Atlanta Season 3 Gets Delightfully Absurd With The Old Man And The Tree

We're now three episodes deep into season 3 of Donald Glover's "Atlanta," and it's abundantly clear that the series is leaning fully into afro-surrealism with the delightful absurdity of "The Old Man and the Tree." The episode also makes it obvious that the themes presented in the season premiere are going to be the overarching themes of the entire season. 

The episode begins with Van, Earn, Al, and Darius making their way to a billionaire's house in hopes of procuring investments or at least investment advice at his party. They arrive at a deceptively unimpressive-looking address, making their way across clutter and broken glass until they reach the secret entrance that reveals the lavish living quarters of the wealthy, eccentric, ghost-f***er known as Fernando. 

From there, the foursome splits up to have their own little adventures.

Al/Paper Boi - communication issues and culture shock

Al spends the majority of the episode getting closer to Fernando. At first, he is impressed by the billionaire's lifestyle and willingness to protect it; however, things turn sour pretty quickly. The two play a poker game with some of Fernando's friends, during which Fernando reveals that he was once visited by the ghost of a naked, soaking wet Black man. He goes on to explain that he and the ghost shared a sort of "deep connection" that resulted in him being covered in the ghost's ectoplasm. 

The weirdly erotic tale causes Al to laugh and crack jokes about Fernando being a ghost f***er, which, honestly? Fair. Fernando asks Al if he believes in ghosts, to which Al says he hasn't really thought about it. Things get from bizarre to downright creepy when Fernando presses on, asking Al if he believes in God. When Al says that he does, Fernando goes full horror movie by saying, "And if you believe in God, you have to believe in the Devil. There's good and bad spirits everywhere, Alfred," explaining that the Devil is just as powerful as God, and that the nature of the world involves the pursuit of balance. After this exchange, Al wins the poker game, but Fernando leaves abruptly without coughing up the cash that Al is rightfully owed. When Al asks the others if Fernando intends on paying him, they dodge the question and abandon him as well.

Al is pretty taken aback, and eventually goes upstairs to Fernando's room and demands his winnings while the old man pretends to be asleep in his bed. This causes Al to resort to more severe efforts to get Fernando's attention, meaning that the rapper decides to take a chainsaw to Fernando's beloved tree. Damn.

"The Old Man and the Tree makes a point to depict the culture shock that Al/Paper Boi is experiencing while on tour. There's the whole misunderstanding of the term "trees," during which Al mistakenly assumes the billionaire is offering him weed only to be disappointed when he realizes Al was referring to a literal tree. Earlier in the episode, Al also mentioned that he doesn't listen to U.K. rappers because he doesn't really understand what they're saying most of the time, and he reiterates this sentiment when he mentions that he can't understand the woman sitting with them at the poker table. He isn't particularly tactful about expressing this, which leads to some unspoken tension, and nobody tries to help him understand. Instead, they move on. 

It's also worth noting that Al does not engage in code-switching. For those unfamiliar, code-switching is the act of modifying one's speech and behavior to better match the environment and company. An article in the Harvard Business Review describes it as "a strategy for Black people to successfully navigate interracial interactions and has large implications for their well-being, economic advancement, and even physical survival." Al's apparent disinterest in changing himself, even temporarily, based on the company he's in is admirable — but this is also increasingly becoming a source of conflict. At one point in the episode, he expresses his frustration with the fact that he can't handle things the way he would in Atlanta — although he ends up doing so anyway, likely to everyone's detriment.

Van - assimilation, apathy, individualism, or some combo of the three?

Van's behavior in this episode is a bit odd at first. She (unfortunately) doesn't get a lot of screen time, but what we do see of her raises lots of questions. I suspect her unwitting attendance of the Tupac euthanasia party in episode 2 had a major impact on her in ways we haven't been made privy to just yet. Her characterization in the series thus far hasn't shown her to be a thief or a bully, but at Nando's strange residence, we see her discreetly pocketing nicknacks and casually pushing random (white) people into the pool. She also claims she isn't angry at Earn when he asks, but she does make a point to ignore his call at the end of the episode, opting to continue eating and reading a magazine in peace.

Has she adopted a problematic new "unbothered" philosophy? Is it just part of whatever strange game that appears to be going on at the party, linked to the girl who runs by giggling after she snatches Al's hat off his head? Is she convinced we live in a simulation, as Darius suggested back in season 2, and so her actions don't really matter and she can do as she pleases? Time will tell. I'm looking forward to whatever character arc the series has in store for her, especially as the series' lone Black female lead. I also desperately want to know why she was getting ice at 4 A.M. in episode 2. Who was in the hotel room with her? Some speculate that Darius and Van hooked up as a result of their shared traumatic experience at the Tupac death bash, but I'm not sure how I'd feel about that. It's not completely out of the realm of possibility, but we also haven't seen Darius explicitly express sexual interest in anyone throughout the show's run so far. There is something to be said for the way that Earn seems bothered whenever another guy expresses any sort of interest in Van, though.

He also expresses that he's worried about her, to which she replies that she's fine. She's just taking time for herself. Outside of her strange actions this episode, she hasn't really displayed any particularly concerning behaviors so far. In fact, her behavior isn't very weird at all in the context of the party; she's acting like the people around her who are doing whatever they please, snatching hats, and so on. It seems more like Earn is bothered by the fact that Van isn't really paying him any attention and instead embracing a sort of carefree, laissez-faire lifestyle in a way we haven't seen before. She's not being sidelined as simply "Earn's girl" or "Lottie's mom" anymore, and from personal experience, I can confirm that people get really uncomfortable when you're a Black mom who asserts your own identity outside of being a caretaker or your relationships with others. 

Could this be the point "Atlanta" is trying to make, or am I projecting? It's probably a bit of both.

Darius - the nature of racism white saviorism

The complexities of race relations, and how racism and superficial progressivism manifest differently according to the region — but are ultimately harmful in the same ways. Darius and another person of color at the party have a conversation about how racism and capitalism are intertwined, and the way racism is basically inescapable "anywhere you can buy a Coke." White saviorism makes another appearance, and although it's not as deadly as it is in "Three Slaps," it's still pretty jarring to see. This time, Darius is used as a pawn so that a group of very strange white people who claim to "hate racialism" can ruin an Asian woman's life for some as-yet-unknown reason. Yeah, MK's initial reaction to Darius wasn't great, and it is actually kind of offensive that she automatically assumes any Black man approaching her sees as a potential romantic or sexual conquest before they even get a chance to speak, but it was hardly the place of Socks and his crew to chastise her over it.

For his part, Darius wasn't even particularly offended, and Socks was clearly aware of this, as he took it upon himself to sensationalize the exchange with inflammatory embellishments in order to paint her as an unabashed racist rather than someone who said something stupid and presumptuous. There's something to be said for the episode's timeliness in depicting white people pretending to be traumatized by an exchange that took place between two people of color, thereby choosing to center themselves and escalating the situation, but I digress. 

Darius is a weird guy, in his own little world; a guy after my own heart, really, but he's way too trusting of people. The way he chooses to navigate the world is not exactly compatible with self-preservation. You'd think he'd have learned to be a little more cautious after the events of the "Teddy Perkins" episode from season 2, but he's still so open and devastatingly chill. On one hand, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but on the other hand, I would have left Socks to his own devices after he pulled that beanie off and revealed his f***ed up hairline. Decorum and polite society be damned.

Earn - the ethics of scamming, wealth inequality

Earn spends most of the episode being courted by a well-intentioned but utterly clueless rich white guy named Will who is sponsoring an aspiring young Black artist named TJ. He asks Earn for investment advice, which is funny since Earn's goal was to get investment advice from him. Specifically, he asks Earn if he should spend even more of his massive fortune by sponsoring upcoming artists in his home, letting them create and live there free of charge. It's a nice idea, but his resident artist is less interested in art and more interested in taking advantage of Will's naivety and goodwill. 

This causes Earn to feel conflicted. On one hand, he feels that scamming is wrong regardless of who is doing the scamming, but as his cousin Al points out during their heart to heart, it's kind of a scam or be scammed world, and "white kids be scamming all the f***ing time," referencing the double standards, wealth inequality, and major differences in opportunity between Black people and white people. Earn is still apprehensive about giving Will the ok to let TJ take advantage of him with his free ride artistry scheme, but ultimately decides to go along with it — provided he gets 25% of the earnings as TJ's new manager.

It's interesting that Earn is deeply concerned and conflicted by TJ's grift while he's dismissive of the fact that his own cousin was just scammed out of $40,000 by an extremely wealthy white guy who tells stories about suspiciously moist Black phantoms nutting on him. Scamming is s***ty, but why is Earn less concerned with his cousin being scammed by a white guy who can absolutely afford to play fair while being simultaneously more concerned about protecting the wealth of Will? It's another example of the leniency and benefit of the doubt given to white people, while Black people are subject to far more scrutiny — a theme that is also explored in the harrowing season premiere "Three Slaps." 

The point, I think, is that everyone can be complicit in contributing to this if they aren't constantly examining their own bias. And to be fair, Will seems to actually think TJ is talented and has no issue footing the bill, despite whatever TJ's true intentions are. Meanwhile, Fernando willfully and blatantly scammed Al. Two wrongs don't make a right, and scamming is undoubtedly wrong, but things aren't quite so black and white (pun intended). 

Reunited on the run

Three of the fabulous four reunite and quickly vacate the premises after Al takes the chainsaw to Fernando's tree, piling into what they assume is the escape car that Earn requested. Instead, after laughing about the wild events that have just taken place, they realize that Socks is driving the van. Considering the fact that Socks is one of the incredibly strange white people that made their night so fraught with tension and mayhem, it's understandable that the guys become visibly exhausted by this turn of events. 

Meanwhile, Van is off on her own, eating her Nando's in peace, and the episode ends. This episode was wild and well-executed, leaving me both satisfied and full of questions that I can only hope will be answered in the episodes to come.

Stray observations

  • The theme of water from the first episode makes a return in two ways:
    • Van, a Black woman, pushing two white people into the pool at the party

    • The "soaking wet" pale Black ghost that Fernando claims cleansed and supernaturally ejaculated.

  • Earn sees a picture of a bunch of smiling white people, Fernando's ancestors, with the shadowy figure of a skinny Black man in the background. Probably Fernando's ejaculating ghost.

  • We have no idea how much time has passed between the events of episodes 2 and 3. We also don't know what time it is when Van ignores Earn's call, so we don't know how long the guys have been in the company of Socks and his weirdo friends — or if they still are. Was Earn calling for help? Was he calling to check on Van? Who knows.

  • I like the blond look on Darius. I don't know if it means anything or if he's just trying out a new style, but it's cute.

  • The reference to 21 Savage technically being a U.K. rapper. Lol.

  • After watching this episode, I posted that "Atlanta" has been steadily morphing into a surrealistic horror series. Upon further research and consideration, it turns out that there's a specific term for the simultaneously familiar and bizarre storytelling "Atlanta" is bringing to the table! It's called afro-surrealism, and it's very f***ing intriguing.

  • MK's fiance is Will, but they break up by the end of the episode after she is terrorized by Socks and his white guilt mob