For most of three seasons Atlanta has shown an impressive ability to leave viewers confused. The third season, which pulled the cast from the city’s red clay and dropped them in Europe, was the most confusing move yet from a show that routinely asks questions but never answers them outright, if at all. How successful is Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) now that his rap alter ego Paper Boi has taken off? What exactly happened between Earn’s (Donald Glover) mother and his uncle Willy (Katt Williams) that made Earn so angry? And one of the show’s biggest mysteries, first posed in the pilot: What made Earn drop out of Princeton University before the series began? This last one is left over Atlanta, shaping our understanding of Earn and his actions from the moment Alfred asks the question himself in this first episode. Finally in AtlantaIn the fourth and final season, we’ll get the answer to a question that some viewers probably already forgot, but it’s hardly insignificant, offering new insight into who Earn was at the start of the show and who he’s become.
The first two seasons Atlanta portrayed Earn as an Ivy League launderer, an unreliable provider, and at times an incompetent manager. Season 3 showed that he became quite good at his job and now financially supports his daughter Lottie. Season 4 showcases Earn’s success in a more tangible way, from the way he dresses to the Audi he’s seen driving to the apartment he talks about remodeling. Another episode, “The Homeliest Little Horse,” also finds him trying to work through his issues with a therapist (Sullivan Jones), so the Princeton issue comes up. Now that Earn has “got it,” the university has asked him to participate in a panel discussion; he says he will only oblige if he is given an honorary degree. This conversation leads to him finally revealing what happened earlier Atlanta began.
While at Princeton, Earn met a fellow RA named Sasha, whom he quickly befriended. Earn landed an important job interview and asked his parents to borrow money to buy a suit, which Sasha offered to leave in her room so he could have time to be in love and do the interview. When he texted Sasha to get the suit, he didn’t respond to Sasha. With his interview just hours away, Earn panicked and used the master key to get it out of his room himself. Sasha (whose therapist is white) saw Earn’s actions as an extreme invasion of privacy, and the rapidly escalating situation resulted in his expulsion. The firing cut the upward mobility he was striving for from the knees, drastically changing the trajectory of his life. This made him even more aware of how his dirt could be instantly perceived as threatening, especially in the halls of prestige. He resisted resentment—against Sasha and Princeton—because anger fueled his rise after his unceremonious exile back to Atlanta. Flipping this stone gives new context to Earn’s circumstances and motivations, but also opens a window into his mistrust. And those trust issues are connected to a more tragic revelation: Earn was abused by a family member.