Atlanta Recap: Season 3 Episode 4

Justin Bartha as Marshall in The Big Payback

Justin Bartha as Marshall in The Big Payback
photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

The last two episodes of Atlanta accompanied Earn, Al, Darius and Van on the first legs of a European tour. Episode four takes the action back to the titular city, away from the main foursome and into an unrelated story (same approach as the season opener “Three Slaps”). It’s hard not to feel a little cheated by these anthology-style episodes: Atlanta‘s main quartet is as well written and acted as any character on TV and I always want to spend more time with them. (I’m still having trouble coming to terms with the fact that season four will be the show’s last.) But this detour — a dark satire that explores systemic racism, the concept of redemption and the anti-CRT’s worst nightmares -Brigade laid bare – absolutely worth taking.

The episode begins with us following Marshall (guest star Justin Bartha) in line at a coffee shop. AirPods in place, he absentmindedly slips some cookies into his jacket pocket as he witnesses a confrontation between the cashier and a black customer. Marshall gets his coffee and walks away unscathed while the other man goes to the end of the line. Turns out Marshall is a separated father; As he drives his daughter to school, he hears a radio report about a black man who has successfully sued a Tesla investor because his ancestors enslaved the plaintiff’s ancestors. It’s a development that the anchor notes could have “far-reaching” implications, “particularly in America.” (By the way, there’s a lot of plot and spoilers following the episode, but it’s worth unpacking.)

At the office, Marshall’s staff express disbelief and concern at the story as layoffs are announced; his company is being sued for the same reason. His white colleague says she researches her family tree online — “everyone is” — and observed her black colleagues, “Lucky her — doesn’t care about the world.”

At home, Marshall is greeted at his front door by a black woman, Sheniqua Johnson (Melissa Youngblood)who is live streaming on her phone that Marshall’s ancestors enslaved hers, he owes her money, and she’s likely to take his house. She later shows up outside his office with a megaphone, demanding a payout.

It’s super heavy stuff, but it’s cleverly written and directed. Many moments in this script (by Francesca Sloane) would make Paddy Chayevsky proud, especially when Marshall seeks advice from a black colleague and his estranged wife doesn’t allow him to see their daughter because of his ancestral past. “I’m Peruvian,” she says. “It would never have happened to me!” Marshall protests, “You were white yesterday!” His wife replies that they have to make the divorce official because “my finances can’t be harmed.”

Banned to a hotel because Sheniqua and several fellow countrymen have been camping on the front lawn, Marshall turns on the television and sees a law firm commercial shot in classic ambulance-chaser style, urging everyone to collect their money. (It’s another moment worth having network.) In the lobby bar, Marshall meets a man (“Ernest” — homophonically the same as Donald Glover’s character, of course — “call me E”) who says he’s “in the same boat… you owe a lot.”

“Two days ago I had a good life and now I’m getting fucked by some shit I didn’t even do,” Marshall complains.

The lobby man (an intriguing Tobias Segal) reveals that he recently learned some truths about his own grandfather, a man who has always been sold as part of the ‘pulled himself out of his own boots’ myth: ‘It turns out , he had a lot of help – and a lot of children.”

“We didn’t deserve that,” says Marshall.

Image for article titled Atlanta takes on the anti-CRT crowd with a dark satire on reparations

photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

“What to do you E replies. For black men, he says, slavery is not over and has a monetary value that is increasing. But as white men, they will be fine. “We’re free,” he says, before stepping outside and shooting himself in the head. My first impression was that this was a misstep, an example of overdoing the dramatic batter. His monologue — with its premise that white men are privileged even when they’re down — was strong enough. But the end of the episode made him feel justified. Some people can endure certain truths, others cannot.

Finally, we see that Marshall works at a restaurant where 15 percent is from his paycheck goes to “refund taxes” paid to Sheniqua. In one poignant moment, we’re escorted through the kitchen, where almost everyone on the line is a person of color. Marshall is a waiter, of course, an acceptable face for the front desk, and the episode ends with him serving fancy dishes to a black party.

Hiro Murai’s direction is excellent as always: he knows how to land irony without hitting you over the head, and the performances are perfectly modulated. Segal is outstanding, and Bartha is very effective as the hangdog-everyone avatar, just allowing life to happen to him – trying to do the right things on the surface, but not too much to right the wrongs. This episode and “Three Slaps” are so dramatically rich that I would love to see the Glovers and Murai start their own anthology series, an updated one Twilight Zone. No need to brand it as sci-fi or horror. Modern life is just a step or two apart.

For a show billed as a comedy (for lack of a more appropriate genre), “Big Payback” isn’t a fun 30-plus minute, but it’s great television. Atlanta deals with the big, uncomfortable questions no one else would ask – namely, can we solve systemic racism and reconcile this country’s history with slavery when some don’t even acknowledge it – and this episode is worth to spend time with. Unfortunately, the people who need to deal with its issues the most won’t see it; they can afford to turn away.

Crazy observations

  • Another good moment: Marshall claims his background is “Austro-Hungarian…we were also enslaved” (to his colleague’s eye roll). But he is not interested in researching the truth about his ancestors.
  • E’s lobby bar monologue is exceptionally written. “We treat slavery as if it were a mystery buried in the past, something we can investigate if we choose. This story has monetary value. Confession is not absolution,” he says, and for blacks slavery is not over—it is “a cruel, inevitable spirit that haunts us in ways we cannot see.”
  • Episodes two and three of this season have been so whimsical and impactful that it keeps me thinking about where the main characters are – a happy/unfortunate consequence of watching a show that unwinds week-to-week and is unbelievable.
  • Writing in the first four episodes of Atlanta is better than I’ve seen in any drama this season. But it’s a roughly 30-minute show, so where are the scripts for “Three Slaps” and “The Big Payback” being submitted? Is there a way to diversify the Emmys’ rigid comedy-drama dichotomy (which has penalized some excellent but ambiguous 30-minute shows in recent years)?

https://www.avclub.com/atlanta-review-season-3-episode-4-the-big-payback-1848761087 Atlanta Recap: Season 3 Episode 4

Andrew Schnitker

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