TV Review: Atlanta, 4×4, “Light Skinned-ed”

After a few surreal trips and more individually focused episodes, “Light Skinned-ed” is one of the more grounded episodes of Atlanta. Given the focus, there’s some intrigue as far as learning more about Earn and Al’s family, but those looking for some momentum in whatever narrative is being explored in this final season may feel like this is a bit of a stall. Of course, Atlanta has never been a show driven by plot. Still, while entertaining as I expect, with no Darius or Van to provide any support, “Light Skinned-ed” ends up feeling more like a well-put together diversion. It may add to the world of this show’s version of the city, but the themes explored feel more like checking in than a progression.

The episode kicks off in a manner that is pure setup for a pretty funny punchline. Earn has come to join his mom, Gloria, and Aunt Jeanie for Sunday church. His grandfather is also riding along. Upon getting dropped off, Gloria immediately speeds off with her father. It’s perplexing for Earn and Jeanie but allows for a good laugh.

I appreciated the foreshadowing seen in the church. As Earn and Jeanie are still figuring out what just happened, they watch what appears to be a performance art piece up at the front while the choir goes all out with their singing. The performers all appear in whiteface. Later on, Jeanie will accuse Gloria and Uncle Willie (a returning Katt Williams) of being the one who is shunned most due to being light-skinned.

Along with building scenes up to various funny moments, the core of the episode seems to be focusing on family ties, no matter the differences. However, there is something to be said about forging ahead to not recreate the same mistakes of the past. Donald Glover did not write or direct this week, but I wonder what he’s attempting to get out of this storyline. We’ve met Earn’s parents before, along with Willie, of course, but Michole Briana White’s Aunt Jeanie is a new addition who really wants to shake things up.

Best I can note is how colorism once again becomes a factor in what the characters are getting into. However, there’s only so much actually said on the topic. Granted, this episode is trying to imply a lot of family history through brief scenes of them together, whether on the phone or in person. With that in mind, in a brief moment between Earn and Al, the simple idea of not wanting to end up like their older relatives speaks a lot to where these two have come in this series. Now it’s just a matter of seeing where the series takes them in the next several episodes.

The other plot of this week’s show revolves around Earn’s father, Raleigh (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and it’s a long build to another significant moment. From what we can tell, Raleigh is a man who wants to have a purpose in his actions. He spends Sunday morning attempting to move through the mall on a schedule with the intention of buying a new phone (the one with the night vision). He’s distracted by the prospect of buying a new hat. Whether it’s a desire to feel younger or to seem as though he’s keeping up with the times, it all leads to a bout with a young bully.

Being put in an uncomfortable situation, Raleigh is forced to take an uncomfortable photo after being singled out for the hat he’s wearing. The sad thing is that Raleigh already knew the dangerous territory he was in after realizing he took too long to pick out a hat, so the mall was now overrun by young folk. Could they have been the same audience Raleigh thought he was emblemizing with a new stylish hat? It doesn’t matter now, as it leads to him internalizing anger that gets unleashed on a waiter later that day.

Despite providing something of an image of an older world being placed directly in front of Earn and Al to show them one possible outcome, I appreciate the respect Glover and the team are giving to their more senior supporting cast members. Taking time out to put a spotlight on Earn’s parents, as well as his insufferable aunt, means developing the leads in a different sort of way while letting good actors do their thing as well.

Perhaps a return to this episode, along with some others back in the previous seasons, can help “Light Skinned-ed” feel more of a piece with this series. I’m sure it has several elements I’m not quite connecting at this time. Regardless, there is still a thoroughly entertaining episode that happens to be pushing on a different beat compared to where we’ve been so far. Of course, Earn is all about figuring out where his life is going, so it’s always worth seeing what could lie ahead from close, older sources.

Bonus Tracks:

  • Katt Williams won a well-deserved Emmy for his work on Season 2’s “Alligator Man,” and it’s great to see him back this week, even for a short period of time. He’s hilarious throughout.
  • “How do you cheat at Uno?” – Paper Boi not having it during another day in the studio.
  • “The word ‘kid’ is in it.” – Willie debating the semantics of the word ‘kidnapping’ is pure gold.
  • The way the two have to escape the studio by not looking back at Jeanie, who continues ranting outside, was pretty genius and surprisingly tense.
  • That boy should have brought out the bread. The family was owed the bread no matter what.

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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