Jesse Taylor is lost in the woods.
Earn is not the only character in Atlanta going through an existential crisis. We learned in episode 8, “Woods,” that Paper Boi might be experiencing an even worse crises of existentialism than Earn. And we already know Darius doesn’t believe anyone actually exists. So it’s been quite a different season for our trio of characters this time around.
In “Woods,” directed by Hiro Murai and written by Stefani Robinson, Paper Boi comes face-to-face with his biggest fears thanks to the spiritual presence of his mother on the anniversary of her death (January 6, per Paper Boi’s iPhone). Paper Boi is in a constant rebellion of succumbing to the fakeness that comes with fame, but in doing so, is leading a life in stasis. His rap career is not moving forward like it could because he refuses to play the part. Or, he is trying too hard to play the part of a “real” rapper who doesn’t interact with fans or play the corporate game.
It takes his mother coming to him from the grave to guide him into taking action—first as herself at the beginning of the episode and then, more indirectly, as “Old Wally,” the hermit woodsman.
Missed calls and texts from people checking in on him demonstrate the significance of January 6 to Paper Boi. Earn is the only one to connect, and his first comment is to ask Paper Boi if he is doing okay. In a depressed state, Paper Boi has been laying on the couch all day as the sunlight slowly disappears from behind his blinds and the apparition of his gospel-humming mother disappears from his view after telling him to stop being so lazy.
Paper Boi finally gets up. The sun is out again, but it’s still the same day, January 6. Something is definitely off. Maybe it’s a call back to Darius’ thoughts on Bostrom’s simulation argument. Speaking of Darius, he’s in the kitchen wrist twisted like its pasta, and is the next person in line to check if Paper Boi is alright. Paper Boi says he’s good and is off to hang with his girl, Sierra, an Instagram model and former stripper, who now sells wigs. At least it’s not perfume sold in a bottle molded from the shape of her body.
It takes a bit of time for Sierra to get Paper Boi to stop looking out the window like a sad puppy. He finally cracks a smile when she gets excited about his song coming on the radio. When they stop to shop for shoes, Sierra tries to give Paper Boi some game, telling him the dope boy from the ‘hood act won’t last long. “Nobody wants somebody famous to look just like them.” Earn’s lack of managerial experience hits the spotlight again when Sierra is shocked he doesn’t hook Paper Boi up with free shit.
On their way to the Korean nail shop, Sierra poses for pictures with fans and then is happy to see them post the pics on Instagram. In contrast to Paper Boi, Sierra engages with her fans to compete and stay ahead of the white girls getting butt injections and spray tans. “Everybody want to be a black girl, but the black girls ain’t making no money from it.”
The false reality theme from “Champagne Papi” re-emerges as Sierra tries to convince Paper Boi to be more active on social media and create a celebrity relationship with her. He responds, “I ain’t into all that fake shit. I’m just trying to stay real.” Sierra lets him know he already “been not real” just by being on the radio and making money. She takes a photo of them in their pedicure chairs to post on IG and that puts him over the top. As he storms out of the shop, Sierra calls him out on his bullshit of thinking he’s better than her. “You need to wake the fuck up. Your shit ain’t real.”
As if to prove just how real he is, Paper Boi refuses to Uber or Lyft home and walks the streets of Atlanta, stopping for a Krystal’s burger along the way. He hits a backstreet near the train tracks and is approached by three youngsters in the midst of a Star Wars debate (shout out to Donald Glover as “Lando Calrissian” in the upcoming Han Solo movie). Something seems off as they recognize Paper Boi (“We’ve been fans from the start!”) and talk about how he’s keeping it real because he’s walking around by himself and doesn’t have a car (Chris Rock might call it “keepin’ it real dumb”).
Because Season 2 of Atlanta is “Robbin’ Season,” the kids jump Paper Boi and one of them puts a gun to his head—either to keep him from fighting back or to murder him. Before we find out which, Paper Boi grabs the gun, loses his watch and chain to the other two kids, head butts the shooter to the ground and gets away into the woods as the kid misfires bullets in his direction.
Things get strange in the woods, and what’s real and what’s fake becomes blurry in the world of Atlanta once again. Paper Boi hears footsteps crackling on leaves coming towards him. Loud sounds of birds flapping their wings are constant. A deer lies dead on the ground, its belly cut open like Han Solo looking for a place to keep Luke Skywalker warm.
Then he hears the humming of a gospel song. Just like his mom earlier that morning (or was it yesterday?). Old Wally pops out and tells him the boys he’s hiding from went off in three different directions, including up in the sky. He then offers to give Paper Boi some money, “You can’t go to the dance without no money.” Isn’t that what moms do? Give their sons money before they head out for a school dance? Then Old Wally tells Paper Boi he lost his baby. Did Paper Boi have a baby brother or sister that died?
The camera slowly pans out to a wide shot above the woods to show just how deep into the shit Paper Boi is. The re-appearance of the dead deer doesn’t give him hope that he’s making any progress on finding a way out. The day turns dark once again and Old Wally is still following Paper Boi around, humming the spiritual.
Defeated, Paper Boi sits on a log. Old Wally paints Paper Boi as stubborn and black. “You is just like your mama. You better stand up and make a decision about how you getting out of here. Make the decision.” Forcing him into choosing life or death, Old Wally jams a box cutter against Paper Boi’s neck. “Keep standing still, you’re gone, boy. You’re wasting time.” A long tear falls down the side of Paper Boi’s face before he knocks Wally’s hand away and runs off, almost immediately reaching concrete beneath his feet, back to reality. He’s standing next to a gas station.
Inside, he grabs a drink from the mini-mart fridge and notices a girl in the store is humming a gospel melody, one final warning from his mother to choose wisely. A young white fan recognizes him. It’s the ultimate test for Paper Boi to embrace his role as a rapper with a member of his large fan base of young white rap fans. Heeding the words of his mother, Paper Boi proactively asks the kid if he wants a picture. He puts his arm around him and poses. For the first time that we’ve seen, Paper Boi is being friendly to a fan, even smiling through the blood and bruises from his attack, telling the kid to take a few extra shots and make a “mob face.” He ends the interaction with a hand shake and sendoff to “be safe out there.”
The episode somberly ends with a nod to reality bleeding into the fictional world of Atlanta. As Paper Boi walks off and the screen fades to black, the credits read “In memory of Willow Dean Kearse.” This is the mother of Brian Tyree Henry, the actor who plays Paper Boi. His mother died in a car accident at 68 less than two years ago.
What did Darius do?
- Had just one short scene this week
- Gets his home cooking tips from dreams featuring Mayor McCheese and Jenna Elfman, aka “the girl from Dharma & Greg”
- Mayor McCheese at least has some culinary affiliations, but not sure about Dharma, who is a yoga instructor and dog trainer
- Thinks Paper Boi is allergic to girlfriends
- Wants to share his fire pasta with Sierra
- When he says he puts his foot up into the food he makes, he is being literal (and it’s a bare foot at that)
Just three episodes left in Season 2. The preview for episode 9, “North of the Border,” opens with Earn and Paper Boi sitting on a couch with a giant confederate flag on the wall behind him. Paper Boi has a band-aid on his nose, presumably still fresh from getting jumped. How did Earn and Paper Boi end up in the home of a young white kid who uses confederate flags as décor and asks if they want anything from the fridge? On the plus side, it looks like this episode will get at least two of the gang back together after a string of solo events for our three amigos.