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ATLANTA actors (L-R) DONALD GLOVER, BRIAN TYREE HENRY and LAKEITH STANFIELD
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'Atlanta' S3E5 "Cancer Attack" Recap

'Atlanta' S3E5 "Cancer Attack" Recap

Earn, Darius, Paper Boi, and Socks go on an intense, winding quest to get Paper Boi’s phone back from a superfan after a show; while Earn tries to find Van.

Spoilers ahead.

After last week’s anthology style episode about reparations, we’re back on the road with the guys, this time in Budapest, where Paper Boi has a show at a venue that Darius is convinced is haunted. This falls in line with the ghost theme that’s been cleverly weaved into every episode this season, including this one (written by Jamal Olori), which is probably the eeriest and one of the strongest of an already stellar season. 

Early on, we see that Darius has an original blueprint of the building, and even though he wants to go exploring because he smells “adventure,” of course, nobody is interested in doing that with him. As Darius and Paper Boi hang out backstage, we find that Socks Not Sox, from episode 4’s decoy mansion party is still hanging with them, laughing and joking with Darius like he’s settled in as part of the crew. He suggests heading to the strip club after the show, which Al and Darius mockingly laugh off, since European strip clubs are apparently not fun at all.  

Meanwhile, Earn is refreshingly in top form performing his manager duties, asking if the crew working the venue “has eyes” on various folks, while hustling around backstage to organize the show. He pauses to text Van, who we find out he hasn’t seen in six days, ever since they accidentally forgot her at the decoy mansion party they hastily left back in London. We saw in the credits of episode 3 that she ignored Earn’s too-late text, and apparently, has been M.I.A. ever since. “It’s been six days. Are you good?” Earn texts, clearly bothered that he hasn’t heard from her, especially since he was already worried about her well-being. (But not worried enough to not forget her at the party it seems). 

Anyway, he stuffs his phone back into his pocket and gets to work, bringing a young kid who’s sick with cancer and his parents backstage to meet a congenial Paper Boi, and then hustling them back out 30 minutes before his show begins.

In the few minutes of downtime, Al checks in with Earn, who’s busy typing on his phone, asking how he’s been. Earn distractedly answers he’s good. Al points out he seems busy all the time, and Earn agrees but says that “busy is good” before answering his earpiece, and hustling out of the room again, leaving Al alone, obviously preoccupied with his thoughts. 

Backstage, Paper Boi is ready to go on, and as Darius hilariously hypes him up with a prayer of sorts and some barks and other noises, we see a young brown-haired dude in a blue jacket on stage, randomly cheering on the crowd who’s chanting “Paper Boi.” Earn frowns over at Al, before yelling at guy to “get the fuck off the stage,” which he does. Al wonders who the guys was, and Earn says they’ll deal with it after show as Al heads out to rock for his screaming fans while Darius hilariously dances along behind the curtain.

After the show, which Paper Boi kills (so much so Earn is already thinking about booking Budapest again for the next tour), he realizes he’s lost his phone. He’s panicked about it, and at Earn’s urging, they run through who’s been backstage and could’ve possibly taken it. They figure out that the last time they saw it, Al was doing the meet-and-greet with the kid with cancer and his family.  Earn is immediately suspicious, but Al dismisses the idea that the kid took it. Darius, however, points out the kid is a fan who probably thinks it’d be cool to have his favorite celebrity’s phone, while Socks Not Sox agrees. Earn uses his earpiece to ask the staff if anyone’s seen the kid, and is told he’s being rushed out of the building by the paramedics because he had a “cancer attack.” Earn frowns, muttering a “hell nah” and rushes out to find the kid, despite Al’s calls to wait a minute. Earn finds the kid who’s being wheeled out on a gurney but gallantly lifts his little head, down to do whatever Paper Boi needs. As a small crowd watches, Earn proceeds to the gurney and pats the poor kid down, searching for the phone, before the kid’s dad pushes him away. The crowd boos and Earn practically runs away, probably feeling bad for patting down a kid who’s just had a cancer attack. 

He returns backstage and tells everyone it wasn’t the kid, and asks Al about iCloud. He says nope, and it’s not backed up either because he’s been listening to Conspiracy Jones aka Darius, who says “they’re watching.” Al says it’s not so much about the phone itself, but what was on the phone that has him so pressed. Socks Not Sox throws out that maybe the thief is the “runner guy” in the blue jacket, the one who was on stage. Light bulbs blink, and the guys are convinced he’s the answer to the missing phone. 

Earn heads to the back office to find the stage manager, who it turns out is the owner of the venue’s nephew, Wiley, and doesn’t really work there but was applying for a job earlier. The owner claims that he doesn’t have Wiley’s number, and an ever industrious Earn rolls his eyes and snatches the guy’s resume off the desk when the owner isn’t looking. The guys gather around as Earn makes the phone call to try to trick Wiley into meeting them so they can get the phone back. He tells Wiley they first met at Paper Boi’s show, “You mean the rap presentation?” Wiley weirdly asks. Earn says sure, and does he want to meet somewhere and hang out with Paper Boi? Wiley is understandably skeptical when Socks Not Sox, who is clearly a lunatic, completely flips out and grabs the phone, screaming that if the guy doesn’t bring the phone back, he’s going to hunt him down because he’s the “white Liam Neeson” and also threatens to kill him. Earn, Al, and Darius are all like what the hell, and Al snatches the phone back. He calmly tries to talk Wiley into meeting him but gets hung up on. Earn flips on Socks Not Sox, asking what the rest of us are thinking:

“The white Liam Neeson?” Al chimes in: “Fucking Liam Neeson’s already fucking white!”

Darius, Al, and Socks Not Sox are dejectedly smoking a blunt outside when Earn runs up and tells them lo and behold, Wiley actually came back. They rush inside, but Earn wisely tells Socks Not Sox to stay outside the room while they go in and try to coax Wiley into giving Al his phone back. A nervous, unassuming Wiley (played fantastically by Samuel Blenkin) greets them with a stammering hello and asks how they’re enjoying Budapest. Earn doesn’t have time to chit chat and gets straight to the point, asking Wiley if he saw a phone backstage earlier. Wiley says no, he didn’t find a phone. Earn sits down and asks Wiley why he was backstage, and why he even came back. Wiley says he was waiting for his interview, and he came back because he thought about it and he really wanted to meet Paper Boi because he’s a longtime admirer of his. Earn explains they have an early flight and if Wiley knows anything about the phone, it’d be helpful if he just went ahead and told them.  Wiley asks if there’s something special about the phone, and if that’s why they said they were going to kill him. Earn uncomfortably laughs and says no one is going to kill him, that no one is going to die. Wiley looks at him and says, “We all have to die sometime, you know that? Maybe my end should come at the hands of Paper Boi.” and boy, Samuel Blenkin is playing this role with the perfect amount of vulnerable creepiness. Wiley says it’s funny meeting him like this and that he feels like he’s dreaming. He asks Al what he dreams of, “box top Chevys or kissing a thorn on a rose?” Al stares at him, before telling Earn they need to go outside and talk. 

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Earn says that was strange. Al looks serious when he says that a box-top Chevy was his dream car in high school and that he used to date a girl in high school named Rose who his boy slept with. Earn wonders how Wiley knew about any of that, and Al says he rapped about it in some of his early work but he never released it, it was just on his phone. They head back inside, after deciding to play good cop, bad cop (guess who took which role). They sit down with Wiley and Earn begins trying to coax him into giving the phone back, suggesting maybe he took it by accident. Wiley, however, points out that Earn doesn’t talk in the same southern accent as Al, and wonders if he was told as a child that he talks white, and that it must’ve made him feel separate. “I think it’s interesting when people aren’t allowed in the group… the universal group,” Wiley says. “People just want to be seen. It doesn’t matter what for,” before asking for a cigarette. Earn is clearly thrown off, especially when Wiley starts coughing because he doesn’t even smoke, which sets Al off. He jumps up to punch Wiley but is stopped by Darius as Wiley says he wants his one phone call, like he’s in jail. Earn tells him as much but then Wiley tells them he doesn’t have a phone and could they call a number for him? The 4-0-4 number he lists turns out to be Al’s, and Al snaps, shaking Wiley until he farts in nervousness. “You’re interrogating a 19 year old!” Wiley’s uncle who everyone forgot was even there, insists. Wiley corrects him, he’s actually 32. 

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The group heads out of the office to strategize once more, and find out from the venue owner that he hasn’t even seen Wiley in over 15 years. Earn suggests they just try to get Wiley to confess and try to record it. Back inside, they kick the uncle out, and sit down with Wiley, who somehow knows everything they’ve been planning – from their whole “good cop, bad cop” schtick to their decision to record him. Al tells Earn he wants to talk to Wiley alone. He confesses that he’s so anxious about the phone because it had a melody he’d recorded on it. It was a breakthrough because he hadn’t been able to write anything in seven months. “It’s like I don’t know what’s bad or good any more,” he explains, adding that he kinda feels trapped in his new rapper gig but it’s too late for him to do anything else. He says that tonight he finally heard “him,” his voice, and he was singing a melody, and he started singing with him. “If I don’t get it back now, I’m afraid I’m gonna lose it forever.” Al (Brian Tyree Henry is doing some incredible acting here) asks Wiley again if he took his phone, and Wiley responds by asking if he knows they share a birthday, April 28. 

At that moment, in walks Wiley’s uncle with a guitar. Wiley says a girl named Rosie broke his heart in eighth grade and then his mom moved him to Budapest in eighth grade and he was really lonely until he heard Paper Boi’s Postal mixtape. “I didn’t sympathize. I didn’t empathize. I felt the same.” He then starts playing the guitar as he sings a haunting, moving melody as Paper Boi stares at him, silently his face careful blank. The scene is so creepily moving, it’s hard to know what’s exactly happening. Is Wiley a ghost? Is he a ghost-like projection of Paper Boi’s consciousness? Is he singing the melody Paper Boi recorded earlier on his phone? Wiley finishes and thanks Paper Boi for seeing him, telling him he hopes he finds his phone. 

Dejected, the guys get ready to board the bus just as Earn gets a thumbs up text from Van. He sighs and climbs aboard as Socks Not Sox hovering just outside. He pulls Al’s phone from his pocket, flipping it over in his hands, before merrily heading to the dumpster and trashing it. He boards the bus, with everyone none the wiser as The Temprees’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” plays leaving us all with a lot of pressing questions: What is a cancer attack? How did Wiley know Al’s number when he never had the phone? How did Wiley know all of that private information about Al? Why hadn’t his uncle seen him in 15 years? And also, once again: what the heck is up with Van? 

Maybe we’ll get more answers next week.

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