INDIVIDUALISTIC CULTURE HARMS BLACK COMMUNITIES: ATLANTA FX SEASON 2 FINALE EXPLAINED
Does anyone truly understand this show?
“Crabs In a Barrel,” the season finale of the FX series Atlanta is a cultural commentary on the individualist mindset of black communities and the idea that everybody is in it for themselves, no matter who they step on to get to the top. This theme is packaged through Earn Marks’ (Donald Glover) interactions and his instinctive approach to different events throughout the episode.
This season, unlike the last, has been in-cohesive, messy and almost haphazardly organized, which is in tune with the direction of Earn’s life so far. In the first season, Earn’s charismatic and confident attitude is enchanting, it persuades viewers to develop a hope and yearning for him to succeed, and even draws Earn’s cousin Al “Paper” Boi Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) to take a chance on him with his budding rap career. However, in the second season, he falls short of expectations in almost every way.
The last episode, like the rest in the season, are marked by his incompetence as a manager because of his lack of experience and his immediate resolve to cut corners.
Earn is not knowledgable enough to be an effective manager yet but he doesn’t seem to be serious in his intent to learn. So, it’s no surprise that he’s still making mistakes even when the stakes are high.
Paper Boi had an opportunity of a life time to go on an international tour as an opener for another artist called Clark County (RJ Walker) along with his manager Lucas (Matthew Barnes) and Darius (Lakeith Standfield). Earn was supposed to organize all the details and manage the success of the trip but as usual, he was fumbling.
He was late for a professional meeting with a prospective black entertainment lawyer (which he attends with his daughter) and is unsure about what to ask and how to choose the best candidate.
Some striking moments follow, that show the implications of the individualistic nature of black culture. One of those moments is when Al demands a Jewish entertainment lawyer because he believes that they are more likely to be honest with his contracts than a black lawyer who he thinks is likely to steal from him. As a result, when Earn goes along with Darius to renew his passport for the trip, he asks the front desk agent if he can recommend an entertainment lawyer. The agent recommends his cousin.
“How did your cousin get into the business?” Earn asks. “My uncle does it,” says the agent.
The conversation is notable because it animates the juxtaposition of how other cultural groups are collective and willing to help their own even when their reputation is on the line, and in turn, are rendered great support and connections.
“Let me ask you something, and be honest,” Earn says. “Do you think there is a black lawyer who is as good as your cousin?” At this, the agent, and all the other jewish people in the room look up to listen to his reply. He hesitates. “There definitely is, but part of being good at your job are your connections and black people just don’t have the connections that my cousin has,” he says, adding, “For systemic reasons.” Earn is unfazed and moves on, he has more things to worry about.
With the added stress of funding his daughter’s education, Earn finally feels the gravity of his position with Al and is very worried about his job. So, he looks to Darius to lift his spirits.
In turn, Darius gently explains to Earn that being black, neither him or his cousin can afford to make mistakes even though they should be allowed to fail while learning. His explanation amounts to mean that though Al is doing what he can to help Earn, he has to consider his interests first because he can’t allow Earn to fail and mess up both of their lives in his effort to make it.
The message highlights the disconnect between the concept of short-term individual gain and how it translates to affect long-term prosperity for the community and its people.
Still, the conversation resonates when later Earn is faced with a problem that excites profound change in him at the airport.
Al told him earlier to get rid of a gun that was given to him by his uncle but at the last-minute, when checking in his belongings for scanning, he realized that he forgot to get rid of the gun, and in that moment, he makes the quick decision to distract Clark (their touring mate) and put the gun in his bag instead.
This moment is poignant because even though Earn believes otherwise, he had other options. He could have excused himself and taken a late flight after getting rid of the gun or gone to the washroom to leave it there and still catch the flight but he decided to risk his relationship with Clark and act selfishly (which could have ruined Clark’s life).
“N–gas do not care about us men. N–gas gone do what ever they gotta do to survive because they ain’t got no choice,” Al says to Earn later while safely on board of their plane. “We ain’t got no choice either.”
Al tells Earn that he saw what happened and it affirmed his decision to retain Earn as his manager. “You’re the only one who knows what I’m about. You give a f–k. I need that,” he says. He believes that Earn finally learned what it takes to make it because the industry is cut throat and he would need to do what ever it takes if they were going to succeed.
But that moment is quickly over shadowed when Al sees Clark walking past him on the plane. He stops him to ask what happened to his manager Lucas and Clark explains that he was caught with a gun and walks away carefree.
Slowly, Earns leans over to whisper to Al that he put the gun in Clarks bag.
Al is stunned. He realizes that he underestimated his competition, because Clark will do whatever it takes to succeed, even if it means hurting one of his own and now they’ve put themselves in a precarious position with him.