‘Atlanta’: The art of the scam

OPINION: In episode three, the crew finds themselves in London at a billionaire's party, where someone is either scamming or getting scammed.

LaKeith Stanfield as Darius, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles, Donald Glover as Earn Marks, Zazie Beetz as Van in "Atlanta." (Oliver Upton/FX)

The gang seems to be back together in episode three, “The Old Man and the Tree.” The title is a take-off on Ernest Hemingway’s legendary novel, The Old Man and the Sea, and the old man in this episode does resemble old Hemingway a bit, but whatever. 

As Earn, Alfred, Van and Darius move down the street together, their camaraderie is easy and fun. We feel like the fifth member of their crew, and I’m getting vibes from high school and college when I was in small crews that you’d sometimes find walking down the street laughing as we looked for a party. Sometimes the best part of the night is walking to the party with your crew. 

They’re in London this week, continuing their tour of Europe, to attend a party at a billionaire’s house. Even though the episode starts with the foursome together, in this story, they have four very different journeys through this one party, so different that they seem to experience four different parties. But all of their journeys through Fernando’s amazing house are linked by one concept: scamming. In every mini-story, someone is scamming someone.

Van is first in on the action—within seconds of arriving, she pockets a small African statue, stealing from her host. This stunning break in decorum is met with no response—Earn doesn’t confront her, she isn’t caught, and she doesn’t steal more. In drama, when you put a gun onstage, it has to go off, as in, when something significant happens, it must lead to something. But here it doesn’t. Again, we see Atlanta breaking the rules and still winning. Later, Van breaks decorum again by shoving people into a pool for her own amusement.

Paper Boi looks like he’s come upon the best night of his life—Fernando has a fast-food fried chicken restaurant in his house. Paper Boi quickly eats up for free and then settles in at the poker table. He wins the one hand they play, but when the bill comes, and Fernando owes him, the billionaire hides in his bedroom like a petulant child, silently refusing to pay. (Remember the image of white people afraid of having to pay Blacks when you get to episode four.) Paper Boi got four aces but ended up losing a big stack of cash and getting scammed out of thousands of dollars.

Zazie Beetz as Van, Donald Glover as Earn Marks in “Atlanta.” (Oliver Upton/FX)

Earn gets pulled into what amounts to a confidence game when he meets TJ, a young visual artist whose terrible at art but good at scamming Will, a friend of Fernando’s who also has money to burn. TJ is literally rollerskating through the house, a sort of on-the-nose symbol of him skating through life (it could also be a reference to the slang use of skating, which can mean not working). His art is all over the place—he’s working on a bad reference to Damien Hirst when they walk in, there’s a bad reference to Basquiat on the other side of the room, and the stack of TVs is a bad reference to Nam June Paik. 

TJ proudly shows them a man in a Supreme shirt—a bad reference to maybe Paul McCarthy or Ryan McGinley. But somehow, Will is sponsoring him, perhaps because he wants to be cool or believes in him, or it’s white guilt—maybe all of it. Will tries to pull Earn into some cockamamie art subscription scheme they’re pushing where they’ll turn the house into an “influencer incubator,” which is a hilariously horrible idea. 

But this season, Earn is not getting played. Now he’s a master of the game. He outplayed the promoter in episode two, and this week, he continues his undefeated streak by flipping their request by saying yes, sure, he’ll join them but at an exorbitant rate—25 percent instead of a more standard 10 to 15 percent, which means he would become the biggest scammer in the group. The mark has become the con. Earn, so far, has made the biggest character leap of the group, and it’s interesting watching him wield his power this season. Given that the final moment of last season was him slipping a gun to someone else and thus graduating from playee to player, we should watch him this season to see how his new role shapes their journey.

Darius is also part of a scam, though it has nothing to do with money. He’s used as a pawn in a racism shell game. Early in the party, he meets a beautiful young woman who immediately assumes he’s coming on to her because he’s Black and she’s Asian, and she claims Black guys tend to like her. It’s a microaggression, but one that would be quickly forgotten, except a white guy named Socks overhears the conversation and later makes a huge deal of it to a rapt audience of white people. 

Socks exaggerates what happened, bizarrely likening it to 12 Years A Slave. When Darius says no, that’s not what happened at all, they all ignore him—another microaggression. He’s become a prop to them—“the victim of racism”—but they don’t even see him. Darius seems invisible as white people cry or burst with rage as they listen to Socks’ story about him. No one cares to hear it from Darius or ask what he thinks or feels. 

Socks whips them into such a righteous fury that when the Asian woman wafts by, the crowd goes after her. In this country, we’re used to stories of white mobs attacking a Black person over a lie about an incident where a white person was supposedly wronged. In this scene, we have a white mob attacking an Asian person over a lie about an incident where a Black person was supposedly wronged. It’s still a white mob—scary—but they’ve been scammed into attacking her. She ends up losing her fiancé and crying on the sidewalk outside the party.

It’s all part of a weird night at a party, a trope that Atlanta has taken on before. But it’s interesting that while this season is supposed to be a trip through Europe, this episode bears no traces of that. Where episode two could have only happened in Holland, this party could have occurred almost anywhere. Almost none of it speaks to them being in Europe. It seems more like a trip to Billionaire Island where almost anything is possible and weird things are assured from your host, who’s both a man and a baby. And even though he wanted to bring everyone together so they could grow, it has become a snake pit where everyone is either scamming or getting scammed.

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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