by Bryan Washington | via Vulture
Flashbacks aren’t a tool that Atlanta turns to often, or ever. From time to time, the show will give an overt nod to the death of a relative, or the hint of a hint of familial strife through snippets of conversation. We’re not told that Earn is a negligent father, but we hardly see Lottie, so we know that this is the case. We’re not told that Earn and Al’s financial situation has grown more dire, but we see the refrigerated leftovers and the rising tension within the house, so we know that this is the case. We haven’t, not once, heard the entirety of a Paper Boi song, but we’re asked to believe that he’s the next big thing — and the thing is, we do. We believe it. It’s taken me a few months to condense the feeling into words, but I think Donald Glover, Hiro Murai, and company create illusions so all-encompassing that they’ve created a world with its own mechanisms, functioning independently, in tandem with, and in spite of its viewers. That’s what the show does better than anything else on television.
All of that preamble is to say that “FUBU” is a masterpiece. It simply can’t be overstated what an achievement this episode is. It would be easy, I guess, to view Earn and Al’s middle-school jaunt as an interruption in the otherwise linear storyline — the revelatory flashback before the Robbin’ Season’s conclusion. Which, implicitly it is, by merit of its existing at all. But that’s not all that this episode gives us. We see, for the first time in who knows how long, the perspective of a black kid in school, and without a white gaze overhead, or the constant stabilization of a laugh track, or a teaspoon of medicine waiting in the wings, or with our hands held by a now-knowledgeable omniscient entity, or as the overlong preamble to some overly tidy bit (with the most obsequious of punch lines: x means y because they’re black! Haha!).
Over the course of a couple days, we’re able to surmise the entirety of Earn and Alfred’s childhoods. Given this snippet and what we already know, we’re able to construct their lives. The danger of placing it after their rupture in “North of the Border” is a slow-down in the narrative, but there wasn’t a single moment in “FUBU” that I found myself wondering whether Al would drop Earn from his managerial role in the present, or whether Earn would get his shit together for his family, or whether the men’s respective ailments would resolve themselves. Instead, I was deeply invested in the authenticity of Earn’s shirt. Inconceivably, I cared about FUBU.
The episode begins by introducing us to Earn and his mother in Marshall’s. We’ve only met her once, and we’ve heard of her several times throughout the course of the show. Their relationship has accrued layers in the years since. We now know that it’s complicated. But what we have here is hardly that: This kid just wants a cool shirt, then he and his mom play the eons-old dance of stepping around the request before she ultimately acquiesces. From there, over the course of two days, we’re shepherded through Earn’s world. He goes to school. He has friends. He deals with bullies, he flirts with his crush, a kid asks to copy his homework. He hasn’t accrued the residue that the years ahead have waiting for him. The stakes of “FUBU” are comparatively low, but watching Earn navigate his youth, it seems nothing could be more important. For this kid, at this time, what could be more important?
A chunk of the episode’s weight comes from its handling of Earn’s daily minutiae. The camera bounces across his face as he walks to the bus, a nothing event to an adult viewer that’s charged with tremendous possibility for an adolescent. There’s the quip from Earn’s white acquaintance that “he’s worn the same shirt twice this week,” which both disincludes the white boy from the episode’s primary conflict and provides a succinct thesis statement on the rift between their two realities. There’s the incessant harassment from Earn’s peers, depicted as an expected part of his day-to-day situation. There’s Al’s mid-day jaunt in the principal’s office, dodging accusations of theft while rocking an ROTC uniform (and calling out “snitches” immediately afterward). There are the supportive friends, who we’ll never see again but play an oversize role in Earn’s schoolhouse travails nonetheless. There are allusions to parental discontent over Mr. Popo’s appearance in Dragon Ball Z (Al is quick to point out that it’s “weird”; it’d be worth investigating how they feel about Piccolo). There’s the unspoken agreement that although Earn and Al are family, they don’t much associate with one another in public at school. There are the OutKast posters in Earn’s bedroom. There’s the young woman (Denisha!) who’s confrontational with the teacher (while rocking a Baby Phat sweater! My God!), only for their ensuing discussion to act as a soundtrack for the classroom.
Notes are passed. There are heckling boys, who are both the episode’s primary instigators and also responsible for heightening its atmosphere. All of these events happen independent of one another, without much visible pull on the episode’s narrative — but the thing is, everything matters. It’s all a part of Earn’s childhood, the foundation for his life as we know it. It’s how he came to be. . .
Click HERE to read the rest of the recap, “FUBU.”