Atlanta S3 E7: Trini 2 de Bone – “Teachable Moment”

Is the latest 'Atlanta' episode suggesting that childcare should be segregated? Should nannies not exist at all? Abe Beame and Jayson Buford discuss.
By    May 2, 2022
Photo via FX/Hulu

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Jayson Buford wants you to give Sigourney Weaver the flowers she deserves.

Abe Beame isn’t with the casual mushroom epidemic happening in Brooklyn right now.

In my last recap two weeks ago, I discussed the grab bag thrill of Atlanta this season. How there is no Earthly way to tell what’s coming from week to week, and how that can be one of the last unpredictable, exciting moments in our heavily saturated, trailer-and-spoiler heavy discourse. This week initially was the sensation of reaching into the bowl blindfolded and sinking my hand into some strange and slimy: An anthology episode directed by Glover. But I’ll say that considering this season demands two minds of those who would deign to critique it. You have to evaluate it as a grand narrative – both as a season and in the context of an entire series, in which it has failed pretty grandly – and you also must evaluate it on the merits of each episode.  And while I know many are incredibly irritated, after a second viewing ,this is probably the “best”, and quite possibly my favorite episode of this season.

We should open by saying the episode was written by Jordan Temple, a writer/comedian with a flexible pen (he also writes/has written for Abbot Elementary and The Fabulous Mrs. Maisel, along with two pretty incredible sounding plays, Hidden Fences: A mashup of Hidden Figures and Fences, and The Color Urkel: A Color Purple adaptation starring both Steve Urkel and Stephon Urquelle). I have no idea if either Glover or Temple or anyone in the writer’s room who worked on the script is Caribbean, which will be important to keep in mind later.

The premise of the anthology episode is the death of a woman named Sylvia Hosannah (Hosanna: Used to express adoration, praise, or joy), an older Trini woman who has worked as a nanny/parent to a kindergarten-aged child named Sebastian. In her absence, Sebastian and his rich white parents are forced to confront their feelings towards her, their roles as parents, and how to appropriately grieve.

There’s an early, incredibly dumb and on the nose joke that threw me off the scent of the sensitivity of this episode. Sebastian wants a spicy, or slight, mango puree on his eggs benedict. After spooning some out from a labeled tupperware container in the fridge, his father tries some, and guess what? The whites, seasoning, they don’t like it! They don’t cook with it. *Jay Leno voice* Any of you guys heard about this?

But the rest of the humor and critique can tiptoe between balanced and half baked in the way the best Atlanta episodes always have. The following is a list I’ve compiled of incredibly specific details that feel like they have to be based on experience and observation that at long last, the show did not cull from an old episode of Chappelle’s Show:

-”Spicy curry mango” in a plastic take out container (labeled as “Slight Pepper Curry Mango”, which is perfect).

-Going to really swing for the bleachers on this one, Sebastián is playing with a Kosmoceratops figure when his parents break the news that Sylvia has passed. The Greek definition for the dinosaur’s name is “ornamented horned face”. Horn is slang from Trini vernacular for cheating. Perhaps a coincidence, but part of the fun of these episodes, for me, are the short story like attention to the most minute details the form invites.

-”Cockroach”, which Richard accuses Sylvia’s daughter of being, is slang for a person who gets involved in situations they have no business being in, once again, often related to adultery. Followed immediately by Sebastian responding “cockroach has no place at foul party”. Khadijah drops into patois and reveals Sylvia referred to Sebastián as her little curry mouth.

-Spread at the wake: Pilau, Corn Soup, Fish Broth, Doubles, Roti

-“It’s better belly bust”-“than good food waste”

-The pastor being late and blaming it on “Trini Time”

-Sebastian participates in call and response during the sermon and puts his hand in the air along with the crowd, to his mother’s horror.

-How the entire wake sucks their teeth collectively in judgment when the pastor emphasizes that Sylvia sent money home to her family in T&T.

-I’ll be real, at the danger of telling on myself. The one part I didn’t get was the airdrop at the funeral when “Gooch Lickman” sent an illicit photo of….. not going to speculate. This might be something culturally specific I didn’t understand, or general Atlanta weirdness, either way I wanted to mention it, but unsure when to slot that mention, so here it is.

Julia Edwards, the Queen of Limbo from Port of Spain, who the limbo at Sylvia’s wake was dedicated to.

-I think my single favorite joke in the episode is when the pastor gives nearly a note perfect capsule review of Sylvia’s dance work you might find in a Timeout event description: she was a ballet dancer with the Alvin Ailey dance company for several years. Mixing Trinidadian and traditional African dance, she brought a confidence and a freshness to her rich and vibrant dance milieu.” But, of course, all the father gives a shit about is her nephew plays WR for the Pats.

Laying out all of that gives you an outline of the episode but let’s get into specifics. Sebastian is a private school kid growing up in the Jenga building in Tribeca, the same neighborhood Chet Hanks was raised in. Throughout the episode we see the specific things that Sylvia has imprinted upon him. The child is instructing his mother how he’s been programmed to be cared for: to walk him to his class, to sit with him at night in his bed that is a kind of IKEA teepee when he’s scared, the exact motion to rub his back with, where to sit and what to sing to soothe him. Suddenly, left with the job of parenting, his parents attempt to use the tools of their culture, alien to their child, eggs Benedict and baby beluga, but it’s not taking.

In The Ringer‘s excellent Atlanta recap podcasts, hosted by Charles Holmes and Van Lathan, there was some debate over the moral fiber of the parents. I think the intent is that they’re awful in different ways. The yoga “mother” in spite of her Telfar bag, is pretty overtly racist in the delicate, northern sense. She would rather pack Sylvia’s wigs in a box, curate an (underpaid) Asian nanny like using nanny ethnicity as a semester abroad to erase Sylvia’s imprint, and pretend she never existed. The dad is the more curious, culturally sensitive, stereotypical liberal, deluded white man who would have voted for Obama a third time if he could, but will still not just be nervous but express his nervousness over leaving his car keys on his windshield in a lot for Richie to tend to.

The second half of the episode is basically a bottle inside the storefront funeral home where, much like in “The Big Payback”, Sebastian’s parents are confronted with her humanity during the wake – much like Marshall was while scrolling through Shaniqua’s Facebook page. And yes, we meet Chet Hanks. A lot has been made of the cameo, the shock value, what he’s doing there, what he means. It’s obviously not a coincidence he was raised in Tribeca by Sylvia, and grew up to become an embarrassing and ridiculous “royal” scion excoriated for problematic appropriation. The episode seems to be making a somewhat muddled point: was it Chet that was actually appropriated? This is where the episode can get difficult and potentially fall apart. What are we intended to make of the conflicting ideas of childcare, appropriation, cross cultural labor, and what its ultimate repercussions could be?

The narrative is further complicated when Sylvia’s other daughter Princess storms the podium and bears her soul about the mother she lost to the work that she did caring for other people’s children. My theory is the show is saying “The Curse of Whiteness” is passing off the hard, demanding work of child rearing to a person who doesn’t have the generational wealth to choose their career and has to draft off the Tribeca couple’s privilege – and how they never took the time to get to know the person they entrusted this essential task to. It’s about the tradeoff that comes with that devil’s bargain.

It’s Atlanta so we need a horror trope. So we get one jump scare of the (pretty creepy!) kid in the doorway, and the phantom courier who visits their door three times, emphatically knocking to break the quiet. The package is a sleeve of photos from family picture day at Sebastian’s school, underlining the point that she was his family.

The closing moments of the episode suggest that Sylvia’s influence will be with Sebastian the rest of his life. But Is what Sylvia is doing subversive? In his instant ability to bond with Khadijah, there’s a temptation to suggest Sebastián will grow to be a diverse and culturally sensitive person. But we are also forced to wonder is it sabotage to turn your wealthy white offspring into Chet Hanks, or is it cultural enrichment? Is Chet a cautionary tale, or a perhaps misguided young man, but one who will politely correct shitty white people when they improperly cite Trinidad and Tobago? It seems to feed into the white curse narrative, but to what end? I’m not sure the episode itself has a firm answer.

Is this episode suggesting that childcare should be segregated? Should nannies not exist at all? It makes a fair judgment on the parents for never really getting to know the person who raised their child, but does the critique end there? If Sebastian’s parents had made more of an effort with Sylvia, would he be more or less culturally attuned, and are we meant to see this as a positive or negative attribute? I think the best way to think of all of this is allegory, but there’s so much detail that conflicts with the presented ideas it can be difficult to ascertain the intended meaning, assuming there is any. So here to help me untangle this dense web of both actually provocative, and at times incoherent ideas, is my brother in convalescence, Jayson Buford.

Jay: Chet Hanks has always seemed mentally ill to me. It’s not that he is appropriating culture. Wu-Tang accebtably appropriated culture on 36 Chambers. It’s that Chet, a white man, has truly operated in the lens of a Caribbean person. This episode reflects that. The earpiece has a “roadman” quality to it. It is like Chet has multiple personalities disorder but it has only affected him in one way. He’s a Caribbean man in his mind and there is nothing anyone can do about it. I don’t know anything about the Hanks family. Who knows what color their babysitter was? But Chet did not happen in a vacuum. Sebastian didn’t happen in a vacuum. If Sylvia the nanny became both of their de facto moms, then there is reason to believe that Sebastian could have ended up like that.

But it’s interesting – I didn’t think the parents were bad people. They had some nuance to them. The mom is clearly concerned about the level of her son’s activity with Trinidadian culture. White kids are supposed to understand different cultures without fully immersing themselves in it. They’re rightfully concerned. What made this episode interesting to me – for the first time – is that the characters have nuance. Not a perfect episode but it is a step in the right direction. What about you?

Abe: I mean I wouldn’t necessarily say a step in the right direction because it’s this chaotic dice roll right? This particular episode was good because they hit on an interesting idea, but the next one could easily be a complete brick because there’s no throughline dictating how even the narrative-based episodes work this season.

The thing that still bothers me about this episode, which I liked, is if this is some kind of lesson, or warning – or it’s somehow prescriptive in anyway,? What’s the answer for this family, or any family? They’re obviously very wealthy, but what does the show want from the relationship between parents and the people they entrust with childcare? I think the best read on this is allegory: this particular family committed the egregious sin of basically yadda yadda-ing the basic and essential act of raising their son, leaving the job to a person they neither cared about or really even knew, which cost this woman the ability to care for her own kids, a legacy of generational wealth manifested. But again, what is the alternative? I just don’t really know what the episode wants to do besides point and laugh like Nelson Muntz, but I enjoy considering the question. What is the answer here?

Jay: It’s a funny episode. It’s the funniest one and that is where my appreciation of it goes. It’s not as smart as it thinks it is, but this time it induced laughs from me. The preacher was great – especially the detail about him losing money on Sylvia’s nephew. Princess was compelling too. Is she mad at Sylvia because she was not home or was she mad because those white families had her raising their kids? There was a bit of jealousy happening that was interesting. They got the time with Sylvia that she wanted. If anything, it is more pronounced. Is Glover coming at the Nanny-Industrial Complex with this? Is he telling white families to raise their kids more? We’ll see. He probably isn’t going to let us know, but the final shot tells us: A white parent who realizes he had lost his kid to a Black babysitter. They are not connected, only by DNA, but not bound to each other from any depth of soul.

Abe: That’s what’s so aggravating. This episode essentially resists a close reading, much like Glover. If you start asking questions and want any sort of definitive conclusions, it’s almost like the joke is on you. It’s this provocative bar argument from an asshole who just wants to piss you off and leave you pissed off without attempting resolution. I guess my question would be is it on us for wanting or needing any of this to make sense? Has the episode done its job in prodding us into this conversation? Is that enough when it’s such a deep and searing question?

Jay: None of these jobs have done their best. I think we have a right to be cynical on them. Not saying that everything has to be spelled out for you – in fact, it the opposite for me – but as critics, our job is to ask how much this is working for us and why it is or isn’t. This was a step in the right direction – good comedy writing, nuanced plot and characters – but still is not exactly where we need it to be.

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