Curtis Baker/FX

Every hero needs an origin story. Earn and Alfred get theirs. In the latest episode of Atlanta, our two favorite cousins are transported back to their middle school years.

Things begin when a young Earn, while out shopping with his mother, spots a yellow FUBU jersey hanging on a rack in a discount store. He implores his mom to buy it for him. She agrees. Earn is now living the stylish life.

Of course, he has to wear the shirt to school the next day. Things start well enough. Earn’s getting compliments on the bus and in homeroom. Until another kid — Devin — shows up with a nearly identical yellow FUBU jersey.

Thirteen-year-old American kids can be the meanest people on the planet when they choose to be. In this episode, one kid slugs another over an accident involving yogurt. Another stands on top of a desk and mercilessly mocks an overweight substitute teacher. But back to The Case of the Fugazi FUBU. The sleuthing into whose shirt is authentic begins immediately. Earn’s jersey has more stripes. But Devin’s jersey has a patch on the front. Inspecting the tags offers no concrete evidence. Both Earn and Devin swear their jersey is the real one. Devin says all of his stuff is authentic. There’s no way this is a fake.

If only John were here. He’d be able to tell for sure. Meanwhile, in the principal’s office…

Alfred has been hauled in — again. This time, it’s to answer allegations that he stole another student’s calculator and sold it back to him. Unafraid of (and fairly bored by) The Man, Alfred claims to be the victim of a racist plot designed to accuse him unfairly. Nevermind that the accuser’s name had been scratched into the calculator Alfred sold him.

If buying and selling things on campus is against the rules, shouldn’t both of them be in trouble? After getting his Johnnie Cochran on, Alfred is dismissed. But not before letting most of the school know that someone snitched on him.

Around the school, the word’s gotten out that someone is rocking fake FUBU. Earn’s trying to plead his case to the people close to him. His innocence becomes even more crucial when he finds via surreptitiously passed notes (aka, analog text messaging) that Erica likes him but wants to know if his FUBU is real. Now I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger…

(Is it still okay to quote Kanye?)

After defending his honor yet again, Earn discovers (horror!) that there’s a loose thread hanging from his jersey. When he yanks it out, he sees (double horror!) a hole in the seam under his arm. That could only mean (horror of all horrors!) that his jersey is a fake.

How do you keep a low profile when you’re wearing a bright yellow jersey bearing the label of the hottest hip-hop fashion house on the streets? Well … you kinda don’t. Not even a gray hoodie can hide you. Earn feels the burn as he’s going from one place to another, being called “FEE-BEE” by the duo of bullies that seem to hold sway over student and substitute teacher alike.

Once a secret like that gets out about you, it seems like everybody knows. Ev-er-y-bo-dy. Including those two guys who work in the cafeteria. You know the ones. You saw the smirking at you when you picked up your tray. Like they’d heard from some of the other kids that your jersey was janky.

That’s when Earn turns to Alfred for advice. Big cousin tells little cousin that you just have to be confident. It’ll all work out. Funny that many years later, Alfred would essentially give Earn that same pep talk in a strip club.

Fortunately, we’ve reached the end of the school day. All Earn needs to do is make it to the bus and he could put the day behind him. Too bad John’s arrived and is ready to pronounce judgment on The Real Jersey. And after inspecting the labels, the determination…

Earn … you are not the father! I mean, your jersey is fake. Earn’s was made in Bangladesh and Devin’s was made in China. That settles it. The end. Go straight to bootleg clothing jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

But wait! Alfred swoops in for a second opinion. Of course, John would say the Chinese one is real. He’s Chinese! (He’s actually Filipino.) The Bangladesh one is the World Edition. Earn’s rocking the true FUBU.

The tables have now turned. Earn is the hero. He gets Erica’s number and slides safely onto the bus. Now it’s Devin who is the object of ridicule and shame. He’s hounded by Bully 1 and Bully 2 as he tries to run toward sanctuary on the bus. Earn watches silently, knowing he could stop that torment but not without great risk to himself. Best to stay quiet.

A day later, Earn is back in a plaid shirt, sitting quietly and hoping to put yesterday’s badness behind him. Before the day can even begin, the principal enters the classroom and tells the students that Devin had committed suicide the night before. The suspicion was that the stress of his parents’ ongoing divorce weighed heavy on him. Earn can’t help but wonder what part his silence in the jersey fiasco played in it.

Back home at the end of the day, Earn’s mother tells him he’ll have to put on a suit to take piano lessons. He protests. She doesn’t care, reminding him that as a black man in America, he’ll always have to look nice in his clothes and that he’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression. Which she may have gotten from a shampoo ad.

Oh, and she bought him a few more FUBU shirts. Don’t say she never did anything nice for him.

  • This episode was a keen glimpse inside Earn and Alfred’s relationship. When you hear Alfred’s mom say at the end that the two cousins have to look out for one another, you realize that Alfred’s already been doing that. You also realize how long he’s been doing it. It makes his struggle to part with Earn as a manager that much more painful.

  • I remember being in high school and using one of my part-time job paychecks to buy clothes. I got a pair of “fancy” yellow jeans (can’t remember the brand) and some Michigan gear (I never cared one way or another about the school but everyone was wearing it). I think I wore the full outfit maybe twice. It made me realize I’d rather spend my disposable income on something other than clothes. All these years later, not much has changed.

  • Growing up as a black kid, there was sort of an unspoken pressure to have fresh gear. Even if it wasn’t always brand name, you wanted to look stylish. I wasn’t sure if that same pressure was there for other races. Which is why I found it funny when Earn’s white friend tells him he’s worn the same shirt twice in a week.

  • Much like the jail episode from Season 1, this episode took a pointed look at how mental illness is handled in our public institutions. Denisha has the signs of being bipolar and her teachers have no real idea how to handle it, instead trying to work around the student and falling prey to the whims of her mood on a daily basis.