Alfred has consistently fought against the fame Paperboi brings him. He’s abrasive towards fans, avoids putting himself out there for opportunities, and generally seems upset with the burden of fame. Or rather, the fame makes him feel uncomfortable. His latest lashing out against fame lands him in a bad spot this week, and appears to have changed his outlook towards his rap career.
Unfortunately, this is likely very bad news for Earn.
I Keep it Real
Atlanta this week might as well have been an extended version of Dave Chappelle’s “When Keeping it Real goes Wrong” sketches.
I’ve talked often about Al’s insecurity with fame and the way it has changed his life. This discomfort has been his defining arc and characteristic this season. Time and time again he resists the typical life his fame affords, to the point you wonder why he wants a rap career to begin with. The attention clearly bothers him on some deep, personal level.
This week goes down a lot like other such moments have. He spends a day with Siera, his girlfriend who isn’t his girlfriend (come on, Al), she’s trying to introduce him to some of the perks of fame, and he grumbles and glares his way through it all. He says he wants to stay real. All the “fake” things coming along with fame turn him off.
Eventually he has his walk away moment, but ends up mugged and running from his robbers in the woods. There he comes across a homeless man who spends the rest of the day following him. Eventually night comes and the man makes a threat with a box cutter that couldn’t be a more heavy-handed metaphor for stagnation meaning the death of Alfred’s career. When he escapes the woods, he runs into a fan in a convenience store and offers to let him take a picture, suggesting he’s also accepting his fame more than beforehand.
Was a direct threat to his life too dramatic for Al accepting his fame more? I guess you can argue that, but I don’t think so. This is Al’s life. This is the kind of man who fights back against three robbers despite one of them putting a gun in his face. When he talks about staying real, this isn’t a man faking it. He lives the realities of his neighborhood every day. He even seems to prefer it to the easier life fame can offer him.
For all his talk about keeping it real, Al’s refusal to accept fame has been his way of avoiding reality. He can’t be that guy hanging around his neighborhood with his friends anymore. He can’t just walk down the street without people hounding him. There’s no more scoping out new weed dealers without any attention. That’s not his reality anymore. “Keeping it real” is really the fakest thing about his life now. I think the second season has been one long acceptance process of that very fact.
Why does he hate fame so much? I feel like there’s a specific moment in his life we’ll learn about soon. I don’t think it coincidence that all this happened on what the opening phone call with Earn suggests was the one-year anniversary of his mother’s death. Some deep, personal reason probably exists for Al’s resistance against fame. It could be explained as Al just fearing losing the piece of him that made his success possible, or not wanting to be one of those fake dudes who loses touch with home, but it feels more intense than that. At least it does to me.
Al has always been the understated member of Atlanta’s main trio. Earn gets obvious attention since Donald Glover created the show and it tends to center around him. Darius gets lots of attention because of his quirkiness and Lakeith Stanfield’s charisma (he yet again stole the show in his one scene of this episode). Al is the bedrock both rely on. Atlanta as a show relies on his character and Brian Tyree Henry much the same way. This simply wouldn’t be as terrific a show if Al was less sympathetic and compelling, and obviously Henry is largely responsible for Al succeeding so much. If Glover and Stanfield are the high peaks, Henry is the mountain that allows their characters to soar so high. He’s so consistently excellent and deserves serious attention for his performance in this show.
I’ve been really happy with Al’s character this season. Now that he’s seemingly accepting Paperboi, or starting to, I’m interested to see how things will change for him. Even if I’m dreading what this means for other characters. And very specifically, what it will mean for Earn’s spot as his manager.
Looking to the Future
Unfortunately, Atlanta’s fantastic second season is reaching its end. It’s been quite the journey for its characters. However, I have a feeling Al’s acceptance of fame is going to be very bad news for Earn. Remember, this season is subtitled Robbin’ Season, and Earn’s very much been robbed of a lot this season. He lost money to Tracy, he lost his relationship with Van, he lost his home, and I feel like the biggest loss yet will soon come; the loss of his spot as Paperboi’s manager.
To say this development has been seeded all season is an understatement. Time and again we’ve seen Earn fail to have the pull others do. Al saw what a real manager can do for a rapper back during his studio time with Clarke County. He felt disgruntled over the radio station appearance Earn set up. Now Siera takes time in this episode to speak against Earn for not hooking Al up with free stuff. Al has always been content with Earn managing him since he didn’t want more of his career.
Now that he might, I expect the big “robbery” of Robbin’ Season to be Earn losing his spot as Paperboi’s manager.
This also leads back to the reason Earn has lost so much this season. Plainly, he’s a fuck-up. He’s a capable person who constantly makes stupid decisions and loses because of it. He doesn’t take full advantage of his intelligence or opportunities. Like Al, he feels someone content with life as it is. Now he’s losing that life. Without Van or Al, Earn will be forced to reflect and hopefully change for the better.
Now that’s not to say Earn is solely responsible for Al’s career not reaching greater heights. Al has not helped that much to this point. In this episode alone he blows off signing some papers Earn set up for him. He doesn’t actually try at the radio station earlier this season. His reaction to the free fries back in “Teddy Perkins” suggests that even if Earn was trying to hook Al up with free merchandise, Al might reject it. Al has not helped a lot because he was fighting fame.
That doesn’t change that Earn plain isn’t motivated or connected enough for Paperboi to become big. Al knows it and has been content so far. I don’t expect he’ll remain that way after this episode. Everyone has started to outgrow Earn and leave him behind.
I expect this season to leave Earn in a very dark place. In the end, I hope it’s good for him. I think it will be good for him. Whatever his failings Earn is a smart guy who is capable of more, but he has found a niche in life where he doesn’t have to be more. He always had Van because of their daughter. He has Alfred because he’s family. If he loses both, it will force growth on him. He’ll either have to grow or be left behind to a tragic fate.
You can also feel the show moving past Earn and leaving him behind in the number of solo episodes this season. This was now three in a row where Earn was barely involved or not involved at all. I spoke before about hoping the rest of this wonderful cast would have chances to shine, and have they ever. Darius had what will probably go down as the most memorable episode of the season. Van has had two wonderful episodes for her character. Al’s last two episodes have barely featured Earn.
Atlanta’s strong cast has gotten their chance to shine and taken full advantage. It speaks highly for the actors and writers that they’ve brought everyone around Earn to life in a way that allows them to leave him out of the show like this without any drop in quality. If anything, Atlanta’s been better than ever in these last three episodes.
I expect we’ll get back to Earn in these last couple episodes. I also expect Earn will find out what we’ve watched happen during his absence; the world has started to leave him behind. It’s time for him to have his own wakeup call. Whether it happens this season or next, I don’t know.