Earn is confidently running down another poorly thought-out scheme. Paper Boi is rolling his eyes, doubting his cousin’s capabilities. Darius is darting around in the background, looking for “his fork” and asking if Earn is allergic to jicama. The uninvited and often unwelcomed Tracy is in the kitchen snacking and asking if he can tag along on the trio’s adventure to a performance outside the city.
The latest installment of “Atlanta” has all the trappings of a typical Season 1 episode. There is no opening scene stuffed with broader social critique. Instead, the crew is just preparing for another one of those hilariously relatable outings we all grew fond of early on in the series.
But, because this season has taken a much darker turn, “North of the Border” eventually transforms into a tragically dark comedy that plays out in three acts. Tensions mount throughout the first third of the episode, which culminates with Tracy mushing a black woman down some steps. This incites a mob of students willing to fight the crew, who seek refuge in a college frat house equipped with Confederate flags, antique guns and naked, hooded pledges. Paper Boi and Earn share a blunt from opposite ends of the couch before the rapper finally dumps his cousin as his manager. In the end, Earn and Tracy — the series’ most interesting foil characters — throw hands on the side of the road, which leaves Earn badly beaten.
On this week’s “Run That Back,” Taryn Finley and Julia Craven discuss the show’s treatment of black women, white fraternity life and how, sometimes, we can bring bad things on ourselves.
Oh, and how Earn is the show’s most trash character.
Earn, Paper Boi and Darius are packing up to take a trip to a college in Statesboro. Earn’s plan is simple: Paper Boi is going to perform at Pajama Jam for free and set himself up to play at another function that spring. Earn assures the rapper that he’s set to secure $60,000 in a couple of months. Paper Boi is clearly exasperated by his cousin’s antics. While Paper Boi’s holding his .38-caliber revolver, Tracy pops up from behind the kitchen counter and Paper Boi almost shoots him. In true Tracy fashion, he’s unfazed by the encounter and asks the group where it’s headed. Earn attempts to deter Tracy from tagging along but is unsuccessful. Tracy is going to be the rapper’s security detail. He mentions a hotel and Earn reveals that the group is staying with a girl named Violet, a potential Instagram Honey who, oddly, has only 300 followers. Earn brushes it off while Darius notes that that probably means the girl is “weird.”
Taryn: This episode was a shit show powered by Earn’s poor judgment.
Julia: Yep and a really powerful, tense, hard-to-watch culmination of his poor judgment. I think this is another one where we should just move from the beginning on down because, after a second watch, this is the best episode this season and also the densest.
Taryn: It really is, and a result of the slow burn of Earn and Paper Boi’s work relationship that we’ve seen this season thus far. Judging by the Band-Aid he has on his nose the entire time, this episode doesn’t take place too much time after “Woods,” where Paper Boi finally realized he can’t just be Al when he’s off stage. You can kind of feel the tension as they’re getting ready to leave the house. Earn thinks he has a master plan to get Paper Boi $60,000, but first he has to do a free ― or damn near free ― show at a college in Statesboro. Paper Boi ain’t with the shits and you can tell. Mostly because it’s free but also probably because we know Earn’s cheap ass is probably gonna get him into some shit.
Julia: The whole episode feels like Earn is oblivious as he goes through his final shot to convince Paper Boi to keep him on as manager. When Paper Boi said, “You stay tryna be slick.” And Earn replied, “I am slick!” I knew that Earn didn’t have a real grasp on why Paper Boi was agitated. He kind of took it as, “Oh he’s mad about doing the free shit to get big gigs.” But Earn doesn’t understand that Paper Boi doesn’t need to do free gigs anymore, which speaks to how bad of a manager he is.
I do have a special shoutout for Darius and Tracy, though ― the show’s most wholesome characters.
Taryn: That line right there really cemented the fact that Earn severely lacks self-awareness. I really don’t like his character and I want to fight him. And I know I’ll win but I’ll get to that later.
Julia: LMAOOOO. Even without that scene, I would have bet on you.
Taryn: Darius is the most wholesome. Tracy is the most lovable. I have to take away Tracy’s wholesome card this episode.
I also love that, in true nigga fashion, Tracy still lives with Paper Boi and Darius. Months after telling them it would only be a week lmao. Tracy is at home and can’t nobody tell him shit. This nigga didn’t even flinch when Paper Boi pulled a gun on him thinking he was some nigga breaking into his house. He laughed it off and went to the fridge to eat what looked like some kinda cold spaghetti that Darius probably cooked with his bare hands. Icon.
Once the crew gets to Violet’s crib — located in a housing complex that looks dumb similar to where Migos shot “Bad and Boujee” — and settles in, she explains a dream to the rapper. Violet was a crocodile and Paper Boi was a crane. They were cuddling beside a river before she ate him and a light shone from her belly afterward. She says that’s how she knew that she and the rapper were “connected.” Paper Boi, nervously, looks up at the ceiling to see a bloody footprint.
Julia: Tracy is a true nigga and that’s why I appreciate his character (to an extent that we’ll get to in a minute). And I loved how Earn was so bent on keeping Tracy from riding along but Tracy, again in true nigga fashion, grabbed an already packed bag and was like “I’m coming.” I enjoyed that part a lot lmao. Then they’re off, driving along to this college in Statesboro. Once again, these niggas outside the city, which is how I knew something ridiculous was going to happen. And they get to Violet’s crib, a baddie with only ... 300 IG followers. As Darius notes, this is weird.
And it was weird! When her roommate opened the door with that blank ass look on her face, I knew that Violet had a habit of meeting niggas online and inviting them to stay over.
Taryn: Weirder than a chick without a sense of reality and more than 3,000 followers, as Darius notes.
That roommate was me in college. Crazy ass roommate who’s always into some shit that I didn’t want anything to do with. She was probably over Violet’s shit by midterms. You see she went right to her room to continue to mind her business. She’s smart.
Julia: She is incredibly smart, smarter than Earn. So I like to believe that Paper Boi is an optimist because he was thinking that maybe he can at least sleep with the girl ― his version of a silver lining to Earn’s thoughtlessness about the accommodations. And then she reveals pretty bluntly that she may be a lil off. That dream she explained had me like ... ma’am.
Taryn: Like ... that dream. Nah.
Julia: “Atlanta” has been doing a good job of making danger known to the audience upfront and bluntly this season. Even if the characters didn’t always see it. But Paper Boi, post-evolution, is starting to see it!
AND THAT FOOTPRINT, MY GOD
Taryn: ON THE CEILING AT THAT!
Julia: I really wanted them to explain that foot.
Taryn: I don’t. I wanted them to leave. GET OUT! FIND A HOTEL. WITCHO CHEAP ASS, EARN.
Julia: I need to know how that foot got up there. I really do.
Taryn: A séance, probably.
The performance at Pajama Jam goes as planned. Off stage, Rapper Clark County and his manager walk up and dap up Paper Boi. After a quick talk, they take off and two fans approach the rapper, one of whom is writing a paper on him, and he chats them up. That’s when Violet, in a moment of jealousy, dumps her drink on Paper Boi. This sends Tracy running to check her. An argument ensues and Tracy mushes — when you put your hand on someone’s forehead and push them backward — her down the steps. Thankfully, Earn catches her. But she turns around, slaps him and runs to get her brother. During a near-brawl between Paper Boi and Violet’s brother, Tracy runs up and sucker punches the latter. And our protagonists run off.
Taryn: OK, so at the pajama jam, Paper Boi just performed and he, Earn and Darius are dressed like TLC in the creep video. Tracy is taking his role as Paper Boi’s bodyguard way too seriously, which is why we love him ... up until he does some extra fuck shit. While Paper Boi is talking to a girl about the paper she’s writing on him, Violet’s crazy ass sees them from the balcony and dumps her drink on him. Tracy’s brolic ass confronts Violet on the staircase, which was a bad idea in the first place, and their argument turns into him MUSHING HER DOWN THE STAIRS. When I tell you I was PISSED at Tracy.
Julia: HE MUSHED HER DOWN THE STEPS! I was pissed at Tracy and at the episode’s writer. I’m sick of black women in this show getting the short end of the stick! We’re mushed. We’re vapid. We’re angry at black men for dating white women. Come on, yo. That shit is tired.
And when this is mixed with the lack of development in Van’s character, I want to mush a man down the steps.
Taryn: I had so much hope that this season would delve so much deeper into the lives and perspectives of black women, but alas, they’ve failed us. Everything has been so surface-level (i.e., situationships and social media stunts) and, frankly, we’ve been played and pushed to the side (and literally down the steps in this case). Violet was off but didn’t deserve to be pushed.
Julia: Exactly. I could have understood a good cussing out or a firm talking to. I also understand that maybe it’s in Tracy’s character to push women around, but I don’t see a valid reason for this being the pivotal moment in the episode. Why was this the turning point? Why is violence against black women always the turning point on TV? Why? I mean, we know why but it’s disappointing to see it come from Glover’s camp.
Taryn: I’m starting to wonder if the writers are purposely giving black women the short end of the stick.
Julia: I wonder that too. It’s ridiculous. And sure, Violet was mad clingy and jealous over a man she barely knew. She shouldn’t have dumped the drink on him for speaking to other women. But like you said, a mush down the steps? Come on. That’s just insane to me. It’s like the scene from Van’s episode where ole girl was mad about that guy dating a white woman ... is this what you think of black women? Sure it does pain SOME ― not all, not even most ― black women to see black men constantly date, affirm, uplift, etc., white women, but that isn’t all black women. That scene, and this one with Violet, didn’t give any glimpse into WHY these women feel this way. And, fwiw, black women usually only have something to say about black men dating white women when they openly shit on black chicks in the process. Otherwise, just love your gf and go.
I don’t understand why a mush down the steps was the route to go. It didn’t even seem to fit in thematically. I think violence can be used in TV shows to make larger points (something “Atlanta” does really well, tbh) but this usage wasn’t thoughtful to me. It was just ... odd.
Taryn: Exactly! Black women are too multifaceted for the touch-and-go treatment of some of these narratives in the show. Maybe I need to watch the scene a fourth time, but as dramatic as it was shot, it also felt like it was meant to evoke some humor ― given Tracy’s expression. Like, I’m glad Earn caught her, but I don’t blame Violet for turning around to slap him then running to go get her brother. He should’ve beat Tracy’s ass, and Earn’s, just because he has yet to take accountability for anything.
I also was wondering why they were playing Kodak Black at the beginning of the episode. It felt off to me given he allegedly raped someone. Then I realized it felt very connected with the mush, whether that was intentional or not. Seems like it makes a larger point about us canceling everyone except for those who hurt black women. I’m sleep, though.
Julia: OOP!! And I feel like the Twitter TV critic crowd will make the point that that is just Tracy’s character, but I don’t care. It did seem like it was meant to be funny in a dark way but it wasn’t.
Taryn: It really wasn’t. Fuck Tracy for that. I’m still flabbergasted. Like ... HE MUSHED HER DOWN THE STEPS! I wish a nigga would. Ugh. Let’s move on before I cuss out the writers for that shit.
Julia: The frat house sequence was something I deeply appreciated. And I would like to spend a lot of time on it. Let’s dig in and be fake deep.
The crew seeks refuge in a fraternity house on the other side of campus, with the aid of Darius’ acute sense of smell. They smoke weed with a gang of white boys who love Confederate flags, guns, hazing their naked pledges and (we assume) calling black people they don’t like “niggers.” After a strained conversation about hip-hop — mainly Pimp C and UGK — with one of the frat bros, Paper Boi finally tells Earn that he’s been talking to Clark County’s manager, Lucas, about managing him as well.
Taryn: First off, all Paper Boi wanted was some loud and the white boys who probably say nigger casually had it. That’s not funny but what is funny is how Paper Boi most likely knew that but didn’t give a fuck, because he just needed to smoke after that shit. Also, something in my bones knew that Backwoods would make an appearance in this show and, of course, the white boy was smoking out of one, which both Paper Boi and I appreciate. I love it mostly because it’s the first glimpse we get into how this white frat, steeped in and most likely carrying on a deep legacy of racism, love black culture. This shit is genius. Art imitating life.
Julia: It was so funny to me that I laughed out loud in this coffee shop and a lovely white woman looked at me like I was crazy.
But yeah, it was incredibly genius. I love how the house number was 1863, which was the year Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And that, ironically, turned out to be symbolic in more ways than one. It was obviously a tip that these white guys say nigger casually and they def rap it in Paper Boi’s songs. But it was also a nod to Paper Boi’s freedom from Earn. Now he’s free to be whatever it is he wants to be because he no longer has this burden holding him back.
Taryn: Shit, you smart like Violet’s roommate that minds her damn business. I also wanna note that though they’re in the know about black popular culture, they’re oblivious to the black students on campus. While they were on the porch, Paper Boi told them that he just performed at Pajama Jam and the white boys acted like they had never heard of the shit a day in their lives despite the fact that it’s a campus event that probably happens annually. If that ain’t a reflection of society’s relationship with black culture/people, idk what is.
Julia: THAT PART!!!! I was like, damn, that’s good nuance.
Taryn: Also, white Greek culture is so, so, so, so very different than black Greek culture. Like, these fools had ’bout a dozen and a half naked men on their knees with burlap sacks on their heads in this basement with a huge Confederate flag on the wall. Where tf they do that at?????
Julia: You know, I went to a PWI [predominantly white institution] and they do shit like that. I heard a story about some frat dudes who had to jack a goat off or something. That wasn’t specific to my university but it was a story I heard about another PWI. So, I mean, weird shit happens.
Taryn: See. Hell no. Glad I went to an HBCU [historically black colleges and universities] cause nope. I don’t wanna even breathe the same air as that nonsense. The basement scene is so ridiculous on so many levels. I was screaming the entire time.
Julia: They also like rap music but don’t let too many black people into their parties. So, the scene was accurate in a lot of ways lmao.
Taryn: Right. They would’ve been hostile af if it was just four random niggas and not Paper Boi with three random niggas. We also see Paper Boi embracing the fact that he’s famous a lil more and using it as leverage to get what he wants.
Julia: I loved how we have these black dudes on a couch, in front of a Confederate flag, with all these naked dudes with sacks over them. It was degrading but also the juxtaposition of it all fascinated me. The black men are clothed and sitting up a bit higher than these white guys. But the sacks reminded me of hoods, which gave me kneeling Klansmen vibes. It was also powerful to see white men kneeling in front of a Confederate flag. It was a subtly powerful scene.
And, the foreshadowing! The stripped frat brothers were super symbolic of the final stripping of Earn, who goes on to lose everything he’s got.
Taryn: I got those Klansmen vibes too. And that’s a really good observation. Like the influence and presumed wealth made him “better” than the other black folks, which offered him access into this house filled with the racist memorabilia that keeps this organization and the house that its members reside in relevant and running. We can’t see their faces, but if we go with the Klansmen notion, I’m sure some of the pledges were pissed. Not just because they’re getting hazed, but also because they are in this humiliating position in front of four black men in a house ― and its traditions steeped in white supremacy ― that they revere as sacred. It’s levels, bruh.
Julia: Also, that smirk from them white boys and the side eyes from Paper Boi and Earn when Darius said he was considering joining the NRA took me tf out.
Taryn: LMAO Then he said “Y’all crazy.” I. FELL. OUT.
Julia: But I liked how they found common ground over firearms. Let me explain before I am dragged.
Black and white Southerners love their guns! On the other hand, white folks have historically used guns to kill black people. It felt like a nod to that commonality, the history of violence against black bodies, why black people own guns for protection against concrete threats as these men are in what could be a threatening situation, how white people have them for hypothetical situations or as artifacts. It was dense! And the fact that the frat inherited the guns struck me as a nod to how they inherit their violent ways of thinking, their love of blackness but hatred of black people, their privilege to own a gun and see it as just an artifact. This sequence had LEVELS!
I’m nerding the fuck out but I loved this scene. I really did.
Taryn: THAT PART. It was truly a great scene! And you know I live for when folks nerd out, so I’m enjoying this. And shoutout to Tracy for stealing one of their guns while he’s on probation at that. I’m still mad at him but that made me happy.
Julia: That offbeat lean wit it, rock wit it took me tf out too. Then shit got really fucking real.
Taryn: Let me tell you something about that scene.
Julia: I just wanna say I was right all season. But I’ll let you finish, I won’t Kanye you.
Taryn: Girl ... after this week someone needs to Kanye Kanye. But I knew when the white boy said Bed Bug Malone was one of his favorite rappers that somebody was about to do something white and foolish in the name of hip-hop. But I wasn’t ready for the cry that I had when he turned on D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” ― one of my fave songs from the snap era ― and all those white men did the Fabo terribly off beat. EYE HOLLERED.
Julia: It was so offbeat, it hurt to watch.
Taryn: Shawty Lo did not die for this.
Julia: THE MAYOR SURELY DID NOT!
Taryn: They deserved the mud bath they were about to get after that bullshit.
Julia: Klasjdjdnchbeg. But no, when shit got real, it got real af.
Taryn: Earn’s oblivious ass. Ugh. I find it really hard to believe he didn’t see this coming.
Julia: He really thought the conversation was gonna be about Tracy. And it’s like ... no, fam. No.
Taryn: You called this during what? Episode 2?
Julia: Episode 1 or 2. I felt it in my bones and my bones don’t lie because I am an auntie for real, I do this shit.
Taryn: You got them Darius senses.
Julia: It’s because I’m Southern. And I be wearing all black and burning sage so you know the ancestors move through me.
Taryn: LMAO that’s what it is. A Southern auntie! Asé.
Julia: Anyway let’s get back on topic before I start talking about smudging my crystals. You could see Earn’s spirit when it left his body. I wanted to feel bad for him but I couldn’t. He did this to himself. Earn is destructive (as we’ll get to in a min). And he brings everyone down with him, but Paper Boi is ready to soar now. When it’s time to fly ― and when you got the team on your back ― you can’t have somebody toxic like that bringing you down.
Taryn: At all. And Paper Boi was trying to tell Earn that even before they left the house. Earn is so stuck up his own ass that he thinks his way of operating, making money, diffusing altercations, etc., are the only way. There’s no self-evaluation. Ever. This is how he lost Van, Paper Boi and probably his parents. Everyone around him is tired of his shit. He can’t continue to rob the people who are there for him the most and take no accountability. Earn paid for his shit in this episode and I only see a downward spiral unless he deals with his shit. He needs therapy.
Julia: And, I am not trying to be funny but it’s gonna sound funny. ... He can’t even afford therapy.
Taryn: He’s still on probation, right?
Julia: I think so. And all of this struck me as Glover revealing the true criminal in Robbin’ Season: It’s Earn. Like you just said, he constantly takes from those around him and now he’s being robbed of what little he had. It also reminded me of Teddy Perkins. How when he’s directly called out, he spirals into a violent fit.
The next morning, they go back to Violet’s house only to find their things cut up and thrown all over the courtyard. Paper Boi’s weed has been stolen and so has Earn’s laptop. Earn’s had a long night and he lashes out. He bangs on the apartment door, pulls the fire alarm to get its occupants to come out, and tries to kick the door down. On the car ride back, Tracy jokes around with Earn, noting his temper. Earn cracks back that the entire evening was his fault. Tracy ignores it, pretends to pull the antique gun he presumably stole from the frat house on Earn and laughs it off again. Earn tells Paper Boi to pull over so he can fight Tracy. He does and they fight to Tracy’s reluctance. The episode ends with a badly beaten Earn — physically and metaphorically — returning to the car’s back seat.
Taryn: When they went back to Violet’s apartment to get their stuff (which, why leave your stuff at the house of a stranger who just told your homeboy she had a dream she ate him, but whatever), their shit was gone. I didn’t feel bad for any of them, especially Earn. This is the bed you made. Lie in it. It’s fucked up that she cut up their shit and stole Earn’s computer, but I can’t say they didn’t deserve that since they didn’t take the ass-whooping after Tracy mushed Violet down the steps and later snuck ole boy.
And Earn was dead ass wrong for turning up at her doorstep knowing damn well three outta four of them are on probation. THIS is why you’re a bad manager, Earnest.
Julia: Yep. And the spiral continued on the ride home, which is when I should have felt bad for Earn, but I didn’t.
Taryn: He got his ass beat and I enjoyed it. It was a long time coming. Tracy didn’t want to do it but Earn made him. And he had to eat that body slam on the way home. O whale. 🐋
Julia: Earn literally makes everyone treat him poorly. And again we see some damn good juxtaposition in this sequence. Earn was driving when they were on the way to Statesboro. Paper Boi was driving on the way back and Earn was in the back seat, directly behind him. I’ve also been thinking about Earn // Tracy. They’re clear foils of each other, right?
Tracy hasn’t had to fight to work his way into Paper Boi’s circle while Earn always has to prove himself and he can’t. The gun kinda tipped me too ― Tracy’s gun can’t shoot, denoting how harmless he is vs. Earn holding the gold gun for his uncle, which shows that his shitty decision-making is what makes him dangerous.
LMAO THAT WHALE EMOJI! I JUST SAW IT!
Taryn: Symbolism on a hunnid. Whole time, I just realized that tension been there since Tracy got outta jail and Earn’s couch surfin’ ass was looking for a place to stay. Meanwhile, it was effortless for Tracy to get out of jail and pop up at Paper Boi’s with no question. Earn is timid, passive-aggressive, selfish and a bad judge of character. That’s why he’ll continue to fail.
Julia: Yeah. It was a tough scene but it made sense that, at some point, they’d fight and Earn would lose. You don’t win without change. Maybe Earn will change now that he’s taken that ass whoopin’ he’s desperately needed. I can tell Earn wasn’t beaten up enough as a kid. Or he was beaten up too much and he never let it go.
Honestly, it was probably the latter. And in the final scene, Earn beat his own ass. He did this to himself.