Atlanta Season 3 Episode 5 Looks For A Missing Phone With 'Cancer Attack'

After last week's episode of "Atlanta," which managed to be simultaneously divisive and underwhelming, the boys are back — and only the boys. There's no Van this week, but we do see the return of Socks, the U.K.'s most eager ally. Socks has joined Al, Earn, and Darius on tour for reasons that are never made clear. Together, they try to solve a mystery that ultimately ends up revealing a lot about Al/Paper Boi along the way.

After performing in Budapest, Al realizes his cell phone is missing. For a guy who blows $20,000 making it rain on fans immediately after being released from nice European jails, it's odd that he's so worried about losing an easily replaceable electronic device. Sure, he doesn't have anything backed up on the cloud since he let Darius convince him not to trust modern technology to such an extent, but that still doesn't account for how incredibly distraught he is at the possibility of never getting his phone back. Eventually, the boys come to the conclusion that the phone must have been stolen, so they decide it's time to Scooby-Doo that s***. They manage to narrow it down to two suspects: A terminally ill child who met with Paper Boi before the concert, and a weird little guy who is either 19 or 32.

Suspect #1: Cancer Kid

Before the show, Al has a special meet and greet with a child who has cancer. As a parting gift, he gives the kid a bottle of some sort of alcohol or liquor that I could probably identify if I was more of a drinker and less of a stoner. It's amusing, and there's something inherently funny about a young sick white child's dying wish being a meet and greet with an adult rapper who raps about adult things. I probably would have wanted to meet Jonathan Taylor Thomas for a tea party if I was on my deathbed at that age, but to each his own.

Earn takes it upon himself to accost the kid, who is being whisked away from the venue on a stretcher after having a "cancer attack." Obviously, a Black guy accusing a dying white child of theft, going so far as to physically check his Beanie and blankets for the missing cellular device, is a surefire PR nightmare. After being booed by the boy's parents, emergency medical personnel, and bystanders, Earn backs off and returns to Al and the gang to continue the search.

Suspect #2: Wiley

Right before Paper Boi takes the stage, there's some random guy up there hyping up the crowd. Apparently, his name is Wiley, and he's the venue owner's nephew. Allegedly. They end up calling Wiley and attempt to coax him into returning to the venue so that they can question him about the phone, only for Socks to hijack the conversation. In what appears to be typical Socks fashion, he screams and threatens Wiley, claiming that he's "the white Liam Neeson" and that he will f***ing kill him if he doesn't come back with the phone. This seems to completely spook Wiley, who hangs up without another word, leaving Al and everyone else frustrated.

Surprisingly, despite the threats to his life, Wiley shows up anyway. It does seem like he has the phone. He's sharing cryptic anecdotes that seem to really strike a chord with Al, who eventually decides to level with him one on one. During this private conversation, we get one of the best scenes in the season so far, with Al revealing that he hasn't heard his own voice in quite some time. He hasn't written anything in seven months, he doesn't even particularly like rapping, but he doesn't know what else to do at this point. Both metaphorically and physically, he finally got his voice back in a recording on his phone, and he's afraid he'll lose it forever if he doesn't get it back. The revelation that Al has grown tired of being Paper Boi has been hinted at prior to this reveal, with his attitude toward the tour and life, in general, coming off as distant and unenthusiastic, so it was nice to see him in such a vulnerable and honest state.

Walking with a ghost?

For his part, Wiley adds to the startling raw intimacy of the moment by detailing all the strange ways in which he and Al are the same. He even sings a little song. The aforementioned cryptic anecdotes turn out to be similarities shared with Al's own life — although there's no logical explanation for why the cell phone number he gives them is identical to Al's, and we're left wondering if Wiley is actually a real person at all. My theory is that he's some sort of tulpa — a physical manifestation of Al's anxieties, hopes, dreams, and the voice he feels he's lost. "Atlanta" is a surrealistic show, after all. It's not far-fetched to think he may be a specter or other supernatural entity, especially considering Fernando's cum ghost tale from episode 3, or the fact that Darius mentions that he believes he saw a ghost earlier in the episode. Additionally, there's the fact that Earn and White Earn both exist, in some form, in the "Atlanta" universe. It could be a coincidence, but I don't think it is.

Let's talk about Socks, baby

As I mentioned, Socks is there. There's no real reason for Socks to be there — at least not one that we're given. I mean, he launched a white guilt vigilante gang attack on MK, the woman who incorrectly assumed Darius was hitting on her back at the party in the episode "The Old Man and the Tree." He also has a really f***ed-up hairline, and I don't trust that. Just shave it off, dude. I know Darius said the bald look is best pulled off by Black guys, but Mr. Clean pulls it off well, and he's white, I think. 

Socks' overzealous attempts at allyship make recovering Al's phone nearly impossible, and his antics are the very definition of performative. From the get-go, there's something off about his presence, so the episode's conclusion isn't particularly surprising, even with the double dose of red herring we're served throughout. We don't know what his motivations are, so we're left to speculate. Despite his behavior, he has somehow managed to endear himself to Earn, Al, and Darius to the extent that they let him tag along for the ride after the insane events of Fernando's house party. In a text Earn sends to Van, we learn that it has only been six days since the house party, so I can't imagine what transpired in that time that made them want to trust and party with an unpredictable white guy they just met who likes to embellish details of microaggressions. Maybe guys don't vet their friends like that. I don't know.

Final thoughts

  • Brian Tyree Henry really shines as Al/Paper Boi in this episode. I got goosebumps listening to him open up to Wiley, and his growing frustration and despair at the loss of his phone (or his voice, rather) is incredibly believable.
  • The name Wiley sounds exactly like the word "wily," which means "crafty," "dodgy," "sly," or any number of synonyms that could describe a trickster character. It's befitting.
  • It would be nice to get an episode dedicated to whatever the hell Van is up to on her journey of self-discovery. I guess we're supposed to sort of empathize with Earn's point of view, as she isn't really communicating with him, so we're all left in the dark concerning her whereabouts and activities. There are still five more episodes left in the season, so maybe I'll get my wish.
  • The fact that everyone refuses to go on Darius' secret room adventure is especially funny to me since there was recently an argument of sorts in the "Atlanta" subreddit concerning whether or not the series should focus more on Darius and his weird little adventures. Obviously, this episode was written and produced long before this, but the timing is amusing.
  • I liked this episode a lot more than "The Big Payback" for a number of reasons. I don't mind that the series will likely feature more "standalone" episodes without the min cast, but there's something a bit clumsy about them so far. Maybe that'll improve. We'll see.

Atlanta is currently streaming on Hulu and airing on FX.