‘Atlanta’: Lost in space

OPINION: In the show's weirdest episode yet, Paper Boi finds himself in a duel with reality while on a drug-fueled odyssey in Amsterdam. And Liam Neeson is there! Or is he?

Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles in "Atlanta." (Coco Olakunle/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.

In a show filled with weird episodes that deviate from TV norms whenever they want, this episode, “New Jazz,” may be the weirdest one of them all. This fits because they’re in Amsterdam on a weed high. 

We start with Paper Boi and Darius doing space cakes, which is a super-concentrated marijuana edible that’s known to launch people into bizarre experiences. Of course, the episode in Amsterdam would be focused on a drug trip because that’s what Americans have long associated with Amsterdam—long before marijuana was legal in parts of America, it was legal in Amsterdam. The first time I walked into a shop in Amsterdam and saw marijuana being sold and consumed freely like any other product, it blew my mind. I walked around the city high all day long and ate a giant pizza. The city has long felt like a wild EuroDisney for people who like to get high. But Paper Boi gets so high that he has a crazy journey where we’re not exactly sure what’s real and what’s not. But just like at the beginning of the episode, in the end, Paper Boi ends up paying the price for everything that happens, both literally and figuratively.

Did he really run into Liam Neeson, or was that a figment of his imagination? They’re at a place called Cancel Club. Sounds more like a figment of his imagination, but it’s hard to tell when exactly we move from stuff that really happened to stuff that Paper Boi imagined. Either way, the real Liam Neeson showed up on the set of Atlanta and agreed to act as himself and talk about an incident that almost got him canceled (or, I guess, did get him canceled as far as some people are concerned). And Neeson said, on a Black show, in a moment where he’s playing himself, that he’s mad at Black people for that whole incident. I respect the courage to know that people will know he’s kidding. 

Or is he? In one of the best lines of the season, he says: “One of the best and worst things about being white is we don’t have to learn anything if we don’t want to.” So real. Season 3 has put some really deep lines in the mouths of white characters, from the white man in the boat at the beginning of “Three Slaps” (“The thing about being white is it blinds you.”) to that same actor playing a different character, Earnest, in “The Big Payback” (“To them, slavery is not past. It’s not a mystery. It’s not a historical curiosity. It’s a cold, unavoidable ghost that haunts them in a way we can’t see”). Neeson gets the best of that lot with his line, but I love hearing white men say deep things that reveal an understanding of racial reality. 

This episode has an Eyes Wide Shut quality to it as a weird, unwanted journey through a mysterious situation. Paper Boi starts in Amsterdam’s red-light district, where prostitutes sit in the windows of whorehouses and watch men passing by. It’s more like the women get to select the men than the other way around because if they aren’t open to his advances, they’ll just look away or leave the window. But if they are open, they’ll point at you and maybe wave for you to come in. Of course, Paper Boi is just a curiosity to them—one of them snaps his photo but doesn’t invite him in. 

Then he meets Lorraine. At first, she seems real, but later she seems like the drug talking to him. Is she real or not? I don’t know, but as he descends into the drug high, he loses his stylish purple hat and dons a goofy Goofy hat instead. Time starts to rush—they enter a building when it’s light and come out a short time later to find it’s dark and, a moment later, it’s light again. Is that real? The weirdest moment is when we seem to see a pre-high Paper Boi walk past a drugged-out Paper Boi as if time has bent in on itself. Or something. Once again, Atlanta breaks the rules of TV and narrative with impunity and gets away with it. 

Usually, characters have a desire, something they want, and hurdles to overcome to get it. Does Paper Boi want anything in this episode? No. He just moves through his space-cake high until it’s over. He learns to ask if he owns his masters but owning them is a big deal, so I don’t know why he wouldn’t remember that he does. There’s something unsettling about this episode because I felt so off-balance throughout it, and even upon rewatching it, I was confused about what really happened and what was real and what was not. But Atlanta is in its glory year—it does whatever it wants. The show no longer has to prove itself to us. We have to prove ourselves to it. Are we open-minded enough to follow them through a wild drug trip, through episodes that have nothing to do with the main characters, through narratives that may not make any sense? Yes, yes and yes. 

Touré, theGrio.com

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

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