This Atlanta review contains spoilers.
Atlanta: Season 2 Episode 10
A flashback episode is a novel, if a bit clichéd way to beef up your characters. You can easily explain that they act the way they do now because of something that happened to them way back when. Or, you can introduce a completely new element to their past that instantly changes who they are now (for example, in season three of Community it was revealed that, as kids, two of the lead characters had gone to the same school).
Atlanta, however, is not a typical show, so, in this flashback to Earn and Alfred’s school days, if we learned anything major, it’s not spelled out for us. “FUBU” more just reinforces what we already knew about these characters. Earn is small, a bit nerdy, and unconfident. Al is huge, a bit of a troublemaker, and commands respect. He’s also already about making money and knows how to game the system to get away with it. It also reinforces the season’s themes: money and status rule everything.
It’s odd but interesting how the series doesn’t use this peek into the past as a tool to cram in a lot of new character trivia about the boys. In fact, kid Al is barely in the episode. It’s an Earn-focused story and a simplistic one at that. Earn buys an on-sale FUBU shirt and wears it to school, only to find out another kid, Devin, is wearing a nearly identical shirt. There are, however slight differences, so it’s deduced that one must be fake. Both Earn and Devin get teased and hounded about this all day.
I wasn’t too in love with the story in “FUBU.” It’s just that, well, though I find it interesting it’s so sparse, it really is sparse. It’s the same shirt-focused issue all the way through. However, where the episode excels is in how authentic it feels. So often school-set stories come off like the product of a hazy reflection from an adult mind. But most of this felt distressingly real to me.
What’s captured so well is the sad, mundane drama of school. Everything is so boring and all the kids are just waiting to get out of there, but at the same time, this is where almost all their social interaction takes place so stupid, small things (like whether someone is wearing a fake FUBU shirt) balloon into huge ones.
The rumor of the fake shirt spreading throughout the school and becoming the day’s major topic is totally realistic to me. Clothes in general, and not looking a specific, current, “correct” way were always considered perfect reasons for someone to bully you in school. And certain clothing items were definite status symbols. My dad used to take me shoe-shopping at Payless and one time I bought new shoes that were, unbeknownst to me, meant to look like NBA player Grant Hill’s new signature sneakers. I got stopped by multiple kids who would then be disappointed to learn I was wearing knock-offs. One kid dropped to his knees in the hallway and put his face low to the floor just to examine my shoes. Brand name bullshit is serious business at school.
“FUBU” also brilliantly depicts how everyone at school is in a confusing, terrifying, transitional phase, all going through small dramas. One kid gets punched hard on the bus and, though surely in pain, immediately closes his hoodie around his head in embarrassment more than anything else. A girl named Denisha is ready to fight the teacher one day but is all smiles and class participation the next. Two theories I saw on Twitter were that she’s bipolar or that she hadn’t eaten the previous day as her family’s food stamps hadn’t yet come through. It’s much more interesting that we’re left to speculate because that’s how school is: you see the tells of everyone else’s problems, but you never have a full understanding of what they’re going through.
That moral is driven home bluntly when, from being bullied and, as it turns out, also recently dealing with his parents’ divorce, Devin commits suicide. This was my least favorite thing about “FUBU.” Yes, bullying is a real problem and, yes, kids take their own lives over it, but the mundanity I’ve been talking about throughout the episode makes this conclusion seem, in contrast, unrealistic. It’s so heavy-handed it feels a little like the show is trying to teach us a lesson, which is usually not how you want to leave your audience.
We also can’t discern how Earn and Al take the news of Devin’s death. They show almost no reaction despite the fact, though it’d be unfair to say they’re responsible, they certainly drove some of the bullying he got. It felt to me like they were able to dismiss it as having nothing to do with them. School is a battlefield and you develop a thick emotional skin to guard against feeling too awful about anything. Kids have the power to be strangely very cold in this way, and that’s the feeling I got from Earn and Al.
But I might be wrong. Maybe we learned a lot here. Maybe Devin’s suicide sat with Earn and the lesson he took away was that the one time he got what he wanted, someone else died. Maybe that’s why he can’t hack it and why he’s scared of success.
I doubt Atlanta will ever spell these connections out for me, but we do know these characters carry their emotions with them from one episode to the next, and I’m sure “FUBU” matters in the grand scheme of things. We’ll see how Robbin’ Season wraps it all up next week.