Atlanta S3 E3: The Old Man and the Tree – “I Just Bring Them To Me”

Abe Beame and Jayson Buford return to celebrate Brian Tyree Henry, Succession-like settings, self-taught multi-hyphenates and more.
By    April 1, 2022
Photo via FX/Hulu

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Jayson Buford is calling Yankees World Series from the jump.

Abe Beame might fuck around and release a Nic Cage-inspired cookbook.

Coming into this season of Atlanta, I expected there would be a shift to the contradictions, frustrations and horrors that come with transformative wealth and success because the entire cast has moved to different stages in their career. Zazie Beetz and Bryan Tyree Henry are both (kind of?) Marvel superheroes. Lakeith Stanfield has been nominated for an Oscar. Donald Glover has signed an eight-figure development deal with Amazon, is said to be getting his own channel on the platform, and is developing a show with Malia Obama on staff. To make another season about moving out of the storage space and climbing another rung on the ladder of a regionally famous mid-level rapper would’ve likely rang inauthentic, and frankly uninteresting. An episode exploring this new plane of achievement is exactly what we got tonight.

The episode opens with Darius and Alfred giving Earn shit about the opportunity Earn has set up, a meet and greet with a billionaire investor whose family handed out the first loan (maybe modeled after the Rothschilds?). It’s a strange dynamic because this is the kind of access you’d imagine Al wanted Earn to set up for him throughout the drama of last season as he was contrasted with Clark County’s (wyt) business savvy manager, but this is perhaps picking nits.

(A quick shout out to the writers room for an inspired exchange: they first run through a standard lazy white finance guy impression/routine you and your friends have either delivered or heard a thousand times, then Earn deconstructs the bit: “Hey guys this is my white voice, where’s the blow at man?” Al claps back “That’s not a voice that’s exactly what you sound like”)

The billionaire’s flat is another perfect laboratory/setting for an Atlanta episode, it is Succession-like in setting that serves as character, plot and episode focus itself. (We’re in London now. The title music is grime or something that sounds like grime to a guy who thinks people with English accents shouldn’t be allowed to rap. So we’ve flown across Europe with no explanation or warning) It’s properly surreal, embedded in a half shuttered decoy storefront that could sell anything from second hand electronics to Mogwais.

After some static at the door with an unlikely gatekeeper, they’re greeted by someone I can only describe as a classic “Tim Westwood type”, who brings them through another leg of manicured dilapidation, an unkempt family home transported from a tenement house, to a locked door with an electronic key code that opens into a flat with its own complimentary, fully staffed Nandos franchise, and a server walking around with a silver tray of champagne flutes for guests.

The billionaire is Fernando, a salt and pepper beard with thin chain-wearing douche. He takes Al into a courtyard where he reveals his pride and joy: One of the oldest trees in London that Fernando had the entire compound built around. It’s the perfect rich guy affectation: An old tree he’s preserved, presumably by bending who knows how many zoning and building laws at the expense of whatever people live around him. Fernando’s sociopathy is made literal with a house rule: You can’t smoke outside, around the tree, but you’re free to smoke inside around the guests.

Fernando tells Alfred, “I don’t leave this property often, but I still manage to enjoy life’s small pleasures. I just bring them to me.” He’s referring to fast food chicken, but the show is explaining how Alfred ended up there. The super rich dangle their riches to buy access to talented, impressive people they want desperately to bring into their orbit. The people around him are “friends”, “in a manner of speaking”. The house is an incubator. It’s explained to Al as a capitalist salon with a phony utopian vision, but it’s clearly the type of place where God knows how many tech companies whose sole reason for being is to lose money, shitty apps, and NFTs have been conceived, nurtured, and hatched. As Fernando acknowledges: We mostly drink and relax and gamble. The rich man’s clubhouse, an ancient institution with sleek, updated paneling translated into bullshit technobabble.

The apparently now mandatory frivolous Darius B Plot for the evening is he approaches a beautiful young Asian woman to ask her to pass the bottle of gin behind her, but before he can begin she curves him, assuming he’s about to hit on her. The woman, MK, is mortified by her own assumption, explaining “I get hit on by Black men a lot. I lived in Los Angeles for a minute. Black guys love Asian women, so”. Darius is content to release the tension and smooth out the misunderstanding, but it’s overheard by a hipster savior with an intense hairline named Socks, desperate to perform social justice, fighting one micro-aggression at a time. You can feel where this is heading, a forced bit of layered and misguided racism compounded and escalated by a game of telephone in an echo chamber composed of white people making the situation about them, and its padding the 36-minute episode probably could’ve done without.

The Tim Westwood is an A&R or some unspecified agent/manager/benefactor, and is the link for getting Earn into the flat. We learn that his purpose for bringing Earn is to facilitate a meeting with his artist TJ, a “self taught multi hyphenate” who we meet wearing an Off White shirt, stapling found objects onto an abstract expressionist composition (before he shows Earn and Van a piece with “great sadness around it”, a bummy looking white man in Supreme with his dick hanging out). The wardrobe feels intentional, as TJ seems like the kind of hypebeast who might’ve been hanging around DONDA when it was a shadow event machine, staffed by guys with splashy IG pages and no definable job.

Westwood has dumped half a million dollars into TJ’s art over the course of four months, and transparently, desperately, needs to start making some money off his investment. His idea is a kind of hybrid Air BNB/WeWork concept (which initially was the concept for WeWork). The cure for losing money is to throw more money at it. He wants to open an incubator inside of Fernando’s incubator, a space where artists can live, work and hang out when they’re in town, for free. TJ, lurking somewhere nearby, interrupts by gliding in on skates that may as well be an oil slick, to clarify the concept for capitalizing on the idea is offering a subscription based service where people, presumably at home? I guess digitally? Get access to the art being produced in the space.

The art incubator/subscription concept is a pretty canny, sophisticated invention that encapsulates in a few minutes what two other very good entire shows, WeCrashed and The Dropout, have been explaining to us. It’s the story of what’s become of capitalism on this post-tech bubble mid-level. Extreme wealth is this topiary layer that hangs over everything, with raconteurs below setting up confidence scams designed to grift for themselves while burning the fuel of billionaire cash the investors don’t need or care about, on updated Ponzi schemes that sound cool, attached to the promise of a mega payout, powered by charismatic people who are cool, but don’t make any fucking sense.

Earn immediately sees the scam, as well as the scammer. TJ is pretty directly prostituting himself, trading his cultural capital for treasure. Earn laments that this willful grift is amoral because it will just make opportunities harder to come by for the next generation of Black kids with actual talent, in an expository exchange with Alfred that a show as nimble as Atlanta would typically leave unsaid, for the viewer to piece together themselves. Alfred responds that this is an ancient game, one that has been run and dominated by whites forever, so what’s wrong with a little equal opportunity? TJ materializes yet again to blatantly confirm it all.

Towards the end of the episode, on a wall lined with TJ’s art, Earn sees a yellowed photo of Fernando’s family issuing the first loan, the original sin of capitalism. There’s a slave in the background. As a kind of reparations, Earn decides to cosign the scheme, but also glom onto it, taking advantage of the situation to hire himself as TJ’s manager at 20% commission. Westwood brings them both in for a celebratory hug, but the deal is actually made in the moment before, when TJ and Earn share a knowing, complicit glance.

There’s a poker subplot involving Al, Fernando, and $40k that is attempting to demonstrate the adjustment Alfred has to make to these new situations he can’t handle in ways he would’ve at home over stolen bud or cash, as well as drive home the theme of reparations and taking back what’s been stolen, but it’s kind of a miss. An obvious metaphor that feels like something of a settle in this setting that was rich in opportunities to go in any direction. Ultimately it was a smart episode in conception that I had some issues with in execution, so to delve into these issues and more, I’ll hand the wheel to my co-conspirator Jayson Buford. What’d you make of Fernando’s flat Jay, and how soon can you score us an invite? – Abe Beame

Jay: At times, Fernando’s flat actually reminded me of a more dystopian Silicon Valley as opposed to Succession. Like Erlich Bachman in Silicon Valley, there’s a supreme financial commander in Fernando, who doesn’t know much about art himself but is funding artists like TJ to help him. Paperboi’s right – white people stay scamming – and what TJ is doing, isn’t bad at all. Earn is practicing concern-trolling by suggesting it will be harder for Black talent. Anyone who won’t take a chance on Black talent because of one, or many scammers, isn’t to be taken seriously at all. The master doesn’t care if a few of you are upstanding citizens. In fact, he probably knows that and still continues subjugating you with the intent of making you his property.

The symbiotic relationship between Paperboi and Earn was shown in that scene. Paperboi understands, at least a bit more than Earn, that this system is a rigged game sold to you at your local video store. Atlanta seems to be doing Twilight Show-like plots and settings this season. I’m interested in seeing it continue. Glover is trying to goad us, if you will, into being dissatisfied. I’m not letting him do so. I’m waiting to see where we go from here. Something’s going to give. A lot of what happened in this episode with Darius, for example, are a series of micro-aggressions. Micro-aggressions always lead to the trash can going through a glass window. There’s something blowing up here. What says you?

Abe: I like your read comparing the flat setting to Silicon Valley as opposed to Succession. It hits on something that was bothering me and I was having trouble articulating. There’s a parodic quality to the entire episode. Whereas place like Teddy Perkins mansion or the Juneteenth Party were inventions used to explore ideas heightened to absurd and/or terrifying levels, the flat and some of the scenarios within felt like spaces Glover himself has been to at this point and wanted to comment on directly, much like Silicon Valley also gave us the bare minimum of artifice between its creations and real life counterparts.

This pettiness, closer to mean than the hysterical, heightened metaphorical commentary we’re used to, is also is part of the issue with the episode. There’s a really interesting piece of Tad Friend’s several years-old, completely ridiculous profile of Glover where he’s in the editing room with them as they’re working on “Helen”, and they take out almost all of the standard television context that would explain why Earn and Van are going to this place to do this thing, and for me that’s always been the power of Atlanta. Its dreamlike tone is established because it doesn’t spoon feed you the sequential plot points lesser shows give you, which adds to its theme of disorienting alienation. I thought that back and forth between Earn, Al, and eventually TJ was the hammering of a theme that the show wouldn’t have indulged in in seasons one or two and I was frankly disappointed with it. I felt like the show wasn’t content to leave it up to us to figure out what was going on, it had to write his message across the page in bold red letter.

And then on the other hand, your Twilight Zone comp is apt because even for Atlanta, a show that rejected the idea of serialization but kept some semblance of an arc throughout their seasons, the show is increasingly becoming an anthology, with little to nothing tethering one episode to the next (as we will discuss in greater detail next week). Now they’re in London, Earn’s cold is gone, no clue what is going on with Van or if we should even bother paying attention because maybe in episode five they’ll be in Ireland and Lottie will be with them.

I want to ask a question semi related to this last thought that I’m interested in addressing: How do you feel about Brian Tyree Henry’s performance so far this season?

Jay: Brian Tyree Henry is a revelation. He’s an alien actor; the kind that you empathize with even when he’s childish, says something crass, or says something far outside your brain’s reach at the current moment. His burliness helps with this; there’s a gentle giant quality in him, even when playing Paperboi who would scoff at me calling him that. There’s not a more empathetic and sensible working actor on television. The way he can say universal truths like his talk with Earn and not come across as Furious Styles is pertinent to me. There’s always a quality where I am watching a peer, not someone who is paternalistic. That includes the great cast of Succession, South Side, and The Righteous Gemstones.

So far, he’s been fantastic again. You can see that he is more comfortable with himself on the surface, but as usual with Paperboi, there’s things eating him. As a Black man, and a regular human being, his angst, or incapability of acceptance of the world around, is eating him. It is in this episode particularly, when he tries to handle problems with Fernando in the way that he used to do. He’s now living in the world of white European business: where ghosting and “my lawyer will be in touch” is now the code speak, not guns and face-to-face cocaine transactions. Atlanta is all about identity, class, and being a fish out of water. Whether that be at a German festival, at a self-hating mansion, or your cousin teaching you how to finesse your classmates when they come for your bootleg shirt, Atlanta suggests that wherever Paperboi, Earn, and Darius go, they’ll have to deal with the primal and instinctive force of Anti-Blackness and capitalism.

Abe: So I was curious to see if anyone on Earth shared my impression, and I’m guessing after this episode no one will, but here it is. I’m with you to an extent. In my opinion, Henry’s portrayal of Alfred in seasons one and two was my favorite television performance, potentially of the decade, or at least on a very, very shortlist. I’ve seen everything he’s done since, including a revival of Kenneth Lonnergan’s very mid play Lobby Hero that he did with Chris Evans on Broadway a few years ago. As portrayed by Henry, Alfred is a type of person I’ve known my whole life, but had never been portrayed on television before, and got me over the hump of my initial skepticism/annoyance with Glover and what I was afraid would be his vanity project.

So all this being said, after episode two I thought that the show had made an interesting pivot, evolving the character of Alfred, turning him into a person with a feel for how to play the game and a comfort with himself. After this one, I’m not so sure. And it feeds into the disjointed nature of this season so far. Henry literally appears to be playing an entirely different character. There’s less quiet, less anger, he has this regular dude affable quality in all settings that I’m starting to find jarring. The whole tree cutting thing, it was like he was having fun. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, it just felt alien to the character I’ve known and loved.

Compare this episode to “Up North”. We’re told that $40K is small change to Alfred here, and perhaps this is simply the lightness of wealth vs. the weight of poverty, but how he just responds to these alien environments, to taking an L on such a smaller scale at that weird university, it just fucks me up. I would love to read an interview where Henry explains his intention for the character this season.

Jay: That episode at the university remains one of my favorites to date. I agree, it looked more jubilant than we’ve seen him be, but perhaps it means that he is losing touch with one self and becoming more out of his mind. This isn’t a show that deals with its problems in an on the nose fashion. It’s surreal, bizarre, and dreamlike. Glover is taking from David Chase. Even when something visceral is happening, it is handed with slapstick dark comedy. That felt like the moment where Paulie and Christopher are laughing while being stranded together in Pine Barrens. Glover has watched The Sopranos. I keep wondering what more tricks he has in his sleeve for Alfred.

Abe: Yeah, I don’t know, I’m rereading what I’ve written and it may sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, but I guess my critique would be the show is starting to feel more disjointed, which is fine if handled properly, but in a way I think might be distracting if this pattern continues, and less in touch with its characters, who are starting to feel as fungible as the time, place and circumstance of the episode, which is new. But we did this with the first two thirds of our season covering Succession, perhaps better to have faith in our betters and enjoy the ride.

Jay: I keep thinking about what TJ would be doing if he was an artist in Brooklyn or Chinatown. He’d definitely have a fanbase. Everything is upside down now. Some people are more represented by messiness than they are by critical prestige. People would say that his work is good. Would he be the Lil B of the art world?

Abe: My read on him was a mid-2010s era hypebeast, front of the line at every Been Trill event. The OFF-WHITE and Supreme references, and his self labeling as a multi-hyphenate were dead giveaways. I feel like he was of that generation that got a clothing line just for having Kanye’s number in his phone (*cough* Heron Preston, *cough* Tremaine Emory).

Jay: He’s definitely the type of person that would break up with a girl for saying she likes his outerwear.

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