Atlanta's Brilliant Reckoning With Money

The FX series’ season finale underlined the depths of Earn’s desperation—and gave some hope that his efforts might pay off.


Atlanta, FX’s finely detailed and gloriously unpredictable comedy about striving within and near Atlanta’s hip-hop scene, waited until the very final moments of its first season’s final episode to feature the godheads of Atlanta hip-hop: Outkast. Walking alone at night, the protagonist, Earn (played by the show’s creator, Donald Glover), puts on his headphones and listens to the duo’s 1996 single “Elevators (Me & You).” A dry, minimal beat gives Earn’s journey rhythm as André 3000 describes his rise in the rap world. Earn arrives at a storage yard, opens the door to one of the units, walks in, turns on a light, lays down on a futon, and pulls $200 out from his sneakers. Andre raps this:

True, I've got more fans than the average man
But not enough loot to last me
To the end of the week, I live by the beat
Like you live check-to-check
If it don't move your feet then I don't eat

Over the course of its 10-episode season, Atlanta has repeatedly shifted shape, driven less by plot than by its creators’ restless creativity. But one constant and crucial element has been the notion of not having enough loot to last to the end of the week. The stakes of so many of the show’s situations—whether about dating, drug tests, rap lyrics, jail, nightclub adventures, mansion soirées, or an inexplicably black Justin Bieber—has been in the question of whether the outcome would help ease the characters’ barely disguised financial desperation or only make it worse. In the context of TV sitcoms’ well-documented fondness for people who can afford spacious urban apartments or well-appointed suburban homes, this is one way Atlanta stands out. In the context of wider American social and racial conditions, it’s one reason why the show has come to seem so relevant.

The quietly magnificent season finale took the show’s long-running motif of money troubles to a new, moving place. Earn wakes up in the aftermath of a house party and realizes his blue bomber jacket is gone, kicking off a quest to regain it. Why does he need his coat back so badly? He doesn’t say, but by this point in the series, we know he can barely afford a restaurant dinner—losing outerwear, the viewer might assume, isn’t an option. But it turns out he’s in even direr straits than it first seemed. It’s only later in the episode that it’s revealed he believed the jacket contained the keys to his storage unit. And it’s only at the very end of the episode that we realize that storage unit is Earn’s home.

The day of searching is filled with reminders of not only his near-empty wallet but of the wallets of those around him. As Earn staggers away from the scene of the party, he passes people dressed as cows—a typically surreal image for Atlanta, but one grounded in the chilling reality that one day a year Chick-fil-A will give you a free sandwich if you dress like a bovine. At the strip club he visited the previous night, he can’t get in to look for his jacket unless he pays a $10 cover—and once he does he has to negotiate with a stripper thirsty to be cast in a music video. In his cousin Alfred’s Snapchat story, he relives the previous night of drunkenness in which he threw dollar bills around and sang along to Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” (“hey, must be the money!”). Then he calls his Uber driver, who turns out to have the jacket, but will only come return it for $50.

At the height of Earn’s frustration, his friend Darius tells him to stop worrying about spending money. He says black peoples’ problem, in fact, is that they’re too worried about not spending money. Earn is not amused, even though Darius is describing the same craving for dignity that Earn has shown in apparently hiding his homelessness from others in his life.

The Uber saga leads to one of the most shocking and strange moments of the series when Earn, Alfred, and Darius go to meet up with the driver but find themselves in the middle of a police stakeout. The cops pull over the trio and begin to frisk them, but then their Uber driver emerges from a house, running away. He’s the one the cops want. They shoot him to death.

It’s a classic Atlanta moment where the show’s flair for Seinfeldian bleak nonsense meets its social relevance, realism, and racial consciousness. Earn, Alfred, and Darius seem to mostly keep calm as the cops point guns at them and pat them down; the larger national context of police brutality against black people comes from the viewer, who has to be frightened that this encounter could go fatally wrong. And it does go fatally wrong, but for someone we’ve never met. Earn sees the driver running, realizes he’s wearing his jacket, and then it’s bang-bang-bang—a moment of horror and comedy at once. The dead man’s loved ones—a woman and a child—come outside and begin bawling, while Earn presses an officer to check the jacket pockets on the corpse.

Afterwards, Alfred and Darius agree that the encounter was “crazy” but also “cool.” If they’re deeply shaken, they don’t let on. This sort of peril is a fact of existence for them. Life goes on.

Counterintuitively, the emotional climax of the episode comes not from this eruption of violence but from a quiet moment between cousins, when Alfred hands Earn a wad of cash. It’s his management fee. While the show’s previous nine weeks certainly hadn’t felt like a linear story of sweating for a paycheck, it suddenly crystallizes into a narrative of Earn hustling—booking TV shows, club appearances, charity PR efforts, and in this finale, a tour. Such is life, less a straightforward A-to-B journey than a collection of events that only gain shape in retrospect. Earn’s low-key desperation for cash all along makes it so when actual cash appears, it’s an enormous—almost gutting—feeling of relief.

He then heads to hang out with his daughter and her mother, Van, with whom he seems to have rekindled a romance after a harrowing encounter with socialites in the previous episode. He gives most of the cash to her, and she replies that he’s a good dad—a long-sought title that, it’s clear here, is related to money. Earn’s coworker from the airport comes to the door and asks if he’ll be at work the next day; we’ve not seen him at that job since episode one, but Earn says yes. Van offers to let him stay the night, but Earn declines and heads to his storage unit, apparently determined to prove he’s providing for himself.

It’s a hopeful ending but not a happily-ever-after: Earn’s further along than where he was before, but where he was before was further back than anyone realized. The trope of glory through hip-hop isn’t on offer here, and neither is the American Dream of decisively conquering your conditions. It’s a variant of what Andre said—now and forever, if you don’t move feet you don’t eat.