CR: Guy D’Alema/FX

Ostensibly, Atlanta is a comedy. This week, it wasn’t very comedic.

There were certainly chuckles to be had at the beginning of the second season’s fourth episode — like Earn saying that if the “traditional festival” they were going to wasn’t fun that they could do “lodge stuff” (aka sex). Or Van asking if black women were considered brunettes. Or the duo stopping the car short in the middle of the road to avoid hitting a wild hog that was chowing down on roadkill. Or the weird feeling that seeing said porker made both Van and Earn hungry. Though that might have been the weed talking.

The rest of the episode was a study in building discomfort to an excruciating breaking point.

Our erstwhile couple arrives at Helen, the town which lends its name to this week’s episode and home to a quaint German village for a traditional Oktoberfest celebration. If you’re into that sort of thing. Earn isn’t. But like Huey Lewis and the News, he’s doing it all for his baby. He just needs to be aware that he’s likely to be out of his comfort zone, especially if he sees the traditional character dressed in blackface. Oh, and beware the Oktoberfest demon, who picks one person and steals an item from them.

Already sticking out like a black thumb on a white hand, some of the festival-goers try to get Earn in the spirit of things … like urging him to wear lederhosen. That idea goes over like Bud Light in a Bavarian beer hall. It gets really awkward when a jolly girl rushes up to him and rubs his face expecting the makeup to come off. Oops. Earn goes for the compromise and wears a Jason Voorhees-style hockey mask to be more spirited.

Maybe playing some fun group games will lighten the mood. It would if Earn understood what was going on. Instead, he’s roped into sitting in a circle and tossing some tennis balls around. Except for those balls occasionally get bounced on the ground in the general direction of some milk jugs with the tops cut off. Not knowing what to do, Earn takes one of the balls and just tosses it directly into the jug.

The game stops. The hall goes silent. The emcee asks Earn how he did that. He hesitantly explains his process. The place goes berserk and begins chanting Earn’s name. All seems well even if we don’t know how we got there.

And now it’s time for beer!

Van and Earn wander over to the biergarten for some brews where Van starts chatting up the guy behind the bar. In fluent German. The two seem to be having a flirty conversation and Earn is definitely third-wheelin’. Feeling annoyed and insecure, he breaks up the chat by butting in and asking for his beer. Then he asks Van if she wants to play ping pong.

Though this isn’t exactly about his desire to swing the paddles. This is about Earn feeling totally uncomfortable with the situation and trying to control what’s going on.

(Two things here: 1) What did Earn expect this thing was going to be about? Van warned him that it was going to be “traditional.” 2) He went to Princeton. This couldn’t have been the first time he was surrounded by Caucasity.)

Van makes a wager. Best two of three. If she wins, they have to dance the polka. If he wins, well … he’s not going to win. She dusts him off in two quick games. But Earn’s not dancing. He’s not happy and he’s making his feelings known. Van’s not too thrilled about Earn being so cranky. After all, she willing went to a strip club with him. And she goes to Alfred’s concerts every weekend. Earn reminds her that those concerts are paying her bills. That doesn’t go over very well.

Bruh, you gotta learn to pick your battles.

Lest Van think she’s fitting in with the crowd, she gets a harsh reminder that she’s still The Other while talking to her friend Christina, who happens to be the only other black person there. Christina introduces Van to her friends as either “Lottie’s mom” or “Earn’s girl” but never by name. Ouch.

It only gets worse when Christina tells Van that being a baby mama looks good on her because Van “chose black” while Christina “chose white.” Double ouch. In Van’s remembrance of their childhood, Christina was always sadity and that’s why they didn’t go to a lot of the same parties. Now that same old feeling is flooding back to Van.

But that’s on hold for the moment because — huzzah! — Van’s phone is missing. She’s been pickpocketed by The Demon of Oktoberfest. Let’s celebrate. Oktoberfest is weird.

As the party moves outside, Van is once again talking with the dashing gentleman we met at the biergarten. And once again they’re speaking in German. Things aren’t great between Van and Earn and she’s not afraid to sprechen as much to her beer-pouring freund while her unsuspecting baby daddy walks behind them.

Before long, the beer is calling and Van ducks into an alley to relieve herself. Until she hears a noise, that is. Rising from seemingly nowhere is a giant mutant moose-headed monster. The Demon of Oktoberfest. Startled, Van swings on the creature and knocks it down. That’s when she hears a phone buzzing. It’s her missing cell and there’s a text from Earn.

“We need to talk.”

That will have to wait because Van is being feted as the festival warrior.

When things quiet down, Van and Earn meet face-to-face for a heart-to-heart. Where is the relationship going? What does Earn want?

What Van wants is to have a committed relationship. What she doesn’t want is to be “an accessory that [Earn] can fuck.” As for Earn, he doesn’t know what he wants. But this situation currently works for him. In an episode full of uncomfortable exchanges, this is as bad as it gets. The solution? Another game of ping pong. Best of five. If Van wins, Earn will only see her when he visits Lottie or has to give Van money. If Earn wins, well…

Never has a game of table tennis been so tense. Never has a drive home been so awkward. Never has a goodbye at someone’s front door been so painful. Earn and Van are still connected by virtue of co-parenting. The rest is still to be determined.

  • Like the character she plays, Zazie Beetz is part-German and is fluent in the language.
  • This episode was Season 1’s “Juneteenth” in a funhouse mirror. In that episode, Earn was among people who looked like him but were more than they appeared. This week, he was among people who owned who they were, yet he resisted and made himself the outcast. Maybe he’s just not good in social situations?
  • More and more, Earn is alienated from the people close to him. His business relationship with Alfred seems to be in peril. Now his personal relationship with Van is crumbling. All the while, he’s still functionally homeless.
  • Once upon a time, I wanted to go to a traditional Oktoberfest (as opposed to the Americanized drunkfest I’ve been to a few times). If people are wearing weird animal masks and I run the risk of getting my pocket picked, I’ll pass.