“Here’s Where it Gets Crazy, Y’all.”
Oh boy, was I not prepared for this. While the past two episodes of Atlanta Season 2 have been fun, if sluggish, affairs, this week’s episode, “Money Bag Shawty,” is Atlanta firing on all cylinders. It’s sharp, it’s witty, it’s pointed… and it’s absolutely hilarious.
A Distressed Mother
“Money Bag Shawty” bucks the trend that’d been set by Atlanta’s first two episodes, “Alligator Man” and “Sportin’ Waves,” by not opening with a robbery. In fact, there’s little to no violence whatsoever to be found during this week’s episode, which takes a decidedly lighter tone.
Instead, “Money Bag Shawty” treats us to an equally ridiculous scenario. A mother, taking to Instagram, uploads a video voicing her disgust with a rap song that aired on a local radio station her ten-year-old daughter Destiny “loves.” Calling out Paper Boi by name, the mother reads through several verses of his song—not before warning her social media followers that “there’s gonna be some cussing.”
As the mother, who carries the Instagram handle “lilysmom_11,” shares the lyrics to Paper Boi’s track, she struggles to keep her composure reading fairly tame lines—as far as rap goes—like “Kicked you out the condo. / This ain’t the place you sleep at” and “You can be my baby mama. / You can’t ever be my wife.” When she arrives at a particularly vulgar phrase, “Baby, slide on the dick. / You can do it all night,” she visibly chokes up before bringing herself to finish the verse.
After raising a judgemental eyebrow at the camera, we see Destiny’s mother break down into tears as she utters four final bars: “Said no to college ’cause it’s no fun. / Mo’ drugs and mo’ guns. / But I still might have to slap a trick. / Shout-out Colin Kaepernick.”
Aside from the surface-level humor of this situation—really? In 2018 you’ve never heard a rap song like that before?—there’s some brilliantly sprinkled commentary here. The mother’s concern clearly stems from her wanting to insulate her daughter from bad influences, but at the same time… it’s a public radio station. All local Americans with access to the station have the right to listen to and enjoy the music; if you don’t like it, choose another station. But of course, as the mother so eloquently puts it, Destiny “loves that 96.5 radio station.” So for this mother, her 10-year-old’s radio preferences means the station can’t play an explicit song? Or, better yet, that rap music can’t be played on air at all?
It’s ironic that the mother’s in the driver’s seat, using her daughter as a conduit to rip into today’s music culture. After all, the kid is hardly old enough to develop an opinion, let alone bad habits, from a heavily-bleeped song on the radio. The mother even turns at one point to her kid—in the background while she now recites these uncensored lyrics, mind you—and asks, “You okay, baby? You want a juice box?” Case in point.
Of course, there’s also the element of this being a white mother taking aim at a predominately black genre of music. While I understand the argument that rap tends to have more vulgar language than other genres of music, the racial implications of this woman’s tirade are hard to ignore. She seems in pain to utter Colin Kaepernick’s name, as if the movement he started—kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games—was the most cruel and heinous act an individual could commit.
If this scenario seems too crazy to have been made up, you’d be right. In actuality, this scene is a parody of a real-life video a mother posted to criticize a Vince Staples’ song played on the radio. (The real version is oddly even funnier.) So while I can’t give credit to “Money Bag Shawty” for coming up with this skit, I applaud it for incorporating it into the episode in such a natural and topical way. As with the acoustic cover featured in “Sportin’ Waves,” this scathing critique shows how the world has taken to Paper Boi’s new-found fame in increasingly “white” ways.
Big Fans and Bigger Threats
Of course, the black community is obsessed with the Paper Boi craze too. As Earn, Alfred, and Darius drink to the success of Paper Boi’s gold-hitting single—in large part thanks to the sobbing white mother, who Al toasts chanting “White tears”—a young black waiter inserts himself into the conversation, asking Paper Boi to “put me on.” When Earn politely explains that they’re off the clock, the insistent waiter responds with an equally polite “Man, FUCK YOU.” It seems there’s only enough respect for Paper Boi himself these days—another sign of the division separating him and Earn early on this season.
In the studio, Alfred is reunited with Yoo-hoo commercial rapper Clark County to feature on a few songs. What starts out as an amical exchange of pleasantries—Clark to Darius: “Aw, we got a hugger, man. Nice to meet you.”—soon turns into something much more sinister. When Clark’s flow is disrupted during a freestyle due to a system crash, he coldly tells the sound engineer, “Don’t crash it again, dude.” After several seconds of silence, he follows with, “If it crashes again, I’m gonna crash my foot in your ass,” all while staring blankly at the floor like some deranged psychopath.
While in itself a hilariously cringy scene—we eventually see Alfred and Darius ushered out of the studio in what looked like a terrible situation for that sound engineer—we also see the thread dropped again about Clark’s manager, Luke. With Clark encouraging Paper Boi to talk to Luke and get access to his brand connections, we’ve received yet another hint at the growing divide between Al and Earn. Could Earn’s job as Paper Boi’s manager be in jeopardy if the money stops rolling in? That’s certainly what it looks like from here.
A Long-Awaited Return
When “Money Bag Shawty” eventually settles down from its coverage of the absurd and the deranged, it hones in on a relationship, and character, we’ve been waiting to see addressed since the beginning of the season.
Van’s arrival this episode was extremely well done, teasing viewers with several behind-the-back and leg shots before finally showing her face. Her absence has been apparent in the lead up to “Money Bag Shawty,” as Atlanta continued to throw us new characters like Tracy and Uncle Willy. It’s great to have her in the mix, especially with her and Earn on good terms (when Earn ended up living in a storage box at the end of Season 1, I was afraid their relationship had run its natural course).
The two share a particularly tender moment later in the episode from a cab while recovering from an instance of racism (more on this later) and coming to the realization that the term “caught red-handed” may very well be derogatory in nature. Though as joyous as it is to see Earn and Van back together, there’s no guarantee their relationship will make it through Atlanta Season 2 completely unscathed. Money has been a central theme for Atlanta, both in Season 1 and in 2, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see things get more complicated if and when Earn runs into trouble with Paper Boi.
Mr. and Mrs. High Roller
For the time being, however, it looks like Earn and Van are rolling in money. After Earn receives his check for Paper Boi’s streaming profits, he treats Van to a lavish night out at a high-end movie theater.
Having had a conversation earlier with Al and Darius about no longer wanting to “be stunted on,” during which he told Al that he envies his fame, Al voiced his disagreement, claiming that money was all one needed to “stunt on.”
With this in mind, Earn tries to use his new money to gain respect. When asked by the woman at the movie ticket counter whether he and Van want “regular or VIP,” Earn makes no hesitation to purchase the upgrade (Van: “What does VIP get you?” Earn: “It doesn’t matter. Two VIPs.”), making sure to give a reassuring “we-can-afford-this-now” nod to Van in the process.
Unfortunately for Earn, he soon finds the exact same obstacles he had faced back when he was poor. When he gives the lady a $100 bill to pay for the tickets, she claims she can’t cash it due to its size. When he gives his debit card, she throws additional hurdles his way, requiring a scan of his card and driver’s license. After stepping aside in line out of sheer confusion, Earn and Van watch as a white man walks up and effortlessly exchanges an identical $100 at the counter. As Earn struggles to process what’s going on, he decides to approach the man and explain what’s just transpired. Here, “Money Bag Shawty” blows the lid right off of subtlety, as the white man pulls back his coat to reveal a concealed pistol, not even bothering to look at Earn while doing so.
Faced with this blatant racism, Earn and Van take their business elsewhere. At a fancy hookah bar, Earn once again pays with his $100 (“It’s legal U.S. tender.”), only for the bar’s black proprietor to claim the bill is fake. The two are kicked out—but not before paying properly first—by the police, who sympathize by saying they were aware it wasn’t fake.
As Earn and Van are continually degraded by prejudiced individuals, both white and black, Earn soon come to terms with the futility of his endeavor. After blowing his money at a strip club of all places in order to feel important—an establishment like that doesn’t care if you’re white, black, or alien as long as you’ve got dough—Alfred drops some hard truths to bookend his conversation with Earn at the beginning of the episode. “Money is an idea, man… You need to start acting like you better than other n***as, and then they’ll start treating you better than other n***as. ‘Cause otherwise you just… another… n***a.”
It’s an interesting dilemma. Earn looks up to Alfred because he’s famous and respected, while Al claims respect is all about money and attitude. Earn seemingly has the money situation handled for the time being, but it’s clear he still feels inferior to his cousin. “Money Bag Shawty” does an excellent job conveying this realization with humor, drama, and absurdity (how about that Michael Vick cameo, though?), and I feel there’s still a lot of room for this story thread to develop in future episodes.
If Atlanta’s first two episodes sauntered out of the gate, “Money Bag Shawty” gallops out in a fantastic return to form for the show. The episode’s pacing is tight, moving briskly along from scene to scene, and allows the show’s characters and humor to truly shine for the first time this season. Van’s return adds an element we’ve been sorely missing thus far in Robbin’ Season, while the reunion with Clark County provides some hysterical tension and comic relief. Even when the show is throwing us some truly terrible moments of adversity, like the racism at the movie theater, it does so in a way that can’t help but make you laugh—the cashier didn’t even bat an eye at the presence of a white man threatening a black man with a gun.
It also helps that “Money Bag Shawty” relegates fourth-wheeler Tracy to a handful of throwaway lines (seriously, I hate this character with a burning passion). And while the intro can’t be heralded as something wholly unique or original, it continues the tradition of Atlanta starting its episodes off strong. Compared to the other episodes this season, “Money Bag Shawty” just happens to stay strong from beginning to end.
There’s still room for Atlanta to grow in its second season. We’ve yet to see anything on the level of the truly experimental, earth-shattering “B.A.N.” from Season 1. There’s also a lot of rising action that has yet to reach its zenith. In any case, however, “Money Bag Shawty” is a great step forward and some fantastic television in its own right.