Only three episodes in, and yet Atlanta offers a lived-in feeling and plenty of surreal humor.
AtlantaAirtime: Tuesdays, 10pm
Cast: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Keith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 3 - “Go For Broke”
Air date: 2016-09-13
The third episode of Atlanta further capitalizes on one of the series' primary strengths; its methodical pace and lived-in atmosphere make the show feel comfortable in its own skin. A typical high-concept series would still be zeroed in on propelling its central plot forwards; if Atlanta was on Fox instead of FX, this episode would be focused on cementing the budding musical partnerships between Earnest "Earn" Marks (Donald Glover) and his rapper cousin Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles (Bryan Tyree Henry), with Earn booking him a show or getting him more radio plays.
Instead, "Go For Broke" continues to establish the importance of the show's central premise in a more cerebral and natural manner, without skimping on the surreal absurdity. Money (or lack thereof) is the overarching theme here, with Earn taking Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) for a dinner he stands no chance of affording, while Paper Boi and Darius (Keith Stanfield) find themselves tangled in a tense drug deal.
The opening exchange between Earn and a fast food manager with a conservative definition of who qualifies for a kid's meal recalls another witty, perpetually incredulous protagonist from the FX family: You’re the Worst's Jimmy Shive-Overly. Glover plays the scene broadly but not overly so, choosing to end the dispute on a quiet act of rebellion (using his free water cup for soda) rather than with a more predictable screaming match.
Perhaps even more than his relationships with Alfred and Darius, the believability of Atlanta hinges on the dynamic between Earn and Vanessa as friends, parents, and on-again-off-again couple. Luckily, Beetz and Glover have already shown terrific chemistry, with their back-and-forths in bed being among the show’s best early moments. Here, Earn's constant ribbing of Vanessa for liking "corny dudes" is expertly turned around on him, and the two find a way to continue emphasizing both the positives and negatives of their evanescent relationship.
Predictably, Earn's plan backfires (the result is telegraphed the moment he says "Shit, I might just win tonight" to no one in particular), with no thanks due to a waitress who has absolutely no regard for his wallet, forcing him to call Alfred for help at the literal worst moment.
"Go For Broke" aims for laughs more actively than the previous two episodes, and certain exchanges, like Alfred and Darius parsing the differences between a woman calling a man "papi" (fine) and "daddy" (not fine) or Earn asking the bartender to check how much he's spent on the meal thus far are quite terrific. The closing shot of Earn cancelling his debit card while draped, defeated, over Vanessa's back porch, is absolute gold as well.
The B-plot, which features a stellar cameo from rap trio Migos and Quavo in particular, playing an icy, sharpshooting drug boss, builds towards the reveal that Darius has handcuffed the briefcase full of cash to his wrist but left the keys at home. The decision is a bit too hapless-sitcom-dad for Atlanta, but it works because the character, clad in a turtleneck sweater, blazer, and gold chain, is already "Tyson Zone" ridiculous after just a couple episodes. The tension is abated conveniently fast, but it's so breathtakingly absurd that any ending short of another shootout would feel like somewhat of a letdown.
Overall, "Go For Broke" is another stellar early entry from Atlanta, and seems like the kind of episode that the show could keep churning out for the next five years.