Never meet your idols. It’s a mantra that has been conveyed by Donald Glover in Atlanta ever since Paper Boi achieved his nascent rap stardom. A bit clichéd, sure, but the idea is a steady through line for the surreal, nonlinear narrative interludes that comprise one of television’s wildest shows.
In the Atlanta universe, Justin Bieber is no less beloved by his superfans; the difference is that here, Bieber is black and his annoying, punchable antics are front and center in Season 1, rather than obscured in TMZ videos. Sometimes, the series is a little more overt: Glover’s Earn meets Paper Boi’s uncle, played by Katt Williams, in the Season 2 premiere, and the exchange turns meta. “What I’m scared of is being you,” Earn tells Uncle Willy, but actually keeping it real with the perpetually embattled Williams. “Somebody everybody knew was smart but ended up being a know-it-all, fuck-up Jay that just lets shit happen to him.” (Uncle Willy advises Earn to not walk through life with “chip-on-your-shoulder shit,” which is especially rich after Glover wrote a vindictive fake Deadpool script in retaliation for his show being dropped.)
Last week’s “Teddy Perkins,” an existentially terrifying, multilayered haunted house of an episode that feels destined to be analyzed in critical theory courses, dissected the stardom of icons such as Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye and their tragic, traumatizing childhoods. Even an encounter with Paper Boi wouldn’t make any of his local fans in Atlanta feel good — not with actor Brian Tyree Henry’s Vibranium-piercing scowls.
So naturally, with Thursday night’s installment, titled “Champagne Papi,” the Drake commentary felt inevitable — and not likely to make him look good. Admittedly, post–“Teddy Perkins,” my mind went to weird places: If Justin Bieber is black, is Drizzy going to be some kind of half-owl, half-human hybrid? (Seriously, just imagine — or don’t.)
It wasn’t quite that surreal, but “Champagne Papi” used the specter of Drake’s ubiquity to question all of the fake shit about celebrity in a story set on New Year’s Eve. Other than a theory that Drake is secretly Mexican — which he isn’t, for what it’s worth — the episode didn’t bash Drake so much as comment on superficial Instagram vanity. It was still pretty rich, in other words.
We experience this through Van (Zazie Beetz), in our first check-in with her since she and Earn had their falling-out at a Get Out–esque Oktoberfest weekend getaway in Episode 4. She’s with three girlfriends for New Year’s, and one of them has an invite to a party at Drake’s mansion; for Van, this isn’t just a great excuse to unwind, but also a way to spice up her Instagram, which mostly features photos of her daughter Lotte and, unfortunately, Earn. Photos from the party on her feed already show a ton of girls snapping selfies with Drake (he looks kinda Photoshopped, which we’ll get to in a moment). If Van got a selfie with Drake for her Insta? That’d be an ego boost.
That means getting to the party first, though. Van’s friend Candi, who had the hookup, takes them to what looks like the sketchiest parking lot (probably outside a Walmart) to then get inside a van with a leering driver who says, before locking them inside: “Y’all pretty! I’m gonna take y’all home with me. Just kidding.” Just kidding. How reassuring. They do make it to the mansion, however, and after slipping booties onto their feet — can’t scuff the marble floors with those heels! — the girls head inside.
The party is less a party than a collection of rap video stereotypes: There’s a woman riding a mechanical bull, a comically oversized fireplace, and a discrepant ratio of women to men — a “thot-a-thon,” as Van’s friend Tami describes it. Much to Van’s disappointment, Drake is nowhere to be seen.
In pursuit of Drake — and also to help her other friend Nadine, who is freaking out after taking a weed gummy — Van navigates the seemingly endless maze of Drake’s lavish estate in what becomes a perverse spin on Darius’s frightening “Teddy Perkins” adventure from last week. Oh, and Darius is at this party, too, chatting up a stoned Nadine and sharing his thoughts on Bostrom’s simulation argument. (The TL;DR version is that we’re living in a simulation and never the wiser.) Given Nadine’s lack of sobriety, Darius’s words feel transcendent. “Is she real?” Nadine asks, pointing to a bikini-clad woman dancing with herself in an infinity pool behind Darius. “Real fake,” he replies.
That is the ethos of “Champagne Papi,” and Paper Boi’s rap odyssey, in miniature: navigating an industry that can be superficial and filled with minor humiliations. This week was Van’s turn, finding herself in a mansion that’s heavy on Instagram-thirsty wannabe influencers, and light on real people — and Drake, for that matter. It turns out that he isn’t even in the country, and the party’s selfies are being taken with a collection of cardboard Drake cutouts for $20 a pop — a pair of definitely fake fuzzy Puma slippers thrown in for an extra $10. “It’s all fake,” Van says upon reconvening with Nadine and Darius. “There’s no Drake.”
On most shows, that would be perceived as a metaphor. But on Atlanta, where NBA players drive invisible cars, Michael Vick is ready to race you for cash outside a nightclub, and Justin Bieber is black, perhaps it’s literal. Maybe Van’s right: Maybe there is no Drake.