The Glover brothers take us back to the most awkward and difficult phase of Al and Earn's life: middle school.
Remember when we used to laugh when watching Atlanta?
So far this season, we’ve had Paper Boi/Al (Brian Tyree Henry) almost murdered in the woods. We had an alligator in the same house as Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and Earn (Donald Glover). There was the whole Teddy Perkins episode which we’re still discussing and building theories around. While subtly moving away from comedy, Atlanta’s Robbin Season has delved into some serious topics: navigating whiteness, Instagram celebrities, emotional and physical abuse, family issues and keeping up appearances in a shallow world. But the ground-breaking show hit us where it hurts by taking it back to collectively our most painful years: middle school.
The tenth episode of Robbin Season, “F.U.B.U” opens with a younger Earn (Alkoya Brunson) shopping with his mom. After ducking and weaving through aisles, he comes across a F.U.B.U shirt that he can afford. He’s so excited to rock the shirt to school, he’s awake before his alarm goes off in the morning. With the kind-of glee that comes from wearing something fresh, Earn gets on the bus and heads to school, collecting compliments along the way.
It’s at school that the younger Earl notices another kid, Devon, who’s wearing the exact same FUBU jersey except his has patches and more stripes. This triggers an investigation from their classmates which spreads throughout the entire school. Earn visibly panics as no one can tell which is fake; they’re all waiting on Johnny who, apparently, just knows this stuff. In the meantime, both kids get visibly harassed and bullied.
The show does a brilliant job of reminding us of these painful years. How one slip up can make you out to be a social pariah. The Glover brothers (Stephen wrote the episode while Donald directed it) portray how the smallest actions can have the largest consequences and delve into the history of the show’s main characters. Earn is still the person who wants to fit in; who’s smart but not “cool”. Alfred on the other hand, well, he’s always been cool.
We’re first introduced to Earn’s cousin and the future Paper Boi as he’s getting a dressing down from the principal. Al (Abraham Clinkscales), even then, was hustling and got out of situations through his wit and quick thinking. After turning the tables on the kid who snitched on him, Earn finds Al rooting through other people’s lockers. And here we get the basis of the show and how important family is: Al’s always stuck up for Earn when he needs him.
Desperate for social clout and not to get bullied, Earn turns to Al: “I’m serious, Al,” Earn says. “I need some help. I’m not cool like you.” Al, resigned to seemingly always help his uncool cousin, has the street cred that’s eluded Earn his entire life. He tells him to deny the shirt is fake, regardless of what the bullies and Johnny knows: “Confidence is key.” he says before strolling off.
Earn does get cornered by his classmates at the end of the school day and Johnny fingers his jersey as the fake one. But just as he always does, Al walks in and clears the debate with the kind of aforementioned confidence that Earn never seems to carry. Earn walks out of the school unharmed, getting the number of his crush along the way. As his bus pulls away, he sees Devon getting harassed by older kids as he tries in vain to defend himself.
The next day, we find out Devon committed suicide. Robbin season continues. Earn and Al robbed a kid of his life.
“F.U.B.U” brings out painful repressed memories. We’ve all been Earn: hiding our face and bodies behind a large hoodie, hoping to get through the day without being noticed. Atlanta has never disguised itself as something else, it’s always willing to tackle the hardest subjects and it does that again on this episode by taking on bullying, stuntin', confidence in kids, social clout, and the ease at which death is casually mentioned in black communities.
The show has become renowned for its dry delivery, for its ability to portray reality just enough for you to question its surrealism. Presenting a world that is ours, events weave in and out for you to question the slight changes. At a time when black men are being murdered by police for holding innocuous objects, the underlying focal point of this stand-out episode is neatly wrapped up when Earn’s mother says at the end, “You are a black man in America. When you meet people, you need to look good. Your clothes are important.”
* That Outkast Aquemini poster on Earn’s wall sets the period setting tone for the episode. Musically, the episode, as always, was on-point. Tracks by Tracy Chapman, AlB, The Pharcyde, Craig Mack (R.I.P) play through the episode while Nas and Lauryn Hill’s ‘If I Ruled The World’ closed out the episode.
* You have to wonder whether Earn and Al carry the weight of Devon’s death their entire life? Al coming through and helping his cousin eventually killed another kid. It may not have been the only cause but it certainly was the catalyst.
* The child actors acted with aplomb throughout this episode, equalling each of the adult actors’ performances this season.