A review of this week’s Atlanta, “The Old Man and the Tree,” coming up just as soon as I make sure Doja Cat isn’t doing the same thing…
Late in “The Old Man and the Tree,” Darius gets into a philosophical discussion with one of the few other nonwhite guests at the fancy house party our heroes are attending during a tour stop in London. Darius is confused as to why so many of the party’s performatively woke white guests are so quick to accuse others — in this case, MK, another of the party’s few nonwhite guests — of racism, since his understanding is that in England, race matters much less than class. His new friend notes the difficulty in separating racism from capitalism in any locale, leading Darius to recognize that something (say, whiteness) can only have value if something else (say, Blackness) has less value. From there, the conversation meanders into a more ephemeral discussion of whether Taco Bell can be absolved of racism because it serves Pepsi products rather than Coke.
Together, these different parts of the conversation capture the larger spirit of the episode, which features some characters so aggressively searching for racism that they wind up lashing out at another minority; Earn being torn between helping a white friend or a Black stranger; and Al getting in over his head with the party’s wealthy white host, the South African-born Fernando. Oh, and the house has its own built-in fast food restaurant — from a chain, Nando’s, that serves Coke products. When you are Black and traveling through a majority white country, race is always going to be an issue, even in the fairly absurd contexts present throughout most of “The Old Man and the Tree.”
The episode opens with the main foursome walking through London to the party, with Earn explaining that Fernando might be able to invest in Al and Darius’ old Bud of the Month Club business idea. Al and Darius begin doing caricatured white-guy voices, and when Earn tries, they joke that this is just what he sounds like all the time. (Princeton dropout Earn has generally been better and more comfortable with code-switching than his cousin.) But even as they’re enjoying a carefree walk on the way to what sounds like a fun party, we see a white woman peering suspiciously at them through her window curtain and placing a call — no doubt to the local authorities.
The rest of the episode takes place in and around Fernando’s palace, which is cleverly disguised behind the facade of a shabby, trash-strewn “decoy house.” It would seem wildly over the top if we did not know that people like Elon Musk exist. Although in lieu of a rocket launchpad, Fernando’s hideaway is built around a tree. It is not a particularly extraordinary tree to Al’s eyes, but Fernando explains that it is one of the oldest trees in London. And he clearly feels an attachment to things that are old, given that his fortune originates from his family having founded the First Bank of Cape Town.
But we’ll get back to the family bank. The main characters largely split up at the party. Darius gets trapped with Socks (not spelled Sox, despite everyone’s assumption), an overeager white ally type who takes great offense to MK’s remark about Black men being attracted to Asian women, even though Darius himself was never troubled by it. Because Darius is one of the most chill characters in television history, LaKeith Stanfield is rarely called upon to play discomfort or dismay in the role — that’s usually Brian Tyree Henry’s job, and occasionally Donald Glover’s — but he amusingly answers that call here as the situation escalates and escalates, no matter how much Darius tries to correct the record or simply escape.
Al has plenty of cause for dismay as well, once Fernando ropes him into a high-stakes poker game. When news of the £20,000 buy-in throws him, it at first seems like a sign that Al can’t pony up. But this is a much richer and more famous Paper Boi than the guy we left back in 2018, and he has more than enough stacks of cash in his backpack; the surprise is just about Al reminding himself that this is the company he now keeps. Henry gets plenty of opportunity to display his own gift for reacting as Al listens to Fernando’s surreal, disturbing story about having sex with a Black ghost, and even more when Fernando abruptly leaves the table without paying after Al wins the pot. The money appears to be sand off a beach for Al’s larger fortune, but it’s the principle of the thing. Fernando turns out to be less an arrogant thief than a deeply neurotic man, whom we see cowering in bed when Al bangs on his window. Deprived of a chance to beat up his host, Al instead takes out his anger on Fernando’s beloved tree, then grabs as much Nando’s as he can before bolting with his buddies.
As for Earn, he spends the evening caught between two concerns. The more pressing one from our vantage point involves Van seemingly unraveling before our eyes. No one seems quite sure why she is tagging along on this Paper Boi tour, even though Earn acknowledges that she deserves a break. But between her conversation with the death doula last week and her erratic behavior here — which includes her new hobby of shoving waitstaff and other party guests into Fernando’s pool — it seems clear that the show’s most together main character is now anything but. This is complicated by whatever residual feelings Earn still has for his ex, not to mention the hints so far this season that Van may be growing interested in Darius, but larger issues seem at play.
The matter that Earn is able to resolve deals with the man who invited them to the party in the first place: local promoter Will, who has a new business venture he wants to show to Earn. But the idea turns out to be a scam being run by Black would-be artist TJ, who has already gotten Will to spend £500,000 to put him up at Fernando’s and attend to his every need. Will seems utterly blind to the hustle, and TJ encourages Earn to leave it that way. Earn is tempted to spill the beans, until he notices an archival photo of one of Fernando’s ancestors at the opening of the First Bank of Cape Town — and, more importantly, the shabbily-dressed Black man in the background. The novelty check in the photo is dated in the late-19th century, well after slavery was abolished in South Africa, and well before the policies of apartheid were enacted in the late 1940s. But when Earn is considering a country with a long and infamous history of publicly, proudly institutionalized racism, do the dates even matter? The picture is enough not only to vouch for TJ’s grift, but to attach himself to it, trying to milk Will dry.
Why is Will so willing to believe in TJ? Well, we get a partial explanation for that as most of the episode’s subplots collide, Curb Your Enthusiasm-style. Socks and the other woke warriors physically attack poor MK, and we hear that her fiancé dumped her for her allegedly racist behavior. Al’s chainsaw attack on the tree draws all the partygoers to one area, where we find out that the offended fiancé was none other than Will himself, who’s clearly much too quick to demonstrate his antiracism. When the guys finally tumble into the car that a panicked Earn called, they burst into laughter over the ludicrous evening they each had, only for the night to be well and truly ruined when they discover none other than Socks is sitting in the front seat, convinced he knows a great place for them to go next. Even when they manage to get over on one white asshole, another comes along to ruin their fun.
It’s a terrific conclusion to a rollicking installment, followed by a rare midcredits scene of Van off on her own at a shop, enjoying a late-night snack and a newspaper, ignoring Earn’s calls and looking like she doesn’t have a care in the world. Whatever is going on with her will have to wait, but at least she’s not stuck going to another party with Socks, so she’s this week’s winner.