Atlanta: “Juneteenth” Season 1 Episode 9 Review

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Welcome to Spike Lee’s Eyes Wide Shut, where a rich white man with a fascination with black history and culture throws a party for Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the abolition of slavery in the US. The guest list includes the black bourgeoisie of Atlanta, Van (trying to network), and Earn (forced to pretend to be Van’s husband so she looks better to the other guests). Perfectly juxtaposed to last week’s seminal “The Club,” which showed the exact opposite side of the black community of the city, “Juneteenth” shows us the elite status Van hopes to achieve and exactly why neither she nor Earn belong there.

Donald Glover, eyes half closed to everyone around him, lets just a shimmer of sarcasm into his tone when spewing positive reinforcement to build Van up. It perfectly showcases the tragedy of their relationship. Earn likely on some level believes everything he’s saying about his one-time girlfriend, current mother of his child. As a couple, it’s easy to see how they would complement each other, both being “woke” enough to the side of society they’re in here and flip side we’ve spent most of the season in. They’re not perfect people by any means, but they are most certainly aware of the socio-political energies the world forces onto both sides, as well as how the sides view each other (which we also wonderfully saw in “B.A.N.” with the black talk-show host constantly talking down to Paper Boi). This shared awareness continues to seduce Earn and Van toward each other. But, as with all love, it’s all about timing, and Earn is not ready for a serious partnership with anyone right now.

Upon stepping into the gorgeous southern-style mansion, the pair are greeted by singing black men on the stairwell dressed in 19th century clothing. It’s clear that Earn and Van are both immediately put off, but the latter is willing to put up with it for the potential career benefits. Earn just puts up a thin wall of sarcasm to keep himself sane, but only succeeds in driving Van nuts. “Juneteenth” is the episode where the show’s chief female character finally came into her own. Where the Van-centric “Value” showed us more facets of her personality, this episode gave us better indications of her values, strengths, and weaknesses. It’s not too far into the episode that Van seems to give up for the day, chugging cocktails to the point where even Earn starts pointing out how counterproductive she’s being.

But Atlanta is a much smarter show than to build to a big drunk meltdown from Van in front of the whole party. Instead, the white host finally recognizes Earn as Paper Boi’s manager after his wife shoos away some excited valet workers. Turns out, he had been following this underground sensation as if hoping to collect him for his wall of African artifacts (“Are you an archeologist?” Earn hilariously asked earlier in the episode). But then the host’s wife, also black, asks Earn is he’s going to “shoot up” this party. She later claims it was a joke, but a joke coming from a rich black woman about her own race can still be filled with bigotry. So Earn ends up being the one to finally break the fog and raise his voice. His rant, fueled by anger, ends up being more about shouting insults than correcting offensive behavior, which does nothing to change the hosts’ opinions. It’s a perfect representation of a cycle that puts up more and more divides between people where coherent explanation and active listening might start to inch us toward understanding.

Earn apologizes to Van on the way home. She asks him to pull over and they have sex. This reaction makes sense. Earn showed strength in speaking up for the side of his community not represented at this ritzy party. Van agrees with him, even if it cost her some networking opportunities. In this moment, they are connected by their world views, something they don’t appear to share with anyone else. Where “The Club” was Atlanta perfected in small character beats, comedy, and tone, “Juneteenth” is Atlanta perfected as a study of race, class, and its fully realized characters. As the show keeps improving, there appears to be no ceiling for how wonderful, tragic, romantic, political, and savvy Atlanta will get. Grade: A

By Matt Dougherty

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