This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
While being tucked into the backseat of her mom’s car by daddy Earn (Donald Glover), there’s a somber moment when little Lottie takes a pause to trace a finger across her dad’s beard; she goes silent, babbles this toddler babble and faintly mumbles, “See ya.” Earn gives her a “yeah,” and closes the door.
For all the surreal, unpredictable, dark shit that Atlanta makes itself about, it’s this scene from last night’s “Crabs in a Barrel” that hits me the hardest, not just because it was tender and all that, but rather because it reminded me of something—I forgot all about Lottie, Earn’s daughter. If I’m gonna be real, it also helped me understand why my own dad forgot about me.
Heading into the episode itself, it starts with run-of-the-mill life duties/interactions with Lottie regulated to a tag-along: finding a lawyer for his cousin Alfred, getting a passport for the sage-in-training Darius, and attending a pre-school meet with Van. Lottie’s just a passenger. The camera rarely even focuses on her face for an episode that’s arguably about her.
Episode-by-episode, we’ve zeroed-in on simmering displays of struggle—crazy folk in woods, crazy dudes in mansions, crazy white dudes in fraternities—Earn and fam were passengers to that struggle. We didn’t make time to really remember that our man Earn was a damn absentee dad. Van of course, like in previous episodes, reminded him and us of this fact, “If she goes to school, she’s gonna need you to show up,” she says with Lottie looking back at Earn, “More than you’ve been able to.”
It’s funny, before this episode I never really took the time to understand why my own dad didn’t show up. The last time I saw him I was 18 years old, on a random street, he rolled up to me with his window down and said, “hey son.” Now this was a guy who promised to “show up” on Christmas day when I was eight, presents in tow. Sure, I couldn’t wait to cop that MC Hammer Doll with the boombox (don’t judge), but I liked the dude. So I waited and waited, from morning to night by a window like some sucker and this guy doesn’t show up. So fast forward to me on this street years later and I tell him it straight, “you’re not my dad, man.” Obviously he looked hurt, but I was looking to stab. He just rolled up his window and drove off and I never saw him again.
Going back to this episode in question, Earn tells Darius that his life is falling apart, particularly when it comes to the possibility of Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles firing him. In his typical way, Darius gives Earn a bit of sage wisdom: "Learning requires failure. Al is just trying to make sure you’re not failing in his life. Ya’ll both black, so I mean, ya’ll both can’t afford to fail.” And that’s about as true of an assessment to my own dad’s predicament.
My father, a black man, couldn’t afford to fail but in ways he did. I can’t speak to what fatherhood is like, but even I know that it’s hard enough to just be a black man. You got forces meant to work against you, designed to pull pieces from that puzzle you wanna call an honest life. So imagine folks like my dad having the nerve to bring a kid into this world; a puzzle you have to help build when you haven’t even figured out the sequence to your own shit. That can cost the ultimate self-sacrifice to make that work.
When Van sends a text to Earn telling him that she’s thinking of moving Lottie back in with her mom (who we’ve never met), this is Earn at a moment when he can either do what the hell he’s gotta do for self-preservation, or he can sacrifice parts of his puzzle to build little Lottie’s.
The moment of decision doesn’t come immediately, but Earn finds himself at airport security having forgotten the golden pistol his Uncle Willie once gifted him in his backpack. You could almost hear the moment when “Alligator Man” Willie once told him, “You’re gonna need this in the music business,” early in the season. There’s a long pause by Earn and he does he has to do; he places the firearm in someone else's luggage, and keeps it moving.
Later on, Alfred being the regular observer that he is, reveals that he witnessed the whole damn thing and he approves.
“Niggas do not care about us man. Niggas going to do what they gotta do to survive. They ain’t got no choice; we got no choice neither,” he says. “You my family, Earn. You the only one who knows what I’m about. You give a fuck. I need that. Alright?”
I think my own pops actually decided to build my puzzle that day to help me survive when he didn’t show up. Don’t get it twisted, he’s not getting a pass—the man was toxic and he knew this. He was a drug addict, he was a con-artist, womanizer, but he still chose to trust someone else to build my puzzle before he screwed up my own. Like so many successful black fathers out there, Earn’s morally ambiguous moment was a decision to build Lottie’s. Even if Earn had to abandon a part of himself to do it like so many do, our man finally did the one thing he had to do to once again the star of this show we call Atlanta; he became a man.
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