[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Atlanta” Season 2, Episode 9, “North of the Border.”]
In a note to journalists before the “Atlanta” episode “North of the Border” aired on Thursday, FX Networks warned:
Tonight’s episode is rated TV-MA and contains nudity, violence and strong language. The frontal nudity will not appear in the version airing on the FX network linear telecast. The unedited version will air ONLY on FX+.
“Atlanta” has been delivering layered and meticulously crafted episodes throughout the season. It follows that adding nudity isn’t just a whim or salacious play, but a deliberate choice that serves a purpose. With that in mind, IndieWire watched the unedited version to see what warranted showing that anatomy.
The scene in question doesn’t feature an intimate sexual encounter, but instead an absurd, borderline nightmarish scenario — the kind that has become “Atlanta’s” trademark. Earn (Donald Glover) and his friends are on a college campus in Statesboro for Paper Boi to perform at a Pajama Jam concert, but have to flee after an altercation. They end up in the Epsilon Theta Xi frat house full of white guys, but don’t appear to be in any danger despite the Confederate flag emblazoned on one wall and a literal room full of guns on the premises. The ones who are in the most vulnerable position? Two rows of Greek pledges who are naked with sacks over their heads.
Being nude and on display would’ve been bad enough, but that’s just the beginning of their degradation. As Earn and Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) sit on the couch, one of their hosts reminisces about how he used to love snap music, such as D4L’s “Laffy Taffy.” Inspired, he then proceeds to play the song on his phone and tells the naked pledges, “Do this dance for our new friends. Snap, y’all!” They undulate and snap, their penises bouncing to the rhythm until he orders them to stop.
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It’s the ultimate in humiliation… until what comes next. When the two cousins are left alone, Alfred fires Earn as his manager, blaming him for the disastrous series of events at Pajama Jam. In Earn’s mind, it’s Tracy (Khris Davis) who’s at fault for pushing the girl Violet (Jerusha Cavazos) downstairs and later throwing the first punch when she called on some guys to defend her. Earn spirals out from there, first losing his cool when he realizes that Violet trashed all of their belongings and stole his laptop, and then later when he’s taught a brutal lesson after challenging Tracy to a fight.
Unfortunately, much like the classic tragic hero, Earn’s failure has been inevitable from the beginning of this season. His struggle parallels the plight of the frat pledges. Earn has signed up for a responsibility that he hopes will improve his lifestyle, but not only is he not ready, he’s left vulnerable by his biggest flaws: his blindness and pride. While Earn has always seemed like the sane one — the guy whose reactions to the violence and surreal events most reflect our own — he’s also the one who’s been living in a fantasy. Earlier in the season, we see this in how poorly he handles money. He got stunted on, not by other people and an unjust society, but by his own hubris.
In contrast, Tracy and the guys at Epsilon Theta Xi are at one with the chaos of life around them and act accordingly while toeing the line. Earn, in his supposed greater wisdom, resists and tries to force the chaos to conform to his ideals. He’s limited by logic, and that leads to his undoing.
In this episode, Violet is his blind spot. He can’t see why Alfred is upset with his creative lodging solution that puts them in her power just to save money. Instead, Earn sees himself as the maligned hero. He had protested Tracy being on the trip from the start, and when the violence ensues, Earn is the one who catches Violet before she’s seriously harmed falling down the stairs. He sees Tracy as the instigator of chaos, but he missed that it’s Violet’s obsession with Paper Boi that escalates everything at Pajama Jam.
Even after getting fired, he’s blind to his own poor judgment and compounds it by confronting Tracy, who is clearly far better equipped at fighting than Earn is to the point that Tracy dictates how the entire tussle plays out. This confrontation makes it clear that his volunteering to be Paper Boi’s security wasn’t the most ridiculous idea after all. By episode’s end, Earn’s downfall is complete: he’s lost his job, the fight, and his pride. Figuratively, he’s been stripped bare, can’t see due to his own poor choices, with his manhood humiliated, and dancing to another man’s merciless tune. All that’s missing is “Laffy Taffy” playing over the fight.
With two more episodes left in the season, it remains to be seen if this experience will push him to finally see the world through a more realistic lens. Like Alfred, who had an epiphany in the woods last week, perhaps this will help put the “Earn” in “learn” for our hero. Then again, this is the same guy who said in the pilot that he can’t win for losing. He very well could follow the trajectory of another tragic hero, Oedipus, who after fulfilling his grim prophecy, stabs himself in the eyes, bringing his blindness full circle.
”Atlanta” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.