Jesse Taylor likes the Warriors, but he loves his money.
Because this week’s episode of Atlanta featured slavery as a Juneteenth party prop and Craig “The Ignorant White Guilt Liberal Lover of Black Culture” Allen as a central character, I would be remiss to write this deconstruction without revealing a few things about myself.
While I’m not ignorant enough to ever ask a black person, “What are you? Where are your ancestors from?,” I am sitting here writing about a show centered on black culture while listening to Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”–as a white man who writes about hip-hop and basketball, minored in Ethnic Studies, once owned a Morehouse HBCU hoodie, rapped at high school house parties and is starting a family with a black woman. Shit, I could have ended up going down the path of a Craig Allen. I just acquired the degree of self-awareness that Craig never did, the one he so desperately needs. So, yes, Craig is an awful human being who should know better. But I get how he ended up being the way he is.
Even though Paper Boi and the scene-stealing Darius received DNP-CD’s this week (no doubt Coach Glover was keeping their legs fresh for next week’s season finale), this was my favorite episode of the season. Like a Chazz Michael Michaels ice skating song choice, it focuses on one thing and one thing only: the adventures of Earn and Vanessa at a surreal Juneteenth party seemingly directed by Stanley Kubrick. (Juneteenth is a celebration commemorating the end of slavery, but the party Earn and Vanessa step into seems to exploit the era of slavery rather than hail its end.)
The episode begins by reminding us that Earn and Van’s relationship is strictly a co-parenting one. While not happy to see Earn, she seems unfazed by the fact she’s picking him up from the house of a woman he slept with the night before. She has bigger concerns, like keeping him from rolling down the car window (it’s messing up her hair) and finding a job to support their daughter after she was fired from her gig at an elementary school.
This leads them to the Spike Lee version of an Eyes Wide Shut party hosted by Craig and Monique Allen at their luxury estate home. To help her land a job, Van plans to network with Monique, her high-society acquaintance who, along with Craig, are like characters from an episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, if the cast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta fancied themselves high society civic leaders.
Earn understands the impact of Van’s career on their daughter and agrees to play the role of “Mr. Hubby” at the party. After Craig unsuccessfully tries to be President Obama to Earn’s Kevin Durant, Earn and Vanessa separate and walk down different paths of Kubrick Lane. Kubrick was a master at showcasing uncomfortable, odd, and horrific moments, whether in a War Room, home invasions, an isolated hotel, boot camp, costume parties or the bedroom. Here, those locales are swapped for light cocktail talk and an uncomfortable probing about Africa.
Craig and Monique must have found the hidden “Slavery” aisle at Party City when planning for the event. Men dressed as slaves are singing spirituals from their stairs. Finger foods are served from slave ship dishes. Monique treats her staff like servants. Earn encounters a male bartender who trained at the Soup Nazi School of Customer Service, who claims he is only been equipped to make seven slavery-themed alliterative drinks:
- Juneteenth Juice / Frozen Freedom Margarita / Emancipation Eggnog / Plantation Master Poison / Abolition and Absinthe / Underground Rumroad / Forty Acres and a Moscow Mule
White guilt and white infatuation with black culture is real (check out NBA Twitter for proof). With the instant-classic den scene between Earn and Craig, Atlanta provides a master class on the unintended but insulting consequences of both.
Amongst Craig’s African art and other black culture photos (including a young Craig drinking with his black fraternity brothers) is a painting of a scantily clad black man piercing a giant eagle with a sword. Craig walks in and quotes Malcolm X: “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” Earn finds Craig’s painting an “interesting interpretation” but Craig says it’s the “only” interpretation, accurately depicting the plight of the contemporary black man. Craig hands Earn what he thinks a contemporary black man would want: Hennessy, of course (at least it wasn’t a shot, Earn hates shots).
Craig discusses his “pilgrimage” to Africa, where he paid his respects and asked for forgiveness, and is shocked and offended to learn Earn has never been to the mother land, giving us the exchange of the night:
“What are you? Where are your ancestors from?”
“I don’t know. This spooky thing called slavery happened and my entire ethnic identity was erased, so.”
Fed up, Earn asks Vanessa to leave. For the sake of their daughter, she asks if they can pretend they aren’t who they are. Earn seems agreeable. Vanessa needs to get drunk to pull off the fake relationship.
Their game of role play with odd party guests displays Earn and Vanessa’s strong natural connection as a couple. But when Earn tells a trio of females why he loves being married to Van and kisses her on the cheek, it becomes too real for Van. No Kubrick homage would be complete without a crucial bathroom scene, and this is where Van breaks down after falsely experiencing what a happy and genuine marriage to Earn would feel like.
Van joins Monique on the balcony where she opens up about her fake marriage to Craig. “I get this big ass house and he gets the black wife he always wanted. I like Craig, but I love my money.” Van would rather have someone she can confide in.
Earn is exposed as Paper Boi’s manager, and the bougie Monique, who looks down on hip-hop, throws shade at Earn’s job. Craig defends him, but Earn has finally had it. He calls Monique on her bullshit for not living a real life. He and Vanessa head for the front door. Donald Glover shines in his perfect delivery of his parting shots for Craig–and all of the Craig’s in the real world who try too hard to involve themselves in something they don’t understand, making things worse for the people they claim to be helping. “Stop stunting on me about my culture. I’m not going to go back to Africa and find my roots, because, you know what? I’m fucking broke, dude. Stop being so likable, and don’t be like, I understand, because you don’t understand.”
Similar to Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, he and Vanessa leave a weird, weird place still in one piece but not unaffected. Whether it’s from the alcohol or for the appreciation of their relationship’s realness, Van has Earn pull over on the ride home for a quickie in the driver’s seat.
Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” a somber song about black suffering that millions of smiling white Americans sung and danced along to, plays as the episode fades to black.