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TV Review: Atlanta (Season 1, Episodes 5 & 6)

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These next two episodes give us a little more insight into the music industry and into Van (Zazie Beetz)’s life respectively, in that razor-sharp way that only Atlanta can.

Episode 5 sees Earn (Donald Glover) accompany Al (Brian Tyree Henry) to a charity basketball game also attended by Justin Bieber, who is played by black actor Austin Crute. This unexplained casting choice, taken for granted by the other characters, is both the ultimate power move, and utterly hilarious.

Paper Boi and Justin Bieber exchanging trash talk on the court is a masterpiece of scripting, not to mention Henry’s physical comedy is absolutely on point. As always, the comedy is juxtaposed with cutting social commentary — that while the lighter skinned, younger, slimmer Bieber can literally get anyway with anything up to and including pissing on the floor in the locker room, Paper Boi has been typecast as a gangster and a thug, and is expected to fulfil that role.

Earn’s adventure involves being racistly mistaken for some other black guy by a white agent, who takes him up to the swanky agents’ hangout. His ever so slightly bemused and incredulous facial expressions are his only protests, as he makes the most of the opportunity by networking and hitting it off with his ‘peers’ — a classic build up that we should know by now will only end in disaster … which it does in a truly starting fashion. The increasingly elaborate set-ups for the lose-lose situations Earn finds himself in only get funnier as the season progresses.

Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) is on a solo adventure this time, with his scenes playing out as a standalone vignette. Man enters shooting range; puts up target with picture of dog to shoot at; other people who are shooting at pictures of people are outraged; confront him. It’s a super simple and effective skit, carried off perfectly by Stanfield’s unassuming manner and the intensity of everyone else’s reactions.

Episode 6 provides a welcome break from the boys, and lets us spend some quality time with Van, not as Earn’s sometimes-girlfriend or baby-mama, but as her own woman. Meeting up with an old friend Jayde (Aubin Wise) results in a masterclass in how to write awkward conversation. Every innocuous comment ends in a barb or provokes an anger or defensiveness in the other — a divergence in paths and ways of life that acts like the Rubicon between these two friends. It’s nothing a good blunt can’t overcome, though, and their friendship is certainly made more realistic by the tensions underlying it.

Unfortunately, partaking the night before a drug test at work leaves Van in a bit of a mess … and turning to Al for help leaves her in much more mess than before. Beetz makes for a solid counterweight to Earn’s energy as a protagonist, and doesn’t break a sweat carrying this episode entirely. There’s less witty one-liners and more situational humour to match Van’s character, yet the overall tone of the show maintains its coherency — not an easy feat.

Atlanta continues to excel next Sunday at 10pm on BBC Two.

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