In the third episode of the first season of Atlanta, Earn took Vanessa—the woman who’s not quite his girlfriend, but also more than his girlfriend—out on a date he couldn’t afford. In the third episode of the second season of Atlanta, Earn takes Van out once more, now flush with a gold-single payout. Earn still doesn’t have a permanent address, so he has all his important mail, like the check so sizable it prompts Van to joke they might be robbed, sent to Van’s house. (“That’s love,” he says, though maybe it’s just codependence.) The last two weeks’ heists and botched drug deals are this week’s offhand joke: That’s how Atlanta works, especially when it’s “Robbin’ Season.”
Whatever the unspecified dollar amount, the same guy who couldn’t pony up for basic probation costs in the premiere decides to rent a limo and spring for the “VIP” option at the local bougie theater—never mind that no one seems to know what a VIP ticket actually buys you. By next week, Earn could easily be back to the perpetual brokeness that defines life on this show; given the financial decision-making skills he’s demonstrated as of late, it’s almost certain he will. (I’m still not over those gift cards.) For now, money isn’t an issue. But instead of solving his problems, Earn’s windfall turns into a valuable lesson that the number in his bank account might not be the ultimate source of his woes.
The previous episode of Atlanta looked at the straightforward business consequences of Paper Boi’s modest success: the meetings he’s taking, the peers he’ll inevitably be held up against, the deals that may or may not get made. “Money Bag Shawty” doesn’t abandon the pointed music-industry satire that gave us 35 Savage; this week’s B-plot follows Alfred and Darius’s ill-fated studio visit with Clark County (RJ Walker), the Lil Yachty–like salesman who gamely shills for Yoohoo. But Atlanta’s rap game is never just about rap. It’s about family—the eccentric uncle whose house you pay for; the deadbeat cousin you let manage you despite his lack of any obvious qualifications. It’s about upward mobility that never happens as fast as you need it to. And it’s about the things that never change, even when everything’s supposed to.
So “Money Bag Shawty” delves into the more existential questions of Paper Boi’s rising tide and the boats it does or doesn’t lift. Fittingly, the episode is structured more like a fable than a sitcom plot, just with hookah lounges and strip club DJs instead of enchanted forests and talking animals: in a quest to stunt rather than be stunted on, Earn spends the night trying and failing to spend a hundred dollar bill. There’s even a moral to the story. “Money is an idea, man,” Alfred drawls. “You need to start actin’ like you’re better than other n----s. Then they’ll start treatin’ you like you’re better than other n----s.” “Otherwise,” Darius chimes in, ever the font of wisdom, “you’re just another n----.”
Even when Earn gets the money he’s constantly chasing, he doesn’t know how to use it. His and Van’s first stop is the movie theater, where the clerk won’t take cash and insists on scanning both Earn’s debit card and his driver’s license just so he can buy some tickets. Earn’s racism Spidey senses start tingling, he and Van start to leave, and sure enough, a white guy has no problem trading in his own Benjamin Franklin seconds later. (Earlier, Darius and Al have their own brush with novelty cash: Clark County’s mom secured a few Harriet Tubman 20s before they went out of production.) It’s the most realistic of Earn’s mishaps, a kind of shady yet commonplace discrimination-with-a-smile—or at least it is until Earn tries to get the white guy’s attention and he responds by wordlessly flashing his sidearm. On Atlanta, the threat of violence is never far away, and there’s no predicting whether it’ll be played for genuine menace or laughs. This time, Earn rolls with the punches, displaying the resigned passivity that’s become his signature.
Up next is a hookah lounge that demands a $20 cover from its male patrons, a sum I find ridiculous, but Earn forks over after minimal grumbling. Just as he and Van start to relax, though, the cops show up: The owner has insisted that hundred is fake, even if he doesn’t have the detection plan to prove it. The cops escort Van and Earn out only to let Earn know they’re aware the bill was legit, a would-be consolation that only compounds Earn’s humiliation. Stunted on, twice over!
That leaves the strip club, the one place in Atlanta Earn feels confident won’t turn down cash. Here, “Money Bag Shawty” finally blossoms from the uncomfortable to the bizarre to the full-on surreal. One of Atlanta’s many tonal signatures is an absurdist approach to people and places that aren’t typically viewed through that lens because they don’t fall within the life experience of Adult Swim’s target demographic. A gag like Onyx’s obnoxious, omniscient DJ shows why that’s such a shame. (Eagle-eyed viewers will also catch Tracy in the background having a heart-to-heart that morphs seamlessly into a lap dance.) Earn’s serial debasement gets the voice-over it deserves, with the emcee using his bully pulpit to call out his patron’s “wack-ass” Coca-Cola shirt and shaming Earn into a generous tip by calling out the exact provenance of his checking account. Van doesn’t get out unscathed, either; calling her a white girl hits a nerve even before the DJ addresses her as “Annie Hall.”
And to add insult to more insults, Earn loses a foot race to Michael Vick, who does about as much in five seconds of screen time as previous guest stars have in entire scenes. A lot of Atlanta’s weirdest shit goes down in club parking lots.
“Money Bag Shawty” is a pleasantly aimless half-hour of TV, depositing its protagonists right back where they started after a series of indignities they’ll probably never reference again. But as low-key as this third episode is compared to last week’s career moves or the premiere’s explosive first scene, there’s still insight to be gleaned. Some of it is from the subtle context clues we’re still getting about the current state of Earn’s life; Donald Glover and his collaborators have never been fans of traditional exposition. This is the first time we’ve seen Van all season, and she and Earn appear to be in one of the “on again” phases of their up-and-down relationship. He calls her “my girl” to a stripper, who proceeds to give her about five seconds’ worth of a dance.
Other takeaways flesh out Atlanta’s glum, not-quite-nihilist take on class. When it comes to fighting one’s way out of the perennial underclass, coming into money may be less than half the battle. The struggle can’t be reduced to “you can’t buy your way out of racism,” though that’s part of what Earn learns the hard way. More important to his tenure as Al’s manager, where his days might well be numbered, is the hard-won knowledge that he has to learn how to be a power player before he can be a power player, a cruel catch-22. “Money Bag Shawty” is, in essence, an episode-long version of the line from last season in which Earn, explaining why he can’t get Al the money he’s due from a club appearance, whines: “N----s know I drink juice and shit, man!” Given that locking down payment is the sum total of a manager’s job, Earn has to put down the juice box before it’s too late. Knowing Earn, though, he’ll be too busy licking his Michael Vick–inflicted wounds. Remember what Uncle Willy said!