In the third episode of Atlanta, Van (Zazie Beetz), Earn’s semi-ex-girlfriend and mother of his child, asks him, “Why are you always turning me into an angry black woman?”
She sort of has a point. Van often serves as a foil to Earn’s (Donald Glover) dreamy existence: He wants time to realize his potential; she just wants him to provide for her and their daughter, Lotte. He wants mental (and financial) support; she just wants him to support the theory that she should trust him. As a female character asking the male protagonist to stop being a sad boy, and at the very least be a sad man, it would have been easy to paint her in the broad strokes of naggy shrew or an ABW — and that’s how Earn might see her sometimes, since the series often feels like a first-person show. But since the start of the show, Van has felt like a full, sympathetic character — even if we haven’t always heard her side of the story.
Tuesday night, the show reminded us that Van is a whole person — not just a supporting character we understand through the lens of Earn’s anxieties — and moved a supporting character to a lead, by dedicating “Value” completely to her story.
The plot: Van has dinner with an old friend, Jayde. Jayde is bougie, beautiful, a professional girlfriend to professional athletes. While expressing her friendly concern at Van’s life choices, Jayde offends, undermines, and diminishes Van (while also raising the conversation of what it means to have self-worth as a black woman). After a peace offering of a tightly rolled joint (works every time), their fight turns into a great moment of bonding while hotboxing a car, and then the episode spirals low-key absurdist about trying to cheat a drug test at her job. She’s a teacher, by the way — something else we didn’t know about her. This is all very Atlanta: Sub Earn or Darius in for Van and it would still make sense.
The episode is basically a parallel version of Atlanta with Van as its main character — we learn about her friends, her motivations, her struggles, her insecurities, what strain of weed got her jacked up before a Rihanna concert, what she’s doing when she’s not reminding Earn to get his shit together. (Living her life, thank you.) It’s a chance to learn about this character when she’s not defined by the narrow context of being Earn’s seemingly demanding girlfriend and mother of his child. This episode gives Van a break from having to do so much emotional labor — reminding us that it’s not just Earn who is weird, forgetful, and self-sabotaging, too. Van isn’t a saint, though occasionally she’s painted as one.
Each week, Atlanta is continuing to push the boundaries of what a TV show can do. Capsule episodes have been used effectively — like Girls’ Season 5 Marnie-focused episode “The Panic in Central Park” — or not so effectively — like any time the Buffy creators used a capsule episode to test if Angel or Faith or Spike should have a spinoff show. (Sidebar: “Value” was so good it makes me wish other ensemble shows would give secondary characters their own episodes. Mr. Big on Sex and the City definitely deserves one. I would have watched the crap out of one about the Gilmore Girls chef, Sookie.) But even a good episode like Marnie’s on Girls often feels jarringly separate from the show. Yet “Value” still felt like Atlanta. It humanized Van, it answered our questions about her, without sacrificing the rhythm, texture, or weirdness of the show. (Thank god.)
As a writer, Glover was already doing a decent job of anticipating one possible criticism with this show — that it skews dudecentric. Van never feels like a character Glover shoehorned in just to have a woman in the cast. He didn’t necessarily have to give her an entire episode, but doing so is a reminder that representation doesn’t have to be a chore. If your cast is lacking some section of this world, the fix doesn’t have to be tokenism (i.e. Glover’s token black guy role on Season 2 of Girls) or painfully smug attempts at proving critics wrong. It can be as simple as switching the POV. And when the show flips back to its usual perspective next week, it’s not only Van’s story that will feel more robust — by adding depth to a single supporting character, the rest of the show will feel more robust, too. With Atlanta, Donald Glover is building a world.