Finally, she goes for the jugular — when Van admits she still sees Earn, and that he’s living with her “when he can afford to” (insinuating that he pays his share of rent, which we know he doesn’t), Jayde laughs. “You used to make fun of girls like you,” she says. “You need to think about your value… Black women need to be valuable.” When Jayde’s date shows up — with a friend for Van — Van grabs her coat and leaves.
In a clever twist, that whole conversation is just a set-up for the episode’s real plot. After Jayde drives up to Van in the parking lot and apologizes, they go for a drive and, although Van doesn’t usually smoke pot, bond over a joint. “I love you, Van,” Jayde says warmly. The next morning, Van is awoken by her phone’s alarm, reminding her today’s the day for her workplace-mandated drug test.
The news sets in motion a slapstick scramble to find clean urine, which leads to a very funny montage in which Van extracts the stuff from her baby’s diapers. A colander doesn’t quite work; a cheesecloth is better. She boils and strains the mixture and places it in the fridge to cool. Tense, she arrives at school — she’s a teacher — with a condom full of baby piss taped to her thigh like a garter belt. When she tries to rip it open in the bathroom, the condom breaks and its contents spill all over her.
Exhausted, Van goes to the principal and admits she smoked weed. The principal reacts kindly: “Everybody smokes.” Then she informs Van that since she just admitted drug use to a superior, she’s fired. “You’re OK,” she says, giving the bewildered Van a maternal hug.
The episode is perfectly plotted and paced, funny with just a tinge of that surreal quality that makes Atlanta so beguiling: It ends with an eerie close-up shot of a strange kid in Van’s class who keeps creeping out all the teachers by showing up to school in whiteface. Best of all, Van’s dilemma isn’t a “lady problem.” This is a situation anyone, man or woman, could find themselves in.
And yet “Value” — co-written by Glover and Atlanta staff writer Stefani Robinson — isn’t exactly gender-neutral. The episode paints an evocative portrait of the frustrations and limitations that so many young women (particularly black women) in this country chafe against. It’s easy for Jayde to push her rah-rah, go-girl message on her best friend, but it’s not so easy to hold onto your dignity and set high standards, to avoid being treated like shit by your man or your boss — and still maintain a sense of humor and hope, have fun, get yours. It’s even harder as a functionally single parent on a teacher’s salary. That Atlanta managed to transmit these ideas in a 25-minute episode devoted to a character who until now has remained on the show’s margins — and not come off as a finger-wagging gender studies seminar — is an impressive feat.
Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.