At this point in its run, one of the great things about Atlanta—an ostensible comedy that has stretched and twisted its format into narrative pretzels, then blown up the pretzel-assembly machine—is that now you approach every new episode of the show with the feeling that just about anything could happen.
And that’s definitely the vibe as this episode begins, backstage in a crumbling Budapest venue, the latest stop on Paper Boi’s European tour. Darius indicates the place might be haunted as he pores over a map. Are we on track for another boundary-bending ghost story? What follows is a more conventional comic plot than what we’ve seen in this season so far—in it, a mystery about Paper Boi’s missing cellphone leads to a comic investigation and interrogation—but it still goes to the weird, deadpan places we’ve come to expect from the show.
Darius and Al have a couple of great comic moments right away: See their impression of a European strip club, and the revelation that a paranoid Darius—“Conspiracy Jones,” per Al—isn’t letting Al back up his phone to the cloud.
Paper Boi discovers his phone is missing after, of all events, a charity-arranged backstage visit from a chronically ill child, who is being escorted out of the building after reporting he’s suffering a “cancer attack.” Suspicious! Earn chases after the gurney, where the youngster nobly consents to be searched (anything for Paper Boi). This darkly hilarious awkwardness (played so well by Donald Glover) might be the episode highlight of a more traditional comedy, but here the mystery and truly unexpected laughs keep building.
It’s a welcome surprise to see the return of Socks (Hugh Coles), a comic highlight of “The Old Man and the Tree,” where he first popped up as a seemingly well-meaning guy who shit-stirred an awkward conversation between Darius and a partygoer into a full-on SJW frenzy. Socks is now part of Paper Boi’s touring crew—and a bit of a rageaholic—who fancies himself as somewhat of an enforcer. He also still seems confused about how to occupy a helpful place in racial politics. Screaming into a phone at the next suspected thief, he asserts, “I’m the white Liam Neeson, bro, and I will track you down!” (leading Paper Boi to note that Neeson was, at last check, white) and gets so worked up by the phone thief’s transgression that he almost uses a racial slur.
As that next suspect, Samuel Blenkin is highly memorable as Wiley, the sensitive-stomached wide-eyed nephew of the venue manager who turns out to be either 19 or 32 and a former delinquent. Earn, Al, and Darius’s interrogation of the lad starts out solidly comic and spirals into surrealism. Wiley insists he and Paper Boi are artistic kindred spirits (they’re both Tauruses! The Postal mixtape is his life!) and grabs a guitar to perform a breakup song. It seems to contain signifiers from Al’s own story, which he’s convinced Wiley has gleaned from material on the missing phone. (As Al, Brian Tyree Henry gets some strong moments throughout the episode, particularly his possibly true, possibly disingenuous monologue about writer’s block, delivered as he’s trying to get Wiley to cough up the merchandise.)
The thief is ultimately revealed: Socks is seen surreptitiously tossing the phone in a dumpster before the tour bus shoves off to the next city. Many questions here: What exactly is Socks’s angle? Will the phone resurface later on? Hints that previous episodes this season may have been (at last partially) dreams make you wonder if what we’re seeing is actually happening—the parallels between Wiley’s and Al’s stories are highly coincidental. Or is that just a comment on circumstantial evidence?
There are plenty of layers here—including themes about usual versus unusual suspects—and this episode of Atlanta, like most episodes of Atlanta, is going to hit differently depending on your perspective. (On the subject of perspective, we’ve come a long way from Al and Earn’s encounters with the justice system in season one.) Ultimately, “Cancer Attack” comes off as both highly comic and somewhat minor key. It’s partly because the show has set the bar so high for itself that an episode like this doesn’t feel quite A-grade.
The episode begins and ends with disconnection among the main quartet. The action opens with Al trying vainly to catch up with a distracted Earn, who’s trying to get a missing Van to reply to his texts. The estranged couple usually isn’t that estranged. We see at the end of the night that he’s had no luck. Turns out the biggest mystery may be whether the four will end the European tour with their relationships intact.
- Both Socks and his portrayer (Hugh Coles) are standouts. At this point, I’d watch a pilot for a Socks spinoff (although there are hints his character may soon be serious trouble).
- Blenkin really is excellent as the mysterious Wiley, alternately poetry-spouting and ethereal, then no-bullshit (“I know you’re going to record me, but I don’t think you’re going to get what you want”).
- Atlanta’s European casting director overachieved with those two.
- I’m kind of living for Earn, Al, and Darius’s approach to good cop-bad cop. (Earn’s good cop: Here’s a Coke.)
- Hiro Murai’s direction continues to be an unsung star of the show. This is a beautiful episode to look at, thanks to director of photography Stephen Murphy’s wide, placid shots of the backstage areas (production designer Jonathan Paul Green also scored there) and the final shot of the tour bus pulling away into the night, which is almost painterly.
- The episode closes with a shimmery super-slow version of “Dedicated To The One I Love” by the Temprees (unjustly obscure compared to more popular renditions by the Mamas and the Papas and the Shirelles). It’s a nice call back to Wiley’s lovelorn troubadouring and a reflection of the disconnect between Earn and Van. (Seriously, what is up with Van?)