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Atlanta's Three Slaps: The Persistence Of Memory

Updated: Mar 26, 2022

I just watched the first two episodes of the third season of Atlanta. I don’t know what I just watched. I’ve never seen anything like this before and I’m not going to pretend to have.

Atlanta is my favourite show on television, I've talked about it a million times. I waited 4 years for this moment, a few months ago I tweeted that I hoped the series would come back as an even weirder and more surreal version of itself, and I couldn’t be happier about what’s happening.

The posters for the show released and it had Darius, Al, Van and Earn in the style of Salvador Dalis famous painting 'The Persistence of Memory' with the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and Wind Turbines in the background, foreshadowing the European setting of this season, as well as how surreal this season was about to get.

The first episode is titled “Three Slaps” and it’s directed by Hiro Murai & written by Stephen Glover. The entire cast have outdone themselves so far, and we're only 2 episodes in. The visuals in this season have been impeccable so far, every frame looks like a painting. Atlanta came back with yet another surrealy realistic magnum opus with a premiere that stands up there with the infamous Teddy Perkins episode. The lighting is dark gritty and very realistic, yet the circumstances continue to get even more surreal than I could have imagined in the first season. This first episode doesn’t have anyone from the original cast in it until the end, with Earn appearing for a few seconds leading directly to the second episode.

The episode starts with this beautiful bridge and streetlights that subtly lights a body of water, a black guy and a white guy are sitting on a boat and fishing.

They start talking about why the lake scares them and the black guy talks about how he almost drowned in those waters when he was 8 and how he felt the water was pulling him down. The white man exclaimed that the black kid was in fact being pulled down by the ghosts of the dead black people under the “shitty water.” The white guy said the waters were haunted because there was an entire self governed black town under the water that was destroyed. He said the residents were people who made enough money to achieve whiteness, he explained how being white was more of a status that can be bought and taken away depending on where and when you are, as he put it “Armenians are white till they ain’t.”

He goes on to explain how people separate themselves from blackness by seeing black people as cursed, but how they’re both being affected, or as he put it “you see blood and you don’t know who’s bleeding.” He said you get yelled at to turn the machine off but you can’t hear yourself or others, as the white guys speaking the lights get dimmer, his voice begins to muffle, his eyes disappear and his face becomes fully and frighteningly white, and then a bunch of black hands grab the black guy from behind and the scene cuts to some kid waking up from a dream in class.

While the lake they're fishing in goes unnamed in the episode, it refers to reservoir Lake Lanier, the formerly Black community of Oscarville in Forsyth County, which faced a racist mob attack in September 1912. According to History, the town (populated by nearly 1,110 Black residents) was faced with violence when 18-year-old white woman Mae Crow was allegedly raped and killed by Oscarville resident Rob Edwards, who was lynched in the town square. Thousands of white county residents showed up to shoot Edwards’ corpse, leading to a community invasion where Black businesses, churches, and houses were torched

That opening sequence sets up the entire premise for the rest of the episode and it perfectly represents the plot of the episode.

The episode is about the kid who was sleeping in class, Laquarius. Laquarius wakes up from his sleep to being recorded by some white kid sitting in front of him. When his teacher announces that they’ll be going on a field trip to watch black panther 2, Laquarius is overcome with joy so he gets up on the table and starts dancing, doing the shoot, the whip and nae nae as his predominantly white classmates cheer him on.

The teacher sends him to the principals office and his mother is called in. When the black principal and black mother try to discuss Laquarius, they’re interrupted by a white guidance counselor who suggests that the only reason he was acting out in school was because the classes were too hard so he needed to take remedial courses, his mother insists that they not move him out of his class and that if he was acting out he should be given detention.

The mom storms out to the hallway with his grandfather and makes Laquiarius start dancing, she doesn’t attempt to hear him out and she explains to him how these white kids will clap and cheer for him now, but they won’t be there when the system leaves him dead or in jail. She told him to use his common sense or otherwise these white people were going to kill him.

His grandfather then walks up to him and gives him three slaps on the cheek, which explains the title of the episode. The guidance counselor who was there to witness this entire situation take place is horrified by the perceived abuse and promises Laquarius that she’ll get him out of there.

The next scene is of Laquarius opening the fridge in his home and telling his mother they were out of Milk, and his mother responds by telling him there’s spaghetti in the fridge if he’s hungry. Laquarius is visibly annoyed. It seems like the stereotypical low income black household. As he’s eating his spaghetti and watching a violent American Dad scene of Roger the Alien smashing someone’s head in on television, there’s a knock on the door. His mother opens the door and it’s an Asian case worker there with police asking for a name she can't pronounce, the mother is so upset with Laquarius because she believes he called the cops on her that she throws him out, even though he’s adamant he had nothing to do with calling them. He’s then taken to this White liberal lesbian couples house.

The lesbian couple is this impoverished couple with a Kombucha stand and 5 black foster kids they use as laborers. Their dinners are constantly interrupted by bill collectors, their house smells, they can’t even afford wash cloths. They served the kids unseasoned chicken and avocados, while their dog ate hamburgers. The kids were constantly hungry. They nicknamed him Larry because they couldn’t pronounce Laquarius.

The white women believe they are saving Laquarius but as soon as he steps in the house he doesn’t like the smell, he has to share a room with 4 other people, and he doesn’t like the food. His living conditions have automatically degraded. They give him a choice of what food he would like to eat and they named two choices he didnt know, when he told them he didn’t understand what that was, they made the choice for him anyway.

The women tell him everything he likes to eat is bad for him, they tell him not to use words like hate, the entire time they are trying to mold him into what they want. When he told them he hated the food, they told him there were people in Africa that were starving and told him to ask one of the other foster kids who was possibly African. They made the kids work out in the fields, when Laquarius told them he didn’t want to work they told him to sing songs to make the time go faster, when he started singing NBA Youngboy songs they told him he should sing a more soulful blues song.

The couple made the kids stand at their Kombucha stand and give out free hugs for promotion. While out in the scorching Sun Laquarius sees a police officer and runs to him begging for help and gives him a hug, and the officer responds with “woah kid I almost shot you.”

Laquarius tells the officer that these ladies were making him do chores and the officer dismissed him as just being upset that he wasn’t being allowed to play PlayStation. The lesbian couple tell the cop that as the mothers of black children they tell them that the police are their friends, which is why Laquarius felt so comfortable with him.

When they get home the kids are painting the house and one of the women calls Laquarius a snitch. Her tone shifts and she comes off as racist by saying things like “it’s still better than where you come from.” Laquarius was their “son” until he did something they didn’t like, then he was back to being black.

One of the neighbours calls social services on the lesbian couple and a black caseworker comes to the house, without police. The caseworker scouts out the house and instantly sees there was something seriously wrong, she asks Laquarius if everythings okay and he tells her he's hungry, and she promises that she’ll get him out of there. One of the women leaves with the caseworker and comes back in saying their problems were gone.

Laquarius then has a dream where the caseworkers head is in a jar in the fridge, he hears his mothers voice telling him to use his common sense or these white people were going to kill him, and his grandfather shows up as the dog and he wakes up in a sweat.

Laquarius goes to the bathroom and comes out to see the women packing up. He asks where they’re going and they tell him the Grand Canyon, so he asks them where they are really going and the woman looks startled. Laquarius is walking to the car and we see what looks like a human body in a garbage bag with the case workers clipboard on top of it, which leads us to believe they killed the black caseworker.

In the car the black kids communicate with their facial expressions and at this point they’re all well aware that these white women are going to try and kill them.

The women go to some forest and let their dog loose, they explain how they’ve taken a large loan in order to adopt these kids, everyone told them it was a great idea and nobody attempted to stop them. One of the women explains how they’re going to have to do a group suicide because this world was too evil and if they were to let the black kids go freely in the world then they’d be killed by the system, the only way to save them was to die together.

They go back in the car and drive towards the edge of the bridge, one of the women turns around to lift the hat in the backseat where she thinks the children are asleep only to see the dog, and Laquarius opening the back door to jump out.

Laquarius walks back over to his mothers house and washes the dishes. His mother asks if he finally decided to come back home, he nods his head and asks her if there’s spaghetti in the fridge to which she says yes. So he sits at the table, eats his spaghetti, the television shows us that the other children were found by the police and Laquarius watches an episode of American Dad till he turns around and suddenly Earn wakes up in Europe.

There’s so much to discuss in this episode. I love Atlanta so much because of episodes like this. There’s so much nuance and so many mindfuck moments.

Laquarius wasn’t being listened to by any grown up in the entire episode, he was just being moved from place to place. The whole episode felt like those dreams where you’re explaining yourself but nobody seems to understand. All of the characters were being pulled from place to place by forces larger than them.

The episode is discussing the social construct of “whiteness” and “blackness” as abstract ideas perpetuated by everyone, and how whiteness is really just a financial or social status that can be achieved and taken away.

The White lesbian women are white, until they’re not. Until they’re poor and struggling to feed 5 kids and a case worker gets called up to see starving children in a dirty home with abusive parents.

These people were struggling yet they still felt superior to Laquarius and his previous conditions even though his family was doing much better financially than them just off the merit that he’s black, and stereotypically white women who own Kombucha stands and adopt disenfranchised youth are perceived as wealthy and noble when in reality they were poor people conducting legal slavery.

This was just like when the White guy on the boat said “you separate Black from yourself and see them as cursed, but you can’t see you’re cursed too.”

Racism is a byproduct and function of Capitalism. Everyone is “black” when they’re poor and “white “ when they’re rich.

This episode is about Blackness in the system. Racism is institutionalized, even if you might not be racist or hate black people, there’s so much cultural nuance that you’re just not privy to unless you’re a part of a certain group. The cop was going to shoot Laquarius because he was a black kid running towards him, the asian caseworker brought police for back up because she was visiting a black household, the fear ran deep in every person in the institution of this little black boy.

Laquarius was feeling joyous but because his teachers didn’t understand his cultural expression they thought he was acting out or mentally challenged. The institution deemed Laquarius grandfathers 3 slaps to be abusive, and instead sent him off to his death by two crazy poor white women. Those 3 slaps and the advice he recieved from his mother in the hall were ultimately what saved his life.

Laquarius gets in trouble when he expresses joy, he’s told what he’s allowed and not allowed to say when he expresses displeasure, the only people that understood him at any point were the black kids he communicated with through facial expressions, the black caseworker, and his mother when he asked her if there was spaghetti in the fridge.

English is not our language, these school systems aren’t built for us, this society isn’t built by us, the system is fundamentally at war with blackness while simultaneously being in love with it. The women want to adopt black children, but take away everything that makes them black, which is the reality of life as a black person in this society.

This series isn’t just about how “Racism is real” it’s way more nuanced than that, there’s nobody that society would deem more tolerant and accepting than 2 lesbians that adopt impoverished black children, they were at the dinner table bashing Rihanna for cultural appropriation but they still couldn’t understand how racist they were unwittingly being. Culture is our individual expression and how we are in the world, by telling the black kids how to act, how to speak, & what to wear, its ultimately worse than cultural appropriation and goes into the category of cultural indoctrination.

At no point does the episode fully vilify the women, not even when they’re about to do a murder suicide. The entire time it seems like they are truly doing what they believe to be the best thing for themselves and these children because they believe they know what’s best for these children, while at the same time they’re financially not in the position to have these children.

The part that struck me most is that Laquarius stayed in the car after saving the other kids. He put the dog under the hat, but he stayed in the car and jumped out at the last second and I can’t get it out of my head.

I think that was a very deliberate choice by the writers and I don’t think it’s just so he can get a ride close to home. Laquarius knew they were gonna commit a murder suicide, he must have overheard them talking in the forest, that’s the only way he could have got the dog back in the car. I think Laquarius was going to go with the women until he changed his mind at the last second. The show isn’t afraid to tackle the concept of suicidal kids with one of the kids in the back seat of the car saying “sweet release” when Laquarius said these white women are about to kill us.

Another thing that stuck out to me was the role of the dog. Laquarius saw the dog as his grandfather in his dream, and the dog was the only person allowed to eat hamburgers for dinner. Laquarius saw the dog as the alpha male of the house in the same role as his grandfather, and ultimately the dog was being treated better than him. Dogs get their own houses, their own rooms, their own plates & they get to eat hamburgers, while the kids have to share rooms and eat avocados, the dog was a higher ranking member of the household than the children.

The couple had more faith that the dog would survive if left to his own devices than the black kids. They released the dog into the wild and said he was a survivor, but they said if they couldn’t take care of these kids then the system would kill them and they’d just be prolonging the inevitable.

This is definitely one of the darker and more surreal episodes of the series, but there were definitely some funny moments in there.

There’s so many more layers in this episode that I haven’t caught yet that I’ll have to rewatch. There’s way too much to get into with episode 2 that needs its own essay so I’ll save it for that.

I could keep going on about this episode for days but it’s gonna be hours long so I’ll just say this. Donald Glover said this season was going to compete against The Wire and The Sopranos and usually when someone hypes something up to that level it can’t deliver, I mean this very genuinely, these 2 episodes have been some of the best pieces of content I’ve ever seen.

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