The second season of FX’s Atlanta is proving to be unconventional, to say the least. Last season’s more streamlined story arc has been replaced with a series of vignettes — with each episode disjointed from another, yet giving us a deeper look at our main characters, sometimes individually, each week. Thursday night’s “Woods” episode was centered on Paper Boi (played by Brian Tyree Henry), the show’s local celebrity rapper. Like many episodes of Atlanta, you never really know where it’s going to go until it actually goes there. Last night, the show took viewers into the dark wilderness that is depression.
The episode opens with Paper Boi, whose real name is Alfred, asleep on the couch. The house is a mess, clothes thrown everywhere. Blurred in the background is an older woman, Al’s mom, cleaning up and chastising her son for sleeping in past noon. “You know good and well I did not raise a son this lazy,” she scolded him. “Get up!” Alfred, annoyed by his mother’s nagging, brushes her off. It’s a strange scene, considering we have never seen his mother in the show before, but if you’ve been paying attention since season one, you’d remember that Al’s mother actually passed away years ago. That’s when the dream or illusion of her voice telling him to get up struck me to the core.
The next scene we see an awake and fully alert Paper Boi ready to hit the town with a girl who’s “not his girlfriend” ( a bae, I guess), named Sierra. We soon learn that Sierra is a stripper turned Instagram celebrity — the American dream story of the new millennia. The casual couple seem to get along well at first, but their differences are quickly revealed as Sierra’s boss-bitch, do-it-for-the-gram attitude clashes with Paper Boi’s keep-it-real-and-low-key vibe. Like many others who interact with the rising rap star, Sierra can’t understand why Paper Boi doesn’t just own and celebrate his fame. Last season, Paper Boi was hungry for success and notoriety, but this season he seems to be disillusioned with the hype. According to him, he’s just not with the fake shit. Understandable, but his apathetic attitude towards everything from business responsibilities to upgrading his lifestyle, reads something deeper. Something typically mistaken for carelessness or laziness. Something that feels incredibly familiar to me and millions of others who’ve ever suffered in silence — depression.
The episode takes a sharp turn when Paper Boi and Sierra have a squabble at a nail salon across town, and the rapper decides to leave his bae/ride home and make his way on foot. While on his journey, he runs into a group of fans who are shocked to see the celebrity walking home, all alone with no sign of security. They praise Paper Boi for “keeping it real,” gush over how much they love his music, and then, of course, rob him. It is “Robbin’ Season” after all, but I think Paper Boi was robbed of something much more valuable than his watch and chain…but more on that later. The so-called fans jumped the rapper and robbed him at gunpoint. Luckily, Paper Boi managed to escape the attack by running into the woods. It’s here that Atlanta’s stellar writer Stefani Robinson gets really metaphorical.
A beat-up, bloody Alfred treks through the wilderness and encounters a strange old man who peeves him with riddles and unwanted company. Despite being told to get the fuck on and leave him alone, the eccentric old man follows Al throughout the woods until nightfall. Exhausted and downtrodden, Al takes a seat on a log and, of course, is joined by his tagalong. His purpose for being in the woods in the first place was to escape danger. Now it was time to go home, but he just could not find the spirit to press forward. He could not escape. Like all zany side characters do, the strange old man tried to boost our protagonist’s confidence by telling him to get up and go home. Al resists, insisting that he just stay where he is and think. He’s tired. It’s in this moment that we see the true purpose of the strange old man’s character. The seemingly harmless oddball quickly turned violent as he took a box cutter to Al’s throat, threatening him to escape the woods in 30 seconds or else meet his death.
“Keep standing still, you’re gone boy,” the old man warned a terrified Alfred. “You’re wasting time.” There’s that nudge again; the same nudge Al’s mother gave him at the start of the episode. A nudge that anyone who experiences depression knows very well. Yet, both nudges in the episode portrayed different scenarios. The first one with his mother evoked guilt and shame — you want so badly to get up and not “be lazy,” but your mind just won’t let you. The other nudge, one from a stranger (who I believe symbolized our will to survive) was about do or die. Because sometimes fighting for your mental health can be a deadly sport. I know firsthand how literal “do or die” can mean when battling depression.
Al books it and finally makes his way out the woods into a gas station. He tearfully takes in a moment of relief before going into the convenience store. As he grabs a cold drink from the fridge, a young fan (a harmless one this time) comes up asks if he’s Paper Boi. Bloodied, muddied, and traumatized, Paper Boi surprises us by welcoming the fan and even offering a photo op. It alarmed me how the fan wasn’t taken aback by Paper Boi’s disheveled condition. At first I chalked it up to our society’s obsession with celebrity. As long as I got a picture with so-and-so and catch these likes, I’m straight. But this episode is about everything beneath the surface, so I dug deeper. That moment where the fan takes a photo with his bloodied and muddied idol without any question or concern illustrated how invisible depression is. As long as you are “functioning,” as long as you are physically present, or even, as long as you are fulfilling the needs and desires of others, your struggle with mental illness can, and often times will, go unseen.
Atlanta tackled depression beautifully in this episode, but if you take a closer look, they’ve been unfolding this storyline for a while now. Al’s apathetic behavior towards everything from his relationships to his career, to even his phone, has been a major trait in his character this season. It’s easy to miss, what with black men often portrayed and perceived as — and expected to be — stoic, uncomplicated, and unfeeling. Alfred’s aloofness and nonchalance usually makes great for his comedic delivery, and is not necessarily taken as a sign of sadness; but depression doesn’t always look like a bawling fit. It can be very quiet and still.
This season, we see how Paper Boi’s taste of fame has only led to problems. In previous episodes he was robbed at gunpoint by his friend, treated like a product by a record label, and taken advantage of by nearly every person he encountered. Staying true to Atlanta’s “Robbin’ Season” theme, it feels like Al has been robbed of his sense of normalcy, his agency, his security, his trust, and his sanity. With the appearance of his mother, we also see a painful suffering that may never go away. By the looks of his actions, he self-medicates with heavy partying and sleeping in. He never truly faces his issues. But does he even have the tools or support to do so?
This episode hit home for me, and I’m sure for many others who struggle with anxiety and/or depression. The heartbreaking scene in which Alfred envisions his late mother forcing him to get up was even more devastating once you realize the character’s actor, Henry, lost his mother Willow Dean Kearse, who was commemorated in the credits, two years ago.
The echoing call to “get up” and Al’s reaction to it perfectly depicts how it feels to hear the world tell you to get up when you can’t move. The guilt, shame, and apathy that follows can be unbearable. Depression can feel like paralysis. You’re stuck in the darkness, with no direction, no obvious path to freedom. Even if someone points you into the right direction, there’s still this feeling of “what’s the point?” You become fatigued with living and trying. It can feel better just sitting on the proverbial log, in the darkness, doing nothing but gathering your thoughts. Depression really can feel like being lost in the woods and not sure if it even matters if you get out.