Some shows boast perfect episodes. Others, great scenes. Atlanta’s first season, concluding Tuesday on FX, had plenty of both — but most of all, it was filled to bursting with great moments. Weird moments, and hilarious moments, and unsettling moments, and flat-out breathtaking ones, too. These are our favorites.
The Wings — With the Sauce
K. Austin Collins: This wasn’t necessarily my favorite moment — but it was the scene that made me realize what was at stake on Atlanta. Episode 2, at the BBQ joint. The chef hooks Paper Boi and Darius up with lemon-pepper chicken with the sauce — and extra blue cheese. They don’t normally do that, he says, but he believes in Paper Boi: “It’s good to see a rapper that’ll just blow a nigga’s brains out on these streets. That’s that ’90s shit!” It’s a moment that’s hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it: it’s what black love often looks like. It’s communal, it comes out of nowhere, it often involves making someone food, and it carries an implicit (or in this case explicit) command: Don’t fuck up.
That Pregnant Instagram Pause
Alison Herman: If I had the teensiest complaint during the first half of Atlanta’s season, it’s that there wasn’t enough Van in my life — and that the Van we got was mostly there to be fed up with Earn or to watch, nonplussed, as he scrambled to pay for their date. Enter “Value,” which gave us the opportunity not just to spend much-needed time with Van, but to laugh at and with her … like when her childhood best friend puts a Very Serious Argument on hold to Instagram their fancy meal, because that’s just what a professional girlfriend’s gotta do. It puts Van in the exact same role Earn occupies the rest of the season: the wry observer of the surrounding insanity whose expression says it all. It’s a great joke. It was also all the permission I needed to start trusting this show completely. Atlanta knows its own blind spots, and when to fix a glaring phone flash on them in the middle of a crowded restaurant.
The Awkward Dap With Craig
Micah Peters: Craig, the overly eager white dude in the “Juneteenth” episode, is amazing for so many stupid reasons: his dopey spoken word poetry, his preference for drinking Henny out of a rocks glass, his being the living, breathing, scatting embodiment of White Guilt in a (nicely tailored) navy blazer. But most importantly, Craig is amazing because he gave me this, my favorite moment of the entire first season of the show.
There might not be anything I enjoy more than Awkward Daps With New White People. “New” here meaning both unfamiliar yet overly familiar at the same time. And by “enjoy” I mean like, I enjoy observing them. From a distance. While being selfishly happy that it’s not happening to me. Again.
The Seafood Special
Justin Charity: I dislike and distrust “relatable” as a metric for assessing whether a song, novel, movie, TV episode, or whatever else, is good. But goddamn. Watching Earn succumb to that classic masculine mix of hubris and brokeness that will encourage a man to ask a woman out on a date that he can’t afford; and then follow through on that date despite ample time and room to issue Van a rain check; and then sweat the menu so hard that all “Seafood” and “House Specialties” items list the side-eye emoji next to each course name; and then elicit a live and direct side-eye from the bartender of last resort — the otherwise predictable sequence of missteps is nonetheless real, painful, real painful, painfully real, accurate, and familiar as hell.
The Secret Door in “The Club”
Sam Schube: Much has been made of Atlanta’s willingness to get weird: think of the invisible car, or of creator Donald Glover’s repeated description of the show as “Twin Peaks, but for rappers.” But my favorite of the show’s self-consciously “weird” moments was actually a head-fake. Glover’s Earn spends most of “The Club” chasing down a slippery promoter who owes him cash. And when he finally gets the guy up against the wall … well, there goes the wall:
For a beat, it feels fantastical — dude dipped into the astral plane. But when a bartender tips Earn off about the secret door (and the back office behind it), we’re dumped right into the drywalled, fluorescent-lit real world. And to my mind, that’s what Atlanta does best. The little moments of magical realism are unsettling in the best way — but they’re not nearly as odd as real life.
The Missing Four Grand
Allison P. Davis: Most of Episode 4 was dedicated to a totally broke Earn and Darius trying to turn a smartphone into $4,000. Earn plans to pawn his phone for $200 so he can pay his rent, feed himself, and provide for his daughter. Darius convinces him that they could get more money buying a samurai sword, trading that in for a dog, then selling the dog, which made no sense and introduced a whole host of weird characters and bits. It was great. But the best moment of the episode comes when Earn learns that he wouldn’t get that $4,000 until September — that he was walking away with nothing but an “investment.” Earn rips into a short, effective monologue about being poor, “See, I’m poor, Darius. And poor people don’t have time for investments, because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor, OK? I need to eat today, not in September.” It was a complete tone shift, a break in the humor, but it was really effective and demonstrated what I love about this show in general. We can get lost in the absurd and surreal humor, but there’s always an underlying commentary about class, race, and gender.
The Friendship Declaration
Sam Donsky: Pay attention to who the straight man is in any given scene in Atlanta — I’ve never seen a show care about this less, or more.
Up until the end of “The Streisand Effect” mentioned just above, the plot has been about as sitcom-y as Atlanta gets: the Wacky One, with his infinite reservoir of networks and skills, taking the Straight One into his world. (This could easily be Kramer telling Jerry about some underground fresh-fruit paradise, or whatever.)
But when Earn learns that Darius has traded in the dog for an “investment” … he snaps. “You alright, bro?” Darius asks. “No — I’m actually kind of fucked,” Earn tells him. “Van needed that money. My daughter needed that money. Not in September, but today.” Atlanta is really good at this: effortlessly giving you your Seinfeld … and then, just as effortlessly, ripping the rug out from under you with its stakes.
But Darius knows the stakes, too: He hands Earn his own phone to trade in — “I get a new one every month” — and the problem is solved. They head toward the car to go home; and as they get in, Darius makes an announcement: “We’re friends now,” he says. He isn’t playing the straight man, necessarily — but he isn’t the joke, either. There is no joke: It stopped being funny when it stopped being funny. It’s about nothing, but it’s not nothing.
The Obscene Vine Kid
Rob Harvilla: The joke is not, per se, sophisticated. “Little kids swearing” is a timeless, elemental fount of comedy; there are probably little kids swearing in the Bible. But this dude’s a revelation. So Paper Boi is terrorized by a predatory social-media-stooge/pizza-delivery-guy with his “business partner” chilling in the backseat, a budding underage Vine star (R.I.P.) still working on his catchphrase. But he’s narrowed it down to two options, the second of which is, roughly translated, “I wanna [eight solid seconds of continuous bleeping] in everybody face.” Amazing. I laughed like an idiot, and will apologize to no man. This kid alone could’ve saved Vine. There’s still time.
The Invisible Car
Lindsay Zoladz: “Marcus Miles is pretty cool, man. You know he got that invisible car.” Darius whips out his phone and shows Paper Boi some Instagrams of Miles — a pro athlete who at that very moment, across the club, is getting way more attention than Paper Boi — gesturing toward some open air and pretending to lean on a ride too glamorous to even exist. “It’s like a … prototype. Something like that.” Paper Boi puts his head in his hands. This is maybe the dumbest shit Darius has said. Until later in the episode, when it turns out it isn’t: Shots ring out in the parking lot and everybody scatters — including a few people who get hit by … an invisible car. It’s a moment so surreal that one fan had to amend the headline he gave to the scene when he uploaded it to YouTube: “*edited: Original title said it was a CGI mistake. I guess it was intentional…” That it was intentional is a tiny fleck of Atlanta’s genius, especially in the way it flipped what could have been a moment of violence into something absurdly funny, even miraculous. It was a subtle statement of purpose for those who were watching closely: This is a show that finds bleak humor in the bullshit, a show that hears the crazies out. This is a show that believes, so quietly, in magic.
The Jail Breakup
Travon Free: Asking me to pick my favorite Atlanta moment is like asking me to pick my favorite child. (I don’t have any children, but I bet picking a favorite is really hard.) That being said, my favorite moment from this season came in the “Streets on Lock” episode: Earn is stuck in jail between two people, Johnny and Lisa, who are having a conversation over him. After Johnny refers to Lisa as his ex-girlfriend, one of the other guys points out to Johnny in the snarkiest “how the hell isn’t this obvious to you?” tone that Lisa isn’t actually a woman, saying, “My nigga, that’s a man.” I fail to remember a time I laughed at anything harder. I’m immediately aware Lisa isn’t exactly a “Lisa,” and the others know he’s not a woman, but Johnny is painfully clueless. The direct and abrasive way of bursting Johnny’s bubble took me by complete surprise. As this impromptu intervention progresses, Earn tries to defuse the situation. Donald Glover plays the awkwardness in this scene to perfection, and manages to demonstrate in hilarious fashion how some people hold a very binary view of sexuality — while Earn himself pushes back against it. “Sexuality is a spectrum,” he says, even though to Johnny and the rest of the guys, a Kinsey scale means absolutely nothing. This scene (and the episode) showed me that Atlanta would have no problem “going there” — but it also encapsulated so many shades of blackness while showing just how complicated being black can truly be.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Marcus Miles as a rapper; he is a pro athlete.