In another standalone episode, we meet a wealthy family whose caretaker has just died, leaving them to realize just how much she’s influenced their son.
This season of Atlanta has essentially been split into two shows – a standalone, anthology style format focusing heavily on the ins and outs and “what-ifs” of racism in America, mostly told from a white perspective (save for the first episode “Three Slaps”), and the portion that focuses on the exploits of Earn, Al, Darius, and Van while they’re on Al’s European tour. This episode (directed by Donald Glover and written by Jordan Temple), we return to the anthology format, where we meet oblivious white parents who’ve just found out their caretaker who’s from Trinidad and Tobago, Sylvia, has died. They get the news early in the episode, when after wondering why she hasn’t shown up to take their five-year-old son Sebastian to school, they get a call saying she’s never coming because she’s gone on to glory.
From the beginning, we see that the wealthy white parents had minimal involvement with little kindergartener, leaving the heavy lifting of child rearing to deceased Sylvia.
Not only do they skip out on family photo day, but Sylvia’s the one who walks the little one to class, rubs his back when he’s afraid, and introduces him to seasoned food, like the spicy curry mango he asks for after he complains that the food his mom ordered for him is bland. Curious, the dad tries the sauce and can’t at all handle the heat, while young Sebastian chows down on it without blinking, as he watches The Proud Family.
Distraught about how to handle telling Sebastian that Sylvia is dead, the dad finally ends up just blurting out the truth after a convoluted, confusing conversation about dinosaurs and extinction. At one point, the parents contemplate on how they’re going to find another caretaker, and after noting the huge influence Sylvia has had on their son (and how difficult it is to for them to understand Sylvia’s relatives), the mom says maybe next go around they should hire someone more “metropolitan.” Dad replies that it sounds expensive, and that Sylvia was much cheaper. Good grief. Meanwhile, little Sebastian still feels Sylvia’s spirit, so much so that he tells her goodnight while looking at what should’ve been an empty rocking chair.
Eventually, the parents decide that Sebastian probably needs to go to Sylvia’s funeral for closure, plus they want to return some of the clothes she’s left at their place to her family. At the funeral we get a lot of shenanigans. They meet a white man who looks to be in his 20s (a Chet Hanks knock-off) who was also cared for by Sylvia and has a thick Trinidadian accent, even though he’s not from there. They meet a family member who tries to finesse them into letting him take over Sylvia’s job. They see their son, Sebastian, is basically Sylvia’s kid— he’s completely at home in the church, singing along to the praise music and muttering “amens” along with the congregation just like a 70 year-old Black man. And, they find that Sylvia’s daughter is resentful of the fact that Sylvia spent her time raising white folks’ offspring while seemingly kind of neglecting her own kids (her son isn’t as upset, and says she was just doing what she had to do to provide). The daughter literally begins beating on Sylvia’s casket in her anger, at which point a family member hops up, pops open the casket, and tries to hop inside, and a fight breaks out between some family members, at which point the white family makes a break for it.
All the while, the white family has strangely been receiving the same package addressed to Sylvia at all times of the day and night. Following the funeral, there’s knocking at their door in the middle of the night, and once again, there’s the package left in the front of their door. Finally, the dad opens it— its pictures of Sylvia and Sebastian taken at his school’s family photo day, the one the parents were too busy to attend.
Although still indulging in the ghost theme of the season, this episode strayed completely from Atlanta’s typically eccentric, wry perspective into something else entirely. Out of all the episodes, “The Big Payback” included (previously the weakest of the season before this one), it felt the most unlike Atlanta, as if it’s not sure what exactly it wants to be. Next week, it thankfully looks like we’re back in Europe after we were left dangling when Earn wakes up alone in bed after spending the night with Van, who’s behavior this entire season has been a little unhinged.