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“Do You Like Trees?” Breaking Down Episode 3 of ‘Atlanta’

Welcome to a London billionaire’s playhouse. Inside: a scammer on roller skates, an actual Nando’s, and a lot of white people with a lot of white guilt.

FX/Ringer illustration

Atlanta’s season premiere “Three Slaps” wasn’t even the most significant slap content of the past several days; much like the show’s narrative focus, things can change quickly around here. You might still be processing the haunting of Lake Lanier, but ready or not, Atlanta is keeping things moving in Europe. As this week’s grime music in the title card implies, we’re now in the Brexit-liberated city of London.

We open on Earn leading the crew on a walk through Hackney to meet up with Will, presumably an industry colleague of Earn’s. Will is going to introduce them to a billionaire investor who’s keen to mingle with Paper Boi. By the sounds of it, this investor, Fernando, has already financed some of Paper Boi’s exploits, and Earn believes there’s opportunity to extract even more from him. Perhaps a marijuana subscription service, with weed harvested by “real, authentic Mexicans,” as Darius suggests.

Oh yeah, Van is here too. A very intentional, slow pan of the camera reveals she’s still tagging along; Van sorta just showed up last week in Holland, and throughout the series, she’s often been relegated to the side. It feels like Atlanta’s writers are on the cusp of either correcting—or paying off—the underdevelopment of her character. For now, we just know that Lottie is posted up at her grandparents, and that a currently unemployed Van has a new boyfriend who is either unaware or OK with her taking an extended vacation to hang out with her baby’s daddy and ex-partner.

You have a picture in your head about what a billionaire’s house might look like. Fernando is here to prove that a billion dollars goes a lot further than you can even dream. At first, it seems like Earn entered the wrong address on Google Maps—the front of the place looks like it was bombed out in World War II. But Will comes down to fetch them and ushers the group through dim, narrow hallways, over shards of broken glass. Finally, they arrive at a rusty door, where Will enters a code, and voila—the entrance opens up into a swanky, stylish room with a party in full swing. All that back there was a “decoy house,” Darius surmises. But wait, there’s more: This guy legitimately has a personal Nando’s inside his apartment. “That’s hard as fuck, man,” Al says, for the first time of many.

This billionaire’s playground becomes a fun house for Atlanta’s quartet. Will brings Earn and Van to meet the artist, T.J., a young Black Brit who at best is a knockoff Jackson Pollock and at worst (read: in reality) a wannabe hypebeast influencer. T.J.’s art suckssssss, and Earn knows it, but Will is convinced he’s a genius—so much so that he’s already spent $500,000 housing T.J. and is considering buying into the kid’s plan to expand the rented space into an artists’ co-op. Will would cover the costs of everything: the shelter, studio space, food, laundry, and even drugs, as T.J. makes clear. In return, the co-op would use a revolutionary new business model to make its money back: selling subscriptions. Earn, apparently viewed as a savvy business mind having successfully managed Paper Boi, knows the idea is worse than T.J.’s art—the only way he can escape the impromptu pitch meeting is to claim that he needs to talk to Doja Cat’s people first.

Elsewhere, a misunderstanding over the meaning of the word “trees” has led to a surprising bond between Alfred and Fernando. (And no, he’s not the founder of Nando’s.) Al has an intense fondness for a certain kind of trees, but Fernando doesn’t mean those kinds of trees—he means a literal tree in his courtyard, one of the oldest in London. It’s a glimpse into the eccentricity of Fernando, who earlier spoke about the need to build this discreet enclave as a creative way “to protect” himself from unwanted attention. That notion comes to fruition not long after, when Fernando and some friends host Alfred in a private game of poker. In typical, surreal Atlanta fashion, we’re treated to a bizarre story from Fernando in which he encounters the ghost of a naked, soaking wet Black man who cleansed him with a spiritual “connection” before excreting a “layer of ectoplasm” all over him. (Ghosts seem to be an early theme of this season.) After Al understandably concludes that a ghost ejaculated all over Fernando, he promptly lays down four aces and bilks the billionaire out of the rest of his chips. But instead of paying, Fernando exits the room without a word. Soon, the rest of his friends do the same, and we’re left to wonder whether Paper Boi just played a game of poker with himself.

The oddities don’t stop there. Darius, perusing the appetizers and bar, tries to get the attention of a woman, only to be immediately told “No” with the flaunting of an engagement ring. The man was simply asking for a bottle of gin, but go off, lady. Embarrassed, the woman apologizes and introduces herself as MK. My mistake, she says: “I get hit on by Black men a lot … Black men love Asian women, soooo.” Now, reader, make no mistake—MK is wildly out of pocket for saying this unprompted. Darius, though, takes it in stride, cracks a couple jokes, and ends the encounter gracefully. A white dude nearby named Socks, (not “Sox”) approaches shortly after and denounces MK’s comment. “Oh, nah, that’s lightweight,” Darius responds, but Socks is having none of it: “I got you,” he says. In no time the entire party has heard about MK’s comments. “Had to tell ‘em about the racism, man,” Socks explains, which leads to a) multiple white women crying, one of whom sobs, “I’m not OK,” b) some dude calling MK the c-word, and c) Socks describing the experience as “some 12 Years a Slave shit.” Darius can only muster one word in response: “Whaaaaat?”

Prior to the show’s premiere last week, Atlanta writer Stephen Glover said that Season 3 “is about curses and the curse of whiteness. White people have blind spots, obviously to race and things that are going on. They’re affected by this, too. It’s not just Black people who are going through this and having a hard time. You’re actually affected by it, too.” Glover cited the first episode as doing “a perfect job of showing how both sides are affected by this,” and I suppose this episode falls cringingly within that description, too. These white people are devastated that racism happened in their presence; lost in “ultimate white guilt,” as one of the few non-white attendees puts it to Darius, they blow by the response of the actual victim of the incident and violently ambush MK for her “crime.”

Will is just trying to figure out this landscape, too. As it turns out, MK is his fiancée—or rather was his fiancée, since he makes the quick decision to break off the engagement in light of her actions. As for Earn, he’s left with the choice of whether or not to take advantage of Will’s guilt. “White kids be scammin’ all the fuckin’ time, hell you think TikTok is?” Paper Boi tells Earn. “Shit, Black kids need to scam more.” Not long after, T.J. himself thanks Earn in advance for putting in a good word to Will. “If this fool wants to pay for the culture, then let him. I see how these white folks are all the time, what’s wrong with me just showing them who I am?”

Just before circling back with Will, Earn stops in the hall and gazes upon a framed 19th-century photograph of three white businessmen holding up a large banking check. Behind them, on the edge of the frame, stands a young Black man. The camera zooms in. Will approaches from down the hall; Earn tells him the co-op is a good idea, but that T.J. needs a manager—normally it’s 30 percent of all profit, but Earn will do it for 25, since he considers Will a friend.

The twisted tour through England’s inner turmoil is cut short … by Paper Boi taking a chain saw to Fernando’s precious tree. (Fernando wasn’t a ghost, just a dude who refuses to pay up when he loses in poker.) In a rage, Paper Boi grabs boxes of Nando’s from the hands of confused partygoers and heads for the door.

The group makes it into the car Earn has called and, after a beat, bursts into laughter. What else can you do? Only thing is that … Socks is somehow in the car. And Van is not. Last we saw Van, she was pushing multiple guests into a pool while cackling like a Disney witch. Earn told her he was worried about her, and at this point, I think we should be too.

Amid this new European fish out of water tale, Van is perhaps the biggest question mark of all. For the first two seasons, we watched her hold things down with some semblance of responsibility even if she, uh, pissed her teaching gig away. Now the tables have turned: Earn is the breadwinner, with Paper Boi having ascended and crossed over into a world of wealth and cursed whiteness. None of them recognize where they are anymore, but only Van is lost.