By Caleb Michael Sarvis
We’ve gone back and time. Earn and Alfred are fourteen, fifteen years old. Darius isn’t a part of the crew. The usual pressures and dangers of the show don’t exist, except they do. Atlanta is here to show us that life doesn’t change much, only we do. It’s not quite an origin story, but it is a piece of the larger puzzle.
On the Balancing Act of Adolescence
There’s something fickle about adolescence in literature. To a certain degree, it’s the most trying and vulnerable time of our life, ripe with angst and social displacement. The traumas that occur during adolescence are augmented in their experience, and we’ve yet to learn the coping skills necessary to process and move on. There’s plenty from which to pull, as long as we handle it with grace.
However, adolescence is also the subject of some of the worst undergraduate workshop stories. Breakups, lost friends, difficult parents. Because we’re sensitive to the indifference of the universe, young writers can easily slip into the melodramatic, and force tension where there’s only immaturity.
“FUBU” takes us to the early days of high school, and walks the line pretty well. Earn’s mother buys him a FUBU shirt on sale at a discounted store. His excitement to wear it is palpable when he holds it high in the morning, and the compliments are immediate as he walks into class, but his classmate Devin walks into class with an identical FUBU shirt, if only a little different, which leads their peers to wonder, “Who’s wearing the bootleg FUBU?”
The episode exists primarily in the confines of this single day, and illustrates the behavior that’s culturally instilled within us early on. Violence, roasting, and everyday survival exist readily on the surface. When Earn rides the bus to school, one student punches another in the face for throwing yogurt out the window, spilling yogurt on those behind him. When the heavy-set substitute arrives and takes his seat, a student falls to the ground and makes a crack about an earthquake. Earn leaves class as soon as the bell rings, uses a taller student as a visual shield, only to be found and physically forced to participate in his own ridicule.
“FUBU” exists as a sociological exploration into the culture of “cool.” This isn’t The Breakfast Club, the characters aren’t packed into neat little archetypes. If anything, the episode reminds us that no one is impervious to the reckless malice of adolescence, and why so many of us grow up with a reactionary need to defend ourselves.
The stakes aren’t very high (until the end), but the episode doesn’t try to pretend that they are. Earn’s empathy make him a hero, and that’s all we need to carry us through the episode.
On the Price of Redemption
The answer to the question, “Who’s wearing the bootleg FUBU?” is Earn. Earn is wearing the bootleg FUBU. Fortunately, his cousin Alfred—who’s rocking the JROTC uniform—steps in and “corrects” their peers. “It’s supposed to say made in Bangladesh,” he says, and Earn is saved.
Instead, Devin becomes “FEBE.”
We get a beat or so of relief. Our hero is free from the torment, and a classmate offers her number on his way out, tells him to give her a call.
But the show doesn’t let us off the hook. Earn steps on the bus to go home, and as he takes a seat in the back, we follow his gaze to the bus behind him. The same students that’d been tormenting Earn are now tormenting Devin, going as far as to throw something at the back of his head as he steps onto the bus. The group of boys laugh amongst themselves, and we’re given Earn’s face again. His empathy has melted into guilt.
Atlanta doesn’t make it easy for their characters. If they are to rise, to succeed, to survive, it will almost always come at the expense of another. That’s the way the world works, and the price of redemption is steep.
When Earn arrives to class the next day, they get a visit from the principal. Devin’s committed suicide. His parents are getting a divorce (news to us and the characters), and the dramatic irony here is that Earn’s “win” might have been the final push. When the principal shares the news of the suicide, the same student who bullied the substitute laughs again.
The teacher makes a statement along the lines of never knowing what anybody is going through, then it’s time to turn the page of the biology textbooks. Another student arrives late. She hasn’t heard the news, and sits in the seat Devin occupied the day before. When the teacher looks for a reader, she happily volunteers.
Two Things Working For Me:
Alfred in the JROTC uniform is such a fun detail. It gives him a sense of natural authority that contrasts perfectly well with Earn’s bootleg FUBU look. There’s this sense of authenticity in play. That’s why, despite Johnny Lee’s reputation as an expert on these matters, Alfred is able to refute him, while having no claim otherwise. His uniform makes him “real.” The story also does a good job building the world in which these characters exist, starting with the punch on the bus. The yogurt-throwing kid is sincere in his apology, but receives a fist to the face anyway because the other kid has to prove he isn’t one to be messed with.
Two Things I’m Not Sold On:
I’m half and half on the suicide reveal at the end of this episode. As the teacher says, we don’t know what’s going on in a character’s life, but it seemed like an easy way to give the reader a gut-punch. Suicide is an act of desperation, and Devin doesn’t feel like a desperate character. If anything, he seems confident and strong. The B-plot involving the girls also feels underdeveloped. I understand that move, give Earn a phone number right before he watches the group torment Devin, but it felt like a throw-in detail. One more scene between them could have given us the context we needed to sell us on it, but in an episode about authenticity, it felt like a bootleg detail.
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