The scene is shot almost like a cooking montage: drawers flying open, overhead shots of utensils and ingredients arranged on the table, flurried hands getting to work. First you add some flour, then a pinch of salt! Except instead of preparing a hearty home-cooked meal, Van (Zazie Beetz) is extracting urine from her baby daughter’s used diaper in order to cheat on a drug test at the elementary school where she works as a teacher. (Mondays, right?!)
Last night’s Atlanta gave us the first episode devoted entirely to Van, our protagonist Earn’s (Donald Glover) off-and-on-again ex: a glorious, harrowing half-hour that I like to think of as Van’s superhero origin story. After an interminable dinner with an old friend who patronizes her lifestyle, forces her to order an expensive meal she can’t afford, and then persuades her to smoke weed on a school night, Van wakes up to the horrifying realization that she is supposed to be drug tested at work.
Luckily, Van is a bona fide domestic goddess, and she isn’t going to get a little government-mandated piss testing get in her way. After a few moments of panic, our heroine realizes what she must do. To the triumphant strains of “Hit It and Quit It” by Funkadelic, she sets to work. She unwraps one diaper: Nope, it’s poopy. On to the next one: Bingo. She grabs a pair of scissors and slices open the diaper with the dexterity of a brain surgeon. Extracts the crystallized urine, first with a colander, then, more successfully, with a cheesecloth. Dons plastic gloves and a mask and boils the piss in a pot — Heisenberg by way of Ina Garten. Pours it into a bowl, funnels it into a condom, and then delicately tapes it to her leg. Van is ready to face the day.
This scene — this genuinely disgusting scene — spoke to me. Not because I’ve ever dissected a used diaper to extract its contents (although life is long, and who knows), but because I firmly believe that every woman has done something truly repulsive in a time of desperate need. It’s not often that we see these invisible acts of heroism displayed onscreen, but mark my words, behind every successful woman is a river of blood and piss and shit that she climbed through to get there. Maybe it’s fashioning a makeshift pad out of disintegrating toilet paper amid a tampon shortage, or reaching a hand into a toilet to retrieve a lost iPhone, or carting a poopy diaper around the streets of Manhattan because you’re late and there’s nowhere else to put it. Maybe it’s something worse, something involving a vaginal fur ball, something you might one day immortalize for xoJane. But we’ve all been there. Stuck between a rock and a gross place, you grit your teeth and you get your hands dirty, because that’s what you have to do to survive (as Van puts it: “I can’t lose my job because I am all that we have”).
Alas, all does not go as hoped with Van’s skillfully executed plan (resulting in yet another gross scene that I will spare you the details of). Still, she emerges with gritted teeth, her chin up, and the unflappable expression of a woman who just waded through piss to save her ass: We have no doubt that Van will survive this setback, just as she survived each one before.
Up until this episode (Donald Glover’s excellent directorial debut), we knew Van largely as a supporting character who shows up mainly to ruin Earn’s fun. Van supports him financially, does the bulk of the child care, and berates him for being a deadbeat (“Why are you always turning me into an angry black woman?” she asked in episode three). This is the first time we get a real window into Van’s life, her struggles and aspirations, and it deepens the texture of Atlanta’s rich narrative world. It also gives us a hero we can truly root for. While the next episode will likely return to the exploits of Earn and Paper Boi and Darius, floating through life in a sea of weed smoke and incompetence, we’ll always have Van, an unsung superhero in plainclothes, a gold medal–winner in the underappreciated sport of Getting Shit Done.