‘Atlanta’ Recap and Review: ‘North of the Border,’ Blood Is Not Thicker Than Water

Season Two, Episode Nine

Altanta North of the Border
"Atlanta" creator Donald Glover as Earn in Episode Nine of the series on FX
In my review of “Woods,” I asked whether Earn would step up his game as Alfred’s manager. In this episode, Alfred asks himself the same question, to and the results are unsurprisingly, disappointing. Earn has set Alfred up with another (unpaid) gig at a college—“[F]irst it’s this, then it’s Spring Fling, and that’s $60K guaranteed,” he promises—but is too cheap pay for a hotel. Instead, the crew heads over to Violet’s (Jerusha Cavazos), a college student who has amassed a whopping 3000 Instagram followers and whose unhealthy crush on Al is supposed to secure Al’s performance at Spring Fling. Turns out she’s insane: She tells Al about a dream she had of them, in which she was a crocodile who ate him as a white crane. “And then this, like intense light just shot through my belly. And I knew that meant that we were connected,” she remembers. Unfortunately for Al, and ultimately Earn, that connection doesn’t last long.

Things come to a head when Violet catches Alfred talking to two female students, one of whom is writing a paper about the lyricism in Paper Boi’s raps. Their appreciation of his music is the real attention Alfred has so desperately been seeking throughout the second season. The two women don’t want to sleep with Alfred, or even post photos of him on their social media, but to share in their admiration for the work he puts into his music. Finally, Al’s star really starts to shine. Lucky for him, the rapper still manages to blend into the background, the blue sheen of his robe commanding an attention that does not put an overwhelming spotlight on him. The moment is endearing (Alfred even gives them a genuine smile!) but gets cut too short when Violet dumps her drink all over him in a jealous rage, after which the situation escalates quickly. Tracy (Khris Davis), who tagged along much to Earn’s disdain as Al’s bodyguard, pushes Violet down a flight of stairs. The scene is an exaggerated, slowed-down caricature of itself—why the emphasis on Violet’s flailing arms and legs? Why the melodramatic soundtrack of Nina Simone’s “Funkier Than A Mosquito Tweeter?” Why the concerted effort to obscure Violet’s face, as if to erase her personhood? The gang runs away before we can find out.

This confrontation is the last straw for Al. The men eventually find a safe haven in a frat house whose leader is in the midst of hazing some new recruits, where Al sits Earn down to lay down the law. “Look, you family, man, and I'm trying to ride with you, but sometimes that shit ain't enough, bro. 'Cause money is important,” Al says. The realization has been a long time coming. After all, it’s Robbin’ Season, and Al has already been robbed twice, two times too many. Al can’t grow if Earn keeps holding him back. “I gotta make my next moves my best moves, man, so. Something gotta shake,” he concludes. It’s the realest conversation the two have ever had. And it’s the biggest humiliation—though not the last of the episode—that Earn has ever faced, an uncanny reflection of the naked white pledges who stood naked, degraded, forced to dance to D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” as part of the hazing process in front of Al, Earn, Tracy, and Darius. But unlike the boys, whose humiliation may earn them a spot in the frat, Earn’s culminates in a downward spiral both professionally and personally.

With only two episodes left in the season, “Atlanta” is finally moving its narrative along. Al is moving forward, and Earn may be regressing, but at last, something is happening. The show has thus far been losing itself in its quirks and colloquialisms to the detriment of its storytelling. “North of the Border” combines the two in a way that grounds the characters in the reality of their situations without sacrificing the show’s signature, subtle bizarreness.

Laffy Taffys:


- I will say, Violet’s vengeance, while initially unwarranted, is quite impressively brutal. Where did she learn to cut like that?

- This is the second time Darius has mentioned jicama. I hope we find out to what end.

- Weed must be pretty important to Al if he’s willing to watch pledges dance naked in a room in front of a Confederate flag with guns hanging on the wall. But hey, they’re so cool they have a gun room, so it’s all good. Right?

- Earn really needs to learn he is not cut out for fighting, racing, or acting tough in any way shape or form. Earn versus Tracy? He should know better by now.

—Staff writer Mila Gauvin II can be reached at