‘Atlanta’: Can you see me now?

OPINION: The key line in episode 5, 'Cancer Attack,' is this: 'People want to be seen. Doesn’t matter what for.'

Donald Glover as Earn Marks in "Atlanta." (Oliver Upton/FX)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

What if Atlanta did a whodunit episode? Something that plays on the tropes of police investigators searching for a suspect and finding him, and interrogating him. But it’s Atlanta, so it’s Black people interrogating a white person. Episode 5, “Cancer Attack,” is just that, and it’s in the Atlanta tradition of deep comedy where the guys parody tactics and commonalities we’re used to seeing from police in TV and movies. 

The crew gets their prime suspect alone in a room, and they try to play good cop/bad cop, but the suspect is smart, elusive and continually playing on their emotions to drag them off course. He asks Earn, “Were you told you sound white as a kid?” which is like Atlanta’s version of Hannibal Lecter making Clarice tell him about her childhood in The Silence of the Lambs

He asks for a cigarette and then reveals that he’s never smoked one before. The typical game of the cops in a battle of wits against a wacky, brilliant killer is done in miniature. The guys feel certain that he’s taken the phone, but he’s too smart to be nailed by them. The key line in the whole episode is this: “People want to be seen. Doesn’t matter what for.” That’s at the core of the whole charade—the desire to be seen by people you deem important. 

The man who is truly at the center of the charade is dying to be seen by Paper Boi and them by any means necessary. That man is the true phone thief: Socks. The episode’s title, “Cancer Attack,” does not truly refer to the Make-A-Wish kid who supposedly has a cancer attack. No, the cancer that attacks them is Socks.

Have you ever had a toxic friend who was so insecure and dying to be part of your story that they manufactured a drama and then participated in helping you solve it just so they could be close to you? That’s what Socks does, and throughout the episode, I couldn’t help but recall a similar moment I went through about 25 years ago. 

LaKeith Stanfield as Darius and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles in “Atlanta.” (Rob Youngson/FX)

I was living in a Brooklyn apartment where, for some reason, my girlfriend and I threw lots of parties. It felt like every week, she was cooking a bunch of great food, and I was manning the stereo, and we had people up in there dancing and mingling until the wee hours. This guy I didn’t particularly like came to all of them, and he always arrived too early and stayed too late even though he wasn’t at that level of friendship. He was clearly hoping to become more of a friend. I wasn’t interested.

At one of those parties, late in the night, I realized my phone was missing. This is back when we all had dark-gray Startac flip phones that resembled what they used on Star Trek. After a few moments of searching for it, he noticed what I was doing, and he started helping me look for it. He seemed so committed to helping me, which made me appreciate him and start to feel closer to him. I needed help, and he was there for me. Maybe I was wrong about him. Maybe he was a good guy after all. Eventually, I found the phone, but then a few days later, I thought back over the night, and I remembered where I had left the phone, and I realized that…he must have hidden it. I was so mad. 

Anyway, this is what Socks did to the crew. We met him two episodes ago in London, and he’s clearly so eager to be down that he pocketed Paper Boi’s phone so he could be part of the search for the thief and prove his bona fides—he shouts, “I’m the white Liam Neeson!” which is hysterical in its nonsensicality in that he’s threatening a suspect even though he knows they did nothing wrong. 

Socks is so deeply ingrained in wanting to be one of the guys that he almost says the n-word. This catches everyone’s attention because even in the midst of this crisis, they still have enough energy left over to police a white man who says the n-word. Anyway, Socks is the cancer that attacks. Socks is that toxic friend, that malignant cancerous tumor in their crew, who turns their world upside down just so he can be part of their drama and be closer to them. People want to be seen—doesn’t matter for what. Socks wants to be seen, and the drama of the missing phone helps him accomplish that. 

A few disconnected thoughts: The episode starts with Earn in full control of the event, continuing this season’s theme that he’s become a master of the managerial game. I love the moment in the dressing room when Earn shows that he knows Paper Boi so well he can finish his sentences.

Paper Boi: “Hey, you got my…?”

Earn: “Here you go.” 

Paper Boi: “Can you get me a…?”

Earn: “There’s a ginger beer onstage.”

He’s a professional manager now.

Also, I missed Van this episode. She’s off somewhere having her own trip, and that’s cool, but her absence is conspicuous. She seems to be off in her own social orbit this season, which leads me to expect that maybe there will be an entire episode focused on her alone.

Also, watching Paper Boi gear up to go onstage, I was reminded that this show is strictly about his life offstage. You know Atlanta wouldn’t show rocking a show, and, of course, the moment he gets onstage, instead of showing Paper Boi and the crowd the way so many other shows would, Atlanta puts the spotlight on Darius dancing in the wings. 

Darius’s dance is a little wild and yet totally beautiful and super Black. It made me think about the freedom that Atlanta’s actors and creators have in making a show that they know will be consumed by almost everyone who’s Black and cool, which gives them the liberty to do things like dance in a totally free and wild yet rhythmic way, knowing that the audience that they’re performing for will totally get it.

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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