Life is all about choices.
Where am I going to live? Am I going to take this new job or am I comfortable where I’m at? Should I get the wings or the ribs when I go to lunch today?
Choices are the framework for the path we walk every single day.
Through the first season and seven episodes of Atlanta, there were not many choices to be made. Alfred (a.k.a Paper Boi) was going to keep being him. He was going to keep selling weed with his best friend Darius and his cousin, Earn, was the best manager he could ever get considering his circumstances.
The writing has been on the wall throughout the show’s second season, deemed Robbin’ Season, that there are major changes coming for the group, but most specifically for Alfred. That fact seemingly started to come to a head last night on the season’s eighth episode, “Woods.”
As the episode starts, we see Alfred in a familiar spot, laying on his couch without any ambition to do anything. There is really no movement in the apartment until his mother walks into the frame behind him and starts badgering him about the messy state of the house he shares with Darius.
“You ever hear of a trash can?” she asks while moving around the back of the frame just out of focus. At least as far as I remember, this is our first time seeing Al’s Mom. I’m not sure I remember she has ever even being brought up in conversation and I think this is an important piece of how the rest of the episode comes together.
There is a lapse in time without Al making any sort of moves to get himself off the couch. His mother is gone and he sits alone in his house again until he receives a call from Earn. In the only moment we’ll hear from him, Earn asks Al how he’s doing and checks to see if he’s signed some paperwork — which we all probably knew from the moment the question was asked Al had not looked at the paperwork.
Alfred finally gets off the couch in order to go on a date with a woman named Sierra, who we come to find out is an aspiring Instagram model with greater motivation than our struggling rapper. She takes Alfred to a fancy boutique where she attempts to get him to buy some shoes and clothes that certainly do not fit the image Paper Boi has set out to create for himself thus far in his career.
“Nobody wants for somebody famous to look just like them,” she tells him after he explains his desire to continue living in the way he considers “real.” She continues to preach to him about changing his image and implores that he needs to “level up.”
This is at least the third time we’ve heard someone give Alfred this advice so far during season two. It has come from people who seem to be having a marginally more success than Paper Boi, but it has never really seemed to hit home and doesn’t again in this situation.
Sierra’s nagging continues in the next scene with the two of them sitting side-by-side at a nail salon getting pedicures. (Side note: I relate to Alfred way too much when he reacts to his feet being ticklish, but I’ve never gotten a pedicure. That’s just one of the reasons I never would.)
This entire sequence hits its peak when Sierra attempts to take a selfie with Alfred in a move she claims is part of the process of making them a “power couple.” He again goes back to his desire to be real and not be part of whatever fake life Sierra is trying to present for herself online.
“Shit, you’re on the radio,” she says, “and you’ve been making money. You’ve been not real.”
This prompts Alfred to get up and leave the nail salon without even putting on his shoes. He walks across the parking lot and begins what we can only assume is a long walk home. The first brief stop he makes is at a burger joint, where while he’s sitting on a curb eating he gets a text message from an unsaved number telling him they are thinking about him.
This is the moment when it hits that this might not be any normal day of Alfred. It is the anniversary of his mother’s death, which puts clarity to the opening scene in which she was nagging at her son but never truly came into focus before disappearing from the remainder of the show.
After resuming his trek alone deep in his thoughts, he runs up on three teenagers or younger guys who immediately recognize him as Paper Boi.
“You don’t have a car?” they ask him. “Can’t a man walk?” he replies. “Oh, you’re keeping it real,” one of the guys says before an awkward beat in which Alfred and the audience come to the realization of what is about to happen.
Two the guys jump him while a third pulls a gun from his pants in an effort to take Alfred’s chains and whatever he has in his pockets. Despite an impressive struggle against three guys, the two guys are able to steal his wallet and rip the chains from his neck, but the kid with the gun is left lying on the ground before once again turning the gun on Alfred, prompting him to sprint into the adjacent woods.
He finds a spot to hide and lies down in the grass in a position similar to the one we saw him in during the episodes opening moments. After another lapse in time, he gets up and begins to try and find his way out of the woods.
Not long after, he comes upon a homeless man named Wally. The man follows Alfred as he appears to walk in a circle for an extended period of time and the sun goes down without any exit from the woods in sight.
He sits down on a log defeated and trying to think of his next move. Wally asks him why he is sitting down and tells him he needs to leave the woods. The homeless man tells Alfred he is stubborn, just like his mom, which leads to believe maybe Wally isn’t real, but his only a figment of Alfred’s imagination.
That thought becomes even more intense when after several seconds, Wally puts out a box cutter and holds it to Alfred’s neck, telling him it is time to decide. Leave the woods or die.
“Make the decision,” Wally says. “Keep standing still, you’re gone, boy. You’re wastin’ time. And the only people who got time are dead. And if you’re dead, I’m gonna take them shoes and your wallet… and that shirt.”
Alfred runs from the woods in much less time than the 30 seconds Wally gave him, but not before Alfred looks back to see Wally sitting in the exact same position as if he had not noticed Alfred was no longer sitting on the log. Alfred stumbles out of the woods and into the parking lot of a gas station.
While standing in the aisles of the gas station, he is approached by a young man who again recognizes him as Paper Boi. For the first time ever, Paper Boi asks the man himself if he wants to take a picture and seems cooperative to the idea of being famous, something we’ve seen him wrestle with throughout the show’s entire run to this point.
This moment is what I think the entire season has been building to. Alfred has been in a position to make a choice for weeks. Does he really want to be a famous rapper or does he want to keep being the person he was before, selling weed, being lazy and hanging out with his friends?
This puts what Wally says while holding a knife to Alfred’s neck fully into perspective. It is the same exact thing those more successful people have been telling him, except now it is coming from a crazy, high, homeless man in the middle of the Atlanta woods.
Paper Boi is wasting time. We have never seen him in a studio making new music. He has never had a manager who can truly make things happen for him if he wants to “level up.”
Is this the point when he goes from being someone who wants to keep things “real” to the star his talent makes him destined to be? If he keeps standing still, he will be gone, forgotten by the world that he seemingly holds in the palm of his hand at this moment. He cannot waste any more time as there is no time to waste in a world that moves as fast as ours.
If you’re wasting time, you’re already dead.
Who knows where the show is going to go during the season’s final episodes. I’m not even going to try to predict it from week-to-week. That is too hard when you consider the creativity with which each of these episodes is made.
With that said, I think it is clear the choice Alfred is going to make.
Paper Boi is not dead so there is no more time to waste.