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“Step Into the Light”: Breaking Down Episode 9 of ‘Atlanta’

In Season 3’s penultimate episode, ‘Atlanta’ stubbornly sticks to its recurring one-off format, and the latest stand-alone narrative offers an interesting take on the precarity of racial identity

FX/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A fact that may or may not be confirmed: When roughly translated to standard English, the title of the penultimate episode of Atlanta’s third season, “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” actually means “choosing time.”

This is a lie. I’m lying. I just couldn’t help myself. It’s easier this way.

Let’s be honest: There’s one entry left in the season, everything’s all jumbled, installment no. 9 is another one-off, Donald Glover and Co. won’t stop doing these every other episode, and a recapper’s got to make sense of it somehow. So “choosing time” was the pick. My apologies. Quibble if you’d like, though I’d ask, what’s the optimal idiom? The alternative description for both an outing about (spoiler alert) a character picking sides, and an audience waiting for the return of a series that may no longer exist?

So, “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga.” It’s a racial horror, a story similar to the reparations-centered fourth episode “The Big Payback,” except for a few key differences. Instead of tracking a white man as he grapples with Judgment Day, the figure of focus in this case is a high-yella teen who’s spent his life blending into the sunny side of the color line. (The hook is how many ways the boy can be made to twist, squirm, fuss, and writhe in pursuit of racial equilibrium.) Atlanta’s critical cognoscenti won’t have much trouble pegging this outing as an extension of the long-lived tragic mulatto trope—the mixed-race protagonist torn between two forlorn worlds—but if we’re being honest, “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga” is just a bit too cynical, precise, and funny to fit that kind of bill.

How the episode connects to the rest of the series is unclear; whether it stuck the landing is not. Your position on the latter will probably be dependent on your ability to tolerate the former.

The first shots of the episode are of objects in a room, the trappings of Gen Z white boydom: a Post Malone print, merch from Jake Paul’s 2016 comedy tour, a picture from a sporting event with a bunch of screaming, foam-fingered preppies, a poster of a nondescript blond in a thin bikini. Aaron (Tyriq Withers), a senior at Stonewall Jackson High School, is playing a fictional online shooting game called Flamethrower 2. At this point in the episode, his race is left for the audience to interpret on their own, a decision codified in part through the choice to film in black and white.

As the game peaks, so does a chorus of shit-talking (Aaron’s Black counterparts believe him to be white). When he receives a text from his girlfriend announcing that she’s been admitted to a local university, ASE, Aaron snaps, slithering seamlessly into the role of bigoted heel. When he loses the contest, he lets loose a series of slurs, literal ape noises, and gauche banana jabs, then turns off the console to sulk.

The next morning Aaron’s father, who’s Black, is driving him to school in his pickup, when a story about a 15-year-old Black boy, killed by police in a routine traffic stop, blares from the radio. His pops expresses concern. Aaron doesn’t see the problem. He’d be alive if he’d followed orders. “Boy, your white friends really got you confused,” the patriarch laughs, “don’t they?” The son’s social circle is outright alabaster; it’s not exactly clear whether Aaron’s school friends are unaware of his heritage or simply choose to ignore it. (He’s got a slight tan and a bone-straight curl pattern.) While his girlfriend and his boys are eager to celebrate their shared admission to ASE, Aaron is cagey about his plans. He doesn’t have enough money. His dad won’t even fill out the FAFSA, let alone take out any loans.

This week’s Liam Neeson award for random celebrity guest goes to the late YouTuber, lifestyle guru, and misogynist Kevin Samuels, who appears about a third of the way through as a magnate named Robert Shea Lee, who is the heir to a multimillion-dollar hair-product empire. (That Samuels died just last week makes the appearance all the more discombobulating.) Lee, an alum of the high school, pledges to donate a million dollars to the institution, change its name from celebrating that of a “degenerate slave owner”—Stonewall Jackson—to honoring “one of the richest Black men this side of the Mississippi” (himself) and, lastly, pay the college tuition of every senior … who is Black.

“This is what they did to Black people in the ’50s, right?” one of Aaron’s white friends protests. “I mean, they already go to school for free.” The strings, which mark the soundscape throughout, exude an increasingly off-kilter quality. Aaron looks panicked.

He heads to the auditorium, where a crowd is waiting to verify their Blackness to a tribunal led by Lee. A South Asian dude with a durag, who’s waiting to try his hand at the whole Blackness thing, tells Aaron that Lee, “doesn’t believe that ADOS necessitates Blackness when you’re really talking about the culture of Black in America.” While they’re talking, the tribunal (which includes the standup comedian George Wallace at his most beguiling) unceremoniously calls Aaron in. The auditorium is pitch black, save for the outline of a spotlight. The tribunal instructs Aaron to “step into the light.” The inquiries lobbed to certify his ancestry include the following gems:

Name me six things that mix with Hennessy?
Bobby and Whitney or Will and Jada?
Where’s the first place you take your cousin when he gets out of prison?
Your momma or your mother?
Mustard or mayonnaise?
Orange or grape Kool-Aid?

The camera follows Aaron’s movement and expressions as he performs for the tribunal, only cutting from his figure a few seconds after he utters the glorious non sequitur of a response, “If her foot is in it, it’s good.” The tribunal remains unmoved, refusing to give him a scholarship. “How long you been coasting on your whiteness, son?” Lee asks, just before the kid storms out.

Back with his father, Aaron is hot. (For what one imagines to be the first time in his life, he uses the word “colorist.”) As Aaron complains, he notices his girlfriend flirting with another guy on Instagram and calls her out. She says she knows he’s not going to college and decides to break up with him. The sequence caps a run of close-ups in the middle third of the episode—momentary shots of faces as they laugh, frown, scream, and seethe.

And seething is exactly how Aaron responds to the split. He leans all the way in on the disaffected play. In a dreamlike montage, Aaron constructs a real-life flamethrower and exits his home, ready to burn the world. When he arrives at the newly erected Robert S. Lee school sign, he meets a similarly alienated kid who also happens to tote a flamethrower. His name is Felix, he’s Nigerian but grew up abroad, and Lee’s tribunal rejected his Blackness too. Where most would see Felix as an ally, Aaron, ever the lord, mutters that he can see why they turned the emigree down. “You know where you’re from, you can trace your ancestry, you even have a country and identity to fall back on.”

Felix looks at Aaron and responds (wonderfully): “You look like fucking Frankie Muniz.”

Unable to take an L with grace, Aaron makes an awful joke about Felix’s skin tone, sparking a flamethrower duel between the two would-be arsonists (Felix burns down the marquee). For a few minutes they chase each other, through alleys, buildings, and courtyards. Just as Felix has Aaron pinned, a cop fires a shot to his chest.

By the top of the next scene, Felix has somehow survived and is being wheeled on a gurney toward an ambulance. Lee, who’s just arrived to see the damage done to his investment, tells the wounded teen that “getting shot by the police is the Blackest thing you can do.” He promises to take care of Felix’s medical bills, pays the EMTs to take him to the “White” Grady Hospital (not Emory), and gives him a scholarship check for his troubles. Then the cops take Aaron away and the screen fades, momentarily, to black.

It’s an interesting take. For probably the first time this season, in “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” the stand-alone narrative doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a space of surety. The episode presents most often as an intra-communal dialogue, filled with purposefully flawed, twisted, and unreliable narrators. Racial identity in this case is framed as messy and contradictory, inconsistent and ever-changing—it matters until it doesn’t and is ultimately dependent on time, place, circumstance, and the individual. Race exists, yes, but in relative precarity.

In the final seconds of the episode, the timeline moves forward a year. Aaron has, um … chosen a side: The brother’s got a skintight fade, a part on his temple, and Cuban linx that hang below the collar of his shirt. He seems to be working at a department store. We see him hollering at a customer (the only Black woman to appear in the episode). As he tries to get her number, his white ex walks by and recognizes him in shock. The former partners exchange a little small talk. Aaron periodically pulls out his brush to tend to his erstwhile waves. The conversation runs its course, and his ex turns to leave.

“Hey, can I be honest with you?” Aaron asks, before pausing briefly. “I’ve never been more attracted to you in my life,” he finishes, turning to the camera.

What does the last scene mean for the rest of the series? I’ve got no idea. Is it a commentary on Black men in general, biracial men in particular, or even Donald himself (he of “Are you afraid of Black women” and possible-Asian-fetish fame)? Maybe it’s a statement on Black artistry and the draw and danger of the mainstream—read: white—gaze? Maybe it’s about the inevitable fruitlessness of both racial passing and racial performance, of trying to outwit two kinds of inheritance?

The thing that most sticks out at this stage in the season is: Does it even matter? In an age when film and television worship the idols of plot, interconnectivity, and theory, does Atlanta have to have a point beyond whatever was last on screen? Do we need to know the exact states of Van’s or Darius’s headspaces? Or if Al and Earn can balance creative ambition and financial stability (or a lack thereof)? The show was gone for four years. A lot has changed. That it took this form in its return seems to be an argument in and of itself. If the penultimate episode is any indication, the message is that there’s no right way to do this, that everything’s context dependent. In “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” as seems to be the new normal on Atlanta, race is fickle and right is an abstraction.