Ghosts aren’t wild souls who refuse to go. Their relationships with us are, I’m sure, banal on their side. Maybe there is a switch they can plug into. Maybe they know the truth— that humans are circuits jacked into a grand machine, a grand history, a grand idea. In Atlanta’s newest episode, it is Paper Boi’s turn to see his ghost. Darius has seen his ghost and somehow he has survived. Van has seen hers and she knows that Drake will not make her forget Earn. That’s what his songs are for. Nice for what?
Earn is a ghost. He is both Hamlet and his father. As well, the other characters are seen through his absence. Al’s (Paper Boi’s actual name) connection to his real self, the self he does not want to lose, is poured through the apparition of Earn’s incompetence. That is a hint to his long-absent father and, in this episode, his buried mother. Earn is, as my father says, “trying a ting.” He is failing. Van’s love and disappointment are searched through Earn’s mistakes. He cannot love himself so you know the rest. But the ghosts serve as a conduit, a medium through which the characters can dare to grow forward. They are Hamlet’s father fighting for an audience with his child. Filling out a form on the other side, he is thinking about Hamlet. Longing, as only ghosts can, to give him a message. To ask him to avenge his death. Ghosts always have the wildest requests.
The show is slowly sinking into a free-for-all of how much can you stand? This is definitely not ‘Friends.’
Paper Boi gets robbed a lot this season. That alligator in the first episode walked out of Paper Boi’s house; out of the rapper’s locked up room. In this episode, Al is surrounded by them. Alligators are everywhere. It was Paper Boi who asked Darius, “You dead yet?” A joke made real because Al doesn’t want to lose his friend, though he won’t stop him either. A plea. And we overlook each character’s evolution as hijinks, as though they were Pippi Longstocking or Jay-Z stuffing his face at Lucali’s. Like life is supposed to be this kind of roller coaster. But the crew is Beyonce sinking into the Gulf on top of a cop car. Their whole vision is a shared trauma. And the show is slowly sinking into a free-for-all of how much can you stand? This is definitely not Friends.
Atlanta does a horrible job of interpreting most of their female characters, but let’s pretend that Ciara is a fleshed out character instead of a caricature of a self. She is Instagram famous. She wants to intertwine their brands, and she wants to do it as a hustle. But as we see Al’s mother pick up after him and scold him for sleeping in as the show opens, we know that Ciara is the opposite of his mother. It’s just sad that is the only role in the episode she is allowed to play.
He finally squirrels away from her and ends up walking. Atlanta is quasi-city, sometimes, but, either way, you are in the wild. His fame makes him recognizable and thus an easy target. He doesn’t want to change, but he also needs to insulate himself from his notoriety. So of course, on this walk, he gets jumped by three guys. They all know him, claim they love his music, then proceed to pick him clean. One goes straight for the goods and scurries away screaming, “I’ve got his watch!” Another, after punching him in the face several times, finally wrestles his chain free. The last has a gun, and after Al headbutts him, they both finally realize it. Off, then, is Al heading deep into the woods.
Atlanta is quasi-city, sometimes, but, either way, you are in the wild.
First, he sees a dead deer, its guts spilled out of it. Then he meets a man. That man is his ghost. His ghost calls him “Deer guts” and follows him around. His ghost acts erratically. He asks him if he needs money. Al refuses. Then he asks him if he needs chapstick. Al refuses that, too. They walk in circles, and the day passes suddenly into the night. Now it’s just Al and a man in a random wood. The man knows the woods and Al does not, which is evidenced by Al watching the man pull a bottle of booze from out of nowhere. While watching, this all seems familiar to Al. The man says, “You stubborn. You just like yo’ mama.” At this Al is taken aback. Ghosts always know how to scare you. No way more so than this: The ghost asks Al to make a choice. Why is he standing still? Why is he going in circles? Now the ghost has a knife to Al’s throat. Now the ghost tells him that if he doesn’t walk out of here in 30 seconds that he will hurt him. Ghosts always drive hard bargains.
What is the robbery here, then? Maybe he is robbing himself of a career by not telling Earn to put up or shut up. Maybe he’s robbing himself of love by not seeing someone he can take seriously. Or, maybe, Al is just like us. These ghosts of ours need feeding. We feed them with our hubris, our sadness, our hangups. We feed them by putting a spout to ourselves and allowing others to drink their fill.
In his book of criticism, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib lays out why at times happiness eludes us; why we choose to turn our grief over instead. “The truth is that I, like so many of you, spent 2016 trying to hold on to what joy I could,” he wrote. “I, like so many of you, am now looking to get my joy back, after it ran away to a more deserving land than this one. And maybe this is what it’s like to live in these times: the happiness is fleeting, and so we search for more while the world burns around us.”
Enmeshed in this sweet groan of history, the world burns around us. Everywhere is aflame, and, for some reason, Atlanta is the only show on television that knows it.
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