'Atlanta' Explores Money & Gender Roles When Earn Takes Van On A Date He Can't Afford
Last week's two-episode premiere of the FX series Atlanta introduced audiences to Earn (Donald Glover), a college drop-out back in his hometown and trying to figure out his next move. By the Sep. 13 episode, Earn is officially manager of the fledgling career of his aspiring rapper cousin Paper Boi. And though Paper Boi (or Alfred, to his cousin) is gaining some local notoriety, there's no money in it yet for Earn. The whole idea is a bit silly to Van, Earn's not-quite girlfriend and the mother of his daughter. To prove to Van that he's not broke, Earn invites her out on a date, his treat. Can he get through the night without Van finding out how dire his financial situation is? Impressing the girl while simultaneously keeping her in the dark about something is a well-explored sitcom plot, but Atlanta uses the set-up to talk about maturity and the role of the provider.
In the opening of the episode, Earn is already down to the last of his cash before his next payday. He argues with a fast food employee about the cut-off age for ordering a kids meal and drinks illicit soda out of the free water cup. (Who hasn't?) His paycheck isn't a huge help. The pilot showed Earn working on commission signing people up for credit cards. There's obviously no future in this job; Earn doesn't really try, but why should he when there's no future apparent?
At this point, Paper Boi's career is the real growth industry. They're not going to be an instant phenomenon though, and that's creating some friction in Earn and Vanessa's apartment. But there's a disconnect between what Van says and what Earn hears. She asks for help with their child and hints that smoking weed with his artist all day isn't really "work." What Earn hears is that his venture isn't serious enough for her, not like the careers of those "corny" guys she usually likes to go out with. She doesn't even mention money, but he thinks he's reading between the lines. "Don't," Van says, when Earn starts to argue with her. "Don't, what? Don't be happy?" he asks. "I don't ride you for doing what you wanna do with your life."
Did little Earn dream of being a rap manager? Maybe. Backstory is pretty sparse so far in Atlanta. But I'm guessing not. He sees Alfred as an opportunity, but he sells him to Van like this gig is his lifelong ambition. It's not fair to her for Earn to be so defensive. And though it's a nice gesture to cater to her for an evening, Earn doesn't give Van much credit by pretending to be more flush than he is. All she asks is for Earn to pull his weight with their childcare. She doesn't want to be taken care of; she wants a partner. But the pride factor is high. And that's ironic, since the date forces Earn to call Alfred for an immediate loan and to embarrass himself in front of the waitstaff.
This disastrous date exposes that Earn himself has a chip on his shoulder about this job. Humiliated by the circumstances, he negatively compares his music ambitions to Van's fashion boutique. She shuts the bedroom door in his face. Rightfully, since her business keeps a roof over their head. Earn thinks he's pretty evolved, but he has to let go of traditional ideas of who provides and who is provided for if he and Van are ever going to get out of relationship limbo.
Images: Guy D'Alema/FX (2)