A savagely funny Atlanta skewers cultural opportunists – The A.V. Club

Brian Tyree Henry in Atlanta

Brian Tyree Henry in Atlanta
Photo: Rob Youngson/FX

Atlanta is in the midst of a European rap tour, not to mention an extended existential question about whether the events depicted in the show are actually taking part in its characters’ previously established reality. In other words, it’s not even within glancing distance of your standard sitcom. But even if you’ve never seen the show or don’t consider the 30-minute-drama-with-laughs your thing, “White Fashion” is a great piece of standalone television about modern pop culture, a sharp and occasionally savage takedown of cultural co-opters and what you might call the social-justice-industrial complex. It’s a deep and thorough excoriation of empty signifiers and how big money tends to end up solving problems for about the same percentage of people who don’t really need it.

Atlanta has taken on the co-opting of Black culture before, but not so comprehensively as in this episode, 33 minutes packed with ideas and melancholy-but-precise comic moments. The main premise: The crew is in London, and Esco Esco, an LVMH-style luxury brand that incorporates streetwear, is embroiled in a race-related controversy and needs Paper Boi to help bail them out with some good PR. (Their funny/horrifying signature item is a Central Park Five shirt styled like a sports jersey, with a 5 in the appropriate numerical spot.) He’s been asked to serve on their “diversity advisory committee,” which will be introduced to the press that afternoon. (Bryan Tyree Henry gets another good showcase in this episode, starting with the scene of him ordering lunch, then negotiating three years of free clothes—he’s fearsomely funny.)

In a scene that’s heavy but deftly directed, Al is being fitted for a custom suit, and Earn is concerned this is an “Uncle Tom photo op.” He urges Al to suggest the company do something sustainable, to reinvest in Black communities and mind “the streets,” while Al tells him to get off the high horse: “Fuck the streets,” he says. “I’ve shot people.” We work hard; take all the free samples possible, he suggests.

Atlanta has introduced its share of memorable guest stars this season, and it’s here that the show unveils a character as specific in type as Socks and Wiley were amorphous—Khalil, an “activist/writer/foodie” who has refined himself into sort of a professional brand cleaner for racially related missteps. At the press event, the satire edges close going overly broad. (“Is this your first time apologizing for white people?” Khalil asks Al. “The dinners are amazing. I haven’t paid for a meal in 73 police shootings.” Then, a reporter asks Paper Boi if this campaign will end racism.) But the heavy strokes paint a clear picture: There isn’t anything subtle about systemic racism or clumsy corporate attempts to profit from it. Fisayo Akinade is spot-on as the obnoxious influencer. And the way this episode wraps, the tone fits.

The actual “diversity advisory committee” meeting almost takes us to Dr. Strangelove satirical heights: Every member is primarily eager to line their own pockets and closets, suggesting the fashion brand buy thousands of copies of a book they’ve written (a likely nod to the former Baltimore mayor’s scandal), hook up their self-serving organization, or just buy them shoes. Al, of course, wants to actually help Black people and proposes Earn’s idea about a campaign to reinvest in the hood, which is tepidly received but ultimately approved. But they warn him not to be too earnest: “We’ve been doing this social-justice thing a long time,” says one.

Ultimately, Paper Boi’s idea is diluted into a meaninglessly “inclusive” moody black-and-white commercial, a dead-on, heavy-handed montage of various minorities, including a Native American and gender-fluid cowboy making out. In a funny confrontation scene, an infuriated Al claims,”You All Lives Mattered my shit!” before the most superficial character gives him the ultimate dose of truth about business vs. charity.

Lakeith Stanfield in Atlanta

Lakeith Stanfield in Atlanta
Photo: Rob Youngson/FX

The second plot track allows us to spend more time with Darius (Lakeith Stanfield)—always an excellent time—as he revisits his Nigerian heritage (but his testicles go unmentioned), taking a white Esco Esco staffer to find joloff, the traditional West African rice dish. (In perhaps the line of the episode, Darius describes it as “like your taste buds are being scammed by a Nigerian prince.”) Darius takes her to the spot, where she’s wide-eyed and reverential. By the end of the episode, she’s bought the building from the landlord and set up a food truck outside with a dish named after Darius. (This is also perilously close to over-broad—as Darius trudges away, a depressed conduit for this appropriation, a jogger urges him to recycle his trashed meal—but the pacing and performances make it work.)

The third storyline finally reunites Earn and Van, and it has qualities that are both jarring and dreamy. After months apart, the pair reunite by accident in a hotel, where Van is placid, an almost Stepford Wives level of chill, urging Earn to relax (again) as she seems distinctly uninterested in seeing him. A woman marches into the lobby and accuses Van of shoplifting and attempts to restrain her in a citizen’s arrest, a nod to the Arlo Hotel incident. It’s jarring and well-directed (by Ibra Ake, who also provided the script). But the hotel manager turns out to be Black and turns the agitator away, and Earn, suggesting that he and Van are newly arrived guests whose reservations have been lost, gets them a free night in a plush suite. This parallels the earlier scene at Esco Esco, in which Paper Boi cannily negotiates his worth in clothes to assuage the brand’s racial guilt; here, Earn got a fringe benefit based on spectacle. Neither sit well with him. The twist: Van may have shoplifted after all.

Once again, this is not the Van we’ve come to know. Ultimately, the episode closes with Earn waking up in a hotel room—just as he did after “Three Slaps” and before the events of “Sinterklaas Is Coming To Town”—and she’s gone again. Exactly how many of the previous events, if any, were a dream? We’ve been getting hints that this season’s happenings are taking part mostly in Earn’s head, and Van notes that Darius thinks they’re living in a simulation.

One issue with not knowing the full extent of this season’s framing is that the creators’ intent is unclear. It’s possible that in real life, Earn—once homeless, now a manager of an internationally successful recording act—is feeling guilty about making money in an industry that may perpetuate problems which urgently need solving. “The Big Payback” also addressed this: In the grand scheme of things, who should be compensated for what? “White Fashion” asks, Who deserves to cut corners to recoup in a fundamentally corrupt and shameful system? The season will play differently once it’s bingeable and you don’t have so much time to wonder about how much is occurring in actuality. In the meantime, this episode of Atlanta forces you to ask: Where are we, really, right now? And that seems to be precisely the point.

Stray observations

  • The episode has many great throwaway lines, like the Esco Esco designer appraising a shivering model: “Get this girl a cigarette—she’s freezing” and Khalil demanding tickets to see Julia Roberts performing in Raisin in the Sun (“and it better not be her understudy this time”).
  • Another casual exchange packs a serious wallop: as Van and Earn are chilling in their hotel room, he randomly reminiscences about the Nickelodeon cable network’s annual Halloween campaign Nick or Treat. “I never heard ‘Nick or Treat,’” he says.
  • Darius has some great moments for his character. When he’s describing joloff: “I feel like boneless fish is an abomination.”
  • The Nigerian movie Sharon Stone playing in the restaurant is actually a real thing (and Sharon happens to be the name of the Esco Esco flunky.)
  • Also suggesting what we’re seeing is a dream: Time warps a bit. Earn and company are in London long enough for a TV commercial be written, cast and produced, and a restaurant be purchased and converted to a food truck. How long is this tour exactly?
  • Those Darius moments, and frankly how good Zazie Beetz is every time she appears on screen, make me feel like we haven’t spent enough time with either one this season, “Sinterklaas” aside. There hasn’t been a Beetz-focused episode on the level of “Helen” or a Stanfield showcase like “Teddy Perkins” this season. Will that change before the season is over, with four more episodes to go?

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