It’s unclear how much time has passed between Paper Boi’s trippy, existential reality check in the woods in Episode 8 and Episode 9’s “North of the Border,” the antepenultimate installment of Atlanta’s second season. The only real hint is the bandage that remains on the rapper’s face: a reminder of the three teens who robbed him at gunpoint. It’s not exactly a badge of honor, but it’s evidence that Paper Boi does need to make some serious changes if he’s going to succeed in the music industry—and more importantly, survive it.
That means Paper Boi has to lose some pieces of dead weight, his manager-cousin Earn chief among them. If we’re handing out an LVP award for the season thus far, it has to go to Earn: He broke things off with Van in a way that was disconcertingly apathetic, and aside from a jarring meeting at a virtually all-white Spotify-esque company, he hasn’t been leveraging Paper Boi’s nascent rap stardom nearly as well as he could have. “North of the Border” is the last straw.
First, the pros: Earn has booked Paper Boi to perform at a Pajama Jam concert at a college in Statesboro, and the gig can lead to bigger paydays down the road. And … OK, that’s the only managerial positive. Instead of booking a hotel room, Earn is making himself, Paper Boi, Darius, and Tracy (after Paper Boi convinces Earn he can tag along as security) stay with a college superfan named Violet and her roommates. College accommodations are typically spartan, but this is next-level: Violet wants Paper Boi to stay in her bed. That might seem like a win for Paper Boi—and Violet is certainly attractive—but up until the day of the concert Paper Boi thought he was staying at a hotel. His manager pimped him out for free lodging. That’s strike two just for this episode—on the whole, Earn’s striking out more than Giancarlo Stanton.
Oh, and Violet isn’t just your typical, enthusiastic fan. What starts out as some casual pillow talk between herself and her idol—she had a dream in which he was a white crane and she was a crocodile … how cute?—quickly turns into a nightmare. “And then I ate you,” she says gently in his ear. “There was blood everywhere. And then this, like, intense light just shot through my belly. And I knew that meant that we were connected.” (As always, Brian Tyree Henry is in fine form as Paper Boi; in a few very slow blinks you can tell this man just wants to jump out the window.)
Paper Boi’s relationship with his fans in Atlanta is consistently fractured and foreboding; the teens that jumped him in the previous episode were able to get close to him through the pretense of being fans. The red flags in Statesboro are already present—what the actual fuck was that dream!—and only escalate at the Pajama Jam concert. Paper Boi merely talking to other girls at the party (one of whom is a modern lit major and is writing a “Paper Boi paper”) causes Violet to snap, spilling her drink on him from atop a staircase. It doesn’t take long for Paper Boi, Earn, Darius, and Tracy to flee the scene, and, at Paper Boi’s urgent request, find some weed.
As has been a prevailing theme this season—like Van and Darius two weeks ago after Drake’s New Year’s Eve mansion party—the characters walk aimlessly in the face of defeat, waiting to encounter the next roadblock, which often feels inevitable. This one ostensibly comes with flashing lights and wailing sirens—you immediately assume the worst. But instead of police, it’s one of those college carts that usher drunk kids around. (I’ve seen those before, and I’ve never felt worse for anyone than the drivers escorting drunkards.)
The real sense of malice comes from the extremely white fraternity they stumble upon when Darius smells weed—“That explains the citronella,” Darius adds. The address for the frat house is 1863, the year the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and a giant Confederate flag hangs above the frat’s living room couch. A group of pledges—all of them completely nude except for a burlap sack over their heads—stands in the center of the room. One of the frat boys—who, according to Atlanta’s captions, is called Prescott, which is a very good frat name—tells Paper Boi that he’s one of his two favorite rappers. The other is ... Post Malone. By the time Prescott makes the pledges bounce in place to the tune of D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” before escorting them out for a mud bath, Paper Boi’s bizarre humiliation has reached a fever pitch. There’s no better time for Earn and Paper Boi to have a long-overdue talk about their future.
Somehow, Earn is blindsided by Paper Boi’s exasperation: He pins most of the blame for the Pajama Jam shenanigans on Tracy, who pushed Violet down the stairs (Earn caught her, only to get slapped) after she spilled her drink on Paper Boi. But who made Paper Boi share a bed with someone having Lynchian, animalistic dreams in the first place? Earn’s failure is in his inability to understand the full weight of his responsibilities—not only to Paper Boi, it seems, but also to Van and everyone else around him. He pledged to help jump-start Paper Boi’s career, but it too often feels like the rapper himself is being hazed for it. Earn’s on an island of his own creation.
But Earn’s worst indignity is yet to come: On the drive back home, Earn decides to throw hands with Tracy, the man he sees as the catalyst for his failures. It wouldn’t be fair to call it a fight; Tracy hits Earn just enough to get him to slow down, and body slams him to the pavement as a final insult. Earn has to pick himself up, bruised and bloodied, and hop back in the car. Tracy couldn’t care less.
The divide between Paper Boi and Earn has never been more pointed. Atlanta often feels like it exists in narrative stasis—a series of surreal interludes that coalesce into an experience that, per Donald Glover’s explanation, is meant to depict what it’s like to be black in America—which makes this pronouncement all the more impactful. Atlanta has made a big change. Without Paper Boi or Van, what does Earn do with his life—and will Paper Boi succeed under the purview of a more experienced manager? Paper Boi’s time in the woods proved to be the existential break he needed, and you could argue the same for Darius in “Teddy Perkins.” Earn needs his own reality check. Perhaps it began when his ass hit the pavement.