October 21, 2016

Jesse Taylor would never stay seated during “Knuck If You Buck.”

With eight of the ten episodes for Atlanta‘s first season now complete, Donald Glover has proven he can juggle comedy, drama and existential angst all while rendering his hometown in jarring detail. The show thus far has covered topics ranging racism, gender identity, mental illness, police brutality and poverty all the way back to Instagram ethics and public access television. 

Episode 8: “The Club”

Following last week’s Chappelleian “B.A.N.”, where the show approximated a public-access channel complete with human interest stories and targeted ads, Atlanta returns to familiar plotting in its primary world. “The Club” is another stellar episode, and the first of the season in which Donald Glover receives neither a writing nor a directing credit.

As the title suggests, this one takes place almost entirely in a night club. The setup: Earn books Paper Boi an appearance in exchange for $5,000, a fistful of drink tickets, and the promise of exposure. For most of the episode, it looks like a loss on all three counts–even the drink tickets.

(Some of my favorite things about Atlanta are its unusual cultural references; in this one we get Tiresias and Ansel Adams.)

Fame Puts You There Where Things Are Hollow

If Paper Boi had any false delusions about his level of fame, he’s brought back to reality when a basketball star named Marcus Miles arrives in the club, gets a better VIP location, and generally steals the spotlight. To rub it more, the DJ introduces Miles, who receives thunderous applause, before Paper Boi, who gets a few pity claps. (Side note: Miles is wearing hats from the ill-fated Future collection.)

No one is more excited about Marcus Miles than Darius, Paper Boi’s trusted by spacey sidekick. For Darius, some of the mystique comes from the invisible car he believes Miles owns, as per the Instagram posts where the hoops star leans against an empty frame. Studying the images on a too-bright iPhone screen, Paper Boi shakes his head in disbelief. Darius’s faith is unshaken.

Take Your Roly Poly Fat Promoter Ass

Throughout the night, the promoter tries to avoid paying Earn Paper Boi’s booking fee. Despite repeated assurances that the transaction will be no problem, the promoter delays taking Earn back to the office and continually slips into crowds, only to disappear.

The setting provides the episode with three great absurdist gags which. First, the show demonstrates how impossibly tough it can be to attempt to hold a conversation in a club by briefly resorting to subtitles. Second, just when you think the promoter has run out of ways to lose Earn, he puts his back to a wall and spins through a hidden rotating door like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. And then there’s the moment when Paper Boi is accosted by a fanboy who lingers just outside the VIP section and raps Paper Boi’s lyrics back to him, word-for-word, for far too long. The fan–who appears to be black–swaps out any racial epithets for “n-word” and keeps a straight face when he breaks out a cheap falsetto for the song’s hook.

That’s in contrast to a drunk-off-Hennessy Earn, who finally confronts the promoter in his office, but can’t seem to get his point across. Instead, he spits up the Henn and walks out of the room embarrassed, $750 in hand after a Trumpian list of deductions. Defeated, he heads back to Paper Boi’s section.

(By this point, Darius is back at home, getting ready to eat cereal and play video games after his various wristbands didn’t grant him return access following a trip to the bar.)

Paper Boi, sick of the way he’s been treated by the venue, grabs the baton, heads for the promotor’s office, slaps him in the face and slams him on the desk. The promotor immediately coughs up the $5,000 (Paper Boi uses it to slap him across the face) and some accomplices/hangers-on snag two cases of Miller High Life for their troubles.

Girls, Girls, Girls

Despite the majority of principle characters being male, Atlanta continues to present fully realized female characters, smartly avoiding the nonsense trap of pitting “real” women against Instagram models or bartenders. At different times during “The Club,” both Paper Boi and Earn find themselves flummoxed by women who have a more global view of a given situation.

After the promoter disappears behind the revolving wall, Earn runs into a bartender who keeps re-upping his Hennessy. While Earn drinks, she provides insights into the different characters at the club, then scoffs at Earn for believing he’s above it all. In the end, she shows him how to access the management offices.

As Paper Boi’s night keeps getting worse, he finds a silver lining through spending time with a girl in his section. He forgets, briefly, about Marcus Miles; she tells him not to worry about a photographer who declines to shoot the comparatively smaller group of partiers. Yet at the end of the night, when Paper Boi asks for her number, she tells him she has a boyfriend, then bristles at Paper Boi’s suggestion that the night was “a waste of time” (he came “to party with cute girls like me and have a good time–we did that”). She promises to check his Soundcloud.

And In The End

In the end, gun shots ring out in the club’s parking lot, causing a split second of terror (followed by a hilarious site gag involving the invisible car). Unlike earlier in the season, when it was implied that Paper Boi’s implication in a separate incident might bolster his reputation, the news that the police are looking for him comes with a heavy dose of dread. The episode’s coda, a scene in a late-night diner, comes with a fitting sound bite: “Fuck the club.”