A review of this week’s Atlanta, “Light Skinned-ed,” coming up just as soon as I take the Shmurda Exit…
Earn’s parents, Riley (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) and Gloria (Myra Lucretia Taylor), appear briefly in the series premiere, mainly to establish that Earn is on bad terms with them due to his post-Princeton spiral and sins he has committed out of financial desperation. We see Gloria again in the “FUBU” flashbacks in Season Two, but that’s been it for Mr. and Mrs. Marks before this week. TV has conditioned us to expect that if Whitlock and Taylor were to return, it would be for an episode about Earn reconciling with his parents. But we know that Atlanta has never been interested in fulfilling expectations or following the obvious story paths. (See also Paper Boi’s career evolving almost entirely off-screen.)
So when we catch back up with Riley and Gloria in “Light Skinned-ed,” Earn is not only back in their good graces, but seemingly has been for some time. Instead, the episode (written by Stefani Robinson and directed by Hiro Murai) is about Riley and Gloria’s relationship with time, and not with their son. Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry get to have fun reacting to the craziness going on between Gloria and their Aunt Jeanie (Michole Briana White), but the episode isn’t really about Earn and Al(*). Earn is prominently featured throughout, but other than the moment when he expresses fear that he and Al might turn out as bitter and estranged as Gloria and Jeanie, he is simply responding to what his mother, father, and aunt are up to.
(*) Nor is it in any way about Van or Darius. This is the third episode in a row with no Zazie Beetz. LaKeith Stanfield is also absent, and barely appeared in the two previous ones after the premiere was a pure ensemble piece for all four regulars. Either the show is not trying to force characters into episodes where they serve no real purpose, or it continues to work around the busy schedules of its stars.
So what “Light Skinned-ed” offers us is a pair of intertwined stories about aging, and the compromises and regrets that come in your later years. In one story, Earn’s seemingly routine trip to church with Gloria, Jeanie, and his senile grandfather (Bob Banks) goes pear-shaped when Gloria abruptly drives off with her dad, leaving behind Earn and a bewildered Jeanie, who has recently been their father’s caretaker. In the other, Riley attempts to enjoy the highlight of his post-retirement week: three hours in a largely empty shopping mall before church lets out and the mall fills up with loud and disrespectful kids.
Both story lines are mostly played for comedy, particularly once Jeanie invades Al’s recording studio (interrupting Al’s Uno game with Gunna) to interrogate her nephews about Gloria and her father’s whereabouts(*). Eventually, she sets up a family conference call with her sister Pearl (Teresa L. Graves), Katt Williams’ Uncle Willy, whom we last saw after his gator was released way back in the Season Two premiere, and Gloria, who remains silent on the line. All of Jeanie’s old grievances come out, including her belief that her siblings resent her for being light-skinned. When Willy and Pearl laugh at this argument, a mortified Jeanie suggests Gloria has perpetrated this de facto kidnapping out of guilt that their father has forgotten who Gloria is. Gloria’s reaction suggests there may be some truth to this theory, but mostly it’s just cruel, supporting Pearl’s contention that the others hate Jeanie simply because she’s evil. Jeanie finally summons a pair of Atlanta cops, who order Earn to get Gloria on the phone. Grandpa surprisingly remembers Gloria’s name and insists that he’s just fine. He also thinks he’s in Egypt, but the cops shrug that off, leaving an indignant Jeanie to essentially demand to speak to their manager.
(*) Brian Tyree Henry’s delivery of “Do not call the cops, please,” is a thing of minimalist comic genius. At some point, I hope he and Nick Offerman cross professional paths, if only so we can see which of them can more effectively underplay and/or scowl in disgust.
Riley’s subplot is relatively low-key at first. He is a man who has lived a long and busy life (note the advice he is giving to what sounds like a former coworker as he arrives at the mall), just looking for a pocket of peace where he can get it, even if the rest of his family is in crisis. But being a mall’s only customer has its dangers, too, like being the obvious mark for seductive hat kiosk saleswoman Lisa (Tatiana Neva). Riley tries to walk away, but he can’t resist the compliments of a young and beautiful woman. Before he knows it, he has spent so much time trying on hats — and buying a striking vintage-looking one — that his entire window of quiet has closed. The mall has been invaded by the youths, several of whom find this old man in his Prince-looking hat the most ridiculous thing they’ve seen in a minute. He wants to walk away, wants to shrug it off, but his main taunter (Kelvin Hodge) won’t let up until they take a pic for Instagram, ending Riley’s morning on an utterly humiliating note. Once, he would have stood up to this kid — and, perhaps before that, he might have been the one mocking the old guy walking past him — but now he just feels impotent, the joy he took in the hat ruined.
Finally, our stories converge with Riley joining Gloria, Grandpa, Earn, and Al for dinner at a restaurant. Everyone is a bit frazzled by their day so far, and Gloria and Riley both use the lack of bread with dinner as a surrogate for their desire to assert more control in other corners of their lives. The poor waiter has no idea that Riley is verbally unloading on him in a way he couldn’t with the bully at the mall. And everything builds to the punchline of Grandpa again being emotionally present when Riley proposes they go to Redbox and get a movie they can all watch together.
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Interestingly, all four episodes so far this season have brought their various subplots together at the end, when in seasons past, an Al plot might exist entirely separately from what Darius or Earn is up to. Perhaps this is also related to actor availability — if you have certain people for an episode, you may as well find a way to unite them before you’re done — if it’s not just a coincidence. Or maybe as Robinson, Murai, and everyone else prepares to say goodbye to this show, they not only want to bring actors like Whitlock and Taylor back for well-deserved and funny curtain calls, but to illustrate how intertwined everyone’s life here is with everyone else’s. At the beginning of the series, Earn was homeless, barred from entering his parents’ house, and a long-absent figure from his cousin’s life. Whatever trouble and trauma these characters have experienced over three-plus seasons, they are not loners anymore. Al and Earn are family. As we are reminded here, family doesn’t always get along, and members of it may go years without speaking, but they will never stop being related to one another.
The season has also spent a lot of time already talking about how ephemeral this all is. Al knows he is already shifting out of the zeitgeist, and Earn’s management career is taking him elsewhere, geographically and emotionally. Perhaps a decades-later revival season would show that the cousins have drifted apart again, and can’t even stand being in the same room together. Or, it could just show Al as the guy shaking his head in dismay when his alone time gets invaded by obnoxious kids. Father Time is undefeated, after all, even in an episode where Aunt Jeanie is foiled at every turn.