Back from the ATL: On ‘Atlanta,’ Season 2 Episode 4

Jesse Taylor's 'Atlanta' recap returns with a look at season two, episode four.
By    March 29, 2018

Jesse Taylor is ready for Oktoberfest.

“Helen” finds Earn hitting a low point on the journey through his existential crisis. Through 14 episodes of Atlanta we still have a lot to learn about Earn. One thing we do know is he is too smart and talented for his current lot in life, but too stubborn to acquiesce to anyone’s request to change, no matter how small the request or who’s doing the asking: Van, his parents, the corporate world, or the educational system.

He’s four years removed from dropping out of Princeton for reasons the show has yet to explain, although it’s hinted that an incident took place that caused Earn to leave. Based on the recurring themes of Atlanta and the lack of diversity at Princeton where 44% of the students are white and 7% are black, his departure was likely race-related as opposed to coming home to take care of his daughter, Lottie. Once he settled back into his hometown, he sold credit cards at the Atlanta airport to get by before talking his way into a role as the manager for his rapping. Now in his mid-20s, Earn’s been able to get by working for Al, but has no long-term vision for either his professional or personal life.

At the end of “Helen,” he’s homeless once again after refusing to make an effort with Van, but this time there’s no storage unit to rest his head in at night. He’ll either have to take Al’s couch or convince his parents to let him move back home.

Atlanta has done a great job putting us in Earn’s shoes to experience the everyday struggle he faces as a young black man. He is stubborn for a good reason, but like his uncle Willie told him earlier this season, “If you don’t wanna end up like meget rid of that chip on your shoulder…It’s not worth the time.” 

That chip is Earn’s crutch and often leads to him taking the hard way to prove a point. It’s led him into a job he’s decent at but not a great fit for. Earn has limited connections and is not a slick talker or a tough guy, all of which make it difficult to manage a rapper’s career. While Al went from not trusting Earn to telling him he did a good job as his manager, Earn has been performing odd personal jobs for his cousin just to stay relevant in his life.

Similar to Don Draper, another popular TV character going through an existential crisis, Earn knows he’s better than everyone around him and is sickened by the idiocy he sees in people. Earn’s ego and obstinacy can lead to bad decisions, but unlike Don Draper, he isn’t gifted with the white privilege that would allow for doors to open despite his resistance to change.

The chip on Earn’s shoulder does its most damage to females (also like Don). In Earn’s case, it’s in his relationship with Van, where it inflicts harm on both of them and their daughter. Van is no Betty Draper, and Earn’s is a relationship most men can only dream of, yet he can’t find the empathy to make even the smallest of sacrifices for Van.

That relationship is the focus of “Helen.” It begins with the high of Earn and Van having passionate oral sex and ends with the disintegration of their relationship. The directing and writing duties are covered by two females. Amy Seinmetz (best known as Eleven’s aunt in Stranger Things and the lady from Alien: Covenant who blew up a ship and died in a ball of flames) directed, and Taofik Kolade received her first ever TV writing credit.

Following the opening scene of Earn taking a trip downtown in the bedroom with Van, Seinmetz shows baby toys on the floor. She then cuts to and stays focused on an empty car seat where Lottie would normally be as Earn and Van drive on a back road through the woods. Lottie is rarely seen, but Seinmetz is making sure we don’t forget her role in Earn and Van’s life.  

As they smoke weed, Van expresses her worry to Earn that he won’t like Helen. This is a key point, because, of course, Earn hates Helen, but Van didn’t do a very good job of setting him up to give it a try.

So what is Helen? It’s an actual place that made its bones as a logging town, but when the lumber industry declined its business leaders re-invented it into a German-inspired destination in the late 1960s to help drive tourist revenue. Van, who is half-German like the actress who plays her (Zazie Beetz), is taking Earn to experience the annual Fasching Celebration, a German Mardi Gras event she attended growing up each February.

Upon arrival, Earn probes the township and correctly claims, “We’re gonna be the only black people here, aren’t we?” Outside of her half-black friend Christina, Van confirms Earn’s assumption.

Van warns Earn about the tradition of people showing up in black face as a moor character. After an old white lady stares at them through a storefront window like she’s never seen a black couple walking the streets of Helen, Earn is approached by a girl who runs up and rubs what she believes is black makeup on his face. To her surprise, then embarrassment, it’s not the greatest blackface costume she’s ever seen. Earn is actually black.

Earn’s frustration builds during a game of Hootz-Kutz, where the white crowd gives him way too much credit for being the first person ever to put two tennis balls in a milk jug. “I just held the balls and put them in the jug” he says repeatedly as people react like they just saw Willie Mays make his famous overhead catch or Michael Jordan dunk from the free throw line. Earn is insulted by white people thinking a black person overachieved for performing such a basic task. This likely happened to him at Princeton a time or two.

His tipping point comes when he is left out of a conversation between Van and the German Matt Leinhart, Ben the bartender who has an obvious crush on Van. Earn doesn’t understand their German dialogue and impatiently interrupts the conversation. “Ding-ding! How about some service?”

At this point, it’s easy to side with and understand Earn’s frustration as he vents to Dave, Christina’s white boyfriend. “I’m not that dude!” Dave gives some sound advice about Earn needing to be more open to taking part in Van’s life. “That’s what girls do when they like you. They want to twist their lives up with yours.” But Earn isn’t hearing it and thinks Van should just find someone who is more into the things she enjoys.

Earn bows out of the dancing activity with Van to play ping-pong (“It’s the only white game I know”). Van, still being playful and not fully comprehending Earn’s frustration, challenges him to a game—if she wins, Earn has to dance. As she previously stated, Van really is the Serena Williams of Helen, and kicks Earn’s ass in a best of three match. Earn boils over and pushes away from Van’s embrace. “When we play basketball I don’t just destroy you in front of everybody.” Van calls him a fucking baby and a major argument ensues.

We learn that going to the strip club like she did with Earn last week isn’t really Van’s cup of tea (shocking), but she did it to spend time with Earn. And going to Al’s concerts isn’t her preferred parents’ night out every weekend. Earn shuts everything down by insulting Van’s current status as a stay-at-home mom – “I wouldn’t shit on that. It’s paying your fucking bills.”

The two go their separate ways, and the episode shifts to Van’s point of view. We learn more about the difficulties both she and Christina had growing up with two identities—one black side and one white. Christina gravitated more towards white culture, and Van with her black ancestry. After Van lost her job as a teacher, Christina and her white friends view her just as Lottie’s mom. Christina even alludes to Van being more equipped to being a baby mama because she “chose black.”

Tensions and long hidden emotions begin to arise between Van and Christina, and we begin to understand the multi-faceted life Van grew up with and why it’s important for her to share these things with Earn. Just before Van and Christina’s conversation turns overly heated, Dave interrupts them to show off his dancing trophy. Van can’t find her phone, which leads to the realization that she is the lone participant in the evening’s final event as the victim of the demon thief, a creepy giant character straight out of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village that steals an item from one villager each year.

Everyone gathers and walks the streets to help Van find her phone. German Matt Leinhart strolls with Van and delivers a line that was meant for her, but is also fitting for Earn: “Start a relationship with yourself if you really want to learn to love someone.”

Van goes off on her own to pee in an alley and we get a quick glimpse of what Atlanta might be as a horror flick. The demon thief cackles off screen, then appears in front of Van. She knocks him out and finds her phone, which displays a message from Earn: “We should talk.”

Meeting back at the ping-pong table, their talk leads to Van telling Earn what she wants: a committed relationship where she’s valued as a human being and not as an accessory that Earn can fuck. Sounds simple. But Earn can’t commit to it and tells her he has no idea what he wants. He gives himself an easy way out by telling her that he doesn’t want to waste any more of her time. Van gives him the out by settling it over ping-pong. If she wins, Earn only has to see Van if it’s about Lottie or money. If it’s not what he wants, then he should beat her. Earn agrees to play. Like last week’s race against Michael Vick, we don’t see the outcome, just the reaction to it: a sad and somber car ride home.

The episode ends with Earn leaving Van’s door step by telling her he’ll pick up Lottie from his mom’s house tomorrow (similar to divorcées who avoid seeing each other by picking the kids up at a third-party location). Van says good-bye and closes the door on Earn, homeless once again.

Earn is running out of places to stay and out of chances with Van.

Lastly…

What did Darius do?

  • Nothing
  • DNP-CD

This was Earn and Van’s episode.