Emmy Endorsement: In Praise of “Barbershop,” the Other Genius ‘Atlanta’ Episode
All week, WIRED’s Culture team will be writing endorsement letters for various Emmy nominees in advance of next Monday’s awards ceremony. Kicking things off: senior writer and resident “Yoohoo” quoter Brian Raftery.
This spring, FX aired the Atlanta installment “Teddy Perkins,” a macabre tale of a reclusive pop legend holed up in a Southern mansion. It quickly became the year’s most celebrated and scrutinized episode of TV, and deservedly so: A 35-minute mix of Serling-sired twists and Jackson-jacking showbiz tragedy, “Teddy Perkins” was so blunt, so unsettlingly funny, it almost seems unfair to compare it to anything else on TV.
The episode will likely dominate Monday night’s Emmys, where “Teddy Perkins” is nominated in five categories, and—given the 18 nominations the show racked up in its second season—where Atlanta creator Donald Glover will hopefully pick up his awards wearing a “U MAD” hat. Still, there’s another Atlanta episode in the Emmy running this year, one so stylistically at odds with “Teddy Perkins” that it proves just how elastic this show can be.
Directed by Donald Glover, and written by nominee Stefani Robinson, “Barbershop” opens with the increasingly fame-wary rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) slumped in a chair, awaiting the arrival of Bibby, his long-time barber. From the moment he finally shows up, yammering into his Bluetooth, it’s clear that Bibby—played with hyperpowered chutzpah by Robert Powell III—is an only-in-America hustler working 18 different angles at once. And for the rest of the afternoon, he’ll drag Paper Boi across the city: To the home of Bibby’s girlfriend, whom he’s clearly scamming; to a construction site, where they lift some lumber; and to a Georgia roadway where Bibby executes a mid-day hit-and-run. All the while, Paper Boi stews and fumes, wanting nothing more than to get his haircut, and to get out of Bibby’s universe as quickly as possible.
Like the best episodes of Atlanta, “Barbershop” has a sort of breezy, low-key brilliance—it feels meticulous in its details and dialogue, yet loose in its execution (which is aided by a playful jazz-odyssey score by Thundercat and Flying Lotus). It’s also a prime entry in a pop-culture subgenre that’s long been underserved: The Dragged-Along Dramedy. In the ‘80s, big-screen beleaguered-yuppie tales like After Hours and Into the Night found their put-upon heroes being pulled into all sorts of unlikely schemes and scandals, all in just a few hours. Last year’s Good Time–one of the best movies of 2017, and an immediate new cult classic cast Robert Pattinson as a robber-on-the-run who yanks various poor souls into his late-night journey to freedom.
“Barbershop” is far less grim than Good Time. But the deeper Paper Boi gets drawn into Bibby’s seemingly round-the-clock assortment of side gigs and low-grade cons, the more tense the episode becomes. It helps, of course, that the show is so adroitly cast: Any Atlanta episode that allows Henry to play up Paper Boi’s exhaustion—which he demonstrates by closing his eyes so deeply, it’s as though he doesn’t want us to see him rolling them—is worth keeping for good on the DVR. And Powell, a stand-up who’d never acted before (and who apparently only received his script two hours before filming) plays Bibby with the sort of smooth-talking pragmatism that only the finest huckster could muster. You believe that Paper Boi, desperate to look good for an upcoming photo shoot, would agree to follow Bibby on his endless afternoon quests—and you also believe it when, by day’s end, Paper Boi finally turns on his tormentor, looking as though he may throw Bibby off a balcony if he doesn’t pick up his clippers and get to work.
What ultimately makes “Barbershop” one of the year’s best, though, is Robinson’s writing, which includes Bibby’s near-constant sales-pitch chatter. The episode is so dense, and so funny, that it wasn’t until a second viewing that I realized that, toward the end, Bibby is apparently trying to quietly unload some DVD packs to a client: “This ain’t like other ones where, you know, they just put three random movies together, like Kazaam or Glitter or, you know, Leprechaun in the Hood,” says Bibby, never slowing his hustle. “I’m talking, you need these, cuz.” Consider me sold.