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‘Atlanta’ recap: Season 2, Episode 8: Paper Boi gets a call from successful adulthood

The rapper comes to grips with facts: Every dream comes with leaving part of your old self behind

Season 2, Episode 8 | “Woods” | April 19

In 1996, Tupac Shakur, in the most prolific — and final — year of his life, said, “Everybody’s at war with different things. I’m at war with my own heart sometimes.” That sums up Alfred, aka Paper Boi (in Atlanta’s second season), nearly to a T.

This season’s heavy emphasis on solo episodes — Paper Boi’s second in the last four episodes following the instant classic “Barbershop” — flourish with regard to illustrating the mental strife of each of its characters. “Robbin Season” is as much a state of mind as a title. Think of artists such as Eminem or J. Cole and how they can seem repulsed by the idea of fame. That’s Paper Boi. He hates the concept of sacrificing parts of his personal life, part of “being real” as he dubs it, on his quest to make money rapping.

We’re careening closer and closer to an Alfred-Earn split. It’s been hinted at all season. Earn isn’t a great manager, and the only bond holding the two together is family ties. Paper Boi completely blows off Earn when the latter calls regarding important paperwork he needs to sign. But the reality, one Paper is desperately seeking to shun — made evident by his mother telling him she “didn’t raise a son this lazy” all the while his phone continuously vibrates — is that he can’t run from the consequences of his decisions, no matter how many blunts he smokes.

We’re also reminded of the Paper Boi-Darius discomfort that was introduced in the series opener, but never fully addressed. Paper Boi tells his eccentric friend he’s going out with a friend, but Darius playfully, yet seriously shoots back he thought the rapper was “allergic to girlfriends.” Darius says the least she can do is come inside and try his homemade pasta. He quite literally puts his foot in the pasta.

But it’s Paper Boi’s interaction with Ciara, a former stripper turned Instagram model now banking her entire lifestyle and mindset on a bubbling social media conglomerate, that gives the entire episode its legs. Paper Boi doesn’t want any part of the facetious responsibilities that come with living on Instagram. That’s another thing about this season, too. For as great and revealing as it has been at times — this season has perhaps had more high points than the first — it’s also succeeded in making its female characters lampoons. Paper Boi doesn’t truly take her seriously, so therefore it’s hard for the audience to.

Regardless, she hammers home some hard truth to Alfred. He nauseatingly reiterates how he wants to stay real. He says it so much, in fact, that you come to realize even Paper Boi knows he can’t keep hiding behind that shield, and only says it as a defense mechanism.

Ciara tells him his wardrobe is going to have to change if he wants to find the next level of success. She tells him it’s time for a new manager, one with a “big d—,” as she coins it. Much like his studio conversation with Clark County earlier this season, Earn is thrown under the bus for his more than apparent shortcomings as a fledgling executive. If Paper Boi is going to take the next step as an artist and celebrity, there’s a very good chance it won’t be with his cousin timidly making decisions on his behalf.

Yet, when the Ciara and Al sit down for a pedicure, the conversation takes a turn. Ciara, both flawed and representative of a large portion of today’s digital psyche, understands the power of branding and marketing through Instagram. “I can’t be selling my wigs and out here looking janky. I’ve gotta compete with white girls with lip fillers and butt injections, selling lip gloss and spray tans,” Ciara says, subtly referring to last week’s episode with white women dating black men. “Everybody wanna be a black girl, but the black girls ain’t making no money from it.” Slice it however you want, but that statement is the absolute truth.

But again, Alfred can’t escape the concept of wanting to remain real. “S—, you’re on the radio and you’ve been making money,” Ciara shoots back. “You’ve been not real.” The reality check is too much for Paper Boi to accept and he storms out. Walking by himself, Alfred eventually pulls up on three young men who eventually rob him at gunpoint. Alfred fends them all off and head-butts the final robber, but realizes he’s still the one in front of the gun and sprints off into the woods.

It’s here in the woods that Alfred finally understands the more he fights this impending reality, the more bloodthirsty it becomes. He encounters a homeless man who stalks him as he attempts to find his way out of the woods. Both are symbolic. The woods represent the journey to success, which comes with a price and no GPS. The man, who for all we know didn’t actually exist and was a figment of Alfred’s dark imagination and hallucination, is the final straw in a season-long resistance to inevitable change.

“Keep standing still, you’re gone,” the man tells Alfred with a knife to his throat. “You’re wasting time. And the only people who’ve got time are dead.” A bloody, bruised, battered and mentally shaken Paper Boi escapes the woods and enters a gas station. A young white fan asks to take a selfie with him. The fan either doesn’t know, doesn’t show or doesn’t care that Paper Boi looks like a train wreck. Where in episodes past, Alfred would have scoffed, moaned and groaned at the thought, he quickly obliges.

It’s a new Al. It’s a new day. All season Paper Boi has been running from an alternate reality that scares him. The question now is, what changes? How much longer will he shoulder Earn’s shortcomings as a manager? How much is Al willing to sacrifice? And most importantly, in the process of that sacrifice, how much of himself can he actually maintain?

The episode’s final words, Paper Boi to the fan, were especially poignant and perhaps a glimpse at the answer to those questions. It’s Paper Boi actually talking to himself. “Be safe out here.” Robbin’ season is 24/7.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.