NOTE: This is an episode review. Of course there are going to be spoilers.

Barber loyalty is a real thing. I’ve learned this the hard way, between waiting too long for a proper haircut and losing touch with folks who I could always count on for a job well done. And it was maybe inevitable that Atlanta Robbin’ Season would tap the black barbershop’s rich reservoir of content possibilities. Maybe a little too inevitable.

As the first episode this season to focus exclusively on Paper Boi, “Barbershop” is a reminder that Brian Tyree Henry is really good at character acting, and Paper Boi lives a life somewhere between heroic neighborhood superstar and uncannily humorous struggler. He plays the locally famous rapper very much the way Atlanta rappers really are, by removing the facade and remaining Alfred even as more people recognize him as Paper Boi. By doing so, he remains everybody’s cool-as-hell buddy who happens to sell weed but can be ready to fight or shoot at any moment, depending on the level of disrespect.

Acting as the show’s comic relief as he navigates the strange world of Atlanta, Alfred also gives things a bit of normalcy, particularly in situations where he interacts with others and must deal with their terribleness. His visit to Bibby the barber provides another example of how comically tragic things sometimes are.

Bibby is the prototypical black barber, portrayed spot-on by actor/writer Robert Powell. From his complete and total disregard for time (consider the hilarious amount of occasions Alfred had to shout, “Bibby, let’s GO!”), to his constant jaw-jacking to anyone in his immediate radius, he’s always talking his way into random hustles and out of responsibility, completely removed from anyone else’s experience. That’s even more obvious when he treats Alfred’s head like an armrest while talking to someone else on the phone instead of doing his job. He’s the barber we all know and love, and hate.

Why do barbers think we aren’t on a tight schedule when we make appointments? Why do they assume we want to watch whatever they’re watching on their phones if it’s going to cost us precious minutes of fade time? And how often have we black men had to sit for unreasonable amounts of time underneath a barber cape – the ultimate tease that says “Yes, you’re about to get your hair cut, but all times are approximate and subject to change, while I take this call in the backroom.” There’s plenty of truth to the fact that when your barber is good – even when he or she isn’t even busy – they always make you wait.

Aside from those of us who actually cut hair, the show makes a clever attempt at joking on this career freedom and the potential for randomness some barbers tend to have. And Bibby seems to have hustle involved in every step of his life. From what we can tell from their interaction, he’s probably having an affair with the mother of a kid whose hair he cuts on a house call, although he’s caught stealing money from her purse on his way out the door, telling the lady he has to leave quickly because someone’s “carburetor has jaundice.”

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He offers to get Zaxby’s for Alfred to make up for all the trouble so far (and Alfred makes a hilariously true statement about loving Zaxby’s after much complaining about being hungry), on the way to handle another errand at an unfinished suburban house. And yes, Atlantans do love Zaxby’s; I’m not sure if people know how much, so it was a nice touch of audience-relating when Alfred’s face gets super-serious at first mention of the chicken finger franchise.

But when they arrive, Bibby hands Alfred a box of likely spoiled leftovers out of a microwave, and the two are caught stealing lumber by the owner, so we’re back to the jankyness. They speed away after Bibby tells the “beige lady” he’s a contractor and her husband didn’t pay him, so he has to “reconfiscate” the wood, all of which happens while Alfred does his best to get back to the barbershop and away from Bibby. At this point, we can see where the entire episode is going, but it still feels like it could take one of those strange turns for the worst.

As a result, all throughout “Barbershop,” there’s an element of danger involved, and it feels as unsafe for Alfred as it did for Earn (who like Alfred is also on probation) when he was walking around with a golden pistol in his backpack, in Robbin’ Season’s first episode. At any moment, things could go very wrong and Alfred could end up in jail, but somehow things don’t get there. Not even when they hit the Asian lady because Bibby wouldn’t stop talking, stunting and seemingly avoiding eye contact with the road on purpose, after being warned several times by Alfred to watch where he’s going. And while they make it funny with the lady driver’s almost-never-ending moan after she’s hit and stands up outside her damaged car (and Bibby’s immediate decision to drive off, making it a hit-and-run), you’re reminded by Alfred that he’s carrying weed with the intention of selling it.

If this episode suffers from a bit of tedium, it’s because things stay relatively sane, even through Bibby’s facetious ridiculousness.

Bibby is somewhat redeemed (though only slightly) by the scene just before the crash, in which he catches his son and friends ditching school and chases them down. Without saying it, it feels like he’s trying to make sure his son stays focused, maybe to avoid his own circumstances. But he also asks if his son and friends have passed out any of the promotional flyers they were given, looking at the rolled up posters they have left and complaining that they barely made a dent. But even as his son rolls his eyes at his ridiculously frantic father, he remains respectful.

It’s a nice reminder that even when Atlanta has an episode that didn’t seem particularly unique to the show’s style (there could easily be a similar “Barbershop” episode on several of today’s mainly African-American TV shows), it still doesn’t go stereotypical. Bibby’s obviously a decent dad.

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He even tells Alfred he should be thankful for the opportunity to be a mentor, offering a smart-assed “You’re welcome” when Alfred is finally fed up enough to tell him his day was ruined by all these shenanigans, and he was supposed to be taking photos for a magazine shoot.

One standout moment of the episode was when Alfred is so exhausted by Bibby’s antics than he actually laughs as he threatens violence. He believes he’s so justified in beating his ass that it’s become funny, which makes it seem very trustworthy.

But one thing to remember is that through all of the nonsense, Bibby is a damn good barber. Alfred’s fade is tight. He’s got those pseudo-twists that you get from that foam brick thing barbers use, and there’s a diagonal part on top that’s precise without looking pretentious. And if you’ve ever had a bad haircut, you know there’s a lot you’ll put up with to avoid an unfortunate blend, edge or shape-up. I personally had one of my Bottom 5 haircuts in life back in December, all because my barber forgot to tell me he’d moved from the shop near my house in East Point to a new shop near Southlake Mall. I’d waited too late to hold off another day, and for my willingness to gamble on a new guy sitting in my guy’s old chair, I paid with what looked less like a hairstyle and more like a hat.

Atlanta’s a city of hustle, black entrepreneurship and the need to tamp down expectations at times and roll with the punches. Alfred takes lots of abuse in “Barbershop,” but even though he passes Bibby and picks a new guy at the end of the episode, you have a feeling that he’s going to eventually go back. He just wants to make a point (which he certainly does with that agro-teeth-sucking and icy stare from the other barber’s chair).

You can’t say he’s not justified in his decision, but with all they’ve been through, it seems likely we’ll see Bibby again, if for no other reason than pure loyalty. Just maybe not behind Alfred with clippers in his hand.

Rating: 4.2 out of 5

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