WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
Episode three of Atlanta: Robbin Season (“Helen”) continues a big through-line of the show: characters being thrust into environments and scenarios that are unfamiliar to them. Earn is headed to the Georgia village of Helen with Vanessa to a Bavarian gathering — a chance for Van to celebrate her German upbringing. He seemed to go with earnest intentions, but he ends up miserable — and making the evening about himself in the process.
READ: Mo Money, Same Problems for Earn & Paper Boi: ‘Atlanta’ Season Two Episode Three [Recap]
Earn has reason to feel uncomfortable here. He’s completely out of his element, and being in such a culture shock of a situation can be frustrating. But Earn is at this event for Van. There are often situations where one has to be in a foreign environment for his or her’s partner — whether it’s at a work party, or the first time visiting a partner’s parents. It’s awkward, but it’s a sacrifice, and it usually doesn’t last long. Earn begrudgingly struggles through it for half the episode, and attempts to get away by going to the only familiar item he can find: a ping pong table. After Van wins, Earn complains and refuses to participate in the dance competition — the part of the festivities that Van was looking forward to the most.
Meanwhile, Van is looking for a chance to have some identity of her own. She’s enjoying the opportunity to bask in her German culture — wearing traditional festive garb, speaking in the native tongue, drinking German beers, and playing German-specific games. Most importantly, she was looking forward to competing in the annual dance competition with Earn; with her German moves and his normal ones, she reasoned, they’d have an easy victory. Even in “Value,” the episode from Season one that entirely revolved around Van, we rarely got to see her be this comfortable in her own skin.
Along with Earn’s lack of consideration, Van is being seen as someone other than herself by her so-called friends, too. A black girl she grew up with, named Christina, constantly refers to her as “Lottie’s mom,” and her friends refer to her as “Earn’s girl” — even asking her if she’s an artist who’s working with Earn. Then, once Van and Christina sit down for a personal conversation, the friend implies that the lack of identity is something that Van is comfortable with: she “seems like something she’s more ready for,” and “chose black” by getting with Earn. Van and the friend then have a vague conversation about stereotypical black and white identity. And, to make things worse, that friend and her white boyfriend, Dave, won the dance contest. We see both here and in “Value” — an episode where she lost her job after testing positive for weed — that any time Van attempts to let loose and be herself, she’s punished for it.
There’s also Earn’s disrespect toward Van. She says that she doesn’t want to go to Paper Boi’s concerts every weekend, and Earn replies with the cheap shot of the episode: “I wouldn’t hate on that. That’s been paying your bills.” Chris Rock revealed a similar attitude as the route to his divorce in his new Netflix special Tambourine: mistreating and ignoring your partner’s needs because of that entitlement you feel from being the financial breadwinner. But Earn was downplaying Van’s needs way before he was the moneymaker. And if Earn loses his job as Al’s manager— which is a distinct possibility — he’d miss Van even more, likely crawling back, needing a place to stay. Depending on the perspective, it’s tough to truly hate Earn — so much of his mistreatment of Van comes not from maliciousness, but from his own deep insecurities.
Earn sees scenarios like the Fastnacht and the Juneteenth celebration as Van asking him to be someone he’s not, while Van just believes she’s asking him to accommodate her the same way she does him. In a way, they’re both right: Van isn’t asking for much, but she wants Earn to be relationship material, which he clearly isn’t. And Van is fed up.“We’re only good together when we have to be,” Van tells her friend, “and I’m slowly figuring out that maybe we don’t have to.” Her friend responds: “love yourself if you want to know what it’s like to be in love again.”
Near the end of the episode, Van and Earn finally have the type of conversation that they should have had years ago: what they both want from a relationship. Van’s desire: “I want to be in a committed relationship where I’m valued as a human being and not as an accessory that you can fuck.” Earn’s: “I don’t know what I want. I know this…arrangement works for me.” After an inverse Love & Basketball-style ping pong rematch and an awkward drive home, they go their separate ways with a synthetic “I’ll pick up the kids” exit.
The background image on Van’s cell phone is an image of Eartha Kitt — the actress who famously laughed at the idea of compromising for a man. “A man comes into my life and I have to compromise? A relationship has to be earned, not to compromise for,” Kitt insisted. She then offered a better proposal, one that mirrors the advice given by Van’s friend: “I fall in love with myself, and I want someone to share it with me. I want someone to share me, with me.” It appears that Van is ready to take the first step of following such advice.
The Soundtrack For “Helen”
Slime feat. Selah Sue, “At Sea Again”
Harry Belafonte & Miriam Makeba, “My Angel (Malaika)”