payout from Darius’ puppy-related investments in season 1. Armed with this unanticipated cash, the still-homeless and aggressively underemployed Earn invests it in a gift card scheme suggested by Tracy, a recently paroled houseguest of Paperboi’s, who claims that Earn will be able to double the $4,000 he just received. The plan fails, of course, as Earn is only able to use the card at the mall for 20 minutes—not nearly enough time to receive an $8,000 return on it.
I cringed a little at this entire scene. Not because of how predictable it was that the scheme wouldn’t work, but because it didn’t feel believable. Someone as smart and naturally skeptical as Earn is supposed to be wouldn’t have just immediately handed over all that money. It just didn’t work for me.
Counting the 10 episodes in season 1 and the two so far in season 2, there have been 12 episodes of Atlanta. I’ve watched each of them. A few I’ve watched multiple times. And this is the first time, in that 12-episode span, that I felt like a plot point just didn’t quite fit. I’m bringing this up not to nitpick, but to articulate exactly how high the show’s bar is.
With most shows—even most good shows—these types of missteps happen more regularly. Maybe a character does something that character just wouldn’t have done in that situation. Maybe a reference is dated or completely off. Maybe a part just wasn’t cast right.
Even The Wire, often (and rightly) cited as the gold standard of televised authenticity, had points when you were like, “Nah.” One that comes to mind was in season 1, when strip club owner Orlando and an undercover Kima are attempting to bust Savino, and Orlando is driving around listening to Black Star. Which is just not what that guy in that situation would have been listening to.
The best part about Atlanta, and the reason it’s both my favorite show and the best show on television, is that it always gets those details right. The language is right. The jokes are right. The beats are right. The casting is right. The music is right. The slang is right. The wardrobe is right. The latent economic anxiety, and how that drives every decision, is right. Their feelings about and reactions to the numbing mundanity of violence and the Kafkaesque nature of the criminal-justice system are right.
It also exists without exposition, which is rare for such an intentionally esoteric show. There’s no explaining what certain jokes and references mean. Unless, of course, the explanation provides an opportunity for something like the extended “Florida Man” vignette. And this lack of time spent holding the audience’s hand allows those details to breathe.
Leigh-Ann Jackson of the New York Times addressed this in her recap Thursday:
Tracy’s wave cap expertise is where the episode gets its name, “Sportin’ Waves.” Watching these guys sit around sharing laughs and potshots about a hair care phenomenon that’s pretty unique to black men—without expounding on its nuances for the benefit of a wider audience—felt like witnessing a secret handshake.
Much of Atlanta’s audience is undoubtedly made up of the type of white people it parodies and skewers. There are likely hundreds of thousands of white people watching this black-ass show. Perhaps millions. Which, according to Donald Glover, is kinda the point.
But while he and the rest of the show’s creators are very cognizant of that perpetual and pervasive gaze of whiteness, they don’t pander to it. At least not in a way that gets in the way of the show. Atlanta is a secret and exclusive handshake that doesn’t care if you’ve never seen a dap before.