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School Daze in ‘Atlanta’: Earn and Alfred Were Always This Way

A childhood flashback in the penultimate episode of “Robbin’ Season” brilliantly illustrates the tenuous dynamic of the cousins’ relationship

Young Earn in ‘Atlanta’ FX/Ringer illustration

Atlanta’s unifying theme this year is “Robbin’ Season,” a title that evokes the way the series’ characters have been robbed in the literal sense — the fast-food restaurant gunfight in the pilot; Paper Boi’s drug dealer snatching his money — and in more abstract ways related to the loss of time, pride, and autonomy. Unfortunately for Paper Boi, the failures of his manager-cousin Earn have exacerbated those personal indignities, in all its forms. Through all of Atlanta’s somewhat interwoven surrealist threads, it’s become clear that Earn is the rock on Paper Boi’s Sisyphean journey as a rapper. Well-intentioned people — even family — can be dead weight.

Last week’s “North of the Border” might’ve been the breaking point for Earn and Paper Boi’s professional (and personal) relationship, when the rapper finally put his foot down and dismissed his ill-equipped manager. How will this split affect their respective journeys, and what does Atlanta look like when its two lead protagonists are at an impasse? That answer is on hold until next week’s finale; Thursday’s penultimate episode, “FUBU,” is about how the dynamics of their relationship were first planted. That means [extreme Pitbull voice] we have to go back in time.

“FUBU” introduces us to Earn as a young, insecure high-schooler (weren’t we all?) shopping with his mom at a thrift store, where he finds a FUBU jersey on the sales rack and pleads with her to buy it. She does, and Earn is so excited to wear the jersey to school that he’s eager for the bus to arrive, a sensation I cannot relate to. But the fuzzy feeling and potential for validation are short-lived: Another kid, Devin, is wearing a FUBU jersey that looks slightly different. Leading theory: One of their jerseys is a fake. We know it’s probably Earn’s, since he was shopping at a thrift store and generally looks shook. The rest of “FUBU” sets up a ticking clock for that jersey reveal — the school awaits the arrival of a kid named Johnny, who knows how to identify knockoffs — and lets young Earn fester in his anxiety and mounting dread.

Paper Boi — back when he was always referred to as Alfred — is there, too, exhibiting a knack for hustling others and understanding his role in the system at an early age. He calmly talks his way out of any serious trouble in the principal’s office for snatching calculators. You can tell just by the way he talks with the principal that they’re both treading familiar ground in that office. The scene serves as a key distinction between Alfred and Earn that goes back to their youth: One knows how to game the system and the other is trying anything to validate himself within it. (Remember how Earn struggled to spend his newly acquired money anywhere except a strip club?)

At school, Earn goes to his cousin for advice. “People try to come at you, just deny it,” Alfred tells him. “Confidence is the key, aight?” These are pretty basic instructions that, naturally, Earn has a hard time following. Before Earn is severely roasted by the other kids, Alfred steps in with a pretty half-assed excuse for why the school’s resident fashion tastemaker, Johnny, is lying about the real jersey having a “Made in China” tag. “Of course this fool’s gonna say ‘Made in China,’” Alfred says. “He’s Chinese.” (Johnny, by the way, is Filipino.) However, because of Alfred’s innate confidence in the moment, Earn avoids humiliation and Devin takes all the flak. As Earn hops on the bus without any worries, Devin is heckled and tormented. Earn’s reaction is a mix of sympathy and relief.

The exchange explains Earn and Paper Boi’s strained relationship in the present — just replace jerseys and schoolyard bullies with, well, trying to make that paper. But “FUBU” has an ancillary message that could serve as a mantra for Earn, Alfred, and, honestly, people in general: You never know what others are going through, or what baggage they’re carrying with them. On a subsequent day after the FUBU snafu, the principal announces that Devin has died by suicide, implying some family troubles at home because of a divorce, which explains why he was so adamant to tell classmates the jersey was real, and special, because his dad had bought it for him. Meanwhile, there are other stories beneath the surface. Another student, Denisha, comes to school the day of Earn’s jersey reckoning completely despondent; the next time we see her, she’s the happiest person in class. Is it bipolarism or family problems? We just don’t know. The teachers aren’t exempt, either: An obese substitute teacher is ridiculed by the school’s class clown for his weight, and it cuts very deep. We never see the teacher again, but I couldn’t help but wonder, Is that guy going to be OK, too? Heck, why is that class clown such an asshole?

These aren’t the only characters who have been left in the dark: When you think about it, we haven’t spent that much time with Earn, Paper Boi, Darius, and Van all together this season. Few episodes have dealt with the characters in an ensemble — we’ve had stand-alone installments in which Paper Boi has gotten a haircut and had an existential crisis in the woods, Van has partied on New Year’s Eve with her girls, and Darius has just tried to pick up a damn piano before getting trapped in the hellscape that was “Teddy Perkins.” But hitting pause on certain characters for weeks on end (when’s the last time we spent quality time with Earn?) doesn’t mean their lives have been put on hold. The fleeting moments the audience has been privy to have only served to highlight the personal and financial obstacles that dictate their lives.

“Robbin’ Season” has been a slog for all the characters, in other words. The issues have crescendoed with Earn and Alfred’s newly minted breakup. But maybe next week’s finale will shine a spotlight on something we haven’t even considered — remember when Season 1’s finale ended with the reveal that Earn was living in a storage unit? Unearthing another previously unseen obstacle could be the framework that brings Atlanta’s core four protagonists back into one another’s orbit, rather than pulling them further apart. Perhaps the end result of Atlanta’s unnerving second season, and the theme that will drive the story from here, will be something more universal: empathy.