A review of this week’s Atlanta, “Cancer Attack,” coming up just as soon as I’m the white Liam Neeson…
After last week’s detour to an America transformed by reparations, Atlanta returns to Paper Boi’s European tour for a good old-fashioned locked-room mystery. Only because this is Atlanta, it is only vaguely old-fashioned, very weird, frequently amusing, and ultimately sad.
The location: the green room at the venue for the tour’s stop in Budapest(*). The crime: Al’s phone goes missing while he’s performing. The suspects: a little boy with cancer who came for a charity-arranged visit with his musical idol, and Wiley (Samuel Blenkin), the variably-aged nephew of the venue’s owner, Folk. The investigators: our three intrepid heroes, Earn, Al, and Darius.
It’s a simple setup, but one that inevitably takes a number of weird detours — even if Darius never gets to go on his planned treasure hunt for the alleged five secret rooms in the theater(*). Jamal Olori’s script makes efficient and in-character work of explaining why Al cares so much about the phone: the paranoid Darius (whom Al dismisses as “Conspiracy Jones”) has convinced him not to back up his files to the cloud, so everything on the phone itself will be gone forever if he can’t find it.
(*) LaKeith Stanfield is always a delight in this role, but he’s somehow funnier than usual this week, not only with the blueprint obsession but with his exuberant backstage dancing to Paper Boi’s opening number.
It takes a while, though, for us to learn exactly what he’s so upset about potentially losing. First, Earn has to make a mortifying spectacle of himself by frisking the little boy — who is literally being taken from the theater on a stretcher due to the “cancer attack” that provides the episode with its title — in case the kid’s fandom was so extreme he wanted to take home a souvenir. Then, the crew — which has somehow expanded to include Socks, the loudmouth who took such great (and ultimately violent) offense to MK’s conversation with Darius in “The Old Man and the Tree” — turn their attention to Wiley, who was lurking in the theater all day and even jumped onstage to hype up the crowd right before Al’s entrance.
Things are already feeling odd because Folk seems not to know basic details about his nephew, like his phone number (which Earn finds on a copy of Wiley’s résumé) or his age (Folk thinks he’s 19; Wiley claims to be 32). And Socks has already made a mess of things by threatening Wiley over the phone, turning what could have been a friendly chat into a tense interrogation. When the kid/man turns up, Earn and Al try charming him, then try playing good cop/bad cop — Darius, naturally, declares himself to be “devastated cop” — but no matter what they try, Wiley will not budge.
It’s a fascinating sequence, especially if you go back and play it again knowing who the actual culprit is. (More on them in a bit.) On first view, when it’s easy to assume Wiley stole the phone, it plays more or less as the Joker fucking with Jim Gordon and Batman. Wiley is a pure agent of chaos who seems to understand implicitly how to get in the heads of his interrogators. He knows the lyrics to an early Paper Boi song that Al never released. He knows Al’s phone number. Even when he farts in response to Al threatening him, it almost feels like a troll, as if this master criminal has such complete command of his bodily functions that he can scare off his opponents for a few minutes. When he says that “people just want to be seen; doesn’t matter what for,” it sounds as if he took the phone as a way to get an audience with Paper Boi.
Watch it again, though, and Wiley is largely the person he claims to be: a guileless fan who is, like the solemn cancer boy, overwhelmed to be in the presence of his favorite performer. Everything he says is the truth. He isn’t trying to mess with anybody, and is grateful to get a few moments alone with Al to talk about what Paper Boi’s music means to him, and to even play a composition of his own inspired by Al. When he leaves by saying, “Thank you for seeing me” and wishing that Al will find his phone, he is being entirely sincere. (The genius of Blenkin’s performance is that it works both ways.)
There is, of course, the matter of him knowing the “box top Chevy” lyric, and knowing Al’s private phone number. How does he know this if he didn’t take the phone? Well, how was Justin Bieber a Black man when he played with Al in a charity basketball game? How was there an invisible car when the guys went out to the club? How was Tupac smothered to death in Amsterdam in front of Darius and Van? There has always been a surreal aspect to this show, going all the way back to the bus scene in the very first episode. Wiley says that when he first heard Paper Boi’s mixtape, he didn’t feel sympathy or empathy; “I felt the same.” Maybe by whatever logic the Atlanta universe operates under, this skinny white guy is really mentally in tune with Alfred Miles — both had crushes on girls named Rosie — and knows things that only Al should?
And for one brief, poignant encounter, the man who understands Al is able to one-up him. After kicking the other guys out of Folk’s office, Al confesses that he has been unable to write a song for months, and that he has often feared he may never be able to do it again. But this morning, he explains, he heard his artistic voice in his head, singing a song that he then recorded on the missing phone. Without it, he may not be able to record again. He never particularly wanted to be a performer, and only saw it as a way out of poverty — “I scare people at ATMs,” he once explained. “I have to rap!” — but now it has become his entire existence(*). Without that song, and the ability to write more after it, what can he do? Wiley responds by playing a song of his own on an acoustic guitar — not to taunt Al, as it may have seemed on first view, but to express himself in front of the great and powerful Paper Boi. Wiley for this instant has the gift that Al worries he has lost forever. In the process, Wylie gets his moment, and he gets to be seen, which is all he wanted, while Al has to figure out how to move on.
(*) It’s become Earn’s entire existence, too. Earn has gotten really good at running the entire Paper Boi machine, but other than his ongoing concern for Van — who has not returned since she went walkabout from Fernando’s party, and responds to Earn’s worried texts with just a thumbs-up emoji — he doesn’t seem to have anything else on his mind. When Al tries having a genuine moment with him before the show, Earn is both distracted and unable to really answer Al’s question about how he’s doing.
In the end, the culprit turns out, of course, to be Socks, who cavalierly tosses Al’s phone into the garbage before hopping on the tour bus. Like the purloined letter, the answer was right in front of our guys the whole time. Socks has somehow joined the entourage despite none of them actually liking him, and despite him almost using the N-word in front of them while fired up about Wiley. (On second view, a lot of Socks’ hot air can be read as him trying to deflect suspicion from himself onto the most obvious alternate suspect.) Why did he take the phone? Because it was there, and Socks is an asshole who claims to care about the feelings of others but can’t ever ponder the world outside of his own head. Why does he throw it away? Maybe because after seeing the fuss Al kicks up, he realizes it’s too dangerous to keep, or maybe because, again, he doesn’t care about what his alleged friend wants or needs.
It’s a dark comic payoff to another singular episode of this show — an episode that is also even funnier the second time than the first. Al may be worried that he’s lost it; Atlanta certainly hasn’t.