FX’s Atlanta has a dreamy, loosey-goosey style that makes each episode feel like a standalone event, as if we’re watching a series of interrelated short films rather than a TV show. Still, so far, the series has stuck close to its central plot about down-and-out Earnest “Earn” Marks (series creator Donald Glover) attempting to get his cousin Alfred’s (Brian Tyree Henry) music career off the ground. Last night, the show took a detour from Alfred and Earn to focus on Earn’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, who’s also the mother of his child, in a singular episode called “Value.”
Without explicitly putting the words into a character’s mouth, the episode demonstrates the revolutionary concept that women have lives independent of their boyfriends or husbands or brothers or fathers. When Earn shows up briefly in the middle of the episode, his face is blurry in the foreground while Van is in total focus in the middle of the frame. She’s got bigger things to worry about right now than her relationship with Earn.
“Value” begins with a long scene, set in an elegant, dimly lit Thai restaurant, between Van (Zazie Beetz) and her old friend, Jayde (Aubin Wise), who’s only in town for the night and whom we haven’t seen or heard of until now. The episode opens on a shot of the back of Jayde’s head, her pin-straight hair pulled back in a sleek low ponytail that spills over a white blazer. Even before we see her face, an air of wealth clings to her like smoke.
Too often TV shows operate as if money doesn’t exist, but here the talk immediately turns to the elephant in the room. Jayde compliments Van’s hair, cooing, “It looks better than last time.” When she recommends a pricey stylist, Van asks, “Who’s paying for yours? Because I’m paying for mine. I don’t know if you remember what that’s like.”
The dinner scene is an absolute symphony of backhanded compliments and undermining asides that underscore the difference between the two friends’ circumstances. It’s also a masterclass in elegant exposition: In under ten minutes, we learn so much about these characters and their relationship to each other. Van asks the waiter for a glass of Chardonnay, but Jayde brushes away her order and decides on a bottle of Riesling before mentioning the private jet — “one of those rent-a-PJs” — that she flew in on, courtesy of an NBA-player boyfriend. While Van is making ends meet, Jayde is jetting off to Paris and London. Jayde tells Van she should tag along sometime. “I have a daughter, I can’t leave,” Van reminds her. “Aww, that’s cute,” Jayde replies.
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.