We meet Al as he is jarred awake from a depression nap by an apparition of his mother. She is chastising him for being “lazy” and straightening up his things when she blurs into the background of his living room, her gentle gospel humming melding smoothly into the jagged sound of his phone vibrating.
Earn has called to check in on the aspiring rapper to sign some paperwork and check in on him — a task he shrugs off before hanging up and tossing his phone on the table. It’s unclear how soon or long after the call it takes Paper Boi to rise from the couch, throw on fresh clothes, walk out of his dark home and into the sun to greet Sierra, an Instagram-famous woman the rapper either wants to sleep with or ask to be his girlfriend.
The latest installment of “Atlanta” begins slowly and with a surreal haze that hangs over the episode as Al drudges through a series of incredibly unfortunate events. Paper Boi spends his day being berated by Sierra for his desire to stay real before storming out of their dual pedicure appointment. He starts his long walk home but, on the way, he’s robbed at gunpoint by three unnamed teenagers who scoff at his realness before busting his lip and snatching his jewelry and wallet. A dash into the nearby woods — a nod to the episode’s title (“Woods”) and a metaphor for his mental state — to avoid being shot leads Paper Boi to an old man, another likely apparition. The man violently forces him to “make the decision”: Is he going to accept his celebrity and alter his life accordingly or is he going to die trying to maintain his sense of regularity?
On this week’s “Run That Back,” Taryn Finley and Julia Craven discuss Paper Boi’s awakening, how losing a degree of realness is a means of economic survival for black folks, and the internal wars that force us all to confront our ghosts.
Sierra drives past the strip club where she used to dance and wonders aloud if she and Paper Boi had ever encountered each other before they became famous. If they did, she’s sure that she’d have brushed him off as a “broke ass nigga,” and he agrees. He probably thought she was a “stuck up ho with too many stretch marks.” She laughs off the comment, and begins a spiel about how she likes hanging with him because he gets what it’s like to be famous. It’s the first hint at an interesting dynamic between the two — she’s Paper Boi’s biggest cheerleader but also his unwelcome life coach, who knows how to work the online fame machine in her favor in a way he doesn’t. She insists he care more about his money and, most importantly, the celebrity that has come along with it. But he doesn’t take her wisdom well and abruptly ends the day by storming out of a nail salon where they’re getting pedicures. The impetus: she snapped a photo of him without asking.
Taryn: Paper Boi. Al. The nigga that kept getting got this episode. Let’s discuss.
Julia: I pray I never have a day as bad as Paper Boi’s Tuesday afternoon was. Don’t ask me how I know it was a Tuesday, I just feel that it was in my spirit.
Taryn: I keep telling folks that Tuesday is the worst day of the week. You could also tell it was Tuesday cause the nail salon wasn’t packed, but we’ll get there in a minute.
Julia: Wow, that’s how I knew it was Tuesday. That empty salon looked familiar.
Taryn: HELLO! I knew I wasn’t alone on that one. This episode was a damn doozy from jump.
Julia: It was. Paper Boi just wanted to hang out with Sierra, an Instagram-famous woman he was considering sleeping with, and it took an ugly turn. But let’s start with him lying on the couch and his mama cussing him out.
To me, that opening scene of him laying on the couch, sleeping all day, the house is dirty, he’s being short when people ask how he is, etc. ― Paper Boi is depressed. Incredibly so. And I know this because WHEW HAVE I BEEN THERE.
Taryn: That was so triggering. You know how many mornings I’ve woken up to getting cussed out about not cleaning?
And that’s a really good point that confirms my belief that his mom really wasn’t there. He was either dreaming or imagining his mom because that’s how she probably used to talk to him in the mornings when he was younger, living with her, when times were simpler and he didn’t have to make these complicated, messy decisions about how he was gonna take control of his life/career.
Julia: I don’t think his mom was really there either. I think she was an apparition ― the first of two this episode, but we’ll get to that later.
Taryn: Oh, we sure will get there. This episode also reminded me of his past interactions at the streaming company and at Clark County’s studio. His primary concern was “keeping it real” while “being all about that paper, boy.” Those two can rarely exist together unless you’re Cardi B, like you told me last night. Sierra tried to tell him that, but he thought she was just blowing smoke. He’s too busy trying to “keep it real” that he’s removed himself from the reality of how he’s perceived and the direction his career is going.
I was really excited when we saw Sierra. I thought they were about to be my new favorite hood couple when she picked him up in the big boy truck. That’s the hood bitch shit I live for!
Julia: I, too, live for that hood bitch shit. And Sierra, tbh, is the only person we’ve seen this season who gets him and who gets that you can’t keep it real and be famous. Fame, which we got into last episode, is all about the aesthetics and the perception. It’s like ole girl said, “It’s a simulation, Van. It’s all fake.”
Paper Boi has to understand that very few people are going to care that he’s Al and even less are going to care about his privacy. They care about Paper Boi. Just like people love Cardi B, but they don’t care about Belcalis. (Except us. We care.)
Taryn: We care so much about Belcalis. ❤️
Sierra was all about helping Paper Boi level up, which in turn, would help her level up. Her comments at the shoe shop about him getting new clothes ’cause no one wants to fan over a nigga in a loose-collar ass Polo, telling him he needs a new manager that knows how to make money moves, taking his crusty-toe ass to the nail salon, telling him to post more on IG. Sierra, though imperfect, moves with purpose, something Paper Boi doesn’t give a damn about. (See: Al blowing off Earn telling him to get those papers signed earlier in the episode.) Al thinks he’s about that paper, but Sierra is about that paper.
Julia: Exactly, and to be about the money is to lose a degree of your realness. It just is. Think about black people who infiltrate corporate America. How many of us are actually not gutta af? Black folks in all walks of life have to conform to the demands of white-dominated industries — at least initially. And, also, Al isn’t as interesting as Paper Boi. He’s not as compelling. He’s just a nigga in a Polo and cargo shorts. Is that fine? Yeah, for somebody who isn’t famous. And it’s like that kid said — with a mean “we bout to get this nigga” chuckle — before they robbed him, “Oh, so you keeping it real?” Keeping it real doesn’t get you anything in the public, except robbed twice in one season. Does that say A LOT about our society? Yes. But at the end of the day, GET MONEY BITCH (Khia voice).
TL;DR ― Be real at home.
Taryn: That part. He got so frustrated with Sierra telling him what’s really real about this money game that he ended up on his ass eating Krystal in a parking lot with a broken heart and wet socks. His pride wouldn’t even let him call an Uber cause he was that big mad. Shit, I’d be surprised if Paper Boi even had the app since he wanna be so damn real.
Also, special shoutout to Sierra for this line: “Everybody wanna be a black girl, but the black girls ain’t making money from it.”
Julia: Give her a fucking Emmy. Another Emmy-winning line: “Permission? Nigga, you famous.” I was shouting, “LET HIM KNOW!”
Taryn: She may be rude af to people with service jobs, but she gets everything else!
Julia: She’s incredibly rude, which ... I don’t understand the relevance of her being rude, but I know for a fact that she had to be rude, because I know women like her and they’re just rude!
Taryn: Yea, I chalked it up to the same thing.
Julia: Yeah, so let’s not get into nail shop politics, when people speak their native language and how black people react. I’ll just say people should be able to speak whatever language they feel most comfortable speaking and Sierra was on 10. And now let’s move on to the Krystal parking lot.
After storming out of the nail salon, Paper Boi stops at Krystal — a Southern staple — to grab a burger. He gets a text from an unsaved number saying they’re thinking about him, another check-in he shrugs off. He continues on his walk home and encounters three teens who are discussing the latest “Star Wars” movie. Their demeanor is a little odd. They don’t seem genuinely enthused to see Paper Boi — which differs vastly from other encounters with fans this season — and the scene feels as though the trio were waiting on his arrival. They inquire why he’s alone with no car and Al, nervously, counters with his own question of whether he’s allowed to walk. The teens inch closer to him with one saying through a cartoonish smile, in an unprovoked reference to his conversation with Sierra, “Oh, you keeping it real? That’s what’s up!” They slowly surround him, smiling, before one throws ice in his face as the other sucker punches him and the third pulls out a gun. The rapper fights off the kids who make off with his watch and his chain. He headbutts the one holding the gun before dashing into the woods to avoid getting shot.
Julia: Have you ever had a Krystal burger? They so good that one time, when I was visiting my parents in Georgia, me and my stepdad went and didn’t tell my mom. And she KIRKED. We tried to sneak the bag in the house but it didn’t work. We got busted.
Taryn: See. Y’all wrong af for that. You know Krystal is too damn good.
Julia: She should’ve rode out with us! We asked her if she wanted anything. She said no, so we assumed that meant Krystal as well.
But after he had his Krystal burger, Paper Boi kept walking and ran into some teenagers. And got his watch snatched. And his chain. And he almost got shot. Like you said last night, this is when keeping it real went wrong.
I also think Sierra set him up.
Taryn: Do tell. 👁
Julia: So, this is my conspiracy theory. When Paper Boi walks up on the trio of teens, something about it feels off. It’s like they aren’t genuinely excited to see him as his fans usually are. Their body language is weird and they’re talking like bad actors, like they rehearsed this or something. It wasn’t a natural encounter. But the tip was when ole boy with the gun says, “Oh, you keeping it real?” completely unprovoked. How would he know that Paper Boi walking was an attempt to keep it real, which is what he told Sierra basically, if she didn’t set him up?! And it’s not like she wasn’t acting cartoonish herself throughout their day.
Or, alternatively, when the other teen said, “I can’t wait to tell my brother about this!” maybe his brother recognized dickhead out walking alone and tipped them off. Either way, SOMEBODY SET HIM UP!
Taryn: Yea, their behavior definitely felt off from jump. I just wonder if it was Sierra’s doing or not. I’m leaning toward his brother ― or someone else ― but I wouldn’t put it past Sierra cause she’s strategic as hell. I also think he might’ve said, “Oh, you keeping it real?” on his own just thinking about the Glover brothers’ method of threading things together by way of repetition via different vessels. Like the humming from his mom, then late, from the old man. Or Teddy Perkins slamming his hand on the piano as his father did in the home video a couple episodes ago. Might be a reach, but I feel like they might be making a larger point about what happens when you don’t listen to the universe. Facing fucked-up shit is cyclical and not always from the same source.
Julia: That makes more sense than my conspiracy.
Taryn: LMAO I have a deep appreciation for a good conspiracy theory, though.
Julia: Thank you. I feel seen.
Taryn: But that young boy saying, “Oh you keeping it real? That’s what’s up.” was like him saying “Bet, you just like any other nigga? So we bout to rob your ass as soon as the Marta passes.” Though I’ve never gotten robbed at gunpoint as the train goes by, the scene felt so familiar, and so triggering. My heart rate was UP.
Julia: When they asked if he was by himself I knew he was about to get robbed at gunpoint. But Paper Boi, in true real nigga form, grabbed the gun. I was impressed tbh because I just would’ve ran them my shit. I’m not dying over a chain, a phone, money. Nah.
“Give me your phone.” hands over phone, which is the bane of my existence anyway so thanks for the favor lowkey, don’t shoot me.
I’m gonna get a new iPhone next year anyway so Midas Whale just turn it over. Shoutout to the upgrade-every-year plan.
Taryn: CHILE! Stressing me OUT. That struggle with the gun had me shook. I guess I get it cause he’d been robbed earlier in the season and he’s a big nigga so maybe he thought he could take them on. It just wouldn’t have been me. Then I couldn’t take him running into the woods for his life. And we begin to see this recurring horror trope this season has been fond of using.
Julia: Him grabbing the gun, to me, was symbolic of his priorities. Paper Boi cares deeply about respect (as many ppl from the hood do because it’s understood that disrespecting someone can get you hurt). He cared enough about his chain, his watch and his pride to grab the gun, headbutt the kid, then go looking for them once he collected himself in the woods. But he doesn’t care enough to do what’s required to protect himself and his fame and prevent this from happening? He doesn’t care enough to accept that this will keep happening unless he levels up and accepts the perceptions of him and his fame? OK, Paper Boi. You got it, sis.
And the horror trope. They are really killing it. it’s such an effective way to explore the mind states of black Americans.
Taryn: HELLO! Also, when I saw this episode was entitled “Woods,” I surely thought it was gonna be about Backwoods. That’s the black in me, though.
Julia: I’m honestly speechless, Taryn. But, never change.
Taryn: I wouldn’t have been keeping it real if I didn’t admit that.
Julia: ljhsDGFDEFCJDSHFC. Can someone sucker-punch me? I’m so fed up. I’ll just hand over my phone.
Taryn: Unlike Al, however, I know how real to keep it while still getting to this check. And THAT’S what’s really real.
Julia: I love that meme of Rihanna so much it hurts.
Taryn: Girl, you know it stays on deck in this here iPhone.
In the woods, Paper Boi encounters an old man humming a gospel tune. The old man could be homeless, lost or a figment of Al’s imagination. Al tells the guy that he’s just passing through and he doesn’t want any trouble. But the old man follows Al through the woods, taunting him, asking him if he wants some money or some ChapStick and, at one point, apologizing for being high. In one instance, Al grabs the old man and tells him to back off, to which the man responds with a deep look of concern in his eyes, “You is just like your mama.” Fear invades Al’s face leaving us to wonder if he knows this old man from somewhere — or if it’s a clear nod to the old man’s status as an apparition — though the old man just laughs it off. Eventually, Al takes a seat and says he needs a moment to think. The old man tells Al that thinking is an impossible task causing Al to lash out and ask, again, to be left the fuck alone. The old man, baffled at the disrespect, puts a box cutter to Al’s neck, delivers a mean word of wisdom about making critical decisions and gives Al 30 seconds to get out of the woods before he hurts the rapper.
Taryn: That old man was the realest character in this episode, tbh. We’re introduced to him by his humming at first. I didn’t get the significance of the negro spiritual hum until I went back and rewatched it and saw that Al’s mom was humming in the opening scene. The man in the woods represented so much: his mom’s wisdom, the guiding light necessary for his internal conflict and his mental health.
I’d even argue that he represents the ancestors. We see the dead deer (another “Get Out” reference) that wasn’t able to make it out of the woods for whatever reason. If Al wants to survive, he has to learn from those who came before him and stop being so damn stubborn, like the old man told him.
Julia: The humming of the same (or at least similar) tune is what led me to believe the old man was an apparition along with a mumbled line from him I missed on my first watch: “Don’t think you can out-slip me.” He represented Al’s internal conflict with accepting his fame just like the woods represented the direness of this transitional moment Al is in. And when Al passed the dead deer again, I realized that he was walking in circles — just like he was in his life — and that refusal to push forward out of the woods would kill him one way or another.
I found this line really telling as well: “Make the decision. Keep standing still, you gone boy. You wasting time and the only people who got time are dead. And if you dead, I’m gon’ take them shoes. And your wallet. And that shirt.”
And the fact that Al ran straight out of the woods once the man started his countdown tells me that the answer was always straight in front of him. No circles required.
Taryn: Yes! Literally lost and he didn’t know it until that point. My mom always says that the answers are always in front of you, you just gotta stop being so damn stubborn and see it. It took a long day of getting dumped, robbed at gunpoint, lost in the woods and almost getting his throat slit to get him to realize it, but he finally did. He finally made “the decision” that I’m sure had been lingering in his head for forever. He just chose to ignore it. He finds himself in the gas station and runs into a fan who recognizes him. He asks if he wants a selfie and, alas, we have the awakening of Paper Boi.
I just wonder a) when he’s gonna try to get back with Sierra and b) when he’s gonna fire Earn and get a new manager.
Julia: Yes. He finally accepts that Al and Paper Boi are the same nigga. And, oh yeah, this episode confirmed that he is absolutely going to fire Earn. He can’t be Paper Boi and have Earn as his manager. Earn is Al’s manager.
Taryn: Exactly! I just hope he doesn’t switch up on Darius. I also hope that after this long-ass day, Darius saved him some of that toe jam tortellini he made cause I know that burger didn’t hold him over burning all them calories in the woods all day.
Julia: Nah that lil Krystal burger gone.
Taryn: Also, I wanna give another special shoutout to the old man in the woods for humming the “Golden Girls” theme song while drinking a Mad Dog. And for offering Paper Boi ChapStick but telling him not to put his lips on it. Those moments made me smile through the stress.
Julia: My granddaddy used to drink Mad Dog, the red one, which was incredibly comforting.
One last thing. I read in Vulture that all the older black men this season have been ghosts in some way: “Ghosts of themselves, as with Teddy Perkins. Ghosts of their children, as with Darius. Ghosts of what they could’ve been, as Earn notes of his uncle. And now, Al has come into contact with his own ghost — although what he’s a conduit for, specifically, no one can say. All we know for certain is that Al wants nothing to do with him.”
It’s kind of wild that everyone this season is dealing with a ghost. Something is following all of them and I’m interested to see how this all ties together in the end (or if it does).
Taryn: Wow. That makes so much sense. The same thing that you let haunt you will rob you if you don’t take control. Everyone is looking for that control, but no one really knows how to achieve it because they haven’t addressed what’s haunting them. Shit, that blows my mind.
Julia: The gag is that that’s life. Real or fake, that’s life.