On last week’s episode of Atlanta, Earn traversed all possible avenues for a proper date night—fancy dinner, fancy movie theater, fancy hookah bar, fancy … strip club outing?—with his sorta-girlfriend, Van. It didn’t go well.
If there is a singular ethos to the perpetual hustle of Paper Boi’s budding rap career and all that entails for Earn as his manager, it’s the sense of otherness the characters face as they climb the social and professional ladder. To wit: The predominantly white employees at the Spotify-esque company Earn and Paper Boi visit in Season 2’s second episode, “Sportin’ Waves,” stare, disoriented, at their prospective business partners the entire time the two men are there. The moment when Earn looks at Paper Boi recording an intro for one of the company’s curated rap playlists —while the rest of the office pauses what they’re doing to gaze at Earn, until he turns around himself and they all stutter about their work—might be Atlanta’s most evocative image. That scene was not unlike the most uncomfortable and compelling stretch of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) moves about the Armitage house party/unknowing human auction, and the rest of the guests pause their activity to hear what’s going on above them once Chris gets upstairs.
Season 2’s fourth episode, “Helen,” lays out for Earn and Van’s relationship all that “Sportin’ Waves” had to say about the music industry, Get Out vibes included. In “Helen,” the couple heads to the eponymous village—naturally located in an area called Georgia’s White County—for a weekend getaway to celebrate Oktoberfest. (Actress Zazie Beetz is half-German herself, so it’s a nice nod.) Before Earn and Van even arrive to the village, however, they nearly run over a wild boar on the road, snacking on some food. It’s not a deer, but still. The only way this could feel more on the nose is if Lakeith Stanfield showed up, broke character as Darius, and started screaming “GET OUTTTTTT!!!!”
Things aren’t much better in Helen: Old white women stare out their windows in bewilderment at a black couple walking through the town square. Van assures Earn that it’s not that bad, but shortly after they arrive, a woman approaches Earn and praises what she initially assumes is very convincing blackface. Hmm, this weekend should be fun!
The Peeleian nature of the village notwithstanding, Atlanta uses this wildly heightened backdrop to delve into the complexities of Van and Earn’s relationship, which never feels not in limbo. For all the series’s surreal strengths, it’s easy to overlook the idiosyncratic relationship between Earn and Van—not unique because of the dynamic it presents, but because of how it’s presented on TV. Atlanta brings both characters’ imperfections to the fore; neither feels antagonistic, just misunderstood. If the series ever decided to fully embrace its rom-com qualities, it’d give most shows of that ilk a run for their money. As it stands, the episode is an affirmation that these two aren’t right for each other—at least at this point in their respective journeys.
Earn has some semblance of a vision for his life—his and Paper Boi’s careers intertwined. Van, meanwhile, wants to be seen as more than a mother. Her biracial friend Christina repeatedly introduces her as “Lotte’s mom” to friends, stripping Van of an identity separate from the child she and Earn have together. “I want to be in a relationship where I’m valued as a human being and not as an accessory,” she tells Earn at the end of the episode. “This arrangement works for me,” he replies apathetically.
Earn is not ready for a real relationship, just as he wasn’t ready to handle real checks when they came to him. (Watching him burn money into gift cards at a mall was a mood.) Van, meanwhile, throws Earn in the deep end and expects him to swim, just like in Season 1’s penultimate episode, “Juneteenth.” She likes the idea of Earn and what he represents—the guy who you can wrap your arm around and strut around with at parties, but that’s not the kind of partner Earn is, at least at the moment. And what is more relatable than two people who clearly have feelings for each other but are at totally different stages of their life? If I told you about all the times that’s happened, will you charge by the hour?
“Helen” culminates with Earn staidly escorting Van to her apartment door, the dynamic moving forward a series of business transactions about shared bills and their daughter. At least for now. Nothing in Atlanta is ever really set in stone—even before “Robbin’ Season” started—and for every step a character seemingly takes, there’s something that takes them two steps back. There’s nothing surreal about that; it’s just human.