Atlanta has proven over three seasons that it can be anything it wants to be. It can go from a psychological horror in “Teddy Perkins,” to an intimate journey through Paper Boi’s grief in “Woods,” to a lovely coming-of-age piece in “FUBU,” all within the span of five episodes of its second season. This week’s episode “Light Skinned-ed” takes another unexpected topic—Earn and Al’s family dynamics. It’s a theme that comes after “Earn’s therapy session” on the bottom of the likely-Atlanta-storylines list—and produces an expert family saga that will join the series’s other legendary stand-alone outings.
Critics, including myself, have already spent lots of lines parsing through why the third season didn’t entirely land (and I’ll try to make this my last time bringing it up). But none of those European adventures gave me the specific joy I felt when the gospel track kicked in over the broken side-mirror serving as a title card for “Light Skinned-ed.” Ahead of the series premiere back in September 2016, Glover said that the thesis of Atlanta was “to show people how it felt to be Black.” While there is so much rage, pain, indignation, sorrow, and bullshit involved in the Black American experience, there’s also joy and laughter, and this episode deals with the specific mirth, familiarity, and schadenfreude that comes with watching someone else’s fucked-up family situation play out on screen.
This episode is filled with good-old Black elder shenanigans, which are universal but so culturally specific that I immediately texted all my aunts to tune in on Thursday (even the religious ones who haven’t seen a single prior episode). It also has a relatively low-key escalation. Earn doesn’t think that his mother Gloria (Myra Lucretia Taylor) is serious about stealing his grandpa away from his Aunt Jeanie (Michole Briana White) until she speeds off with the elder in the backseat. It becomes so much more due to the loaded history between that generation of Earn and Al’s family, which is a given because of some nasty asides from Gloria and Jeanie, a firm boundary from Earn’s dad (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and a biting sibling group-call. Writer Stefani Robinson—who previously wrote “Value,” “Juneteenth,” “Woods,” and “Tarrare”—does an outstanding job while treating the audience like adults, allowing viewers to piece all the drama together without any backstory dump.
And y’all, there is a lot of drama to parse through. This is the first extended look at Earn’s role in his family since “Alligator Man,” but rather than entering the fray as a nephew who still has a degree of distance, it’s his mama who sets the whole thing off. I was not mad at him at all when he tried to dip away from Jeanie at the church because he was in a no-win situation. Anyone who’s been forced in on some family mess on behalf of their parents knows: Unless the parent has done something inexcusable, stay quiet and stay neutral while also showing you’re on their side, so they don’t blow up at you later. Plus, it seemed like Jeanie would assume anyone is against her, which isn’t helped by the fact that she’s a piece of work.
Once Jeanie follows Earn to the studio, where Al gives up the whole plot without even being asked (thanks for that, man), the ancient beef that led to the day’s antics is finally aired out in a contentious family party line. First, let’s get the big reveal out of the way: UNCLE WILLIE IS BACK! He’s grilling burgers! He doesn’t think Gloria kidnapped their dad cause “kid” is in the name! Jeanie owes him $800! (No alligator sighting, but that would’ve been a lot anyway). Once again, Emmy-winner Katt Williams shows why he’s perfect in the role, with Willie joining his sister Pearl in bagging on Jeanie as only siblings can.
I used the word “sanctimonious” at least five times to describe Jeanie in my notes, and she’s obviously throwing a lifetime’s worth of wronged feelings into this call. You can tell her insistent claims that their dad doesn’t recognize Gloria and the family’s always against her are all based on old shit that’s probably brought up every time she gets a chance. After they laugh at her claim that they hate her because she’s “light skinned-ed” (I swear I thought she was going to say “because I’m the pretty one”), Jeanie takes the gloves off with the jab towards Gloria that was always left unspoken, that their father doesn’t remember her.
It turns out that he does, because of course he does. There may be a smattering of dementia with that Egypt comment, but Gloria and her dad have a deeper relationship than Jeannie’s been insisting. The aunt’s need for control, to the point of calling the cops and leaning on them even when they want to drop the whole thing (she even tells them to arrest Earn and Al), comes from a tragically hidden well of resentment. Maybe she grew up the dad’s favorite and will lord that over the rest of them as long as she’s his guardian. All in all, it’s a very complicated dilemma that cops aren’t gonna solve, and Jeanie doesn’t come any closer to compromise by the end of the episode.
Its real connection to season four’s overall arc is when Earn shares his fear: He doesn’t want to be bickering among his siblings in old age. In the absence of any other siblings we’ve met so far, he’s likely picturing Jeanie and Gloria’s relationship as a warning for what could become of him and Al. Hopefully, the cousins will make efforts to make sure they’re never indirectly insulting each other over a family party line
While Earn’s dealing with all the drama, his father Raleigh (Whitlock) has drawn a line in the sand and is enjoying three hours of solitude at the mall. He gets distracted off his usual schedule by a hat salesman, getting an ego boost as she compliments him into buying an ostentatious, gold-cross-adorned fedora. The delay could mostly be seen as an innocent trap Raleigh fell into, racking up a charge on the family Mastercard to feel like a boss before he realizes that the derailment means he ran out of time to leave before the mall got crowded.
In one of my worst nightmares, a young punk humiliates him over the very hat that made him feel like a G, with a crowd of mall-goers surrounding the interaction like a playground fight. He loses his little burst of confidence and control, and once he reunites with the family at the dinner, Raleigh is back to his role as the husband listening to his wife. His blow-up at the waiter is a great way to tie the entire episode up, and I love that that’s where it ends. There wasn’t a chance that decades of family shit would be solved in one day, so they just walk away from it and go back to normal, like in real life. You could say this is Atlanta’s best example of a “normal” episode, which is also expertly written and directed, hilarious and cutting, lovely and minute, and an overall fantastic television episode.
- Gloria was plotting from the cold open when she wouldn’t let Earn drive.
- Praise miming is both a real thing and a callback to the whiteface kid from Van’s in-school suspension in “Value.” (If you haven’t seen it, add Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. to your watchlist immediately.)
- In addition to being a sweet moment, Al and Gunna’s Uno match showed that Uno’s one of the top three games that can start a fight. (My other two are Monopoly and Scrabble. Comment your top three below!)
- Aunt Jeanie saying she liked Gunna’s earrings was everything.
- Earn’s reactions add another excellent layer to the phone-call scene, from him and Al sitting with their heads down like admonished kids, to his look at Jeanie when she brings out the Gloria bomb.
- For those wondering how Al fits into the family, his mom is assumedly another one of the siblings (she passed before the show’s timeline began).
- Even though he successfully embarrassed Raleigh, the kid’s game was weak. (Being like Prince is supposed to be an insult now?)
- Earn and Al definitely just got lucky while using the Shmurda exit, but also, how did that studio not have a back exit before he built it? Isn’t that a fire hazard or something?
- Though I’ve really enjoyed the time with Earn and Al so far, it’s around time for a Darius or a Van solo episode, and I’m excited.