Strip clubs often have to strike a compromise. By law, some can serve alcohol if the dancers wear at least a G-string. Some clubs with completely nude can't legally serve alcohol. Such restrictions don't exist in Atlanta: At Magic City, patrons can buy drinks as dancers get “asshole naked,” as owner Lil Magic once put it. As a result, the city's best known strip clubs have become full-fledged tourist stops, and its hip-hop stars their cultural ambassadors. “It's just the fact that I can throw money on your ass, and she likes it,” says Magic City's DJ Esco, who has also produced for and toured with Future, in a GQ documentary.
By the time Donald Glover and Co. visit Onyx in the March 15 episode of Atlanta's return, billed Robbin' Season, the trip feels long overdue, particularly for a show about a rising rapper and his manager-cousin in the city. Making it rain has long been mainstream, but the FX show presents a more novel sight: average Atlanta residents, reckoning with what often gets treated as a national rite of passage.
Atlanta's calling card has been the incorporation of fantastical elements into its everydayness, like the existence of a black Justin Bieber. Yet its characters' constant debates over what they can and cannot afford grounds the show. “Welcome to Atlanta, man. All you need is some money,” Alfred, known as Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), tells his cousin Earn (Glover) in “Money Bag Shawty,” the strip club episode. But Earn knows that already. In the first season, he refuses even to consider an office security job, as suggested by Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his young child. From there, as Paper Boi's manager, Earn tries to sneak soda into a water cup at Zesto Drive-In. When he learns that the restaurant he chose for a date no longer does happy hour, he has Alfred wire him $20. He sleeps in a storage unit until Robbin' Season, when he gets kicked out.
In “Money Bag Shawty,” Earn finally receives a check large enough for Van to say, “You're gonna get us robbed.” She ends up being right, though that doesn't happen by way of stickup, as with the previous two episodes.) First, Earn tries to buy VIP movie tickets for The Fate of the Furious. Then, he and Van head to a hookah bar, despite Earn's complaints of hookah being “fruit-flavored smoke.” Both times he tries to pay with a $100 bill and gets rejected because of “racism,” in his words. (An older white man pays with a $100 bill once Earn and Van exit the theater line, while the hookah bar owner is convinced that Earn’s bill is counterfeit.) But he becomes desperate to spend it — to show that he has made it. After some decision fatigue, Earn and Van pick up their friends in a white stretch limo. They head to Onyx, the most distinct Atlanta landmark the show has featured since J.R. Crickets in Season 1.
Compared to Magic City, Onyx is a sprawling strip amusement park. It features mirrored walls and additional poles around the runway's perimeter, even by the restrooms. But patrons must pay so, so much to play. And unlike other pop culture depictions of Atlanta strip clubs, where money never seems a problem, Glover's show makes us painfully aware of the cost. An all-seeing DJ calls out Earn for not tipping a stripper he merely glances at. When Earn offers a few bills, the DJ demands more. This scene may as well be an homage to the loudmouthed DJ Nando: Before he died in 2014, Nando took residence at Magic City, Kamal's 21 and Onyx, boosting local artists like Migos while coercing superstars like Jeezy to spend another $5,000, $10,000, $20,000 more with their wings orders. (To get a sense of Nando’s technique, see Jeezy's former group U.S.D.A.'s “Throw This Money” video.)
That DJ, a $20 lap dance that lasts three seconds, the outrageous 20 percent transaction fee for single bills — all this is parody. Yet these gags will still feel true to those who've tried to go to Atlanta's brand name strip clubs and blend in with the regulars.
Lil Magic once described the aftermath of a good night as “the eaten bone of a hot wing on top of the money, or a stripper heel that is off. ... Plenty of bottles and empty cups, that's the American dream.” But Earn isn't Jeezy, Kanye West, Kevin Hart or Michael Jordan — the celebrities who've flocked to Atlanta strip clubs when they are in town. He isn't established enough in the local hip-hop industry to afford business meetings at these establishments. Earn is of a generation who is more likely to rent than own a home if they can scrape their way out of their parents' basement. He lives in Georgia as the state's income inequality continues to grow.
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Glover has said that he didn't even make his first trip to a strip club until he was in his 20s, when he broke his foot and postponed his first major tour as rapper Childish Gambino.
“I knew what it was,” he told Esquire, “and I also didn't have that type of money.”
This spring, Glover appears in Solo: A Star Wars Story as Lando Calrissian, before he embarks on his final tour as Childish Gambino this fall. Yet Atlanta captures how, no matter how close Earn or we can come to the action, typically Atlanta strip clubs can only be a vicarious thrill. For one more night, the American dream stays out of reach.
Atlanta airs on FX.