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Donald Glover, Atlanta, and the Ties That Bind

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In one of the central conflicts of Atlanta’s sophomore season, the shiftless Earn (Donald Glover) fears his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), better known by his stage name, Paper Boi, will fire him.

Earn, who has served as Paper Boi’s manager since the latter first began rapping, has seen his professional insecurities deepen throughout the season: In the second episode, the two men meet the rising young rapper Clark County, whose hyperconnected white manager is a threat to Earn; in Episode 9, Al chides Earn for landing the men in several awkward situations by skimping on accommodations. As Al’s profile grows, so, too, does his frustration with his bumbling cousin, who is bogged down by both inexperience and personal indiscretions.

“Robbin’ Season,” as the FX show’s second installation has been dubbed, fixates on those ties: the fraying ones that bind Al to Earn, but also Earn to his baby mama/sometime-girlfriend, Van (Zazie Beetz), Al and Earn to Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and Tracy (Khris Davis), and all black people to one another. If the unspoken premise of the series has always been that black people can only rely on one another, “Robbin’ Season” has made clear that this is both burden and blessing. Atlanta never plots these linkages neatly on an easily legible matrix: In some scenes, even entire episodes, the weight of community ties seems suffocating; in others, it’s evident that none of the characters would survive without one another. The distance between those two points is what Atlanta mines, and what resonates most powerfully.

In Thursday night’s finale, titled “Crabs in a Barrel,” Al reassures Earn of the gravity of the two men’s bond. Paper Boi does so as they settle into a flight kicking off the European tour on which the rapper will be opening for headliner Clark County. After several uncomfortable, charged interludes throughout the episode, Al chooses this quiet moment to remind his downtrodden cousin that their loyalty to one another—and the understanding they share as kin, both literal and fictive—matters far more than the industry connections that someone like Clark County’s manager might offer.

“I saw what you did. At TSA. You ain’t gotta say shit. Just know that’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Paper Boi says, referencing Earn’s quick decision to stash Al’s uncle’s gun in a different bag to protect the men. “Niggas do not care about us, man. Niggas gon’ do whatever


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