FX’s Atlanta is too earnest. Like literally, there are two Earnests. The two episodes “The Jacket” (S1E10) and “Big Payback” (S3E4) inspire an interesting conversation when watched concurrently. Donald Glover’s Earnest, called throughout the series by his nickname “Earn”, struggles with survival through Atlanta’s first two seasons. Tobias Segal plays another Earnest, who goes by “E.” and leads the episode’s main character through a series of realizations about racial inequity and the need for reparations. Watching them back to back, there is a story of black survival and white loss. The end of both episodes suggests that the black characters have mastered survival, while the white characters struggle to do the same. Earn has an instinct for self-preservation; E. does not.
Earn is presented throughout all of Season One as someone who failed to acquire any power or social status. His desperate situation is highlighted by his cousin’s slow rise to fame, as he still can barely feed himself or provide for his girlfriend and their child. In “The Jacket,” while he and his cousin Paper Boi start their search for his lost jacket, which holds his “house key”, Paper Boi groans, “bailin’ his ass out again,” and Earn is visibly annoyed. “You didn’t even bail me out when I was actually in jail.” Earn insists on maintaining his dignity, even in just a witty retort.
Later in the episode, we see Earn walk into the night, seemingly with nowhere to go, and arrive at a storage unit that has become his home. He is quietly steeling himself not to break, and, of course, he doesn’t. Instead, he’s bumping Outkast in his headphones.
And replied I’ve been going through the same that he has
true I got more fans than the average man
but not enough loot to last to the end of the week
I live by the beat like you live by check to check
If it don’t more your feet then we don’t eat
so we like neck to neck
Guess we come a long like though baby, like them thin ass cigarettes, from Virginia
This ain’t gon stop so we just gon continue! “Elevators (Me and You)” (minute 2.30)
One could imagine that he is completely at rock bottom, and yet he chooses to survive.
While Earn is struggling to accumulate wealth, he still maintains his strength in subtle ways. Earn keeps his housing situation a secret in order to focus on the future. When Earn finally gets his lost storage unit key back, he hands over a roll of cash to Vanessa. She’s surprised and incredulous. “What’s this?” Calmly, Earn comes back with another witty retort. “It’s that thing we always need.” Rather than use it for himself, he gives it to her despite desperately needing it.
In Season Three, on the other side of Atlanta, in a relatively nice-looking hotel lounge, we meet the second Earnest through Marshall Johnson, the main character of the episode, who loses everything when the descendants of slaves owned by his ancestors demand their reparations. This Earnest is smiling, pleasant even. Marshall and E sit around considering their next moves. Unlike Earn, E still has the means to check into a hotel indefinitely. The hostess is gracious, soft soothing music is playing, and they’re drinking alcohol straight up. This is a far cry from Earn walking through Atlanta in the rain. See, E and the others still have some money, while Earn is scraping to get by. At the close of this episode, E is not yet at rock bottom–after all, he’s lounging in the hotel bar with a cocktail–and we watch him walk to the edge of a beautifully lit pool and hear him blow his head off.
While most of the white characters in “Big Payback” complain about how unfair it is to give away their money, E. is content with having to give away his money in the euphoria of his decision to die. Funny, when our Earn had nothing, he slept in a storage unit with the determination to live. E has a nice hotel room, a hot shower, and plenty of companions and then gives up. He’d rather lose his life than lose his status. A black waiter blithely says “there’s more where that came from.”
The waiter’s small snide remark speaks to the fragility of these newly outcasted white people. The white characters have convinced themselves that they are successful on merit and that those people are unsuccessful based on merit. They live this lie until the status quo is upended in Atlanta. E makes a realization, “[It’s] similar to the position we put them in.” The case of the two Earns is simply white fragility juxtaposed against black survival.