About 10 minutes into Atlanta’s “FUBU” episode, I fell back into my shy, tight-jean-wearing middle-school stan for the “popular” kids. They were the fashionable branded kings/queens in a mostly black school, with keys to figurative Bentleys of social, sexual and material wealth. They got the numbers first, the freshest seats first, the school dances first, and other stans knew their names first. The world seemed like it was theirs, and my reasons for wanting what they had came from a need to feel as important as they seemed.
After a streak of surreal episodes for Atlanta, we got something more grounded last night, a flashback featuring both cousins from back in their school days. The time felt very 90s-ish, with us meeting little Earn (Alkoya Brunson) in a budget store. We immediately hear “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman in the background (dead giveaway of the era), as Earn spots something green with the letters F-U-B-U (For Us By Us)—a black owned fashion staple back in the day. So he turns on the beg and plead game with Mama Earns and his chance at status begins.
What follows becomes a slow strut into a ride of popularity. The boys start to give him props, the girls notice him, and a single shirt begins to make him just as soon as it can break him. But like all things Atlanta, nothing rides steady here. A class clown of the student body notices an identical shirt on another kid named Devin (Myles Truitt) with some tell-tale differences, and the search for the counterfeiter between Earn and Devin begins.
"If it's fake, everybody's gonna roast me...forever," Earns says to a white friend who seems oblivious. Him being white, and not privy to the same black culture code of conduct, he replies, “It doesn’t seem like a big deal to me. I’ve worn this shirt twice this week. It’s a fake.”
I can’t speak for a white guy in middle-school here, but there’s always been something linked between fashion and a self-esteem within many black communities. I personally never grew up with the funds for brand names, so I cheated just like my man Earn. I bought the bootlegs, I borrowed the brands from cousins, and I overwashed so that I could overwear (ala, tight jeans). Even now, some of that mentality still sticks with me in my push to put on airs in order to “feel” ahead in uncomfortable spaces.
What many don’t often tell you, is that when you grow up in poverty, you don’t want to see anything that reminds you of the poverty. Your self-esteem gets wrapped up in an expensive material that speaks an opposite tune to that. For some of us, the clothing becomes a visible symbol that makes us feel like we can be worth worth a damn in the face of poverty, discrimination, and racism. And anyone that doesn’t fit that mold will get clowned on for appearing like the place we’re constantly attempting to escape. It’s the core reason why FUBU, Nike, and Air Jordans were so popular in the hood; their attachments to status status as primary reasons reasons why they were so often took (stolen). In that regular Atlanta-“we’re not telling you this, but we kinda are” way, we see the start in Earn’s own lifelong attempt to achieve something he can call worth.
Going back to the episode at hand, our young Paper Boi takes it upon himself to bail Earn out of his fashion bind with his silver-tongue, leading to an inevitable loser between two the FUBU wearers. Apart from the standard bullying and name-calling that hits Devin like a brick, something far more tragic happens that further speaks to the toxicity of name branded self-worth.
We don’t know why exactly Devin was pushed over the edge to that extent. But we’re made to know that the appearance of status with a price tag, especially in relation to an impoverished culture that ranked position around it, was a culprit. Even in Atlanta’s present, with adult Earn still living close to the poverty line, he’s still trying to chase that same thing called status that will give him a feeling of worth.
It’s best summed up by 90s-era Mama Earn near the close of the episode.
“You are a black man in America. When you meet people, you need to look good. Your clothes are important,” she tells him.
And truthfully, a lot of us are still trying to find that same importance extends beyond the places we came from, the labels we fight against, and the barriers put before us.
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.