Back from the ATL: On ‘Atlanta,’ Season 2, Episode 2

Jesse Taylor breaks down season 2, episode 2, of 'Atlanta.'
By    March 14, 2018

Jesse Taylor knows that waves don’t die.

Passion of the Weiss will take a full week to thoroughly analyze the impact of a show like Atlanta. Here’s our deconstruction of Season 2, Episode 2: “Sportin’ Waves.”

Was standin’ on this mezzanine in Paris, France
Feel despairs cause most my homies never finna get this chance
All these white folks chanting when I asked ’em where my n****s at?
Goin’ crazy, got me goin’ crazy, I can’t get wit’ that
Wonder if they know, I know they won’t go where we kick it at
Ho, this shit ain’t Gryffindor, we really killin’, kickin’ doors
Fight between my conscious, and the skin that’s on my body
Man, I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari

Vince Staples could have earned a co-writer credit for this episode based solely on this sample of bars from his 2015 “Lift Me Up” track. Whether influenced by Staples or not, it was Donald Glover’s brother, Stephen, who took the lead on writing “Sportin’ Waves.” He filled the script with direct and indirect messages about the racially biased white male power system, showing that, while times have changed, the system itself is still prejudiced towards people of color.

As this episode of Atlanta details, it’s a system that exploits black people for profit while refusing them opportunity. It steals their art and waters it down only to offer small rewards for those who submit (sell out) to their demands. The Glover Brothers also speak to the importance of black people looking out for each other to better navigate their way through a system built to work against them.

“We love our neighborhood, so all my brothers bang the hood”

The show’s cold open features Paper Boi jumping in the backseat of his drug plug’s car on a shadowy street hidden from the city. As they exchange pleasantries, Paper Boi and his pharmaceutical source are both paranoid, looking out the window and checking mirrors for signs of police or somebody about to run up on them. But it’s the connect who turns on Paper Boi and robs him at gun point. What began as a serious scene quickly turns into a comedy of errors featuring child locks, apologies, and a request to tell Darius, “What’s up.” As the connect pulls away from a stranded-in-the-street Paper Boi, he asks for forgiveness one more time and says, “I’ll pay you back.” As a fellow black man caught up in the system with Paper Boi, he feels bad and hopes, unrealistically, to give back what he took. It’s a cold world out there.

Paper Boi was both annoyed and pissed off about getting jacked, but still allowed it to go down. As we have seen in past episodes, Paper Boi has proven he could have easily snatched this weaker, distracted man’s gun and beat him down for even thinking about taking his money. But instead, he lets the ganking play out, even though it fucks up his drug dealing career. Later in the episode, we’ll see Paper Boi react differently and refuse to let a seemingly more innocent plan play out when it comes to white people fucking with his music career.  

“Exploitin’ us like the caucasians did for 400 years”

White folks appropriating black culture has existed in the United States since the emergence of minstrel shows in the 1830s. Today, society claims progress, but the roles haven’t changed. A white male power system still expects black people to perform like animals on their behalf. There’s a reason the Glover Brothers had the young white hipster eating a banana, the favorite food of a monkey, as Paper Boi performed one of the most awkward rap shows of all time. As Paper Boi walked off, he shoved the mic into the banana-eating white boy’s chest, likely to prove who the perpetrating performers are in this fucked up scenario.

Music streaming executive Pete Savage is the 2018 version of an exploiter in the white male power system (making Post Malone 2018’s Al Jolson). Pete loves black culture. He likes being called “35 Savage” (going on “36 Savage”). His email account is [email protected]. In his mind, black male rappers are savage beasts (as Ice Cube poignantly rapped back in 1990) and that’s cool to Pete. But Pete would never make it in the world Paper Boi and Earn live in. Nor would he want to (“this shit ain’t Gryffindor”). But like black face minstrel show directors of the past, Pete enjoys acting the role and profiting off it at the same time.

The office housing Pete’s music streaming business appears to have been conceived by a designer going for Silicon Valley tech coolness mixed with an 1850s slave plantation mentality, where white people bring in black workers to be taken advantage of and drive profits.

Many of the scenes from this portion of the show likely materialized from real life. Pete Savage and his team are similar to the video footage we’ve seen of white hip-hop music executive Lyor Cohen and his team coaching rappers like ATL’s own Young Thug on how to structure songs and act “professionally.” Earn viewing a young black man standing on top of a conference room table as he enthusiastically raps to a circle of uncomfortable looking white employees was basically this clip of Bobby Shmurda performing for a record deal at Epic:

To drive the awkwardness home, Earn looks into a room watching Paper Boi record audio drops while a crowd of white employees don’t move or speak as they watch his every popcorn-smacking move. As soon as Earn turns to face them, everyone quickly goes back to their work, including the phones, which start to ring again.

“I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars” 

Earn and Paper Boi run into a local rapper in the office named Clark County. He’s going through the same routine as Paper Boi, but caters his personality to fit in with the white executives. When Pete Savage approaches the two rappers, he immediately gravitates towards Clark County. Paper Boi quickly bounces while Earn, realizing he and Paper Boi aren’t as important, slowly and awkwardly backs away.

Later in the show, we see that Clark County’s willingness to play along with the white power system pays off in a Yoo-Hoo TV commercial. Earn and Paper Boi watch it while smoking weed on the couch and have different reactions.

Paper Boi: “I hate this shit.”

Earn: “Man, this shit is good.” But maybe Earn was speaking of the weed.

When even the best rappers in the game like Young Thug have to play along with the system to find success, Paper Boi and Earn are going to face an up-hill climb to find rap music success if they can’t play the part. It’s hard to blame Paper Boi when he walks out on a performance after asking a room full of bored white cubicle workers, “What’s good? Where my real n***s at? Put ya hands up.” But how many real-life rappers have been invited to join executives in the offices of Pandora in downtown Oakland and been asked to do the same thing?

White musicians from Pat Boone to Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones have taken black music and successfully profited by catering it to a white audience. The same treatment is now taking place with rap music and acoustic guitar covers.

Paper Boi is not exempt from this white girl whitewashing. After losing his plug, Paper Boi brings in Darius to host a drug sampling tour to find a new connect. The most awkward of these tour stops comes at the tail end of a visit with Andy, a white dude who at first comes off as pretty cool. But once Paper Boi gets back to the car, Andy engages his girlfriend, Amber, in a group text to see if the three of them can get together for drinks. Andy sends a video clip of Amber’s acoustic version of “Paper Boi.” Texts from Andy and Amber go off rapidly as Paper Boi tosses his phone out of the window and drives off.

Once again, Paper Boi refuses to take part in white people attempting to appropriate his music.

No Matter How Much You Wanna Switch, Here’s What They Think About You

The third, and most heart-rending, storyline involves Tracy and speaks to a white male power system that makes black people feel like outsiders and refuses to let them into the club.

Tracy was introduced briefly in the previous episode as Paper Boi’s new roommate recently released from prison. This episode’s title, “Sportin’ Waves,” is named for Tracy, whose goal is to make his way back into lawful society through respectful employment in the corporate world. He has high hopes for snatching a marketing job that pays $12 an hour (“Hit that lick, man!”). Tracy sports a do-rag for most of the episode in an effort to make sure his waves are on point, so he can look good (more white?) for his job interview.

Despite trying to go straight in his life and with his hair, Tracy isn’t yet in a position to fully play by the rules. First, he attempts to help Earn double his money through a gift card scam at the mall. While there, Tracy asks Earn how to talk to white folks (“Probably don’t call them white folks”) then proceeds to steal several pairs of dress shoes for his interview because he knows the store has a “no chase policy.”

In the office lobby for his interview, Tracy practices some Q&A out loud. When called back for the interview, Tracy finally removes his do-rag and showcases locks reminiscent to the konk-style trend of the 1960s when many black men straightened their hair to better fit into white society. After some strong corporate cliché answers from Tracy, the white male executive claims they don’t actually have any open positions (even though they brought him in to interview for an open position). Tracy did his best to focus on looking professional and saying all the right things, but he still didn’t get a chance.

Seeing through the bullshit, Tracy knocks a stack of pens off the man’s desk and doesn’t hold back. “Man fuck y’all! Y’all racist as hell up in here, man. What the fuck you want from me? Get some black people up in here. That’s your muthafucking problem. Ameri-KKK!”

As the episode closes on Tracy’s frustration, Atlanta proves itself yet again to be a show that’s unforgiving in its willingness to showcase the racial issues we currently face in our country. Yes, it goes about it in an amusing and entertaining manner, but it’s the most honest show currently on TV in presenting the ugliness of racism and the ridiculousness of those who employ it.

Now, let’s get to the final, and most important, section of this episode deconstruction:

What did Darius do?

  • Is so cool, he got a shout out from Paper Boi’s drug connect, even as the dude was robbing Paper Boi.
  • Paid Earn his $4,000 share for the Cane Corso dog breeding investment that took place back in Season 1.
  • Likes to soulfully sing, “And it all worked out …” when things work out. 
  • Tells Paper Boi, “Don’t you worry your trappin’ soul.”
  • Tried diligently, but failed to catch a glimpse of Tracy’s waves while they were still cooking in the oven. 
  • As he reviews potential drug connects, enjoys sitting with his feet in a chair and his hands on his knees. 
  • When he smells some good weed, sings “Don’t wake me I’m dreaming” by Christopher Williams from the New Jack City soundtrack starring the legend Wesley Snipes.
  • He also compares good weed to the smell of his grandma’s face. 
  • When white girls are into rap music, Darius refers to it as hippity-hop.
  • Despite Al’s disgust, Darius seemed to enjoy Amber’s acoustic version of “Paper Boi.”
  • Was legitimately surprised that Tracy stole shoes from the store until Earn explained the no chase policy. Then it made total sense. 
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