By Caleb Michael Sarvis
That’s a lot of work to do only to spend twenty bucks for a picture with cardboard Drake. Thirty bucks if you want a pair of Puma slides thrown in.
Van and her girlfriends (Candi, Tammi, and Nadine) network their way into a party at Drake’s house through Candi’s “business” friend DJ, a tour barber, and the DJ for the party. Van needs to strengthen her Instagram profile because all that she’s curated are pictures of Lottie, some chicken, a picture of Earn. Candi and DJ eventually bail for T-Pain’s New Year’s Eve party, Tami is infuriated that Devyon Johnson, an actor, is cozied up with a white girl, and Nadine has a bad trip after eating an edible.
Van loses Nadine, meets a charming-then-far-too-friendly Brandon, whose cousin is allegedly Drake’s nutritionist, and Van finds herself lost in her escape. She steals one of Drake’s coats, sprays herself with his cologne, and meets a Hispanic man that claims to be Drake’s grandfather, who tells her, “Drake no está.”
The reader knows Drake no está, yet, Van still appears unpleasantly surprised.
The longer allegory in “Champagne Papi” finds shape when Nadine and Darius meet each other by the pool. She is still very high from the edible, but Darius appears to be operating on a similar wavelength and assumes the role of her spiritual guide.
“Is this real?” Nadine says, to which Darius confirms that, no, it is not. In fact, none of this is, so we might as well have fun with it. He invokes Bostrom’s simulation argument. “There is someone controlling your every movement,” he says.
Candi appears to be social media famous, all pretense without anything to show for it, except for somebody else’s Netflix password. Tammi “loves” Devyon Johnson but doesn’t seem to know much about him. Nadine eats an edible she has no interest in because Tammi insists she needs it to have a good time. Van claims she’s living her life but is trying to separate herself from her real-life motherhood, checks up on Earn on social media, and uses Instagram photos as confirmation that she’ll meet Drake later. “Replace Earn with Drake,” her friends say. This appears to be her plan, until she learns all the photos she’s seen on Instagram are of people who spent the twenty dollars to take a selfie with a cardboard cutout.
Atlanta could be talking about itself as a show – a piece of fiction that breaks the “rules” of television, embraces the surreal whenever it wants, while at the same time marketing itself as a portrayal of the “real” Atlanta.
The idea of the simulation works as a counter to the colloquial understanding of what’s “real.” Tammi believes Devyon Johnson is a cliché because his date is a white woman, but what we learn is that this white woman is the same girlfriend he’s had since community theatre. Just because he’s perceived as a cliché, doesn’t mean the value of his relationship isn’t real. Just because a photo with a cardboard cutout of Drake will give Van “10,000 new followers, guaranteed,” doesn’t mean she’ll escape the circumstances of her current life. She’s still a mother. She’s still herself.
Atlanta’s embrace of the meta (Childish Gambino was often described as a poor man’s Drake in his early days), reinforces it’s “realness” – but it doesn’t matter, because nothing matters, because this is a simulation. Fiction is a simulation. Life is a simulation. When readers and writers alike acknowledge this, the pretense will crack a bit, and that’s when the reader gets into ideas like, “is there any real difference between fiction and non-fiction?”
According to Atlanta, it doesn’t matter either way.
Two things working for me:
I’m very much in on the growing mysticism of Darius. While this wasn’t his episode, it follows one that was in “Teddy Perkins”. He exists, almost as a wizard, or a Force ghost, and uses his interest in the existential macro to guide Nadine towards serenity. He’s the opposite of these girls, unconcerned with the material and fictional inflation of social media. It’s absurd, almost, that he exists as our grounding character, in a world where Van exists. I’m also into Nadine’s function as a fringe character. When the episode begins, she’s the one they make fun of for using condoms. She’s also the one they have to pressure into eating an edible. But at the end, she’s the one to look at Van and say, “It’s a simulation. It’s all fake.” Her descent or ascent, however you look at it, is the last piece to bridge Van towards this epiphany. BONUS: The girls charging money to take selfies with cardboard cutouts of Drake are geniuses and a beautiful means of crushing Van’s dreams.
Two things I’m not sold on:
Van’s naiveté disappoints me. Perhaps it’s real, and maybe I placed her on a pedestal early in the show, thanks to her juxtaposition to Earn, but I am surprised by her willingness to believe Drake is present at the party. On one hand, she’s desperate to show up Earn in the digital universe, and is also a regular person, but still, I would have expected her to have taken this entire night with a grain of salt. I also understand her desire to distance herself from the “Lottie’s mom” label we saw in “Helen”, but the indifference towards her daughter seems to be more of a packaged deal with her resentment towards Earn. I’m not buying it. You can want to maintain your youth without losing your desire to care for your child. Maybe that’s just Van, as it is with some young mothers, but I don’t know if that aligns with my impressions from season one.
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