By Caleb Michael Sarvis
The inception of this column arose out of the Twitter-conceited TV Workshops on Louie and Mad Men that appeared on this website a little while ago. I remember working in a Google Doc after the latter’s finale, trying to find some sense of resolution with where we left, and that image of Don Draper, mouth crooked, serene. It took me a few days before finding a groove in which to appreciate that landing spot.
Episode 12 of Atlanta is two and a half plot lines of that don’t leave the reader (viewer) with much at the end, other than a bit of dissatisfaction, and I was uncertain how I was going to approach this week’s workshop. Unlike last week, which provided me with a lot of tools to discuss scene and promises, “Sportin’ Waves” left me with a bit of unfulfillment. I turned the television off certain this was my least favorite episode – it still might be.
But, as had happened with the finale of Mad Men, a few days was enough reflection time to really consider what might have been at play here.
On Character’s Poor Decisions
Earn is finally paid for flipping the dogs with Darius in season one, a forgotten tale, but a pleasant reminder that “People really love dogs!” He gets about four grand in return, and in a matter of seconds, Tracy (Alfred’s friend newly-released from prison) informs him he could double it… via a gift card scam.
We roll our eyes, yes, and to his credit, Earn tells Tracy he’s not interested. But Alfred vouches (I use this loosely” for Tracy’s previous successes, and Earn can help but be teased by the prospect of eight thousand dollars. When Tracy asks if Earn wants to join him at the mall, he says yes.
I’m always in on characters making poor choices. There’s immediate tension, a sigh of “but why?” from us, that makes the story really alive. Alfred makes us feel a similar way when, after being robbed by a drug dealer in the opening scene, continues to visit other drug dealers.
When our character’s make poor decisions, we essentially put them on the move. Earn needs money, Alfred needs weed, and they’ll both do a little more than they should to get it.
On Hope and Disappointment in the “Normal”
There’s a sense throughout all of “Sportin’ Waves” that the crew here operates with a dreamer’s sense for the world. Earn and Alfred bring a CD to a meeting with a streaming-style radio company, to learn that their dead technology is useless there. When Alfred has to sound bites, and is finally able to perform live, it all feels like dead weight. Later in the episode, Tracy is convinced that putting “waves” into his hair will impress his potential employer, and as we discussed before, Earn is led astray by a credit card scheme. Both reach the end up of the episode disappointed.
Sometimes, the fantasy of a “normal” life is enough of a magic sense that we feel alienated from the outside world. This is why we make those bad decisions, and why some of us, even in the midst of terrible circumstances, keep going. Whether that normal life be the “American Dream” or a growing need to be digitally relevant, we’re constantly chasing something that may not even hold that much real value.
We get splashes of that in this episode, but the line in the episode I keep coming back to occurs in the very beginning, as Alfred’s usual dealer robs him. He makes a casual reference to Paper Boi’s rap career, that his song is all over the radio, and Alfred says, “I ain’t making no money off that song.”
The premise of the series is this, Alfred is about to blow up as a rap artist in Atlanta, and his Princeton drop-out cousin Earn wants to ride the coattails as his manage, in the hopes that they reach a level of success. The problem, Alfred is perpetually on the verge, and the artist, no matter through what medium, is hardly as wealthy as adoration for their work may suggest. It isn’t a traditional narrative in television. It isn’t selling anything. Other than maybe Yoo-Hoo!
Two things working for me:
I’m not the biggest fan of Tracy as a character, and perhaps that is a good thing. Earn has been without any real foil up to this point (besides himself, really), and his being juxtaposed to Tracy actually works really well to characterize one another. They are not perfect opposites of one another, they are all part of a living hustle in Atlanta, but they are different enough that the stories have a pulse without the reader having to search for one. The “no chase policy” moment was pure absurdity. Additionally, the Yoo-Hoo! music-video ad they watch at the end proves to represent two different ideals of stardom and is surreal enough to appease the hungry reader such as myself.
Two things I’m not sold on:
Alfred’s larger quest for weed, after being robbed at gun point, feels like a bit of a stretch. I understand his desire to find a new dealer, but it seems like after the issue with the gun, he’d be more inclined to do anything else, than try and buy more weed. The gift card scam was also a little unclear, and while I buy Earn’s desperation to double some newly-found cash, I don’t believe he’d simply take “gift cards” as an explanation for how things works. After all, we’re reminded he is a Princeton drop-out in the same episode.
Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the author of Looney Purgatory or (i don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith) (Carbon Books 2018). He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and received his MFA from the University of Tampa. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Saw Palm, Panhandler Magazine, Eyeshot, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @calebmsarvis