This Atlanta review contains spoilers.
Atlanta: Season 2 Episode 8
A while back, Donald Glover said that, with Atlanta, he was trying to make Twin Peaks for rappers. He later corrected that statement, saying it’s more like Curb Your Enthusiasm for rappers. Respectfully, in “Woods” I think it’s both, though heavier on the former.
The major theme for Paper Boi throughout Robbin’ Season has been how fame has made it so he’s unable to live his life the way he used to. People are constantly bothering him for selfies, asking him to put them on, and jacking his shit. The awkwardness of these interactions (even the robberies) has led us to this point, but this time it’s not very funny.
Nothing’s been going right for Al this season. His kindness and tendency to go with the flow has led to him getting used and abused by fans, dealers, and his barber. In the Robbin’ Season premiere, Earn described Uncle Willie as someone who “just lets shit happen to him” and it seems that indictment was prophetic for Al as well. Here, due to a mixture of not really giving a fuck and trying to “be real,” he ends up on a long walk across Atlanta’s highways and through the woods.
For all the weirdness it’s thrown at us, this is the first Atlanta episode that had me recalling Twin Peaks. Some of that might just be down to the simple parallels of the imagery: we’ve got a lot of woods and a dead deer. However, it’s also the sharp shifts in tone. Twin Peaks can go from humor to drama to surreal horror and rubberneck back to humor in the span of a few scenes. “Woods” is mostly not trying to be funny (the biggest comedic moment is Darius in the opening scene talking about how he learned to make pasta from a dream), but the points at which Al having a simple shitty day shift into his life being in danger are stark, sudden, and genuinely gripping.
Further, the whole woods scene manages to feel surreal without doing much. There’s the incredible overhead shot that pulls out so far the trees stop looking like trees. There’s the oddness of the dead deer that Al somehow comes across twice. Also, once he resolves to get the hell out of there, he does so in less than thirty seconds, like the forest was never actually that big and he could’ve left all along.
Finally, of course, there’s the homeless man, Old Wally, who’s out there with Al and refuses to leave him alone. He occasionally says things that lead Al to believe he’s familiar with who he is; there’s even some implication Old Wally could be Al’s father. But then he also laughs in Al’s face repeatedly and does nonsense like offers him Chapstick off his finger because he doesn’t “like to touch lips.” We’re lulled, along with Alfred, into the false belief that Wally is nuts, but harmless, so it’s a true shock when he pulls an X-ACTO knife on him. Basically, Wally’s erratic behavior makes the character a Twin Peaks episode unto himself. (There’s also that weird moment where the screen cut to color bars for three seconds. No clue what that was about.)
At the end of “Woods,” Alfred recognizes he must fully accept his status as Paper Boi because, when he tries to act like nothing has changed, he gets fucked over. When he emerges from the forest, the experience has obviously affected him profoundly. It’s apparent to him now that he can’t be the same person he was before, evidenced by how he poses with a fan for a selfie, rather than resisting his celebrity status as he previously did.
What’s so impressive about “Woods,” is that you can read it this way and leave it at that. However, it’s subtly implied that Al’s time in the woods is also a record of him getting over the death of his mother (and that some of what happens might not be real). We see her walking around cleaning up his house at the start, but she’s not really there since Al never addresses her and we never see her again. When Earn calls to ask Al if he’s okay, there’s a hesitation in how he asks, so we can guess there’s something about this day that’s different than others: perhaps it’s the anniversary of Alfred’s mother’s death. With just this tiny bit of information, all the events in “Woods” take on a deeper and more tragic meaning.
Layered, weird, and full of cool shots of forest, “Woods” is Twin Peaks for rappers and it’s awesome.