So it’s fascinating just how distant the Atlanta creator has felt in Robbin’ Season. Doesn’t it seem like Earn’s been gone for half these episodes — only on Instagram in “Champagne Papi,” briefly spotted in “Teddy Perkins”? He directed the droll “Barbershop” episode, and was never on screen. Is Glover hiding himself in the spotlight? He’s the credited writer of “Teddy Perkins,” but the title role was credited to Teddy Perkins himself — actually an unrecognizable Glover, buried under makeup and Jacksonian allusion.
When we’ve actually seen Earn, his life’s been rough. Glover’s performance had trended recessive, inward-crawling. He’s failing as Paper Boi’s manager, not quite able to take cousin Al (Brian Tyree Henry) to the next level of rap stardom. He has problems spending money (except a strip club, which charged some money to spend more money). And there’s this running thing where he loses every contest he plays: outraced by Michael Vick, beaten down by Tracy (Khris Davis), that ambiguous downer result in the climactic ping-pong match to Van (Zazie Beetz).
The second-to-last episode of Robbin’ Season, “FUBU,” is about Earn. Glover directed the episode — but, once again, never appears on screen. Instead, it’s a flashback that doubles as a kind of Earn-and-Al origin story. Young Earn (Alkoya Brunson) is shopping with his mom (Myra Lucretia Taylor) at Marshall’s. The time is ’90s-ish — we hear Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” in the background, and we see flannel shirts baggier than any shirts will ever be again. Earn spots a yellow FUBU shirt on the bargain rack and begs his mom to buy it. Incident: incited.
At school, Earn’s shirt makes a big statement. Other boys give props. Some girls notice him, maybe for the first time. You feel that Earn, on the younger end of the student body, doesn’t quite have a defined role in school just yet. This FUBU shirt could make his name — or break it. A kid named Devin (Myles Truitt) has an almost identical shirt. Strong emphasis on almost: Devin’s shirt has more stripes, and an important-looking FUBU patch. And Devin’s dad bought it for him, and Devin’s dad is like 30, so you know Devin is always in dope clothes.
From there, “FUBU” is a ticking-clock episode, countdown to revelation. We figure out quick that Earn’s probably got the fake shirt, it’s coming undone in the armpit. Plus, bargain rack at Marshall’s? Brunson captures an infant version of grown-up Earn’s vibe: cheerfully optimistic until he’s paranoid, Charlie Brown-ish in his ability to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.
The episode was written by Stephen Glover, who layers Young Earn’s journey with grace notes and hilarity. There’s a long scene, mid-science class, where a girl keeps passing Earn notes. The first one is sweet, nostalgia-soaked: “Do You Like Erica, Yes/No?” The second is playful, plot-furthering: “Is your shirt fake, Yes/No.” The final note is tense, and hilarious: “Are you sure? Cuz Erica don’t like brokeass n—s.”
Elsewhere in school, young Al (Abraham Clinkscales) struts through school. Called to the principal’s office, he talks his way out of an accusation of calculator theft. During lunch break, we see him going through schoolmates’ lockers, grabbing a Rush Hour soundtrack album. He’s cool, you can tell. And he tries to give Earn some helpful advice. “People try to come at you, just deny it,” he tells his cousin. “Confidence is the key, aight?”
This is the Earn-Al dynamic in utero. (It’s striking that “FUBU” airs right after “North of the Border,” which could be the end of the Al and Earn relationship.) And “FUBU” is blessedly ambiguous as it portrays the surprising ways that Al helps Earn — and how that help has unexpected consequences.
When Earn is called out on his shirt’s fakeness, he’s rescued by Al, who declares that his cousin’s shirt is definitely real and Devin’s shirt definitely isn’t. The other kids accept this cool-kid alpha wisdom. Earn gets a girl’s number; Devin gets hounded to the bus, bullied by the older kids. Some days later, the kids find out that Devin killed himself. His parents were getting divorced; maybe there was more going on in his life, and maybe that whole FUBU thing was the last straw.
“FUBU” ends with Earn at home. His mom (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and his aunt (Diane Sellers) sit at the table, powerful figures, telling Earn he has to get dressed up for his piano lesson. I love how Earn’s mom makes a point of telling him, “You’re a black man in America” — empowering, since Earn looks barely 15, but also a challenge, a message to Earn that he needs to grow up fast.
Al’s in the corner, on a couch watching television. Earn goes to sit next to him, and the moms declare that they have to watch out for each other. We know that Al is pretty good at watching out for Earn — but at what cost? In “FUBU,” our main character learns a rough lesson early on. In life, if there’s a winner, there has to be a loser. His mom has already got him another FUBU shirt.
Is it real? Does it matter? The bleakest joke of “FUBU” comes down to manufacturing. Earn’s shirt is made in Bangladesh. Some know-it-all kid says that that’s wrong. The real FUBU is made somewhere else, he declares — for us, by China.
Is he right? As Young Al proves in this episode, “real” is whatever you say “real” is. Meanwhile, the possibility of knowing the truth proves elusive. “Let’s try to be more understanding of one another,” says a teacher after Devin’s suicide. Earn notices one of his classmates, Denisha (Kailyn Brianna Gainer). A few days ago, she had her head on her desk, tired, or depressed, or something worse. Now she’s smiling, happy to be in class, raising her hand to do the day’s reading. What changed? Earn doesn’t know, and we’ll never find out.