Atlanta S3 E5: Cancer Attack- “It’s Sweet, But It Hurts.”

Abe Beame and Jayson Buford reconnect to talk anthology vs. narrative, feeling challenged vs. being tired and more at Atlanta's half-way point.
By    April 15, 2022
Photo via FX/Hulu

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Jayson Buford wants you to know that New Yorkers are not heading to work because they are built different. They’re still heading to work because the cost of living is so expensive that they cannot afford to miss days. Including when a mass shooting happens at transit services.

Abe Beame is wondering if 2022 is the year of “Dad Spycore.”

I’m going to start with a move I use way too often with these recaps, and zoom out. While I don’t love this season of Atlanta so far, albeit with some stunning moments that are as good as anything I’ve seen on TV this year, there is a thrill to pressing play that I maybe have never experienced in my life. And it’s much to do with the debated and critiqued approach to structure, the anthology episodes mixed in with the show’s narrative. In the seconds before the fade in, in my mind there’s absolutely nothing I wouldn’t believe this show is capable of. If I told you I had a screener, and next week’s episode of Atlanta revolves around a KPOP band of talking CGI zoo animals that confronts racism in a fresh and original way that’s also built off the back of a 20 year-old Chappelle Show skit, would you believe me? I think the answer has to be yes, because this show is utterly fearless and there’s nothing it’s opposed to trying out in the interest of some experimental, inflammatory fun.

Well this week, we’re back on the road with Darius, Al and Earn, this time in Budapest, which, sure, why not? But this is far from an episode that follows a string, and it exposes something that’s been itching me for a while.

I think we’re all making a mistake differentiating between the anthology episodes and narrative. They’re all anthology. There’s some unifying bits, like the white guy specter in one and four, and the Van and Earn storyline they work into every Glover featured episode, but really these are repertory players putting on a different show every night. The situations are fungible, the characters are fungible, nothing is congruous or follows any real established logic from episode to episode, or at times from scene to scene.

And I don’t blame Donald Glover, I blame us. “Woods” is my favorite Atlanta episode, I praised it at the time as a landmark breakthrough that got us beyond this show’s Louie/David Lynch fetish and delivered something really original and moving. A *sigh* Grimm fairytale one off where Paper Boi literally ventures into a dark and twisted wood, comes face to face with his fear and his ego, and emerges a changed person. It’s one of the best 30 minutes of television of the last ten years in how it balances daring and masterful, rooting a revelation in hard wrought character constructed over two near perfect seasons.

In that Tad Friend New Yorker profile, you can see how much Glover gets off on provoking the network, the censors, and his viewers, like he’s fucking Lars Von Trier or Gaspar Noe or something, and he is really taking this season-long prod to this viewer’s individual breaking point.

I am exhausted by these magical plot devices who somehow survived a level two college workshop edit, show up for one episode, do strange and surprising things that reveal previously unseen and totally unearned and usually inconsistent depths of our characters, then disappear. The murderous survival bum in the woods was the tip of the iceberg. Now, every week, we have to deal with something along the lines of a Wiley, *deep breath* the cryptic, obnoxious, estranged recessive gene looking American born nephew through marriage of the Hungarian concert promoter who we’re lead to believe stole Al’s phone and has an accent that comes and goes and shits himself and doesn’t have a fixed age but shares a birthday with fellow Taurus Al and spent time in juvie and knows Al’s phone number and all of Al’s deepest and darkest secrets dating back to high school and seemingly can look directly into his soul and asks for a cigarette even though he doesn’t smoke and also has his uncle bring a guitar to the nearly episode long interrogation that goes nowhere and sings him this deep, meaningful song, and then we find out he didn’t steal the phone.

I was sitting there thinking about running back the song to parse the lyrics for meaning, or Google it to see if it was an existing song, or work out my theory that somehow Wiley and Socks were co-conspirators, and then instead I said “fuck this”, because even in the context of dedicating myself to working towards finding meaning in a television show I’m willingly writing a recap of, I have my fucking limits. Congrats, Donald.You found it.

And what sucks is something hewing just a hair closer to an actual episodic television show, the one we got most of two seasons of, would be so fun and interesting. Two weeks ago, I complained about Henry’s performance betraying Paper Boi somewhat, but something I love that emerges this week is Earn and Al have essentially traded personalities and dispositions. Earn is now a tightly wrapped, joy-less asshole that shows no vulnerability. He will delete the exasperated “WTF” from his texts and pat down a Make-A-Wish kid on a stretcher if he thinks that kid might have smuggled out his client’s phone. And what’s more is Al, rolling out his English accent and amping himself up before getting on stage, notices this, and checks in on his cousin because he’s concerned, which would’ve been utterly unthinkable seven episodes ago.

So there is such a fascinating story being doled out in micro pellets about how fame has inverted these two men in opposite ways I would love to see play out, but it’s nothing but side missions and thought experiments and bullshit taking up the majority of our screentime, and I will watch every episode they ever make of this show, but I’m just at something of an impasse with Glover’s use of a television show he catfished me into falling in love with being weaponized as a tool he can use to flame Reddit threads with.

I’ve been leaning more movie heavy with my content consumption the last few months/years, but at the moment I’m wrapped up in three of the best TV shows I’ve seen in a long time, all ironically on Apple Plus. Severance, Slow Horses, and Pachinko. That’s a sci-fi mystery box mindfuck, an old school English spy thriller, and a gorgeously wrought generational family drama. They’re about as different as you can get, and yet they all share the commonality of being tightly wound, immaculately imagined, propulsive narratives operating with Swiss watch precision in their writing, direction, and pacing that gives a shit about their characters. In comparison, I can’t help but feel Glover’s oscillating, scatalogical middle finger of a season is a cop out, a kind of laziness wrapped in fear he’s using as obfuscation rather than giving us the proper landing of the plane this show deserves. You could argue I’m comparing wontons to pierogies or asking cats to bark, and maybe I am, but that’s just how I feel five episodes in. Less challenged and more tired.

Socks is a great example. He’s the one character who survived the trip to Fernando’s flat two weeks ago and is in rare form here. Remember, he’s the performatively, aggressively woke white guy the show introduces as a punchline via his hairline and is now serving as European tour guide for the gang, I guess. Now he’s an enforcer, flying off the handle in unconvincing ways and coming very close to uttering the N word for some reason, then revealing himself to be the fucking Joker.

I’m sure there’s some context clues in the episode that explain this completely random left turn and explain why we had to hang out with Wiley for the majority of the episode’s 30 minutes (my working theory is it was a false flag intended as a team building exercise for Socks, an initiation to prove his dedication to the crew), or maybe it’s the key to the whole season that will be revealed after the CGI K Pop racism episode next week, or maybe it’s a Burn After Reading scenario and the absurdity is the point. But once again, it’s so fucking hard to care, and that’s why I write these with my brother in arms, the Socks to my beautiful but problematic English Asian woman, Jayson Buford. Why’d Socks steal the phone only to throw it in the dumpster Jay? Abe Beame

Jay: I found it to be like the Burn After Reading option. Glover is giving us twists, and showing his chops as a writer and a plot deviser. The white guy is here as “fuck shit up” kind of character. I definitely think he was doing this as a “let me endear myself to the gang” move. One time, I was in summer school and the group of kids I did it with didn’t know me as well as my main crew did so I wilded out one day to break the ice with people. Not the same situation but nevertheless, I understand what was going on there. The scene where Socks says he is the “white Liam Neeson” was hilarious.

It’s just like Atlanta to have something like that in the show, with Darius and Paperboi being confused about why he did that. Socks is either up to something truly sinister with that or he was just trying to ingrain himself to a group of people he doesn’t know. His methods were perverse but rooted in something that I understand. This was a solid episode that shows what the gang is up to in Europe. It subverts expectations in the way that Glover wants but it doesn’t do it dishonestly. It reminded me of the Columbus episode of the Sopranos in that nobody will remember this episode as one of the series best, but it is darkly funny and meme’able. I respect it. What do you make of Darius, Earn, and Paperboi?

Abe: So I rewatched again after writing my recap, and really locked in, but I left what I initially wrote in because I think it’s important to note you shouldn’t need to study this show like a religious text for it to open itself to you, and to the people who picked up the theory I’m about to drop, which could be entirely wrong, on a first or even second viewing, good for you.

I think the key to the episode is Al’s writer’s block. What they’re doing essentially, in my opinion is setting up this scenario where his artistic spark is locked in that phone, and somehow he hadn’t had access to it for seven months, I’d imagine tied up in his success, and now he’s having an existential crisis because his heart was never in his music, and he has now lost his artistic spark because he embraced his fame and false love let a fuck boi poser like Socks into his crew and around him, setting himself up for his own downfall.

All this could be wrong so take it with a grain of salt, but here’s why I left in my recap and I think this is all still valid: My interpretation of the first two seasons of Atlanta were about Paper Boi growing in life and his career while trying to stay true to his authentic self and his art. It’s a point the show made overtly several times. Now we’re being told he never really cared about his art?

Even then, none of this detracts from the use of Wiley as this cheap device who saunters into the show, abides by no rules, tells some kind of fucked Lynchian truth, and leaves. They got all their cheap jokes off, I think it was a relatively funny episode even if they half heartedly tried but couldn’t find anything for Darius to do, but my critique is ultimately structural, this whole model is delivering diminishing returns for me at this point in the season. Maybe the showrunners are driving this tour bus somewhere, but that’s my read on the “point” of the episode, and I think the conclusion is flimsy, but the route to getting there was reheated and stale.

Jay: Do you think that Glover has some motifs or themes in the writing that he is aiming for? I wasn’t going to say that until this season. But it is not this past episode that gets me there, it is this taking of old headlines of the previous episode that rendered this season a disappointment. Tyree Henry gives a great monologue about losing his phone and finally being able to hear a voice that inspires him. It’s one of my favorites in the show. He sounds out his words in such a unique and masculine-showing way. He’s one of my “foxhole” actors. Like, if I was just stuck in a hole and I needed to watch something that I could watch in the next two hours and be mesmerized, I’m taking Tyree-Henry in the non-Denzel roll.

Seeing him speak to the nephew was riveting. He was cold and calculated – waiting for the kid to show his hand but he never did. In the end, Paperboi is lost without a phone to get inspired by or to make phone calls. Enjoy his performance as usual. But it also made me wonder if Glover is doing these contrived plots because it is hard to get the cast back together with COVID and their respective popularities. That was a theory that I saw. What do you think?

Abe: Well let’s start here because we’re not inside the creative process, this episode was written by Jamal Olori. I assume with Atlanta we’re dividing up the classic story by and script, but let’s give Olori some credit. I’d also like to point out Paperboi records the missing melody in his phone? So it’s not like anything in particular offered him a moment of clarity, it kind of randomly happened for no reason, then was immediately taxed, which I just kind of don’t get. Feels very Gen X.

Jay: That’s a rough comparison. You essentially called them a Cheers show or something. We love the hot take. Yeah, The New Yorker profile that you are referring to is done way before that self-interview in interview magazine. It’s him essentially saying that all you need to be considered a comedy is thirty minutes of runtime. You don’t even need to make people laugh anymore. For some reason, he hasn’t done that as much recently. The balance hasn’t been there. But this one was a start.

There is good comedic work happening here – the signing of a song felt too Euphoria like but the dig at Earn’s lack of Black vernacular was interesting to me. A sign of self-awareness from Glover that either he has too much of – or not enough of. I’m interested in seeing where things go from here. This was one of those stoic episodes that felt insignificant but I had chuckling all the way through. It’s better than the apathy that I felt throughout all the societal critiques of the first and fourth episode. For the first time, I finally had some fun.

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