TV Review: Atlanta 1×03 “Go for Broke”

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Staying alive is its own kind of hustle, especially when it comes down to the lives of Alfred, Earn and Darius in the third episode of Atlanta, “Go For Broke.” Each have something to lose. For Earn, it’s his sense of self and purpose. For Alfred, it’s literally his life.

“Go for Broke,” while offering one of the heaviest trap soundtracks yet, really grounds itself within the brutal and dramatic events that comes with a life of drug dealing and raising a child on a $96 income. The range of jokes from such scenes can make you reminisce about Glover’s previous history writing and starring in shows like Community and 30 Rock. There’s a strong sense of authenticity you feel throughout this episode, which I believe is a testament to the writers’ ability to marry old-fashioned surrealism with realism. What comes out of that is a more naturalistic portrayal of each of these characters’ inner motivations, fears, and obligations without coming across as detached or “trying.” Nobody is speaking in poetic monologues here. Every word uttered feels genuine and human.

“Why do you want me to be the angry Black woman?” Van asks Earn pretty tersely, after coming home to find him sitting on her couch in his boxers listening to music on his laptop. And I have to admit, she has a point. Earn doesn’t even think to help her out when she comes in through the door exhausted with a handful of bags and their restless daughter. It doesn’t seem to even really cross Earn’s mind to help out more in their daughter’s daily caregiving, which is quickly beginning to drive Vanessa up the wall. She doesn’t enjoy being the so-called “baby mama.” However, Earn is cool with being his own stereotype–though not really. He makes the joke of being technically homeless and living on Van’s couch like a lazy deadbeat, though he gives all the non-verbal clues that he knows he can and should do more. Perhaps he is just too comfortable being aimless, and too easily forgiven. She and Earn are not stereotypes, but rather fully-realized characters with very legitimate reasons to feel overwhelmed and frustrated.

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To make up for his shortcomings, Earn apologizes for his inconsiderate actions and offers to take Van out on a lavish dinner date. He then proceeds to strategize how he can afford such a date with a budget that’s only big enough to accommodate a McDonald’s Happy Meal (on payday). He ends up taking her to one of those posh restaurants downtown with the sketchy, overpriced parking fees and shady, fast-talking attendants. With exactly $62 to work with, and having been told they no longer do Happy Hour, Earn spends the night sweating over how in all heck he is going to pay for a bill that includes a $28 appetizer-soup. Meanwhile, Darius and Alfred are thrown a curveball after what was supposed to have been a routine drop for a big drug deal in town. After waiting at the previously-arranged parking lot, the dealer rides up and informs them of the last-minute change in location. They are then led up a winding road deep into the woods to meet god-knows-who.

“When a rapper’s rapping, you should be able to smell the dope cooking,” Curtis Snow (a.k.a. Snow On Da Bluff) explains to Noisey host Thomas Morton during an episode titled “Welcome to the Trap”–part one of a special series covering Atlanta’s growing trap scene. In this episode of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, we get to see Alfred try and live up to those very same expectations. However, the reputation he’s made for himself as a drug dealing, gun-slinging Paper Boi in the aftermath of his recent mixtape becoming a viral hit comes at a cost. Everybody wants to know what the Paper Boi is up to, and it’s obvious that the burdens of such notions is beginning to drag him down quite a bit. Still, he can’t stop now. How can he call himself Paper Boi without actually bringing home the paper? It’s sort of an unattainable pre-requisite that maybe (hopefully!) won’t get him killed in the process.

As equally tense as Earn and Van’s dinner date, Alfred and Darius do what they can to survive this unexpected drop–even if that means doing absolutely nothing. Once they make it up to the campsite, they soon witness a nearly naked man being thrown out of an RV. The man is given clothes and a running start before being fatally shot on site. Soon after, the leader of the group, which just so happens to be the real-life Quavo from the trap-rap group Migos, casually turns his attention to Alfred and Darius. He’s having some trouble understanding why Al is asking for more than he typically requests. It’s a situation that promises to grow even more intense if it wasn’t for Earn, out of sheer dumb luck, calling Alfred out of the blue for some money to pay for the date he’s on with Van. They’re able to leave the site Scott-free. There’s no real pay-off plot-wise with this storyline other than getting a chance to enjoy a Migos cameo, though it offers some of the funniest scenes for the episode, and gets us to witness the Paper Boi appearing legitimately intimidated despite his cool, poker-face demeanor.

There’s a lasting metaphor that seems to overlap between Earn’s scenes of being confined in the local jail in the “Streets on Lock” episode and the scenes in “Go For Broke.” Both episodes adequately reflect upon the opposing realities between Earn and Paper Boi. Aside from a growing sense of danger, Alfred can technically afford to take risks and live carefree without an immediate sense of obligation. He receives free food from the neighborhood rib joint and other accolades. However, Earn is another story–not only can’t he afford anything more than a Happy Meal, he can’t risk putting his relationship with his daughter and the mother of his daughter in a bad place. He fears the idea of being a deadbeat dad and disappointing Van, yet also fears the idea of losing himself in the process. He feels trapped on all fronts. Trapped by the dissonance between his dreams and reality. It’s a punch in the gut for Earn who was hoping he could do both.

The episode closes with a nod to the Migos track “Spray the Champagne,” which plays over the final scene of Earn ripping off his bank. He reports his card being stolen while taking a solo swig off a previously-chilled champagne bottle for good measure. The champagne tastes horrible, actually, though it doesn’t keep Earn from drinking every single drop.

Rating: 9/10

Jennifer Baugh is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and contributor for The Young Folks. She also writes and draws her own comics and other wonky illustrations over at her personal blog http://jenniferbaugh.tumblr.com.