By Caleb Michael Sarvis
“Crabs in a Barrel”
What’s made a column like this one work for so far is the show’s familiarity to me as a short story writer. Individual episodes can stand alone, and the casual viewer doesn’t have to watch week-to-week in order to invest themselves in the singular arch of each episode.
The finale to “Robbin’ Season” (and potentially series?) is the first episode of Atlanta I don’t think can exist, or at least, leave a real impression on the reader, on its own. So much of it is dependent on the episodes that preceded it, and significant details (the gold-plated gun) and moments (Earn’s quick decision-making) only matter because of what’s come before.
So, rather than approaching the episode with different macro-writing lenses as I usually do, I’d like to break down details and moments of significance and consider the season and show as a whole entity.
The Gold-Plated Gun
The gun makes its first appearance in “Alligator Man”, the season 2 premiere. After Earn and his uncle exchange a couple barbs, his uncle gives Earn the gun, telling him he’ll need it if he’s going to stay in the music business.
The assumption here is that at any moment, Earn will need to defend either himself or Alfred, and in the music business, and the world of Atlanta, that means being willing to pull a gun on someone. It also calls back to the series premiere, which starts with Alfred pointing a gun in a stranger’s face, and supposedly pulling the trigger.
Uncle Willy’s gun then lingers in the background of the show, never quite returning, though we all know that it’s there. Earn stumbles upon several instances in which he is confronted or seeks violence. Most notably, in “North of the Border”, Earn and company find themselves in the midst of a potential brawl, only to escape to a fraternity house. Then in the car, Earn challenges the much larger Tracy to a fight after Tracy teases Earn with a gun too old to use.
Earn doesn’t have the gold-plated gun on him in these moments, but one wonders if he would’ve chosen to use it, if not by pulling the trigger, but by simply flashing it as a means of making him something more than he is. In that same episode, Alfred tells Earn that he’s been talking to Clark County’s manager with the intention of possibly letting Earn go. “I don’t think you’re cut out for this,” he says.
In the finale, Earn’s life is proving this to be true in a way. He’s trying to manage Alfred, but Lottie’s in his care and has to come along to the meeting with a music lawyer; Darius’ passport is expired, and they need a new on that same day; he and Van have been called for a parent-teacher conference at Lottie’s school, only to be pressured to place Lottie in a private school because she may be gifted. In all this, Earn places the gold-plated gun in his backpack to be dealt with later, where it is forgotten until he spots it again at TSA. Earn acts quickly, hiding the gun in Clark County’s bag, who then throws his own manager under the bus.
No, Earn never fires the gun, but it does prove useful. With the gun, he eliminates the threat to his livelihood, his relationship with Alfred, and finally makes a real move as a manager.
Darius’ Wisdom and Earn’s Decision
While getting the passport, Earn receives a text from Van telling him she and Lottie are going to move back in with her mother. It comes after Van’s just told him he needs to be around more for their daughter, reminded us that Earn once attended Princeton, and after she’s made a comment about his black eye. “Something stupid,” Earn says, and Van is reminded, again, of Earn’s immaturity.
“Is Alfred going to fire me?” he asks Darius point-blank, who won’t give him a straight answer. He might, he might not, but when Earn tells Darius that his life is falling apart, Darius relents and provides something of substance.
Alfred can see that Earn is learning, and that failure is how you learn, but because Earn and Alfred are both black, they don’t have the luxury of failure. It sits with the reader for a moment and serves as a key to the episode, and series as a whole. Earn’s move when they reach TSA is both a response to the events of Atlanta and Darius’ wise words.
Earn asks the man helping them (who just so happens to be Jewish), are the black lawyers as good as him. The Jewish man says of course, but a black lawyer doesn’t have the connections that he has—again emphasizing the immediate handicap Earn faces in his career path. He has no room for failure, especially when Clark County’s white manager is proving to have the right connections (Yoo-Hoo, Fast and Furious, etc…).
When Earn opens his backpack at TSA, the camera lingers on his face and the reader doesn’t know what he’s going to do. Does he realize that Alfred is right? That he isn’t cut out for the job. This is what I expected. I was sure Earn was going to take his backpack and leave the airport, abandoning another attempt to get out.
Instead, he asks Clark County for another bin, and somehow sneaks the gun into his bag.
Alfred tells Earn that he saw what he did, that he respects it. “You’re family. You’re the only one who knows what I’m about.” We see Clark County on the plane, who mentions that his manager was taken into custody over the gun. Earn’s proven himself to Alfred, eliminated his threat, and set the stage for Clark County to show how cut-throat this business really is.
Two things working for me:
There’s a controlled chaos at work in this episode that builds upon itself and slowly bottlenecks into the ending of the episode, and possibly the series. Everything that contributes to Earn’s life “falling apart” ends up answered by the time the credits roll. Van’s swallowing her pride and moving back home, Earn manages to get everyone on the plane, and Alfred reaffirms their relationship. It feels easy and natural as the reader, which reminds me that the writing here is tight. There isn’t much left to question, and when we walk away from this season, I’m satisfied. Throughout the episode, the crew is packing and moving things out the house. One can assume they are placing things in storage while they prepare for their European tour, but as a device, it worked to create a sense of perpetual movement, and acted as a token of closure. Earn and company are moving on.
Two things I’m not sold on:
The mechanics of Earn’s switcheroo still don’t quite make sense to me. If Alfred was able to catch what Earn did, how come everyone else was oblivious? The move was made outside our frame of vision, and I suspect this was a headache in the writers’ room as well. Sometimes Darius as all-wise guru feels too easy. He exists as comedic-relief until the show needs him for something real. It feels unfair to a character, because I believe in his wisdom, but not when it’s used at other characters’ convenience.
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