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TV Review: Atlanta (Season 1, Episodes 9 & 10)

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The final two episodes of Atlanta’s first season are the perfect culmination of the show’s journey, leaving the characters better off technically speaking, but only a little. 

Juneteenth is a brilliant episode where Earn (Donald Glover) and Van (Zazie Beetz) attend a party hosted by Van’s fancy friend Monique (Cassandra Freeman), celebrating the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in America.

Monique and her husband Craig (Rick Holmes) are both fantastic satyrical takes on modern relationships to blackness in America. Monique is all about lifting up her hardworking black sisters, but ultimately only likes a certain version of Van — a version that is married, and not to a rapper’s manager with links to gun crime.

Craig is the opposite — a white man immersing himself in black culture, telling Earn he must go on a pilgrimage to Africa, delivering Jump Street -esque slam poetry about Jim Crow … the list goes on. It’s a Get Out level of horrifying and humorous, uncomfortable and empowering in how it gives voice to issues surrounding performative woke-ness in liberal white people regarding race.

As well as the political and social statements it makes, this episode is the best at developing the relationship between Earn and Van. Their will-they won’t-they vibe is heightened by their tense surroundings, with drink and frustration driving them to the ends of their respective tethers… and into each other’s arms. Beetz delivers such a real performance of ambition for herself, for her daughter, and frustration with having to bring Earn along for the ride, but as the episode develops we see the real Van shine through, and it’s beautiful.

The rapport between the two of them, despite their ups and downs, is so easy, and it’s no mean feat to convey such a history between two people when the audience has only seen tiny snippets of it, yet they deliver effortlessly. 

The season finale is another one that plays with structure, taking us on a night out with the lads in reverse. Earn wakes up hungover after a house party, and must retrace his steps from the night before to find his jacket, which has some unknown but clearly very important item in its pocket.

Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry)’s snapchat story is the breadcrumb trail, leading a sullen Earn from strip club to shady Uber driver on his search. It’s a hilarious way to inject the disappointing search with moments of humour and high spirits, as well as letting the audience know that Paper Boi is actually taking off.

Roping Al and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) into his search, the three of them take a trip to the suburbs to pick up the jacket from the Uber driver, and in another Get Out moment, the discomfort they feel is palpable. “Something’s not right,” Al intones, right before cops jump out and accost them. Their totally innocent purpose for being there contrasts with the drugs and weapons dealing Uber driver, who gets shot a bunch of times in the back in a sobering moment of shocking violence, undermined by Earn asking the cop to check the dead man’s jacket pockets.

The failure of their search is, for once, softened by Al presenting Earn with his earnings — things are looking up for once! Spending a lovely evening with Van and Lottie, giving Van most of the money, and even recovering the lost item he was looking for so desperately — a mysterious key — gives the audience the impression that Earn’s got his happy ending for the season. 

Typically, though, it’s always a double edged sword on this show. Earn leaves Van’s house, and we follow his childlike, backpack-toting silhouette to a cluttered storage locker, which he unlocks with the key, and settles down in to sleep for the night. It’s a sobering moment that reminds us that Earn’s still homeless, and that a paycheck isn’t a quick fix.

Special mention of funniest moment of the episode goes to Darius, who interrupts a heartfelt conversation with: “I’m gonna go inside. I ate those two blunts when the cops came. It’s gonna be a weird night.” Delivered with perfection by Stanfield.

Season 1 of Atlanta is available on BBC iPlayer now. Season 2 starts airing in the UK on FOX UK tonight at 10pm.

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