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Paper Boi Finally Has a Breakthrough on ‘Atlanta’

In Episode 8, an encounter in the ‘Woods’ may set the underachieving rapper back on track

Paper Boi on ‘Atlanta’ FX/Ringer illustration

Finally, Atlanta gives Paper Boi his big, existential break.

The eighth episode of Atlanta’s second season, “Woods,” begins with Paper Boi reconnecting with an old friend, Sierra, a stripper whose massive social media following has delivered her profitable web stardom. As far as soliciting fame goes, Sierra is much more active and outgoing than Paper Boi. Where Paper Boi is ambivalent and reclusive, Sierra is strategic, assertive, and outspoken about her ambitions. Indeed, Sierra’s excited to hang out with Paper Boi because she’s otherwise lost touch with her nonfamous friends for whom Sierra’s lifestyle is frustrating and inaccessible. Paper Boi “gets it,” she thinks, until the two of them clash over Sierra’s obsession with her public image and her intrusive use of social media. Sierra’s image is her life, and she shares every bit of her life through images—online videos, photos, and captions. Characteristically, Paper Boi resists such intensive exposure. Sierra takes Paper Boi to get a pedicure, and Paper Boi storms out of the nail salon, convinced that Sierra’s publicity coaching, and the pedicure itself, are a lame betrayal of his own self-image. “I’m real,” he barks. He begins to walk home.

Here, the episode turns on Paper Boi, dragging the reluctant rap star to the abyss. It’s been a long time coming. For weeks, we’ve watched Paper Boi squander his early success by lounging at home, settling into a personal and professional stasis. We’ve yet to see him in the studio recording a follow-up to his breakout single. The slow, luxurious pacing of Atlanta saps conventional urgency from Paper Boi’s arc, but now comes the reckoning. Here, he must survive a trial in solitude.

In “Woods,” Paper Boi walks for miles from the nail salon before he encounters three teens loitering by railroad tracks. The teens recognize Paper Boi and claim to have enjoyed his music “since the beginning.” In Atlanta, the ritual of fan recognition—and Paper Boi’s subsequent exasperation—is so routinely foreboding that the violent tussle that ensues doesn’t come as a surprise; it’s fate. The three teens jump Paper Boi; one dude steals his watch, another chases him into the woods. Paper Boi evades the assailants but then quickly finds himself lost in the forest expanse. Quickly, he encounters a mischievous hermit who confounds his bearing even further. The hermit, Wally, played by Reggie Green, clings to Paper Boi as the rapper stumbles back toward civilization. “You’re stubborn and you’re black,” Wally observes, cryptically comparing Paper Boi to his late mother. The episode begins with a brief and bleary scene, possibly a hallucination, when Paper Boi’s mother nags him as he sleeps till noon on the couch in his messy apartment. His mother hums, and so, too, does Wally as he stalks behind Paper Boi in the woods.

In a sense, Wally is a walking cliché: a Negro spirit guide who appears in order to spur Paper Boi’s self-discovery. As Paper Boi stumbles through the woods, lost geographically and existentially, Wally spouts increasingly lucid motivations—and, then, threats—so that the rapper might find his way in the world. After dark, Wally puts a box cutter to Paper Boi’s throat and forces him to rethink his approach. “You’re wasting time,” Wally says, “and the only people who got time are dead. And if you’re dead, I’m gonna take them shoes. And your wallet. And that shirt.” Paper Boi flees.

For once, the conclusion of an Atlanta episode affords Paper Boi a substantial breakthrough. He exits the woods, bruised and bewildered, through the parking lot of a gas station. There, he recovers in the beverage aisle, pressing a cool drink to his wrecked face, when a white kid approaches. Are you Paper Boi? Yet again. But this time, Paper Boi—his mouth full of blood, his cheeks cut up and swollen, his clothes muddied—proactively offers to pose for pictures with the kid. Paper Boi mugs. Finally, he’s let down his guard. However begrudgingly, Paper Boi seems to realize that Sierra was right about his attitude, his circumstances, and their correlation. A languishing one-hit wonder, Paper Boi has become the subject of envy and harassment but with relatively few material benefits to satisfy all these robbers. Paper Boi may not enjoy fame as much as Sierra does, but regardless, he must work harder. With three episodes remaining in Atlanta’s second season, Paper Boi and Earn seem bound for a confrontation regarding one another’s ambitions. They’re both slackers, but only Paper Boi can claim a crucial talent. So he’s out of the woods, and back to the studio—or else.