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‘Atlanta’: The Surprise Cameo in Episode 3 is Distracting For All the Wrong Reasons

"Atlanta: Robbin' Season" upends a sharp critique of institutionalized racism with a cameo that invites an entirely different discussion.

ATLANTA -- Season Two, Episode 3 - Pictured: Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Zazie Beetz as Van. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

Guy D'Alema/FX

[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Atlanta: Robbin’ Season,” (Season 2) Episode 3, “Money Bag Shawty.”]

In 2001, Michael Vick was selected as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons. Not only that, but he was the first African-American quarterback to be taken with the top pick, after registering the fastest 40-yard-dash speed of any QB in the history of the NFL combine.

In other words, he’s a hugely popular figure in Atlanta who’s well-known nationwide for his quick feet. And if that’s all there was to the retired athlete’s story, the third episode of “Atlanta: Robbin’ Season” would’ve gone off without a hitch. Up until Vick’s cameo in the final minute, Episode 3, “Money Bag Shawty,” is an exemplary illustration of institutionalized racism — with Donald Glover’s Earn spending an entire night trying to stunt on people, only to end up getting shut down time and time again.

But once Vick shows up, the conversation shifts. Why is Michael Vick in this episode? Why is he on this show? More specifically, why are the producers of “Atlanta” paying and, arguably, celebrating a man who spent 21 months in federal prison for running a dogfighting ring?

To set the scene (for those who haven’t watched), Earn emerges from a strip club to discover Michael Vick outside racing people for money. “Is he doing OK?” Earn asks, concerned about an athlete who signed a $62 million contract as a rookie and earned $5 million for one season as recently as 2014 (years after he filed for bankruptcy). “Oh, he’s fine,” an onlooker says. “It’s just a good hustle. Drunk people just want to race him. It’s his sixth race in the 10 minutes I’ve been standing here.”

At this point, a winded runner vouches for the game, saying competitors get three-to-one odds. So Earn says he’ll do it, much to the surprise of Van (Zazie Beetz). “Sometimes you’ve just got to stunt on people,” Earn says, summing up his main goal for the night. “And also I haven’t run six races in 10 minutes.”

Earn steps to the line, gets a knowing glance from Vick, and takes off. The music swells and he even beats Vick off the jump… but he loses. Van sums it up plainly in the dejected limo ride home: “It’s Michael Vick!”

As a joke, it’s executed flawlessly. Earn tries everything he can think of to show off and make himself feel like a big shot — not in a bad, egotistical way, but as a means to lift his morale and boost a depleted ego. After all, Earn’s the guy who buys a homeless man McDonald’s, and the homeless guy throws the food away. (And Earn, himself, was homeless just a few episodes back. He might still be homeless.) Earn deserves to feel proud of his accomplishments by spending his hard-earned money, but be it a racist cashier (or theater policy), a racist lounge owner, or a hustle that’s too big for Earn to topple (“You don’t save money at a strip club,” Alfred says), he can’t find a way to stunt on anyone in his hometown.

ATLANTA Robbin' Season -- "Sportin’ Waves" -- Season Two, Episode 2 (Airs Thursday, March 8, 10:00 p.m. e/p) Pictured: Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

Not even Michael Vick. But why did it have to be Michael Vick? Why did this joke need Vick to be the punctuation mark? There doesn’t seem to be a good answer for that. Though the former quarterback holds a special place in Atlanta sports culture (especially for black fans — his groundbreaking position in the draft and unprecedented speed gave him game-changing potential, making him an instant icon in the community), the fact remains he comes with baggage outside of football and so many other Atlantan athletes do not.

Current stars like Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman might have balked at playing themselves while racing for money outside a strip club, but retired athletes like Josh Smith (nine seasons with the Atlanta Hawks), Roddy White (10 years with the Falcons), and Herschel Walker (born in Georgia and won the Heisman Trophy while playing at Georgia University) could’ve subbed in without the troubling background. It didn’t really have to be an athlete: Throw in a line of dialogue about how there’s a track star racing people out back or a former Olympic athlete or anyone who’s known for running (but an amateur might think they can beat), and the scene would’ve played out similarly — minus Van’s kicker, “It’s Michael Vick.”

So why employ someone who, mildly put, is a controversial figure? (Less mildly put, he’s a man who drowned and/or hanged multiple dogs and tortured countless others.) Some believe Vick is a rehabilitated man; a criminal who served his time and worked hard to repair the damage he caused. He’s become somewhat of an activist for animal rights after his prison stint, advocating that spectators at dog fights, let alone the organizers, face harsher penalties. But no matter what you believe about his current state (since he has financially benefitted from fixing his image), his presence is still a confounding distraction.

Is the fact that he’s gambling on himself instead of gambling on dogs supposed to be part of the joke? Is there a purpose to making that association? Should we be focusing on the fact that this is Michael Vick at all? Such questions don’t lend themselves to the main theme of the episode (Earn looking to become the stunter instead of the stuntee), nor is it a meta “stunt” to see Earn get beat by someone the audience would’ve loved to see humiliated. Vick isn’t humiliated in the show or by it; if anything, he’s celebrated.

Writing this as a white person invites comparisons to the episode’s opening, where an offended suburban mom complains about Paper Boi’s lyrics being played on the radio. And while there might be a communication breakdown because this author (and other white viewers, presumably) aren’t in tune with Earn’s world, typically “Atlanta’s” writers (Stephen Glover, in this case) do a thorough job of making sure everyone understands their perspective. Often the clarity invoked through situational comedy and drama is the entire point of the episode, and the rest of “Money Bag Shawty” illustrates as much.

The final scene feels different. In general, it doesn’t seem pertinent to be discussing Michael Vick again in 2018. It feels like an uncommon and unwanted hindrance for a show that’s typically streamlined in its messaging, and it puts a blemish on an otherwise exquisite episode (and season so far). Will Vick play a bigger role in future episodes? Will his purpose become clearer as we learn more about “Robbin’ Season” and Earn’s new journey? For now, Michael Vick didn’t just earn money from “Atlanta”; he’s validated by being part of its cast. And that doesn’t feel like what the episode wants us to focus on.

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