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‘Atlanta’ Traces the Anxiety of Early Rap Stardom

In the second episode of the FX show’s new season, Paper Boi and Earn attempt to navigate the streaming music economy’s sleek, rustically decorated halls of power

Paper Boi and Earn in ‘Atlanta’ Getty Images/FX/Ringer illustration

The music industry is Atlanta’s richest farce. In the current season’s second episode, Earn shepherds Paper Boi through meetings with executives at an unnamed streaming music service. With headquarters in Atlanta, the company—run by young, smiling white people—hosts the city’s hottest trappers. One auditioning novice dances on a conference room table—a nod to viral footage of Bobby Shmurda’s 2014 signing to Epic Records. The local rapper Clark County, an eager sellout, cheerfully wanders the music company’s hallways. He seems less like a star and more like a dutiful employee when he encounters Paper Boi and Earn, who both answer Clark County and everyone else’s small talk with mean mugs and punitive silence.

The company is painfully white, and each code-switching impasse illustrates the overall awkwardness of white business school graduates sucking up to black, working-class musicians in search of profits. Paper Boi grits his teeth, suffering their condescension as if it were a colonoscopy. He lasts until the anticlimactic performance of his eponymous, breakout single, which he quits performing before he’s even gotten started. His energy, depleted as it is, cannot translate to these people, who gaze upon him blankly, as if he’s the subject of medical trials. Paper Boi and Earn depart with nothing to show for their embarrassment, save for Earn—who remains homeless—having at least nabbed a snack box of Cheerios from the office kitchen. Alas, the boys retreat to the couch.

On Atlanta, there’s no fate less glamorous than rap stardom. Each week, Paper Boi’s success manages to debase or humiliate, or at the very least irritate, everyone except the unflappable Darius. There’s no real fandom or music criticism on Atlanta; only sycophancy and lucrative crazes. Glover has said as much about the pressures affecting his own musical career, which began as sad rap and rebranded as funk after years of Glover’s failing, as Childish Gambino, to integrate fully within the hip-hop zeitgeist. To Glover, the music industry is an artless racket. “I realized that no one has good intentions,” Glover told The New Yorker. “We all just have incentives.” In Atlanta, Paper Boi resists a constant barrage of incentives for selling out and blowing up, if only because he’s not personally built for live-wire performance and unrelenting attention from strangers. Paper Boi spends most of the latest episode disavowing his own, local notoriety, laying low, working with Darius to score good drugs in peace.

Apart from the streaming hustle, the rest of the episode, titled “Sportin’ Waves,” invokes Paper Boi’s music career only obliquely, as fans badger him with recognition, praise, and photography. “Sportin’ Waves” is one of the few Atlanta episodes to belabor a single theme—humiliation—with each scene, though the corporate comedy interlude is bookended by much humbler story lines. At the top of the episode, Paper Boi’s own dealer robs him, apologetically, at gunpoint. And in the couch-bound scene immediately following Earn and Paper Boi’s meeting with the music execs, Earn considers sinking $4,000 into the ex-con Tracy’s gift card racket. The streaming music business is the sleekest, most professionalized hustle of all, but somehow the most demoralizing and debased. Toward the end of the episode, Earn, Paper Boi, and Darius spot Clark County starring in a TV advertisement for Yoo-hoo, the only confectionary beverage that can precisely convey just how cheap and childish Clark County’s double-time sellout flow is: “We drink Yoo-hoo like it’s dirty Sprite.”

“He making money,” Darius observes.

“I hate this shit,” Paper Boi groans.

“Shit is good,” Earn grunts.

They’re all high and relatively unproductive for the time being. They’re too busy scamming mall clerks and screening potential weed dealers to sell themselves out. Paper Boi isn’t just blunted and lazy. He’s skeptical. He hesitates. He is far more comfortable with drugs than he is around other rappers and studio equipment. Paper Boi is an artist, and yet Atlanta spends nearly negative time investigating his art, his ideals, or his process. “Sportin’ Waves” presents Paper Boi, Clark County, and the rest of Atlanta’s rappers as cogs twisting through an indifferent machine. Atlanta and Empire, two very different shows, take inverse paths to arrive at this common cynicism about the music industry. Empire through melodramatic grandeur; Atlanta through satire and spite. The latter show is the most sensible, and yet wondrous depiction of hip-hop ever made for TV.

While the season so far excludes Van, the core boys Earn, Paper Boi, and Darius have all grown closer together, and richer in characterization, if not in fact. The episode ends with the lifelong scammer Tracy presenting his best, potentially reformed self, preserved by a durag, at a job interview in a stuffy office. Only (it turns out) there’s no job for Tracy to fill; the boss quickly reveals that, “unfortunately,” his office is “fully staffed at the moment.” The interview was a waste of Tracy’s immaculate hair care, not to mention his time. Much as Paper Boi perceives a terminal miscommunication between his music and the executives who might promote it, Tracy storms out of his interview with a loud observation that the “fully staffed” office is fully white. After jail, there’s no place for Tracy, save for a coveted spot on Paper Boi’s couch.