After Wakanda, Atlanta (the FX show, that is) is the second-best majority-black fantasy world of 2018: an alternate realm where dope music, black heroes and endless possibilities co-exist. Atlanta's imagination leans towards the sinister though, and in just two episodes of Season 2, people have already seen Katt Williams unleash a pet alligator and an underground rapper promote the drink You-hoo. In Episode 3, Atlanta sneaks in yet another wild surprise in a blink-and-you'll-miss moment — and no, not the hilarious race with Michael Vick, but the Harriet Tubman $20s Clark County (RJ Walker) produced in the studio.
You remember these bills — or, rather, the 2016 announcement that the government would start producing money with the abolitionist hero's face on them. Of course, the current administration would put a potato chip that looked like Jesus on a $20 before replacing anti-abolitionist Andrew Jackson with a black feminist who cost slave owners money by smuggling their contraband (slaves) to freedom, and that's part of the reason Atlanta's "Tub Dubs" are so piercingly funny. (And sad. But this is Atlanta!) Clark County — who toggles between bro-ish corniness and frighteningly violent — says he got them because his mom worked in government and got some before "they stopped making them." (They never did make them, by the way.) They're only on screen a moment but they are glorious, mainly because they elicit such joy from Darius (Keith Stanfield) and Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry).
The Tubmans lack any value, since these are rare artifacts, essentially Clark's good luck charms. They simply exist to give Clark prestige and exclusivity — a currency Earn clearly lacks as he spends the entire episode trying to break a legitimate $100.
"Money Bag Shawty" delivers a platter of harsh commentary about money, and how it fluctuates in value when in the hands of a young black man. For most of the story, Earn (Donald Glover) can't actually use a $100 while on a date with his lady, Van (Zazie Beetz) — a Seinfeldian bit that whispers "cashless society." But Earn sees a white man use his $100 bill without any problems at the movie theater, and when he dared to address the glaring discrimination, his life is threatened. Going where he figures he'll get better treatment, he leads the squad to a strip club but gets ripped off there, where the house charges an outrageous 20 percent to break hundreds (?) and makes him pay for liquor that normally comes with buying out a booth. Poor Earn. He's flush with cash, but can't use it in white spaces, and he's not black enough for his money to earn him respect in a majority-black space either — a spooky coincidence since the character's creator is an Emmy and Grammy winner with legend-making roles in Solo: A Star Wars Story and The Lion King arriving soon. "Money is an idea," Paper Boi tells him. "There's a reason a white boy dressed like you can get a loan and you can't spend a $100 bill." Insert fire emoji here.
Everyone's heard the adage that money can't buy happiness. "Money Bag Shawty" says that money likewise can't buy a way out of the complications of blackness, or a way to bridge the rough terrain between success in the white world and the ways black people police one another's authenticity. "Money Bag Shawty" suggests that money cannot buy a way for people to really see black Americans...unless it's the money in Atlanta, because in Atlanta, Tub Dubs really do exist.
More make-believe inventions may come as the season progresses, but Atlanta has already one-upped Season 1's invisible car — the ride nobody believed bigshot Marcus Miles actually owned but he drove away in when shots rang out. Of the two, the Tub Dubs are definitely more covetable. Because anybody with enough money can buy an invisible car, but paper people can spend with pride has way more value.
Atlanta airs Thursdays at 10/9c on FX.