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Pop Culture Advent Calendar, Day 1: The Opening Shot Of 'Atlanta,' Episode Six

Zazie Beetz is Van in "Value," the sixth episode of <em>Atlanta</em>'s first season.
Zazie Beetz is Van in "Value," the sixth episode of <em>Atlanta</em>'s first season.

Once a day, for the next 25 days, we'll be highlighting a specific small, good thing that happened in popular culture this year. And we do mean small: a moment or image from a film or TV show, a panel from a comic, a brief exchange from a podcast, or a passage from a book.

We open on the back of a woman's head. Her long black hair is arranged in an ponytail. She is sitting in an upscale restaurant.

It's an elegantly composed shot, but it's showy in a way nothing in the previous five episodes in Atlanta's first season has been. But its placement, here at the opening of episode six, "Value," sends an important signal.

It tells us we're no longer looking at the world from inside the head of the show's main character, Earn (Donald Glover), a smart kid who's trying to get his life together. We'll instead spend the next 30 minutes with Van (Zazie Beetz), Earn's long-suffering ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child.

And that? Is very smart.

Until this episode, Van's been portrayed sensitively — we understand her frustration with Earn's underachieving, directionless ways — but thinly. Every time we see her, she's tired, impatient, sounding the same mildly exasperated note. Just that one note.

We began to suspect that the show didn't know what to do with her — that this smart, emotionally resonant show might, in its focus on the travails of Earn and his buddies, be content to portray Van as Nagging Mother #1.

But then, that ponytail. That restaurant. And that opening scene, in which Van has a frosty dinner with the ponytail's owner, her old friend Jayde, whose globetrotting lifestyle differs sharply from her own. Over the course of the night, the old bonds between the two women will stretch and contract and stretch again, Van will make a decision that impacts her teaching career, and all of it will take place in an episode in which Earn never puts in an appearance.

In his absence, Van transforms from a flat background character into a woman who's just as flawed, nuanced and achingly relatable as the rest of Atlanta's cast. Subsequent episodes will see the show continuing to riff on its format in various small, sly absurdist ways, but that opening shot, and everything that follows it, arrives at precisely the moment we needed it to.

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