Navigating the pitfalls of success and fame is a treacherous path for Paper Boi on the second episode of Atlanta.
The intent behind the first season of Atlanta was clear, and confirmed further by Donald Glover himself: it’s a TV show made by black people about black people, for black people. The context of whiteness, and white people play a specific role as well: interactions with white people are seen through the lens of African-Americans. In the second episode of the second season, titled "Sportin’ Waves," success comes with the navigation of code-switching, fulfilling pre-determined tropes and having parts of yourself stolen from you. Simply put: dealing with white people as a black male in America.
The episode’s cold open has Alfred aka Paper Boi re-upping with his plug (aka drug dealer) of ten years. That loyalty and trust are, literally, tossed out the window when Alfred has a gun pointed at his chest. Apologizing profusely while demanding his bag full of money, the plug states that Paper Boi’s going to be fine because of his hit single. Alfred re-iterates that he’s not getting any cash from that song, a reference to a line from last season where he says, “There’s no money anywhere near rap.”
Now that relative fame has found Alfred - though we’re not privy to how - the cold open illustrates how Alfred is realizing that he only is what people want him to be; a theme that finds itself re-appearing throughout his plot-line in the episode.
The dimly lit, dark scene of the robbery is contrasted with the bright, bubbly offices of “Fresh” - a streaming service that is Spotify, NPR, Apple Music and Pandora rolled into one. Alfred and Earn are offered “gluten-free, organic” food; there’s no CD player as the just-installed “state-of-the-art” audio system is wireless (it doesn’t work); Earn snacks on Cheerios, the only black face in a sea of white, and only when he turns towards them does he realize that they were all silently watching him.
The way the staff at Fresh operate throughout the first part of the episode is with a clueless, undeserved confidence. One of them calls himself 35 Savage while in another scene, Paper Boi, who is recording a voiceover bumper for a rap playlist, is spoken to patronizingly. He’s asked to repeat lines with the added direction of “do it, uh, cool” or like “he’s at a party” — code for “sound more black.”
The hellish startup culminates in a hilarious mockery of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. Alfred is on stage giving about zero percent of his energy while his track plays in the background. The young, white staff are milling about on their computers, seemingly churning out content, eating bananas, showing zero enthusiasm until Alfred determinedly walks off before his verse even starts. Enough of Al’s time has been stolen from him already, he doesn't want to give them any more.
Back at the house, the codified language of Blackness is at the fore. Tracy, Al’s couch-surfing ex-con friend, is grooming his hair and his expertise on the matter, from which the episode borrows its name, seems to be a shared in-joke. The audience gets to watch as a natural banter arises. Darius, Al, Earn and Tracy sit around, laughing and taking shots at one another over a hair-care phenomenon that if you’re not in on, get to Googling. Nothing is explained to the benefit of the audience, with writer Stephen Glover brilliantly keeping the joke within those who know, and it is in this way that any unaware viewers are left -- in the same way, it's what’s been done to black people for years.
Unlike last week, Tracy ends up playing a major part of the episode. Earn is foolishly lured into a gift card scam by him, after he receives $4000 - his take from a dog-breeding scheme you might recall from season one. At a moment when the money could’ve helped his daughter or found a temporary respite for his living quarters, Earn is tempted too easily. And the audience, at least, realizes instantly. This foolishness is further expounded when Tracy uses a five-finger discount (“They got a no-chase policy; they can’t stop me”) at the mall in preparation for a job interview.
While Earn and Tracy hang around at a shoe store, Tracy asks him about code-switching or rather, “how to talk to white folks.” Earn, who seems to be quite literate in it, as evidenced by his earlier interactions with several of the staff at Fresh, tells him “don’t call them ‘white folks” and to “act confident.” The audience and Earn are privy to how loaded Tracy’s question truly is and it’s juxtaposed by Al and Darius’ adventure to find a new re-up.
While hitting up different plugs, Al finds failure with each. He seems to be fulfilling a role for each of them due to his success. The first plug posts a picture on Instagram of Al and Darius examining the product with the hashtag "#igotthatpaper." The next plug, a white guy, smokes Al out, relaxing him. He states that he’s a fan and his girlfriend put him onto Paper Boi. After grabbing his number, Al is sent the girlfriend’s cover of his single, "Paperboi." An off-key, cringe-worthy yet hilarious acoustic cover, he then finds himself in a group chat with them. Al throws his phone out the window, he’s done with the day. First, his time was stolen from him, now his culture is being appropriated.
In "Sporting Waves," writer Stephen Glover manages to write one of the most nuanced episodes of Atlanta. We’re only two episodes deep, but there is a lot to unpack. Glover ends the episode with Tracy, who is never not himself, being rejected for the job. The interviewer, a white male, states that they’re “fully staffed” while hosting interviews. Tracy, incensed, realizes at that moment that he’s too black. Just as Alfred wasn’t being black enough at Fresh while a young up-and-coming rapper danced on a table for white execs, Tracy is too black for the company. Atlanta manages to show how “blackness” is nothing but a qualitative measure as deemed worthy by white people and whiteness.
- 35 Savage is one of Atlanta’s subtlest jokes yet. The fact that he gives out a Hotmail email, rather than his company one, only added to it.
- When Al’s being robbed, the plug’s voice breaks. You can tell he hates that he has to do this but it’s "Robbin Season," he doesn’t have a choice.
- This was probably Brian Tyree Henry's best performance on Atlanta yet. Without saying too much, his scowls and snarls spoke volumes.
- The acoustic rip-off was a great insight into white people attempting to be YouTube stars by appropriating African-America culture. But it got us thinking, are we yet to hear a full Paper Boi song in Atlanta? Is Paper Boi just a prop for Atlanta to examine the music industry and success as a rapper, something Donald Glover has been ambivalent and vocal about?