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“Stop All of This Bacchanal!”: Breaking Down Episode 7 of ‘Atlanta’

After the third stand-alone episode this season, this much is clear: No one knows what kind of show ‘Atlanta’ wants to be anymore

FX/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

From the very first episode of Atlanta, the show signaled its intent to break with traditional, episodic television. The pilot starts out simple enough: We meet our principal characters and acquaint ourselves with the main character’s struggle. But toward the end of the episode, on a city bus sometime after dark, something changes. With Earn’s daughter Lottie asleep on his lap, he’s free to daydream. The lights flicker. A bowtied man who looks like he’s from one of those infomercials that only airs in the wee hours of the morning is suddenly sitting in the seat right beside Earn, offering life advice and a Nutella sandwich, both of which Earn refuses. The man grows more insistent, only to abruptly get off the bus and disappear into the night. At this point, the audience is undoubtedly thinking: Why was he there? Will he be back? What was the point of the Nutella sandwich?

The exchange on the bus was strange, nearly senseless, but refreshing in its boldness. Now, in Atlanta’s third season, some fans are coming around to the undeniable truth: in favor of its prized weirdness, the show has eschewed making narrative sense altogether. The Nutella sandwiches became cold opens, and then wholesale changes to the episodic structure, and finally, the whole show is a Nutella sandwich.

The latest episode of Atlanta takes place in New York. This time, we center on a boy named Sebastian (“Bash”), whose parents are pretty well-off: Their penthouse has floor-to-ceiling windows, they’ve got a late model Range Rover, and they can afford a live-in nanny. Of course, there are all the little cosmic imbalances that Atlanta has trained your eye for, although they’ve become less remarkable over the years. The dad, a meek Scott Baio look-alike, jogs in a sleek Nike Tech tracksuit while listening to “Black Harlow” by Sada Baby. Yes, it’s sort of weird that Bash, a sandy blonde Pottery Barn baby in RRL school attire, speaks in Trinidadian patois and won’t eat anything without a dollop of spicy mango curry chilling in the fridge. It’s the nanny, Sylvia, who made it—who we discover has just died at the beginning of the episode.

What follows is an episode about the deepening childcare crisis and why you should care about it, or a short story about how a child can be more comfortable with grief than an adult, or the preamble to a Changeling-type mystery-drama. With Atlanta, all of these are equally likely. Mom and Dad take Bash to a Trinidadian funeral, but more pressingly, the show emphasizes, a white family goes to a Black funeral. The Baio look-alike balks when he meets Sylvia’s daughter Joy, who doesn’t speak in a way he’s used to. He balks when he has to leave his Range Rover in a lot for Joy’s teenage nephew to valet. He balks when the attendees sing “Trini 2 De Bone,” a happy song, at a funeral.

The mom’s primary role is to gape at the transformation that’s taken place within Bash right under their noses: He hardly notices how loud and expressive these people are! Not only that, he knows all their little sayings (“You know me ‘eart”). He’s doing that call-and-answer “Yes, Lord” thing with the pastor. This has about as much comedic potential as you would imagine, all of which has been wrung dry by the time Princess, another one of Sylvia’s daughters, takes the pulpit to interrupt a traditional limbo dance being performed in memoriam.

“Stop all of this bacchanal, stop it!” she demands. At this point, we’ve learned a lot about Sylvia’s life through her death. She danced with the Alvin Ailey Company. She wasn’t just Bash’s nanny, but a dedicated childcare professional, a matriarch of the community, sacrificing herself to prop up the next generation. But with so much talk of sacrifice in the name of the greater good, who paid the price? Princess raises her voice until it cracks under the stress of denial and anger. She slaps the casket with an open palm. Someone shouts her down. Someone shouts him down. And then every “Black funeral” trope comes pouring out at once.

Great grandma tries to climb into the casket with her favorite niece, screaming “Take me with you!” and waving her handkerchief in surrender. Elders alternately bicker and fall out in grief. A child turns into an Edvard Munch painting over the sudden rush of loud noises. A white guy with a bluetooth headset films the fight that spontaneously breaks out, shouting “WorldStar, WorldStar!”

It gets worse: Just as Bash and his parents are about to escape the commotion, a man in a paperboy cap stands up and begins to apologize on behalf of his fellow Blacks. Catching his white guests with an explanation just as they were turning heel, he says that grief does the same things to us as it does to them: “This is how we sad.” None of this is funny, nor revelatory, perhaps at best just compellingly odd.

There’s hardly any discussion among the characters as to what they experienced—just that the mom would like a more “metropolitan” nanny next time, and also for Bash to learn Mandarin. The white family goes home, gets ready for bed, and begins to return to their lives. Then there’s an aggressive knocking at the door in the middle of the night: a mysterious figure wants to leave a family portrait of Sylvia and Bash behind. Coupled with the revelation that Bash wants to grow up and “play steel pan like Uncle Samuel”—no relation to anyone the parents know—the eerie resolution is somewhat clear, provided you’ve been in the mindset of watching a horror short this whole time. (I wasn’t.) Your children are not your own anymore. The episode slinks away with a Peele-ified rendition of “Trini 2 De Bone,” as Baio look-alike is left speechless under pale fluorescent lighting.

Perhaps he’ll find the answers he’s looking for on the coming episode of Atlanta, depending on what kind of show it decides to be next week.