Entertainment

Season 4, Episode 3, “Born 2 Die”


Brian Tyree Henry

Brian Tyree Henry
Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

Atlanta is great at saying the quiet part out loud when it comes to uncomfortable dynamics in the music industry. When Team Paper Boi has an interaction with someone with power, they’re often disrespected, even when the other party means well. (It all started with Earn’s radio friend and his n-word joke.) In “Born 2 Die,” Al has to deal with the slight of being pushed aside by a new generation of rap: white boys who rise up the charts on subpar skills thanks to unlimited resources and rapid industry acceptance. The show presents another view of how, even after a successful arena tour, the music industry is both a come-up and an existential letdown for someone like Al.

Both of the formulas presented by Bunk’s get-rich-quick seminar (the Chief Keef trajectory and the Young White Avatar) are dynamics that are totally a thing if any hip hop fan thinks it over for more than five seconds. The older vanguard of rappers have settled into other lanes in entertainment. Aside from Ice Cube’s family films, there’s Fast & Furious regular Ludacris, Power’s 50 Cent, and “Mr. He Keep A Job” Snoop Dogg. As for the YWAs, co-signs are a major part of up-and-coming rappers’ rise to mainstream fame. Atlanta previously hinted at rappers helping each other out with Paper Boi and Clark County’s partnership in season two (which many fans think was an unspoken nod to Childish Gambino and Chance the Rapper’s friendship). Most of the biggest mainstream rappers throughout the history of the art-form got a cosign from an elder while they were starting out. Enimen? Dre. G-Eazy? Lil Wayne. Jack Harlow? Kanye. (It’s a different genre, but Bieber? Usher, baby.)

In the end, both Al and Bunk make it to the Grammys off of their YWAs, with Yodel Kid and Benny, respectively. Their success is played as a way to manipulate the game that siphons off your culture and talent but will only pay you up to a point. But Al isn’t in the same mindset as Bunk and his colleagues. After Yodel Kid dies and sweeps his categories, there’s no celebration, with Al saying that managing made him feel “sick.” Coupled with Darius’ “Grammys ain’t for Black men,” the whole YWA journey just feels like a digression that left Al with a cool million and a bit of clout, both of which wouldn’t last very long. The rapper is left contemplating Earn’s thought: “It’s not about what feels good. It’s about what survives.” Can Paper Boi really build a legacy in an industry where the victors are decided by people like Benny and his dad?

After Earn’s therapy session in episode two, “Born 2 Die” continues to drop hints on just how successful Paper Boi has gotten. The closest that writer Jamal Olori comes to saying that Al has hit the mainstream is his arena tour, which is a step up from where he was in Europe. Still, there are so many questions to be answered. We haven’t seen Al or Van’s places (or much of Van at all—we want more Van, always more Van). And Earn mentioned renovating a condo that we haven’t look at. Atlanta’s domestic environs aren’t the first that I think of for the show, but they took up a good part of the earlier two seasons. I wouldn’t be mad if the writers continue dropping only breadcrumb-sized hints, but the homebody in me wants to see more day-to-day evidence of how far the group has come.

While Alfred’s storyline is focused on clout-chasing, Earn gets the runaround in a quest for a new client. In an attempt to avoid a PR blitz for a Karen client, he jumps on his boss’ example of a big client and says he can probably sign neo-soul king D’Angelo. The office scene is dispatched quickly and never brought back up, but in those two minutes the show gives a perfect parallel to Al’s adventures. You could argue the same system that allowed a racist incident to spin out into a book deal and fund a PR team for the racist is the same that would propel someone like Benny (who commodifies hip-hop culture) to the top of the charts over a more skilled descendant of the socio-economic inequalities that led to hip hop in the Bronx in the’70s. The way the camera stays zoomed in on Earn’s trademark “do y’all hear this?” expressions lets the scene stay light even as it comments on the broken state of his own industry. And the impact of such a short scene reminds me how much I’ll miss Atlanta as a show that points out the bullshit without being corny or sanctimonious.

Donald Glover

Donald Glover
Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

The gray cinder block room behind Rally’s sets up so many interesting questions, thanks in part to the framing by director Adamma Ebo (Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.). The chamber gets that bigger-on-the-inside feel in its great introduction, with the right and top sides of the vault door left unseen and Glover being shot from below so the ceilings look 15-feet-high. The bloodstain under the mat hints that Earn is about to be tested. Unfortunately, from the moment the secret hatch in the wall is revealed, the resolution of the storyline is only as strong as the viewer’s knowledge of D’Angelo’s struggles with his popular perception as a sex symbol and his aversion to industry execs being involved in his artistry. It’s a nice deep cut of a storyline. But episode one’s similar Blueblood arc was much more balanced within the runtime.

Three episodes in, it’s clear that one of Atlanta’s themes this season is building a legacy outside of traditional terms. Blueblood is brought back in after the premiere’s pensive scavenger hunt, but the Grammy hunters see the way he left the world as a shame. If they can’t get rich, they’d rather at least be known, and a funeral attended by less than 10 people is any fame-seeker’s worst nightmare. In this episode, Al tries it their way and feels uncomfortable; at the same time, Earn sees D’Angelo, a man who deeply struggled with his popular image, turned into a vaguely-defined commodity. There’s a national mood right now of redefining what success means under capitalism (racism, sexism, insert “-ism” here), and both of the cousins are slowly redefining themselves. I’m glad the character work is being done, even in a relatively mid episode.

Stray observations

  • Yodel Kid is played by Tucker Brown, but Mason Ramsey is now on TikTok with all the other 15-year-olds.
  • Judging by how hostile Earn’s boss is, that move to L.A. is probably happening.
  • I’m pro-autotune, but not autotuned yodeling. Break the machine.
  • The seminar leader’s line delivery kind of reminds me of Kirk Franklin (the “God Saved Me From The Trap” tee doesn’t help), who cosigned Tori Kelly.
  • I’ll save you a Google: It’s Rally’s on the West Coast and Checkers on the East Coast. Rally’s used to be owned by the same company as Carl’s Jr. and Hardees, but they were sold to Checkers in ’97. Besides the name, they have identical menus and checkerboard design.
  • Dasani would be my breaking point too. I’d also try the peanut butter, chicken-skin sandwich, so maybe I’m wrong.
  • Al wears a lot of BAPE when he’s meeting up with Benny. Is BAPE still a thing?
  • “Rickin’ And Rockin’” could at least become a duet trend with the right production, and I hate it here.



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