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Atlanta Season 2 Episode 5 Recap
Paper Boi walks into a barbershop and the first thing he sees is a photo of President Barack Obama on the wall. This early image in Atlanta’s fifth episode of Season Two reminded me of an essay last year by Jason Parham about the power of black barbershops:
For all the regressive politics about sexuality or gender it sometimes harbors, the black barbershop has remained a space of pride, community, and reflection across generations, much in the same way the black church has. Much of its power is culled from its communal ethos: for hours, men rhapsodize about sports or dating or music or The First Black President. In this way, the space is a lot like fire—it crackles and yaps and roars. It is a warmth desperately yearned for. An identity less afforded to the barbershop is how intimate and vulnerable of a place it can be.
When Paper Boi sits down in the barber’s chair with Bibby, it’s not nearly as calm as Parham describes. Instead, what follows is Paper Boi’s misadventures with Bibby, when all the rapper wants is a new cut before a magazine photoshoot.
It’s an episode that’s both hilarious and frustrating. What begins with Bibby simply being a rude barber—talking on his phone, taking his sweet time—suddenly devolves into something even more ridiculous. He takes Paper Boi to his lady’s house where the rapper has to watch Bibby cut some kid’s hair. He tricks Paper Boi into stealing some lumber. The barber chases down his absentee son and gets in a hit-and-run. What’s also frustrating (as a viewer at least) is that there’s nothing about Earn and Van’s relationship from last week’s cliff-hanger ending.
And through it all, Paper Boi is the most patient man on the planet. He doesn’t take off after the guy drives him to a strange house. Paper Boi doesn’t hit Bibby after the barber jeopardizes his parole. Why is he sticking through this the whole time?
Finally—FINALLY—they make it back to the barber shop, and Paper Boi gets his haircut. He even ends up paying the guy after all that. The cut looks good. And that could have been the end of the episode. Except Atlanta takes it one step further with a final scene that makes it all worth it.
Paper Boi comes back to the same barber shop and sits in a different chair ready to get his hair cut by someone else. “A four or a three?” this new barber asks. “Uhhh,” Paper Boi responds before gazing back longingly at Bibby cutting another man’s hair. It’s incredible physical acting on Brian Tyree Henry’s part; you can see that despite everything, Paper Boi wants Bibby to cut his hair. It’s a twist that makes the entire episode worth it. That’s why he went through hell to get a haircut from Bibby. That’s why he never punched him. That’s why he even paid the guy.
He’s in it for that sense of community, that sense of familiarity that makes the black barbershop such a centerpiece—like the barber shop in Luke Cage or Coming to America, or even that iconic barber shop confrontation in The Wire.
As has been a theme for Donald Glover’s Atlanta, he’s trying to show white audiences the black experience. Some might watch the first 20 minutes of this episode and wonder why Paper Boi is going through all this, but a brilliant final scene doesn’t need any words to communicate that, as Parham wrote, “the relationship the barber has to his artwork, the client, is defined by these moments of tenderness and a genuine, knowing trust.”