Atlanta’s refusal to explain its in-jokes and references, and the pace at which these allusions are made, is part of what makes watching the show a rich and textured experience—and kind of befuddling. If you blink for a second, Atlanta will leave you behind, and whether you catch its references or not Donald Glover still shirks most requests to explain his surrealist TV series. So we’re here to ask the important questions, and maybe find some answers.
The third episode of Atlanta Robbin’ Season begins with a cold open: A flummoxed Southern white woman speaks to the camera on her Instagram Story. She’s just caught her young daughter listening to a Paper Boi song on the radio, and she’s not happy about the lyrics she heard. Deeming the song “disgusting,” she goes on to read the absurdly graphic lyrics as her daughter plays in the background, and complains about the explicit nature of mainstream radio and hip hop. She is a woman who protests what she hears on the radio, yet seems to be offended by a pop culture figure exercising his right to free speech. (The line that really gets to her involves the phrase “shout out Colin Kaepernick,” a parodic lyric about the NFL player’s protest of the national anthem. When it comes to absurdist criticism of rap on the internet, Atlanta has upped the ante from the second episode’s parody of acoustic YouTube rap covers.
The scene cuts to Alfred, Darius, and Earn taking shots in an Atlanta bar, celebrating the viral exposure “@lilysmom_11” has given to Paper Boi’s new platinum single. They cheers to “white tears” and joke about sending her a gift bag. Ironically, this woman’s diatribe brought more dollars and downloads to the Paper Boi track she protested on her Instagram.
Subversion and role reversals are the critical tools Atlanta uses to unsettle its viewers, so naturally a few questions emerge when it comes to the themes of stunting and trolling in this episode. If the takeaway from “Sportin’ Waves” was “scam or be scammedm” this week’s mantra might just be “troll or be trolled.”
Who is this @lilysmom_11?
After a quick search for @lilysmom_11, the account seems to be trolling us all.
Photos of sweet tea and cowboy boots, with captions like “Y’all I cannot wait for the Toby Keith concert with my girls next month!!!!!,” began to appear on the account just days before “Money Bag Shawty” episode of Atlanta. The only two accounts @lilysmom_11 follows are Southern Living and Blake Shelton. Her bio states “May the LORD bless y’all.” When I reverse Google Image searched the posts on these accounts, it turned out they came from random Pinterest accounts and stock image sites on the web. Is this a real account from the sensitive southern woman introduced in the cold open? The evidence isn’t conclusive, but it’s incredibly likely that the producers of Atlanta are provoking viewers with this easter egg.
Why are dollar bills everywhere in this episode?
As for the rest of the episode, more serious matters are the main course, though the narrative never loses its grip on humor. Alfred and Darius visit the recording studio of Clark County, the sellout Yoo-hoo rapper introduced to audiences in last week’s episode. He demands to be taken seriously, despite his catchy commercial for a brand of chocolate milk, by threatening violence on the engineer he employs in the studio.
This scene between Clark, Darius, and Alfred also makes one wonder, In what year does this show take place? On Clark’s coffee table are Harriet Tubman $20 bills, which have yet to be circulated, even though Clark tells Darius and Alfred that he was able to snag a few before they were taken back out of circulation. In 2016, former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced were supposed to mark the occasion of the first black woman gracing American currency by 2020, replacing Andrew Jackson on the bill. However, as of January 2018, Steve Mnuchin announced that no final decision had been made about removing the former President Jackson—who owned slaves and signed the Indian Removal Act, which forcibly removed Native Americans from their land in 1830—and replacing his image with a black female abolitionist. Maybe this episode takes place in an alternate timeline where the Harriet Tubman bill has already entered circulation, or maybe it is just another method of destabilizing the viewer just the right amount. As of right now, we may never see those Harriet Tubman bills in real life, so why not indulge Atlanta’s wishful thinking.
Meanwhile, Earn plans to help Van “stunt” on a treacherous friend (her pal bought a VIP upgrade to a Beyoncé concert, which of course leaves Van alone in the nosebleeds) by taking her out to a nice dinner and a movie. At the theater, his $100 bill is not accepted by the cashier, and they insist that a new policy requires a copy of his ID every time he swipes his debit card. But when a middle-aged white man (with a gun in his holster, no less) buys movie tickets, his $100 bill is accepted as legal tender. Earn would rather go elsewhere for a night on the town than spend money at a racist theater, so he tries to take Van to a hookah bar, where his $20 bill is thought to be fake.
Earn tells Van he’s going to take her “somewhere where people definitely know how to treat someone with money”—the strip club. When they go—with Alfred, Darius, and Tracy in tow—he comes face to face with the irony of the situation: he can’t actually afford any of the bottle service and lap dances he has just bought for his friends.
When Earn and Van leave the strip club, former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is in the parking lot, racing other club-goers on foot—it’s a clever subversion of his controversy as the leader of a dog fighting ring in 2007. Earn is convinced he can beat him; naturally, he loses. In Earn’s own words, “The stunters have become the stunted.”