For the better part of three seasons, Atlanta has displayed an impressive knack for leaving viewers perplexed. The third season, which pulled the cast from the city’s red clay and dropped them in Europe, was the most confounding move to date from a show that routinely poses questions, only to never answer them explicitly if at all. Just how successful is Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) now that his rap alter ego, Paper Boi, has taken off? What, exactly, transpired between Earn’s (Donald Glover) mother and his uncle Willy (Katt Williams) that pissed Earn off so much? And one of the show’s biggest mysteries, first posed in the pilot: what facilitated Earn’s exit from Princeton University prior to the start of the series? The latter has loomed over Atlanta, shaping the perception of Earn and his actions from the moment Alfred asks the question himself in that first episode. At long last, in Atlanta’s fourth and final season we get the answer to a question some viewers probably forgot about by now, but it’s hardly inconsequential, offering new insight into who Earn was when the show began and who he’s become.
The first two seasons of Atlanta depicted Earn as an Ivy League washout, an unreliable provider, and at times an incompetent manager. Season 3 made it evident that he’d become quite good at his job, and was now supporting his daughter, Lottie, financially. Season 4 presents Earn’s success more tangibly, from the way he dresses, to the Audi he’s seen driving and the condo he talks about redecorating. The second episode, “The Homeliest Little Horse,” also finds him trying to work through his issues with a therapist (Sullivan Jones), which is how the Princeton issue comes up. Now that Earn has “made it,” the university has asked him to participate in a panel discussion; he says he’ll only oblige if he’s given an honorary degree. This conversation leads to him finally revealing what happened before Atlanta began.
During his stint at Princeton, Earn met a fellow RA named Sasha who he quickly befriended. Earn secured an important job interview and asked his parents to borrow money to buy a suit, which Sasha offered to keep in her room, so he could have time to hang out with a crush and make the interview. When he texted Sasha to get the suit, she was unresponsive. With his interview just hours away, Earn panicked and used the master key to retrieve it from her room on his own. Sasha (who his therapist correctly intuits is white) deemed Earn’s actions an extreme invasion of her privacy and the rapidly escalating situation resulted in his expulsion. The dismissal cut the upward mobility he was striving for off at the knees, drastically altering the trajectory of his life. It also made him even more aware of how his Blackness could instantly be perceived as threatening, particularly inside halls of prestige. He held on to the resentment—towards Sasha and Princeton—because spite fueled his rise following an unceremonious exile back to Atlanta. Turning this stone over provides new context to Earn’s circumstances and motivations, but it also offers a window into his mistrust. And those trust issues are connected to a more tragic revelation: Earn was abused by a family member.