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'Atlanta' Tackles Reparations in 'The Big Payback'

By Brian Richards | TV | April 10, 2022 |

By Brian Richards | TV | April 10, 2022 |


Previously on Atlanta: Earn, Paper Boi, Van, and Darius attend a party that is being held at the home of a reclusive billionaire named Fernando. Paper Boi soon ends up playing poker with Fernando and is not happy with how their game ends. An awkward conversation between Darius and an Asian woman named MK that he meets at the party results in a white partygoer names Socks (which is not spelled like S-O-X) eager to prove that he is an ally and that he does not tolerate racism of any kind. Earn is approached by a young painter/influencer named T.J. to become his manager and help invest in his ideas and his artwork despite the fact that his artwork isn’t particularly good. Van is just eager to enjoy her vacation, even if her behavior causes Earn to worry about her.

THE STORY SO FAR: A news report reveals that a high-ranking executive at Tesla was revealed to have had family that owned slaves, which resulted in said executive being sued for reparations by the family members of those slaves. It doesn’t take long before more and more white people find themselves being sued for reparations as well once their ancestors are revealed to have been slave owners. One of those white people? Marshall Johnson, who doesn’t take the news very well when he’s served with a lawsuit and told that he’s expected to pay up to $3 million in reparations to a Black woman named Sheniqua Johnson.

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT THIS EPISODE?: Marshall asking his co-worker Lester for advice on what to do about Sheniqua and her demand for reparations, and the scene immediately cutting to him asking his white co-workers for advice when it becomes clear that Marshall isn’t being told exactly what he wants to hear. Marshall insisting that his family background is Austro-Hungarian and how they were also slaves during the Byzantine Empire, that he couldn’t possibly have slave ownership in his family history, which only gets scoffed at by others whenever he says it. Ashley confronting her Black co-worker for not taking this more seriously by telling him “This affects all of us,” followed by his response, “No, it don’t, Ashley.” Marshall’s response to Natalie, his ex-wife, explaining to him that her being expected to pay reparations would never happen to her, as she’s Peruvian: “Peruvian?! You were white yesterday!”

(A clever touch in this episode pointed out by this Twitter user: When Marshall receives a text message from Natalie that they need to talk ASAP, she indicates the urgency of the conversation by using a dark-skinned emoji. But if you pay close attention to earlier text messages that she has sent him, you see that she uses white-skinned emojis, which is foreshadowing how Natalie is about to use her Peruvian heritage to distance herself even further from Marshall, and from other white people, in an attempt to avoid suffering the same fate as him.)

(I also couldn’t help but notice that two of the Black employees who work with Marshall are named Willie and Lester. If your knees sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies when you get up from your seat, those names probably evoked some memories of comedian/ventriloquist Willie Tyler and his puppet, Lester, who were quite popular back in the 1970s)

Sheniqua (who is holding an entire barbecue in front of Jason’s home with her family, and playing Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever” while doing so) spots Marshall pulling up to his home in his car and sends Jason running after Marshall like the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day when he does a U-turn and drives off. Marshall ending up in a hotel room where he switches the lights on and off like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, followed by him meeting another hotel guest named Earnest (no, not that one, and this Earnest is nicknamed “E”), a white man who explains to Marshall that what’s happening to him and to every other white person isn’t nearly as horrible or unfair as they’d like to think. The hotel employee’s response to Earnest’s suicide: “There’s more where that came from.” Marshall taking a look at Sheniqua’s Instagram page and watching a video as she cheers on the kids in her family as they ride their bikes and slowly realizing that there’s more to her than just her understandable anger about wanting to be compensated for her great-great grandparents’ suffering. The final scene that shows Marshall working as a waiter in a restaurant (whether this is his second job or his only job remains a mystery), bonding with his new co-workers, agreeing to pay fifteen percent from his paycheck for restitution fees, and the restaurant fully occupied by Black customers as if it’s Red Lobster on Mother’s Day, who are all happily enjoying their meals while their waiters provide service for them.

(The music accompanying this scene as well as the closing credits: “Les Fleurs” by Minnie Riperton, which was also played during the final scene and end credits of Us. Which is another story about how a large group of people who have been horribly mistreated for years decide to revolt and turn the entire country upside down in order to take back what they believe is rightfully theirs.)


HOW MANY F-BOMBS WERE THERE IN THIS EPISODE?: A couple, courtesy of Marshall as he rants in the hotel lounge about how unfair his life has become because of something that he didn’t even do, and from Ashley when her female colleague gets the results of her family history back and learns that she’s 100% Nordic.


ON A SCALE OF 1 TO “WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST WATCH?” HOW WEIRD AND TERRIFYING WAS THIS EPISODE?: I’d give this one a 7. Just seeing Marshall going about his day while being followed by a Ford Taurus with an unseen driver, and getting phone calls marked “UNKNOWN” that he refuses to answer, already had my stomach tied in a couple of knots before we even found out what the hell this was all about.


SOOOO…SHOULD WE BE WORRIED THAT HE’S SHOWING UP HERE AGAIN IN THIS EPISODE LIKE THIS? AND SINCE THE LAST EPISODE HE WAS IN WAS ALL A DREAM THAT EARN WAS HAVING, DOES IT MEAN THAT THIS EPISODE RIGHT HERE IS ANOTHER ONE OF EARN’S DREAMS?: This is Atlanta, and weird sh-t happening onscreen that should have the audience worried about what might happen next practically is the foundation on which this show is built, soooo … yes, and probably.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him reappear throughout the season to continue spitting knowledge to other characters when they need to hear it most, much like the homeless woman on Sons Of Anarchy. And not for nothing, Tobias Segal has done a fantastic job so far in both of his guest appearances on Atlanta.

ANY TIME-TRAVELING ALIENS IN THIS EPISODE?: Dustin would probably say yes, simply due to Earnest showing up, but no.

DID YOU READ DONALD GLOVER’S RECENT INTERVIEW WITH…UH, DONALD GLOVER?: Yes, I did. It wasn’t entirely bad, but it’s also easy to see why so many readers saw nothing more than Donald blowing smoke up his own ass, why they were also reminded of how…problematic Donald seems to be when it comes to Black women, and of Donald’s continuing fetishization of Asian women (the fact that Maya Erskine of Pen15 will now be appearing opposite Glover on Mr. & Mrs. Smith instead of Phoebe Waller-Bridge was seen as additional proof of that), and making them wonder why they were still paying attention to him or to Atlanta in the first place. (And also how increasingly tired some people seem to be of interviews in which celebrities are interviewed by other celebrities instead of by actual trained journalists who will dig deeper with their questions, push back against some of the answers to those questions, and not just stroke egos for the sake of publicity) Either way, Donald clearly wasn’t kidding when he tweeted this last week before his interview was published for the whole world to see.

I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE WHO WANTS TO KNOW THE REAL TRUTH BEHIND WHY PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE WALKED AWAY FROM MR. & MRS. SMITH, AND WHAT THESE “CREATIVE DIFFERENCES” WERE BETWEEN HER AND DONALD GLOVER, RIGHT?: Definitely not. I know that Donald says that he and Phoebe are still friends, but the two no longer working together on Mr. & Mrs. Smith has me feeling the same way I do about the alleged feud between Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi on the set of The Good Wife. The answers behind these beefs might not be totally earth-shaking, but I’d still like for someone to spill every last drop of tea so that the truth is finally revealed.

TO SUM IT ALL UP: None of us could’ve possibly expected Atlanta to do their own darker version of this classic skit from Chappelle’s Show (in which all Black people are suddenly awarded reparations), but that’s exactly what the show did. And because of how utterly surreal the show has always been, it’s a story decision that makes perfect sense, as we continue to see how unexpectedly weird and terrifying Atlanta can be for other people besides Earn, Paper Boi, Darius, and Van. In Marshall’s case, we see him coasting through life and enjoying the fruits that his white privilege bring, such as walking out of a coffee shop with madeleines that he accidentally forgot to pay for, and still eat them anyway without worry of being apprehended by police or security, and ignoring the game-changing news of white people being sued for reparations because he feels it doesn’t affect him directly. And it isn’t until Sheniqua arrives on his doorstep that Marshall is forced to confront the reality of his family’s (and this country’s) history, that it can’t and shouldn’t be ignored no matter he wants to do so, and that he can either choose to accept that, or keep living in denial until he ends up feeling even more angry and hopeless until he shares the exact same fate as “E.” The writing by Francesca Sloane is sharp, and the direction by Hiro Murai (who has helmed numerous episodes for the show) is as exceptional as always, but “The Big Payback” wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without Justin Bartha’s superb performance as Marshall. There have been some complaints about Atlanta seemingly becoming too much of an anthology series, and how it should focus more on what the main cast of characters are up to, but it’s hard to really complain about Atlanta choosing to go in such a direction when we end up getting episodes such as this one and “Three Slaps” as a result.

This episode of Atlanta has been brought to you by “Bitch Better Have My Money” by Rihanna:

“I Wanna Be Rich” by Calloway:

And “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron:

Atlanta recaps (Season 3)

Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 |