TV Review: Atlanta, 3×9, “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga”

It’s hard not to take this week’s Atlanta personally. One week away from the finale, and “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga” focuses on a mixed-race kid in high school named Aaron (played by vlogger Tyriq Withers). Granted, he’s far more light-skinned than I am (I don’t pass for white like he very easily can), but watching an episode focused on this young man being challenged on two different ends of the color spectrum and ultimately picking a side gave some familiar feelings. With that in mind, there’s a good amount of fun in the way writer/director Donald Glover sets up this episode to display a certain kind of prestige thanks to the black-and-white cinematography, only to undercut it with some wild jokes.

As noted in other reviews throughout this season, Atlanta has pushed hard on delving into whiteness. For an episode like this, while profound lessons and ideas are presented to the viewer, a lot of silliness is also displayed. Look at the central idea of ‘Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga.” Aaron is struggling to figure out how to afford college (the one his girlfriend and all his white friends plan to attend). At the same time, a former student turned billionaire, Robert Shay Lee (played by the recently deceased YouTube personality Kevin Samuels), has arrived, announcing he is not only having the high school named after him but will be paying the college tuitions for the senior class…the black seniors.

Obviously, the shock of the announcement is designed to provoke laughs. With that said, Atlanta has to find a way to ground this concept. Much like the extreme take on reparations seen in “The Big Payback,” there’s obviously a fantastical quality to the premise, but enough work is done to draw out this plot as a giant “what if” scenario. For Aaron, it means facing up to the things he’s largely ignored.

Early in the episode, there are a couple pieces of information thrown at us. While playing video games online, Aaron slams back at the people he’s playing against with very bigoted speech, to put it mildly. Before we realize he’s of mixed race (or it’s at least made bluntly clear), the episode wants us to have an impression of him. The next scene shows Aaron and his very clearly black father debating news heard over the radio surrounding a black man killed by the cops during a traffic stop. At this point, we are meant to understand that Aaron is not simply a hateful white boy from the South.

Still, the episode continues to push a certain impression of how Aaron’s life has gone. He has a white girlfriend and white friends. These are not impossible things for any kid to have, but you quickly understand how Aaron relates to his group. It’s uncomfortable to hear when they begin expressing displeasure about not being rewarded free tuition like the black students (even while being rooted in naïveté, as they’re still young kids). However, there’s a lot of interest on Aaron’s face, as he knows he has to see what he can do about being rewarded tuition. As he sees it, he’s part of a black family, so he’s earned a chance to make a case for himself.

What follows from there is nothing short of brilliant. Entering the school gym, which has been cleared out for the sake of dramatic lighting, Robert Shay Lee and his posse (a hilarious George Wallace and Anthony Daugherty) quiz all applicable students on their blackness. For Aaron, the montage we see consists of a variety of wild questions that I’m sure kept the writer’s room laughing all day. “Holy Lord or Holy Spirit?” “DQ or Popeye’s” “What Color are the napkins at Wendy’s” A barrage of questions allows Aaron to do his best. Still, whether or not these guys have been messing with him from the start, it’s no use for the young, light-skinned man.

When asked, “How long have you been coasting on your whiteness?” it may not seem fair to Aaron, but the episode is still digging into what makes someone authentically black. Is that fair? Well, Atlanta seems to certainly have thoughts on where the separation lies. Not unlike what some may argue, it comes down to culture. It’s for the same reason that Aaron and the African student, Felix, have a brief moment of bonding before they go after each other (in the episode’s other wild bit of absurdity). Placing the central characters in high school is important, as there’s a lack of understanding in them when it comes to the real world, but they are still old enough to begin experiencing how little things make a difference when people only see color.

Obviously, this episode delivers an exaggerated version of what it means to pick a side, as far as race is concerned. That’s at least part of why “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga” was shot in black and white. Still, Glover very much has opportunities in mind. He’s putting a lens on how someone can feel confident in a specific position until they’re not. At the same time, there are efforts to comedically show a perception of what comes with being a person of color who has had to deal with the effects of systemic racism.

Following a fiery detour that puts Aaron at his lowest, the episode checks in with him a year after graduating. He’s fully embraced the black side of his heritage. It’s done wildly over the top as we watch Aaron sporting a new hairdo (which he constantly brushes), a chain, ear studs, and a switch-up in his vernacular. When his now ex-girlfriend Kate stops by, she can’t help but be attracted to him. Aside from Glover closing on one of the funniest fourth-wall-break/freeze frames I can remember in recent times, one also asks what this episode is saying. Is there an implication that one side ends up winning out? Are we to judge Aaron for appropriating something he tried to distance himself from? These are terrific issues Atlanta wants us to wrestle with, given how this episode started.

For me, while there are aspects that are true to life, based on the population I grew up around, and the way certain attitudes can have an influence, I found so much of Aaron’s struggles to act as a twisted mirror as far as where the two of us differ. Obviously, this episode presents a unique situation, and the mixed audiences will have plenty to take away, but dammit if I couldn’t feel Glover trying to single me out this week. Well, challenge accepted, and I had plenty of fun watching this level of foolishness.

Bonus Tracks:

  • Originally this episode was going to be the season finale. This makes me very curious about what’s in store for the next episode and what’s to come of the European journey featuring our leads.
  • Stonewall Jackson High School will never be the same after the flamethrower incident.
  • Good casting of Aaron and his father, as the two share plenty of similarities, given their obvious differences.
  • Among what’s seen in his room, Aaron has a Logan Paul Comedy Tour jersey on his wall.
  • The agreement chants by George Wallace behind Robert Shay Lee as he gave his speech were hilarious.
  • “It’s a nuanced discussion” – Aaron figuring out if he could go into the gym featured some more fun bit of character work.
  • “Off-white” – I could listen to those guys going at Aaron all day.
  • “You look like Frankie Muniz” – Felix had jokes too.
  • “Getting shot by the cops is the blackest thing you can do.” – Yes, the episode’s third act became a bit cartoonish, but I still found plenty to laugh at.
  • Really wondering if the Black Panther 2 premiere will play a role next week or if that’s for next season.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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