Jesse Taylor is patrolling the halls.
Atlanta has been slowly building on the tension between Paper Boi and Earn’s business relationship all season (which can’t help but impact their relationship as cousins), and just when they finally reached the tipping point of Earn’s dismissal in the last episode, they follow it with “FUBU,” an entire episode in flashback showing a critical moment in the young lives of Earn and Alfred. You would think a flashback pulling you away at a critical point in the season’s plot would be frustrating for viewers. But “FUBU,” written by Stephen Glover and directed by Donald Glover, so perfectly captures the anxiety and fear many kids deal with in high school; the departure from the story line became a welcome departure.
Before deconstructing the episode, it’s notable how the parallel currently happening between the fictional Earn and real Donald Glover is at such odds. Earn’s performance as Paper Boi’s manager has been far from satisfactory and he is currently unemployed. Imagine Earn the entertainment manager trying to pull off the amount of publicity for Paper Boi that Donald Glover has received in the last week. Glover directed and starred in another amazing episode of Atlanta Thursday night, then spent the weekend hosting Saturday Night Live and doubling as its featured musical guest (joining a prestigious, and also odd, group of performers to achieve the double-play).
Two weeks from now, the world will see him playing a major role in one of the biggest movie franchises of all time as Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story. And on Saturday, his release of “This is America” nearly shut down Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook as everyone had a take on his hidden and not-so-hidden visual expositions on racism, gun violence, social media, and how my very first car (1973 Toyota Corolla) finally made an appearance in a rap video.
With “FUBU,” Atlanta glances back to a moment in time that helps us better understand Earn and Alfred’s current relationship. Prior to navigating the shady world of the rap music industry together (known as “Industry Rule #4,080”), Al and Earn were close, but not-so-close, cousins navigating their way through high school, avoiding trouble from the bigger 11th and 12th grade bullies.
Donald and Stephen Glover take us back down memory lane, but choose to cast aside the warmhearted memories we have reconstructed of our formative years and instead bring back the reality of distress and loathing many of us experienced at that stage of our lives. Yes, those 12th graders did to seem like giants and, like Earn, I did my best to act appropriately to avoid getting punched in the face. And I do remember how wearing the wrong clothes could result in years of suffering by roast.
The episode covers three consecutive days in the life of Earn and Al—maybe during the fall of 1998 based on evidence shown in the episode. The soundtrack covers music as far back as 1988 up to 1996, beginning with…
Tracy Chapman – Give Me One Reason (1995)
“I don’t want no one to squeeze me / They might take away my life”
We open on Earn, wearing a basic dress shirt, shopping with his mom at Marshalls. Played by Alkoya Brunson, an actor who looks younger than a high schooler (likely on purpose), Earn bides his time in the store ducking under and through multiple racks of clothing when he comes across the perfect shirt—a bright yellow FUBU jersey with a giant #05 posted on both the front and back. It’s on clearance, meaning the financially-strapped Marks family can afford for Earn to have some cool gear. But before they hit the register, Earn has to grab of bag of potato chips “over by the jeans and socks and snacks.” Anyone who has ever shopped at Ross or Marshalls had to chuckle at that line from Earn’s mom.
Craig Mack — Flava In Ya Ear (1994)
“You’ll be on your knees / and you’ll be burning, begging please”
The quiet and naturally smart (aka nerdy) Earn wakes up the next morning, excited to throw on the FUBU jersey and get some cred at school. His room features an Aquemini (1998) poster (Earn needs he and Al to “roll together like Batman and Robin” to survive high school), a Rubik’s Cube, and images of Michael Jordan. His excitement about wearing his jersey to school subsides as the day unfolds.
First, afraid of getting caught cheating, he has to stave off his friend who keeps asking to copy his homework (“we can do it at lunch”… then at lunch “I forgot it in my locker”). On the bus to school, he watches from his seat (trapped) as a weaker kid is punched in the face and knocks his head against the window. Everyone, including the bus driver, turns a blind eye to the beating. Being the kid that takes a heater to the face is an everyday fear for Earn and each of his days is centered on avoiding it.
Things brighten when Earn gains props for his FUBU jersey; until Devin walks into the classroom wearing the exact same shirt, minus a sleeve stripe and a chest patch. Earn never even thought about his jersey being a fake, but the differences make everyone in class realize that between Earn and Devin, someone has a knock-off.
An obese substitute struggles to keep the classroom under control as one brash student (wearing classic Reebok Pumps) goofs off and distracts everyone by making fun of the teacher’s weight. Earn is not laughing; both from fear of realizing he might be wearing a bootleg jersey and from empathy for the teacher.
Confidence is everything in high school and young Alfred has it in spades. Earn is naturally book smart, but Al is naturally street smart—a hustler. While being reprimanded in the office, Al finds a loophole (after first blaming racism) and turns the table on the kid he got caught stealing, then re-selling, a graphing calculator. The teacher is forced to let Al free to avoid punishing the innocent child for buying stolen goods on school grounds.
Where Earn is so caught up and paranoid about his clothes, Al is oddly rocking an ROTC uniform (Garrison cap and all), and no one even thinks about giving him shit for it, because they can’t. He’s become a master at turning negativity back on authority figures and bullies, so people leave him alone and he does what he wants.
As Earn heads to class, a group of black kids are making fun of one of their friends for wearing “hand-me-down overalls.” Later, Earn’s white friend doesn’t understand the big fuss over clothes. It’s not an issue in his world, where he admits to wearing the same busted-ass looking shirt twice in one week. No one cares or notices when the goofy white kid does it, but in the world of black culture, clothing is everything for Earn and those like him.
We are introduced to Denisha, who is sleeping in class and gives the teacher attitude while claiming her head hurts. She’s had issues in the past and the teacher tells her to remember their meeting.
Before cell phones, texting and social media, kids had to pass notes in class to communicate. Earn has a crush on Erica, and he finds out from a note passed to him, she likes him too, but only if his jersey ain’t a fake. Right on cue, Earn discovers a loose thread on his shirt. Because human nature doesn’t allow us to restrain from pulling a loose thread, Earn creates a hole in his jersey’s underarm and realizes he’s the one with the bootleg FUBU; aka “FEBE.”
The story of the two kids (Earn and Devin) with the same shirt spreads through the school. Earn maintains his shirt is not fake at each confrontation.
Al B. Sure — Nite and Day (1988)
“Just take my hand and you’ll see, girl / That we’d take off into another world”
The OGs working the lunch line in the cafeteria listen to some old school Al B. Sure as they shake their heads at Earn and his jersey. The story of the conflicting jerseys has even reached the cafeteria workers.
For the second week in a row, Atlanta features a confederate flag in the background of a scene. Here, students and teachers at a predominantly black school are forced to live with the South’s symbol of racism next to the America flag on stage in the multipurpose room. For them, it’s become wallpaper.
Earn and his two friends, who would fit in nicely at the lunch table with Sam, Neil and Bill of Freaks and Geeks, talk about the jersey.
“People in other grades know about it.”…“You can’t wear no fake shit here.”
Earn just wants it all to go away and wishes no harm on Devin. But Devin is heard fending off the bullies by throwing shade at Earn, telling the older kids Earn comes to school every day looking like a bum, so he must have the bootleg version.
With the truth barreling down on him, Earn goes to his emergency plan—asking Al for help. Al is found, of course, breaking into lockers to earn a few bucks: “Ooh, Rush Hour Soundtrack!” (1998). Al drops knowledge on Earn about surviving high school as a young black man. “You can’t be buying stuff that’s on sale. You gotta get some money. Don’t be acting nervous. Just deny it. Confidence is the key.”
Earn sits tensely in class as the closing bell rings. Moving faster than future-Earn racing Michael Vick, Earn almost escapes but is snatched up along with Devin and brought to Johnny Lee, the school’s clothing expert. Johnny calls out Earn’s jersey as the fake, because the tag says it’s from Bangladesh and China is the location of FUBU production. The roasting of Earn begins, but Al comes in to save him just in time. He quickly generates a lie about Bangladesh being the authentic location and that Johnny just said it was China because he’s Chinese. Al’s confidence and reputation causes everyone to turn on a dime and move in on Devin as the one with the knock-off. No one hears Johnny as he tells them he’s Filipino, not Chinese.
Earn makes a b-line for the bus, barely stopping to acknowledge Erica as she gives him her phone number, ruining what should have been one of the biggest moments of his life and a chance to say, “I got her number—how you like them apples!?” Instead, he runs onto the bus and watches from the window as the 12th graders go in on Devin. “Hey, FEBE, man!” Luckily, Devin gets on the bus without much of an incident.
Pharcyde – Passin’ Me By (1992)
“When I try or make some sort of attempt / I symp / Damn I wish I wasn’t such a wimp”
The next day at school, Earn is dressed more conservatively in a button-up long sleeve flannel shirt. The principal comes into the classroom and delivers shocking news that Devin has committed suicide. No one knows why, for sure, but he had taken the news of his parents’ divorce hard. There’s also talk of Devin being harassed by older boys. The look on Earn’s face makes it clear he feels responsible for Devin’s death. It’s the type of moment for Earn that sticks with you forever and shapes who you become as a person.
The principal leaves and the teacher, Mrs. Banks, makes a quick statement before moving on to the day’s assignment. “It’s good to remember that we all have personal things going on in our life that other people may not know about. Let’s try to be more understanding of one another.”
Moments later, Denisha walks in, and is a completely different person. She’s happy, friendly, and volunteers to read out loud from the text book. What has Mrs. Banks ever done to try to understand Denisha’s personal life and what causes her extreme mood swings? Do as Mrs. Banks says not as she does, I guess.
The episode concludes at Earn’s house. His mom, auntie, and Al are there. The sisters lecture Earn about dressing in a suit for his piano’s lessons. “You are a black man in America. When you meet people, you need to look good. Your clothes are important.” This is not a lesson Earn needs to be taught. He gets it.
Speaking of clothes, his mom laid out another bootleg FUBU jersey for him in his room. It will likely never leave his house. Al sits on the couch, zoning out to the TV, seemingly unaltered by the news of Devin’s death. Al’s a hustler; he would never let on about his feelings over his role in Devin’s suicide. He did what needed to be done to protect his cousin. But after two seasons of Atlanta, we appreciate Al enough to know Devin’s death changed him too.
Nas featuring Lauryn Hill — If I Ruled The World (Imagine That) (1996)
“Imagine everybody flashin’, fashion, designer clothes / Lacing your clique up with diamond Roles …
Making moves in Atlanta, back-and-forth scrambler / ‘Cause you could have all the chips, be poor or rich / Still, nobody want a n@*a having shit”
Who didn’t watch this episode without thinking back to their high school days and putting themselves in Earn’s shoes? Or Al’s? Because there are only two types of high schoolers. The predator and the prey. While not a bully, Al was still a predator, stealing from his classmates to make money.
Like most, I was in Earn’s shoes growing up—the prey. This episode took me back to the day I was forced to go to school in Pro Wings—the knock-off shoe brand that copied whatever style of Nike, Reebok and adidas were popular at the time (If you don’t remember Pro Wings, let Bun B take you back). It took one of my more confident friends, also broke like me and wearing Pro Wings, to turn the PayLess bootleg shoes into something cool. With the style and grace of Al, my friend convinced everyone the shoes were dope and I was able to ride his coattails and avoid the ridicule. I even remember how I had to wear Pro Wings instead of cleats for football and slipped and slid all over the field.
Anybody remember this Nike Air Keychain Hang Tag? When I finally got some Nike basketball kicks, I had my mom take this tag from the shoes and sew it onto the front chest pocket of my knock-off BBD-style overalls, replacing whatever cheap brand image I was sporting at the time with a fresh Nike logo. As a result, I had the coolest fit in school and was the only person to own a pair of Nike overalls, because they didn’t actually exist. I had finally reached Alfred levels of hustle. Thanks mom, I guess your sewing process made up for those wack Pro Wings.
“FUBU” is a stand-alone, short piece of brilliance from the Glover brothers and the creative team of Atlanta. As a comparison, Season 4 of The Wire showed us a snapshot of school children mostly behind the closed doors of their homes and in the streets. Atlanta spent several days with kids inside the walls of the school. The Wire offers context for what might be happening to kids like Denisha and Devin away from their fellow students and teachers. What torture and pain were they experiencing that caused them to act the way they did? Were they abused like Michael and Namond, or surrounded by drugs with no place to call home like Dukie and Randy?
While Earn and Alfred grew up under tough circumstances, things could have been much worse. What “FUBU” showed us about Earn and Al, and reminded us all about ourselves, is the events of our childhood will always come around to inform and haunt our present-day selves.
What did Darius do?
- He likely didn’t go to the same school and hadn’t met Earn and Alfred at this point in their lives.
- Seeing Darius as a young high schooler would have offered some great insight into how Darius became Darius.
- Atlanta spin-off idea: A young Darius navigating his way through high school and exploring the ways of the universe, spirituality, and human nature.
On the Season 2 finale, “Crabs in a Barrel,” Earn is apparently still Paper Boi’s manager (maybe a last chance to prove himself?). With Darius in tow, the trio is off on an international tour. It looks like Earn may have gotten his way with Tracy, who is missing from the preview and likely dismissed as Paper Boi’s security. Another storyline includes the season’s first appearance for little Lottie, who is with Van and Earn at school. Per FX’s episode press release: “Sometimes you gotta go where the money goes. But it be feeling like something is holding me back. Like I can’t leave.” The episode was written by Donald Glover and directed by Hiro Murai.