By Caleb Michael Sarvis
Since I started this column, Vanessa (mother to Earn’s daughter) didn’t make an appearance in either of the episodes I’ve covered. This week, we’re given an entire story dedicated to Van, with little contribution from both Earn and Alfred, and none from Darius.
We open in an upscale restaurant and a woman we don’t know sits alone, phone in hand, typing away. There’s something about the typing that hits immediately. By closing herself to this world (as we all do these days), she suggests the rest of the world isn’t worth her attention, at least, not the world within her physical reach. Van arrives and we learn that this woman, Jayde, is an old friend who’s become quite successful. She’s “cultured, intelligent, and beautiful,” her own words, and because of that, she provides a “service” to the NBA players she “fucks with,” giving her what she calls value – the episode’s title. The contrast between these two is evident from the start. Donald Glover and Stefani Robinson (co-writers for this episode) knew what they wanted the audience to see of Vanessa. In the first three episodes, Van is held to a higher standard if only because she’s juxtaposed to Earn, Alfred and Darius. It is Van who allows Earn to live with her. It is Van who's going on dates with other people. It is Van who's bailing Earn out of jail. In “Value,” Van is immediately degraded. “Thai people don’t use chopsticks,” Jayde tells her. “I just like chopsticks,” Van says.
By the time the dinner ends, Jayde has criticized Van’s choice of stylist, chastised her for keeping Earn in her life, and surprised her by inviting Kevin (one of Jayde’s regulars) and his wingman, C.J., who “isn’t that bad,” Jayde says, to their private dinner. It accumulates and peaks with Van’s ditching the dinner, only to be lured by Jayde’s dangling a joint from her car window.
We never do see how the evening progresses, nor do we need to. It’s not about the night itself (which I’m sure was fun and interesting), but the episode is about the aftermath, as most good stories are. Van wakes to a reminder that she has a drug test that day, and has only two hours until she’s supposed to report to work. She appeals to Jayde for help and only receives a text message that says, “Sorry no luck.” Go figure. Earn arrives, energetic and helpful, offering to feed Lottie himself so that Van can get some more sleep. Earn’s pleasantries establish this sense of dramatic irony, further humanizing Van in the audience’s eyes. Earn’s definitely not perfect, but we’re learning just how imperfect his co-parent is as well. When she asks for Alfred’ number and Earn hands her the phone, she spots a picture of another girl, lowering Van from the pedestal on which we placed her in the first few episodes. Not only is she fallible, but she may not be the apple of Earn’s eye like we thought. These are important steps, because Atlanta doesn’t work if Earn chases Van like a sitcom husband. Glover and Robinson have done their part here to avoid Earn becoming a caricature (despite turning Justin Bieber into one last week), and pull away from the stereotype Van alludes to in the pilot episode.
Van calls Alfred, and while he takes the time to soak in their reversed roles, he does offer that his friends place clean urine in a condom and tie the condom to their leg. With little time to waste, Van has no idea where to get clean piss until she catches a glimpse of the dirty diapers in her hands. In a sequence akin to Breaking Bad, Vanessa extracts the urine from her daughter’s diapers, using DIY chemistry skills I wouldn’t have been able to pull off. By the time she gets to school and into the bathroom, she is unable to untie the condom and pops it all over herself. Again, Glover and Robinson continue to pull Vanessa lower and lower (solid story move), and while it does alter our righteous view of her, it ends up creating a more endearing version of Van. When she walks into the Principal’s office and admits she smoked weed, the principal admits that they can’t actually afford to send the pee off for testing. Instead, they conduct the tests to keep the teachers on their toes. “Everybody smokes weed… I get it,” the principal says right before she fires her for admitting illegal drug use to a superior. We end with Van texting Alfred, asking for an eighth (because why not?) and Alfred telling Van, “Girl, you sloppy af.” That she is, and by the end of the episode, it’s perfectly alright with us.
Two Things Working For Me: The little details that sometimes feel meaningless, but prove to be significant given the goal of the episode, are what push this show above other television on right now. The way Jayde takes the photo of her food, the fact that Van can’t find her keys but knows she left them in the door last night, and the boy in in-school suspension wearing white-face. They all add a splash of real and weird, giving the episode a texture so appetizing I want to touch it. The boy in the white-face is especially wonderful, because it’s so weird and inciting and stimulating that I re-watched the closing scene a few times. His small eyebrow shake before the credits is arguably one of the best things I’ve ever seen on TV. But more importantly, it was purposeful. This episode, despite its title, was all about role-reversal. I also loved the entire sequence from diaper, to urine, to full condom. Interesting and incredible. Please, give me more montage, Donald Glover.
Two Things I’m Not Sold On: I think we were missing a little bit of context to understand why Van gives in to Jayde so easily. To me, a single joint hardly seems all that tantalizing, and while I know Van is certainly busy and stressed out, it didn’t feel like enough of a pull, but maybe that’s the point. We all make mistakes for stupid reasons. Secondly, while I love the concept of getting the pee from her daughter’s diapers, I would’ve liked an understanding of how she knew what to do. It was simple enough that I bought it going forward, but upon reflection, I’m still not sure how she knew to boil the diaper and cool the pee, etc.
Atlanta airs every Tuesday at 10pm on FX.
Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer in Jacksonville, where he lives with his wife and works as the Fiction Editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine. He'd love to hear from you: @calebmsarvis