Atlanta S3 E2: Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town – “This City’s My Jesus”

Atlanta's two-part Season 3 Premiere continues with the show's patented Lynchian discomfort in a new setting: Europe.
By    March 27, 2022
Photo via FX/Hulu

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Jayson Buford wants to know how the Wolves stole all of that 2021 Knicks energy.

Abe Beame balances his personal Criterion Collection with repeat viewings of ‘Food Fight.’

After nearly four years and a global pandemic, after episode one’s horror vignette/dream sequence, we’re finally in Europe. We last left Earn and Alfred at the end of season two, sitting on the runway, at a crossroads of their personal and professional relationship, with much to be decided overseas.

But that trip happened off-screen. This is another European Tour, at least a year later, presumably without the great Clark County. Both Al and Earn appear to be in different stages of their career and relationship. Earn has become the ruthless guided missile, “the Malcolm” that Alfred always wanted him to be. We see him confidently holding venues accountable to their riders, bluntly expressing what his artist is and is not comfortable doing, casually demanding increases in show fees, and pulling his artist from situations he’s not comfortable with. He shows his intimate knowledge of concert insurance policies and is unafraid of confrontation with the Dutch promoter. The artist and his manager seem more comfortable with one another. We’re a long way from the kid setting up free campus shows and sharing beds with psychotic co-eds to save per diem.

Alfred isn’t just more comfortable with Earn, but at least from this episode he appears more secure in his station, and with himself. It seems that he has reached a level of stardom and international fame the old, weed hustling, taciturn, perpetually annoyed, authenticity obsessed regular dude never would’ve been comfortable with. He’s at home in the Dutch jail we meet him in, ordering a hilariously gourmet prison lunch from his CO like it’s Friday afternoon on a bar stool at Gramercy Tavern.

He makes bail, but sticks around to grub and inquires about the fabric softener they use at the bookings, a far cry from the show’s first visit to the bookings in its second episode. Upon getting out of jail, he throws some of the extra cash Earn procured to a huddled mob that was waiting for his release, making it rain, indulging in crowd work and fan service that would’ve been unthinkable at the beginning of season two. He just carries himself with a lighter, friendlier touch, a congenial demeanor we’ve never seen before. This is very much the survivor of the harrowing Dantesque journey through the woods at the end of the second season, a wide blood stained smile put on for the kid in the convenience store he’s taking a selfie with.

And now let’s discuss the setting. We’re in Europe, which I imagine is going to be an incredibly loaded source of tension and trademark Atlanta Lynchian discomfort. Sinterklaas is perfect fodder for the show because at this point the Atlanta formula has been consecrated. It’s something like “Find a racially loaded bizarre artifact torn from the timeline or a stoned Wikipedia deep dive, and use the factoid to create an absurd and alien backdrop for the four main players to bounce off”. We learn Alfred goes to jail because of a fight between a white and brown-skinned groupie he’s in bed with over the inherent racism of the holiday tradition and Rihanna. But mainly it’s the odd and gross Black Pete tradition (apparently it’s soot and therefore “not racially motivated”), and the old legend of Tupac Shakur faking his death and absconding to the Caribbean, that serve as those sources of tension this week.

Darius is always Darius, our stoned Greek chorus of sorts, maybe even more Darius than usual with his hair bleached in full androgynous garb, and in Amsterdam, which you’d imagine is the city version of a theme park Darius might create if he had unlimited funds and space.

It’s a weird introduction for Van, who surprises the crew with a visit coming off what she tells us is a professional disappointment, which means professionally she is right where we left her at the end of S2, only we’re informed she has a boyfriend. The 4 a.m. post-shower ice machine run in (with an ice bucket not quite filled with ice……for a sparkling bottle perhaps?) is suspicious, and (PATENTED WILD SPECULATION ALERT) could be setting us up for inner group tension if she’s hooking up with Darius or Alfred, but who knows.

Here’s my quick argument for shipping Darius and Van: Why the episode long side mission for the two of them? Is it just a lazy B plot to establish the characters in the space and give them something to do, or is there some intention there? At one point the death doula confuses Darius for Van’s boyfriend, and there’s a general comfort and intimacy between the two throughout the episode. She’s explicitly told she’s meant to be in Europe, and she seems to be in the midst of some sort of quarterish life crisis. Foreshadowing? The Tupac reference could kind of be subtly suggesting a Faith and Pac style affair on the “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch” set (Darius: “I felt a thug spirit in my bones”). And finally, to read the “real life” tea leaves, Lakeith Stanfield has had a major leveling up in the past four years. My fear coming into this season was the show would feel the need to find something more for him to do than be the spacey weirdo commenting from on……high. Maybe this is the weighty plotline they decided on.

Conspiracy theories aside, part of me feels like the Earn/Van relationship, as well as the Entourage-y initial premise of a rapper and his manager coming up together, are stories the show is less interested in telling all these years later, and this is a signal we’re shifting focus, but I could be wrong. Maybe like young Laquarius at the end of “Three Slaps”, the Van and Earn arc this season will be a story of two people coming home to each other. Or she’ll just be another member of the crew, doing their best to navigate whatever fucked up situations the writers room has concocted for our heroes this season.

Back with Alfred and Earn, the crowd full of Europeans in Blackface bit pays off as a stunning visual, but then leads to an on the nose gag to add to the pile of two episodes full of them. The club owner, enraged that Earn has decided to pull his artist last second, chases Earn down the steps, threatening to beat the shit out of him. But he loses Earn in a lobby full of people dressed up as Black Pete, and just picks a random dude to start stealing on. Earn watches for a moment from the wings, shrugs, and dips.

I frankly am not sure what to make of, or how to feel about the big jawdropper with that plastic wrap guillotine used to mercy kill Pac, and I have a lot of thoughts and feelings to share about this episode that don’t fall under the purview of a recap, so I’ll now hand off the discussion to the Death Row travel agent who first made the flight and accomodations between the Dutch Caribbean colonies and the Netherlands, Jayson Buford. What the fuck is going on here Jay? – Abe Beame

Jay: I was surprised that Atlanta hadn’t already done a 2Pac joke. It would be Darius, in a marijuana-laden thought, to suggest that Pac is who all these voyeuristic white people – dressed as nurses? – are watching lay down. This seems to be a critique of celebrity and how the media kills Black celebrities. Pac, who was playing with fire throughout his life, saw his life stop eventually from the street life that the media kept glorifying during the East Coast-West Coast beef. What we watch is not a mercy killing, but rather a state-sanctioned execution. Pac’s murder, and others like it, including Young Dolph or Drakeo the Ruler, are state sanctioned as well. It is done from a state that neglects Black life and allows for gun violence to happen without much repercussions. And it is aided by the white people watching but not doing anything about it. I think that is what Glover is getting at.

But, I want to know what you think of this: the Black American always has an unusual and memorable experience in Europe. It’s an example of the Anti-Blackness that you escape to from America, but is just as terrifying and annoying. To see Atlanta riff on this is exactly where I wanted this series to go. The Paperboi flashback to the women he is sleeping with fighting each other over use of “nigga” was excellent comedy, an example of the slapstick but truthful humor that the show has. What other tricks do they have up their sleeves?

Abe: Yeah. I mean the thorniness of the idea of Europe as a setting for this season immediately, I don’t know, can you say “appealed” in a situation like this? I’ll say it seemed like fertile ground for the discussions Atlanta likes to have. I hope they get more out of it than a wooden Disney World ride setting, something strange and absurd and foreign to accentuate its core themes. There’s the potential for the show to settle for cheap xenophobia, laughing at exoticism if not handled delicately, which is why “Helen” is my least favorite episode of the show. Please, not an entire season of “Helen”.

Jay: Sometimes I think I am slightly xenophobic as well: Not in the red pill sense of the word but in the Black man sense of it. What you are calling xenophobic is just me being more world-weary than others. The “Helen” episode is great to me. One, it reckons with this idea of Van’s complexities and how, while her background matters, it is also something that Earn finds to be annoying, because any mixed child has some level of annoyance to them. (And I have mixed cousins. They’re lovely but interracial breeding/growing up biracial is often confusing or complex for them, annoying to hear about for others). Earn doesn’t understand what Van is growing through in that episode, because to him, being fully Black is harder and quite frankly, matters more than her Afro-German identity. This isn’t about Helen though: I truly believe there is a way they can make it a good season in Europe, while still highlighting why it is historically, a fascinating place for Black Americans to go to. Paperboi’s view of Amsterdam struck me as funny as hell, with jail not being difficult there. Unlike say, real life rapper Freddie Gibbs’s experience in an Europe jail, Paperboi is attended to and let out early. Let’s see where this goes. Do you think Van is up, doing a tryst, with someone at the end of the episode?

Abe: I mean I laid out the case for it in the recap but I’m not sure I believe it. I’d actually give Glover a lot of respect for allowing his character to take an L like that on his own show. But we’ll see. I laid the wild, completely unsupported conspiracy theory out there, which is my job.

I agree about the potential for an Atlanta Euro trip, but at the end of this season we’re going to do a holistic ranking so I’ll save a lot of my ammo for then, but here’s what I’ll say about “Helen” and this episode because I don’t want to be accused of being unfair. “Juneteenth” is just a notch below “Woods” for me, but it’s very, very close. Woods wins because of a very powerful Henry performance and as a culmination of many of the ideas of Atlanta as a show, but “Juneteenth” is this gleaming, perfect machine that combines the show’s ideas, its gift for invention, and its overarching narrative, all ground in character, to make something truly special. For me, “Helen” attempts to recapture that lightning in a bottle, and bricks it. It’s spectacle for the point of spectacle, it sells out its characters a bit, its using its scenery for cheap novelty, to score easy points. I think you can dig into the ideas this show clearly enjoys indulging in and wring gold out of them, brilliant insight and interesting, fleshed out scenarios to explore, or you can leave it at funny outfits and lost translations. I hope this season they will do the work, and not settle for sight gags.

But let’s pivot off this because we’ve spent the bulk of two recaps wringing our hands about variations of the same issue. What do you make of Earn’s worsening illness throughout the episode? Are we being set up for Covid breaking out in Amsterdam? Is Earn patient zero?

Jay: You mentioned this. I am not so sure. Glover strikes me as someone who would not do something based on a COVID season. He’s a guy who doesn’t want to be too on the nose, other than when he is doing horror-based episodes on race. But he is definitely sick; it isn’t an accident that Glover is alluding to something here. I thought that time would have set Atlanta to four years from the previous season but it seems like this is only months after they first traveled to Europe. Maybe this is the rapture coming?

Abe: We really need to dedicate an entire recap to unpacking your feelings about Glover. They’re fascinating.

So the first case of Covid was officially reported in Copenhagen, where Earn travels from, and Amsterdam, where Earn travels to, the final week of February 2020. Considering this season was at least initially broken in 2019, and this is the second European tour, what I believe they say is a year later, we could be just before that sweet spot, because it’s Christmas time.

But this is a show that Black washed Justin Bieber and introduced the world to the invisible car, so I wouldn’t get too bogged down in the tick tock. If they want to address it, they will, and you have to wonder if there is some intention behind Earn’s illness. Like it’s not a coincidence, and post-2020, you can’t really introduce a character suffering from respiratory disease without directly suggesting something to your audience.

I frankly find the potential of a Covid plot fascinating. If the crew ends up in Europe, on lockdown, at the mercy of the state, there’s limitless room for exploration there. You’re essentially stripping Alfred of his fame and power, a lockdown in a pandemic is a kind of equalizer, particularly when you’re trapped in a foreign country. I don’t know. I love the idea. I hope they have the balls to go for it.

Jay: Your math checks out. I love this idea too. Glover could do great comedic work with an insular season with the characters trapped inside. He has a dry sensibility that reminds me of the kind of humor we would see on the internet in regards to COVID. Glover could do Bo Burnham’s Inside with these characters in his own way and it’d be even better. I can’t wait.

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