By Caleb Michael Sarvis
“Money Bag Shawty”
In episode thirteen of Atlanta, the Glover brothers fall back on the life blood of the show, and perhaps our country, and write an entire episode about money.
After striking a deal with a streaming service, Earn and Alfred are paid and again we’re on the subject of stuntin’ on other people. “Money is an idea” Alfred will say towards the end and Earn introduces us to his plight by telling the crew a story of when he bought a homeless man some food and the homeless man threw the food away in front of him. This is stuntin’ according to the crew.
When Earn receives the check and Van claims he’s going to get them robbed, Earn decides it’s high time they live life on the other side. He takes Van to an upscale movie theater, attempts to buy two VIP tickets with a hundred-dollar bill, only to find that having money isn’t enough for some people. The night takes them to a hookah bar, where his hundred is deemed a fake, and then to a strip club, where his cash doesn’t buy him much. “Money is an idea” Alfred says after Earn argues his hundred-dollar bill is good because it’s “legal U.S. tender.”
On Change that Incites
What works as a story-telling move in “Money Bag Shawty” is the obvious change at the beginning of the episode. A crew of friends that generally struggle to find cash comes across extra money, and the rest rolls from there. In a workshop setting I’d applaud this and encourage a little specificity. The amount of money is never stated, and maybe it isn’t all that important, but I would have liked to feel the tension of the scenes in which Earn finds himself shelling out money throughout the night. I know he doesn’t have much to fall back on, but there was never any real idea of how much he had left.
That being said, watching Earn trying to transform himself into someone lavish and “important” made for good story-telling…
… especially because it led to his CHALLENGING MICHAEL VICK TO A FOOT RACE OUTSIDE THE STRIP CLUB.
(I am so happy I got to write that sentence.)
On the Everyday Absurdity of Oppression
While money is the centerpiece of the episode, the Glover brothers make sure to focus on the fact that it matters whose hands are holding that money. When Earn’s hundred-dollar bill is too large for the movie theater, and his debit card has to paired with an ID, and both his debit and ID must be copied each time their swiped, the audience recognizes a more nuanced kind of racism. This hits homes, when after, an older white man pays for his tickets with a hundred-dollar bill without any trouble. Earn speaks to the man, hoping for recognition, and the man simply flashes the gun he’s carrying in his waistband.
More of this continues when his money is deemed fake at the hookah lounge. The police officer that escorts him out says, “We all know the money was real, but the owner was trippin’.” The owner here, while foreign, was another black man. The racism, in this case, proving to be more universal, rather than isolated to upscale establishments.
Fiction should entertain and inform. I don’t remember who said that, but I think about it often when watching this show. These moments of struggle, when the characters are completely equipped to succeed, are examples of the writers using the absurdity of the everyday to craft something surreal. It’s entertaining, because it feels bizarre. It’s informative, because I understand there is more truth here than we care to acknowledge.
Two things working for me:
The return of Van! As you recall from the previous two columns, I’ve been craving the presence of Van. Her inclusion here is absolutely necessary, especially if Earn is looking to stunt on somebody. Who else is there to impress, if not the mother of his child, and the woman he obviously loves to some capacity. I already mentioned the inclusion of Michael Vick (which feels like an anecdote pulled from real-life Atlanta), but I’m a big fan of Clark County’s development as the other rapper in the area. I mentioned last column that Tracy feels somewhat like a FOIL to Earn (he even calls himself Paper Boi’s manager at the strip club), and I feel like Clark County works in a similar capacity to Alfred. He’s thinner, doesn’t smoke or drink, is more traditionally attractive, and therefore more marketable. The irony, he’s ten times the dick Alfred may be, and Alfred’s supposedly killed a guy.
A third thing today: The opening video of the blonde mother furiously reading Paper Boi’s lyrics for the internet was incredible.
Two things I’m not sold on:
While I’m a fan of the episode, and I understand how vital the idea of money and struggle is to the show, I’m ready for something a little more… progressive? There’s something like Camus going on here (I mentioned absurdity above), and while I love The Stranger, I don’t know that the monotony works for Atlanta, especially since it’s established itself as a show willing to try anything. I’m ready for another invisible car, or black Justin Bieber. I’m still hungry for more Van, too. Regardless of the ambiguity of her relationship with Earn, the first few episodes of the season seem to be dismantling her character development from season one. What is she up to? Why is Earn not crashing there?
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