A review of this week’s Atlanta, “The Big Payback,” coming up just as soon as I accidentally steal some madeleines…
After a couple of stories in a row following Earn and friends on their European escapades, Atlanta heads back home for another anthology-style episode. “The Big Payback” is very much in conversation with the season-opening “Three Slaps.” Not only does it bring back Tobias Segal as the white Earnest (who here explains that his friends just call him “E”), but its focus is on characters we haven’t seen before, and it’s a dark-comic horror story about institutionalized racism in America.
This one doesn’t work nearly as well as “Three Slaps,” though, and suggests there’s a limit to even this great show’s ability to do and be anything from one episode to the next. Usually, even when Atlanta is going off-format, it still in some way feels like Atlanta. This one, though, seemed more like a leftover installment of another FX show, BJ Novak’s clumsy social satire anthology The Premise.
Our main character this time out is Marshall Johnson, a perfectly average white guy with a perfectly average life. (He’s played by Justin Bartha, who specializes in playing perfectly average white guys.) He and wife Natalie are estranged, but their daughter Katie suggests Natalie is leaning towards a reconciliation. He has a secure but not especially thrilling corporate office job with a shrimp company. Everything is more or less fine, especially because he has the privilege of being white in America. In the episode’s opening scene, he waits in line at a coffee shop with a Radiolab episode in his AirPods, rendering him largely oblivious to what’s happening around him, including some kind of altercation between the barista and the Black man at the front of the line. Marshall is allowed to cut ahead of this other customer, and when he’s back at his car, he discovers that he absentmindedly pocketed some madeleines without paying for them. Of course nobody would suspect someone like him of shoplifting, and after a moment of pondering what to do, he simply drives off and begins eating the stolen cookies. It is not bad to be Marshall Johnson — or so he thinks.
Then the episode takes a turn towards speculative fiction, and the racial roles reverse. A Black plaintiff wins a reparations lawsuit against a slaveowner’s wealthy descendant (an early Tesla investor), establishing a legal precedent allowing anyone whose ancestor was a slave to file similar claims. Soon, Marshall discovers his company will have to do a round of layoffs to deal with the impact of another reparations suit. Then he finds himself being sued by a Black woman named Sheniqua Johnson, because his family once owned her great-great-grandfather for 12 years. His comfortable life quickly crumbles. Natalie not only no longer seems interested in reconciling, but doesn’t even want Marshall to be around their daughter, now that everyone thinks of him as a racist. And Sheniqua continues harassing him at both work and home, until finally he has to check into a hotel for a night just to find some peace.
“Three Slaps” generated some laughs from the smug obliviousness of the white foster moms, but for the most part treated Loquareeous as the victim of a genuinely dangerous and horrifying circumstance. Here, Marshall is presented as both the victim and the butt of the joke. There’s a long history of comedies with losers at the center. But in this case, Marshall is such a forgettably milquetoast character that almost none of the jokes land(*), and the show’s attempts to escalate the premise instead feel repetitive. It’s also more on-the-nose than Atlanta tends to be even at its most satiric. (The closest previous instance may be the segment in Season One’s “B.A.N.” about the young Black man who identifies as an older white man, but even that sketch’s attempt to conflate trans issues with racial ones felt more complex and layered than most of what happens here.)
(*) One notable exception: We see Marshall turning to his Black coworker Lester — one of the company’s few Black employees who didn’t immediately quit to enjoy a new reparations windfall — for advice on how to deal with Sheniqua. Lester plainly lays out what Marshall will need to do, which will include paying her off with whatever money he can afford, apologizing directly to her, and letting her cut him down verbally for his family’s offenses. But while Lester is in mid-sentence, the show hilariously cuts away to Marshall now turning to his white colleagues for advice, clearly having decided he didn’t want to hear the uncomfortable truths that Lester was trying to tell him.
At various points, “The Big Payback” revisits E’s suggestion from the “Three Slaps” cold open that whiteness as an identity can be acquired, lost, or even cast off under the right circumstances. One of Marshall’s coworkers is relieved to discover that her DNA is primarily Ashkenazi Jewish, because “we were slaves, too!” When Marshall attempts to claim similar ancestral victimhood from the period when the Austro-Hungarians were slaves of the Byzantine empire, she dismisses this as a million years ago, even though the Byzantines came long after the Old Testament days of Joseph and Moses. Even Natalie gets in on the action, attempting to claim a moral high ground over Marshall because her background is Peruvian. “You were white yesterday!” he replies, incredulous.
Eventually, E himself turns up in the lobby bar of the hotel where Marshall is staying to hide from Sheniqua. This time, he is less an actual ghost than a metaphorical one, presaging the future for men like Marshall, depending on how they choose to respond to this radical shift in the socioeconomic landscape. He implies he has also lost everything in one of these lawsuits, and it has forced him to recognize that a lot of what he was taught by his father about pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps isn’t exactly true — that the system provided built-in advantages for people who looked like him and disadvantages for people like Sheniqua. “We were treating slavery as if it were a mystery, buried in the past, something to investigate if we chose to,” he opines. “Now that history has a monetary value. Confession is not absolution.” After referring to America’s history of slavery as “a cruel, unavoidable ghost that haunts in a way we can’t see,” he assures Marshall that this turnabout is entirely fair play, and that kids like Katie will be better off freed from the guilt of their complicity in the system.
But then he excuses himself to blow his brains out by the hotel pool. Marshall is shocked, but a Black hotel employee takes it in stride, remarking, “There’s more where that came from.”
We then jump ahead to Marshall having accepted his fate: He may not believe he should have to pay for the sins of his ancestors that he did not choose, but Sheniqua’s ancestors didn’t choose to be made slaves, and this is just the way it works now. Instead of helping to market shrimp, he serves it as a waiter at a restaurant where most of the clientele is Black, and 15 percent of his paycheck goes to Sheniqua as a reparations tax. He seems at peace with it — Bartha plays this epilogue more relaxed than the character appears even before the reparations story kicks in — and the closing sequence makes a point of illustrating the ethnically diverse group of chefs, waiters, and busboys all working together easily in the kitchen. It is the vision of a multicultural melting pot that America so often sells to the world, but that we only occasionally achieve due to our ugly racial history and the various systemic inequities built on top of that. As E suggested earlier, Marshall has stopped running from it, and now he’s free.
It’s a hopeful and interesting note to end on, even if the episode as a whole plays as the rare unwelcome Atlanta detour. Hopefully, the next time Al and the others get the week off, the results will be more up to the incredibly high bar this series has set for itself.