After kicking off the season with two episodes of varying twisted darkness, Atlanta lightens up in episode three but still has plenty on its mind. “The Old Man and the Tree” is more straightforwardly comic—there are serious laughs in nearly every scene—and it’s studded with surrealistic jaw-droppers and the sharp, dark satire the show does better than any other current half-hour of television.
The episode opens with the crew in London, heading to a party, as Earn tries to convince Al “Paper Boi” that meeting the billionaire host could be good for business. When the group arrives, they get the first indication that the night will be taking a turn for the bizarre: The mysterious mogul Fernando lives in a posh flat cocooned behind a rundown townhouse facade, for vague reasons of security. The place features a pool, an on-site Nando’s chicken franchise (he’s not the Nando; he just likes the peri-peri sauce), and was built around a large complicated tree, which provides an amusing bonding moment between Paper Boi and Fernando.
“Do you like trees?” Fernando asks him. “Does a frog bump its ass when it hops?” says Al. “Fuck yeah, I like trees!”
While the two bro out over foliage, Darius has an awkward encounter in the kitchen with a woman who’s standing in the way of the gin. Thinking he’s hitting on her, she rebuffs him, saying she’s engaged; he says he’s just trying to get a drink. She apologizes and says a lot of Black guys hit on her “because they like Asian girls,” but the two part genially.
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The encounter is witnessed by a scrubby young partier named Socks (not Sox), who apologizes to Darius for the woman’s “fucked up” comments. “That’s lightweight,” Daris says, brushing it off. Not so fast—with an “I got you,” Socks casts himself as Darius’s protector and avenger. It’s slow-burning roast of white guilt slash condescension that only gets funnier as the night continues.
Meanwhile, Earn is tending to business—Will, the guy who invited him to the party, wants him to check out the work of TJ, a young Black artist he’s invested $500,000 in. The work is terrible, as is his investment idea to create an “influencer incubator.” (Have two other words so perfectly captured the current state of tech-culture vapidity?)
The show dips into its somewhat trademark surrealism as Fernando invites Al into a poker game, where the billionaire tells a bizarre story about encountering a nude Black ghost in his house. “I did what any man in my position would do,” he says. (He had sex with him and woke up covered in...ectoplasm.) Al’s bemusement turns to confusion as Fernando leaves without forking over his $40,000 winnings.
In the meantime, Socks has been telling partygoers about the egregious racial incident he witnessed. A protective group gathers around Darius. There is some sobbing while Socks embellishes the tale (“She said, ‘All lives matter!”), and the offensive partygoer is set upon by the offended mob.
Most comedies wouldn’t be able to top those scenes, but this one manages it: In the highlight of the episode, Al and Earn regroup after the disastrous poker game. Earn says he has a conundrum: If he helps the “scamming” TJ, he could hold back Black kids who are actually talented. Al’s take: White kids scam “all the fucking time. What the hell do you think TikTok is? Black kids need to scam more.”
Van has a philosophical moment herself: “It’s a party—things happen,” she tells Earn, in between (drunkenly, uncharacteristically, kind of shockingly) sucker-pushing two people into the pool. Zazie Beetz and Donald Glover are great in these scenes capturing the awkward static between exes who keep brushing against each other’s rough edges; I find myself wanting another “Helen”-style showdown between the two (although it wouldn’t have fit here).
The episode ends with Earn agreeing to manage TJ (for a 20...25% cut), an enraged Al trying to cut down the tree as revenge for the poker game, and the group fleeing the premises. Atlanta’s previous encounters with an affluent party crowd (“Juneteenth”) and an eccentric mogul (“Teddy Perkins”) resulted in series-best episodes; “The Old Man and the Tree” isn’t quite on that level, but it’s consistently amusing and sharp. As crazy as the proceedings get, Atlanta grounds them in small, real moments (Van and Earn’s fumbling, Al and Earn’s unpacking) while taking broad swipes at racial and cultural conventions. It’s not often that a farcical evening gives you so much to think about. The tone is perfect: Just heightened enough not to be too over the top. These are absurd times. As Al says, balance is a motherfucker.
- Again, Darius brings the sartorial splendor, although this episode’s coat can’t beat the one he wore in episode two.
- Check out Lakeith Stanfield’s microexpressions as the race-relational confab spirals out of control. His disbelief is gold.
- Hugh Coles (Socks) and Patrick Kennedy (Will) make strong comic impressions here.
- Was the actor playing Fernando doing a Most Interesting Man in the World thing, or...?
- Although she provides some of the episode’s most memorable business by the pool, Beetz doesn’t really get enough to do here, unfortunate after she had such great moments in episode two. I wanted more from her and Earn’s interaction in which he expresses concern for her. Something is up with Van—her impulsiveness isn’t what we’re used to seeing; in fact, her entire trip is kind of out of character. (Plot quibble of a freelancer: How is she financing this?)
- Line of the episode: a toss-up among Paper Boi’s assertion that “the spirit came on you,” his observation on TikTok, and Will’s “racialism makes me mad.”