"Barbershop" is the season's goofiest episode while underlying the importance of the black barbershop experience.
Like light-hearted skits that come after party anthems or emotionally heavy tracks, ‘Barbershop’ is a palette cleanser for Atlanta’s ‘Robbin’’ season. Last week’s episode, ‘Helen', which showcased the slow crumbling of Van and Earn’s relationship was sombre, dramatic and emotionally tragic. Yes, it featured some comedic gems but it was an episode wrapped in darkness. The saddest episode of the season, it was juxtaposed by the goofiest episode yet. Donald Glover, who directed ‘Baberbshop, takes us around Atlanta as Al aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) is on the hunt for a haircut.
Much has been written and spoken about when it comes to the power of black barbershops. Jason Parham, in particular, waxed eloquence about it and Atlanta takes it one step further. Much like last season’s stand-out episode ‘B.A.N’ brought people into the black experience, ‘Barbershop’ does much of the same by making those not privy understand the importance of a black barber and by proxy, a barbershop.
With a photoshoot coming up, Al rocks up to his preferred barbershop and barber, Bibby (played to perfection by comedian Robert S. Powell). What follows is a series of events that delay Al from getting his haircut. He goes along for the ride because Al, like the audience comes to realise, needs a good haircut and can only trust Bibby.
From the moment they met, Bibby is clearly juggling a number of things. He’s got (one of) his partner(s) on the phone and Al keeps getting confused as to who exactly he’s speaking to; an experience most have had at the barbershop. Even if you’ve got an appointment, you best be prepared to wait around. And if you sidle up without an appointment, make a spot on the couch home because you’re waiting a while.
After barely touching Al’s hair, Bibby says he has to go across town. Al, reluctantly, goes with him. They go to a house where Bibby has an appointment with a young boy, the child of one of his partners. The kid thinks Al is a magician after Bibby makes up an elaborate lie to the mother as to why he’s late. After realising he must not have paid the water and electricity bill, Bibby leaves in a hurry with Al in tow.
After asking him if he's hungry, Bibby whisks Al away to grab some Zaxby’s. In reality, he’s offering him leftovers reheated in a microwave at a construction site where he manages to swindle Al into carrying lumber for him. A white woman approaches threatening to sue Bibby for stealing her wood before the duo drives off, yet again, with the promise of heading back to the shop for Al’s haircut.
On the way to the shop, Bibby sees his son skipping school. A frantic drive through the streets of Atlanta has Bibby corner his teenage son about cutting class. Though Bibby is irate at his son, yelling at him in front of his friends, he undercuts the tension by asking Al to get out of the car and “inspire the youth.” Paper Boi’s fame is on display as the kid is, at first, awe-struck before asking him why he looks “raggedy as shit” to which Al’s response is a combination of exhaustion and emotion: “I’m a regular-ass person … famous people need to eat and shit and brush they goddamn teeth. I’m regular, bruh.”. The kid, in the kind of blasé confidence only thirsty teenagers possess, then asks if Al can put him on.
Now, they’re seriously on their way to the barbershop. It’s happening. But first a lecture from Bibby to his son which he’s interrupted in the middle of when he crashes into a car. After taking note of the driver’s reaction to the crash (she gets out, howls and holds her lower back), Bibby seems to notice a fellow scammer and drives off back to the shop. Right back where they started, Bibby attempts one last run-out before Al confronts him and he gets his haircut, finally.
It isn’t until the last few minutes of the episode, though, that the love and trust Al has for Bibby is revealed. The shots of Bibby brushing Al’s hair, combing it to perfection, snipping off the loose curls is poetic. The audience is informed that this is why Al stuck around for the absurdist series of events in the episode; for this haircut. Only Bibby can deliver the kind of cut he wants and needs.
And at the end of the episode when Al comes back to the shop, he heads to another barber with Bibby breaking into a wry smile, clutching his chest as if in heartbreak but it’s Al who may be heartbroken. When the barber asks “how low?” to Al’s request of a fade, Al has to answer whether he wants a “2 or a 3” - the answer to which he clearly doesn’t know. He usually just gets “the usual” from Bibby and the realisation of having to put his trust in another barber hits home.
Al, like many of us, has a go-to barber. You walk into the shop knowing that you’re going to hear all of the barber’s problems, discuss politics, dissect issues that are trending or old history. You get ready for an experience that, sometimes, could be exhausting but you do it for the cut.
* Brian Tyree Henry’s physical acting in this episode is second-to-none. Every episode, the cast seem to be raising their own game, besting one another. Al’s reactions to Bibby, his little nuanced movements are hilarious, making him the star of the episode.
* The child who asks Paper Boi if he’s really a magician had the best response when the lights went out. Full of wonder and amazement, these are the moments Atlanta manages to deliver with class which other shows may overlook.
* “His carburetor had jaundice!” Whether this was improv or scripted, Bibby delivered this absurd comedic gem with aplomb.