Atlanta Finally Revealed What Happened to Earn at Princeton

It’s a mystery that’s loomed over the series since the pilot. Now, in its final season, Atlanta is answering the big questions.

Donald Glover in Atlanta.

Donald Glover in Atlanta.Courtesy of Guy D’Alema for FX Networks.

For the better part of three seasons, Atlanta has displayed an impressive knack for leaving viewers perplexed. The third season, which pulled the cast from the city’s red clay and dropped them in Europe, was the most confounding move to date from a show that routinely poses questions, only to never answer them explicitly if at all. Just how successful is Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) now that his rap alter ego, Paper Boi, has taken off? What, exactly, transpired between Earn’s (Donald Glover) mother and his uncle Willy (Katt Williams) that pissed Earn off so much? And one of the show’s biggest mysteries, first posed in the pilot: what facilitated Earn’s exit from Princeton University prior to the start of the series? The latter has loomed over Atlanta, shaping the perception of Earn and his actions from the moment Alfred asks the question himself in that first episode. At long last, in Atlanta’s fourth and final season we get the answer to a question some viewers probably forgot about by now, but it’s hardly inconsequential, offering new insight into who Earn was when the show began and who he’s become.

The first two seasons of Atlanta depicted Earn as an Ivy League washout, an unreliable provider, and at times an incompetent manager. Season 3 made it evident that he’d become quite good at his job, and was now supporting his daughter, Lottie, financially. Season 4 presents Earn’s success more tangibly, from the way he dresses, to the Audi he’s seen driving and the condo he talks about redecorating. The second episode, “The Homeliest Little Horse,” also finds him trying to work through his issues with a therapist (Sullivan Jones), which is how the Princeton issue comes up. Now that Earn has “made it,” the university has asked him to participate in a panel discussion; he says he’ll only oblige if he’s given an honorary degree. This conversation leads to him finally revealing what happened before Atlanta began.

During his stint at Princeton, Earn met a fellow RA named Sasha who he quickly befriended. Earn secured an important job interview and asked his parents to borrow money to buy a suit, which Sasha offered to keep in her room, so he could have time to hang out with a crush and make the interview. When he texted Sasha to get the suit, she was unresponsive. With his interview just hours away, Earn panicked and used the master key to retrieve it from her room on his own. Sasha (who his therapist correctly intuits is white) deemed Earn’s actions an extreme invasion of her privacy and the rapidly escalating situation resulted in his expulsion. The dismissal cut the upward mobility he was striving for off at the knees, drastically altering the trajectory of his life. It also made him even more aware of how his Blackness could instantly be perceived as threatening, particularly inside halls of prestige. He held on to the resentment—towards Sasha and Princeton—because spite fueled his rise following an unceremonious exile back to Atlanta. Turning this stone over provides new context to Earn’s circumstances and motivations, but it also offers a window into his mistrust. And those trust issues are connected to a more tragic revelation: Earn was abused by a family member.

Donald Glover and Sullivan Jones in Atlanta.Courtesy of Guy D’Alema for FX Networks.

In another session, Earn explains that he decided to accept Princeton’s invitation, and make a family vacation out of it. Unfortunately, the trip turned into a nightmare before it even began, when an exceptionally unreasonable airport employee (who his therapist once again deduces is a white woman) who has a history of harassing Black travelers, goes to great lengths to prevent Earn from boarding the plane over the very minor infraction of a rumpled passport.

The episode’s secondary narrative focuses on a white woman named Lisa Mahn (Brooke Bloom) who’s contacted by a literary agent saying that he wants to find a publisher for her children’s book (which gives the episode its title.) She quits her job, pours her resources into the necessary illustrations, gets her edges laid, and puts on her best outfit for a public reading at a library that her agent arranged. It’s only once she attempts to flex her knowledge of FAA-approved documentation because she works “at the airport” that it becomes clear she’s the woman who harassed Earn. The whole ordeal was an elaborate ruse he orchestrated simply to humiliate her. Pathetically, he takes it a step further by hosting a “wrap party” for the scheme—when Alfred and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) arrive, they’re appalled at the effort Earn devoted to destroying someone who wronged him two months prior. (“I can’t tell if this is extreme, extreme pettiness or terrorism,” Darius says).

Earn has always been Atlanta’s most inscrutable character. The root of his dead-eyed, depressed haze was never perfectly clear, but it’s assumed that Princeton played a factor because of how it’s referenced—even vaguely. “The Homeliest Little Horse” shows that, all along, it was a simmering bitterness which has been weaponized now that he’s done better for himself on his own terms than he likely would have done with a degree from Princeton. In season 2’s “Money Bag Shawty,” he admits that he’s tired of being stunted on and wishes to stunt on those who belittle him before enduring a cycle of disrespect throughout the episode. Now he wields his economic power against those with less whenever he feels threatened or inconvenienced based on past trauma. Lisa ruined his vacation; he ruined her life. Instead of utilizing the tools he learned in therapy to deal with situations like the airport fiasco, he retreated to spite and money—two of his biggest motivators. Like Willy told him in season 2’s “Alligator Man”: “If you don’t wanna end up like me, get rid of that ‘chip on your shoulder’ shit. It’s not worth the time.”

Earn’s self-satisfying retaliation exposes the fallacy of success-as-revenge logic. Going to great ends to exact revenge shrinks your accomplishments down to rebuttals aimed at people who are undeserving of the energy. Glover didn’t write this episode, but the ever-meta Atlanta is well-aware of how its notoriously sensitive creator is viewed. “The Homeliest Little Horse” feels like it’s in conversation with Glover’s past attempts to wrangle with the concept of vengeance. “Revenge is for the weak, so I have settled my vendettas,” he, as Childish Gambino, said on 2010’s “Fuck It All.” Earn looks embarrassingly vindictive by the end of one of Glover’s best performances. Here, that poker face gives way to unresolved anger, repressed pain, and sociopathic glee as Atlanta fills in a big gap regarding his past.

Atlanta has always zoomed in on the notion of success, especially the dark side of it. By finally explaining why Earn left Princeton Atlanta sheds new light on how success enables his worst impulses. It’s an unexpected development—considering the series’ usual disinterest in conventional narratives—that connects several dots about the most difficult character to read. Atlanta may circle back and answer other lingering questions on its way out, but viewers shouldn’t hold their breath. If nothing else, Atlanta has proven to be both aware of and totally unconcerned with its audience’s expectations.

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