'Atlanta' S3E4 "The Big Payback" Recap

By Jacinta Howard

On the previous episode of Atlanta, we were left wondering what’s up with Van, and our curiosity will have to wait because once again, the series has broken away from its four stars (Earn, Al, Darius, and Van) in favor of another one-off story. 

While the season opener “Three Slaps,” employed the same tactic, and didn’t feature any of the show’s stars (save for Earn in the final seconds), it was smartly dark and sometimes funny, a memorable, award-worthy entry to the series.  “The Big Payback,” written by Francesca Sloane, while aiming for ambitious, felt a little too obvious and forced. 

The episode opens with us back in Atlanta at the popular coffee shop, Dancing Goats. We see a white man, who we later find out is named Marshall Johnson (Justin Bartha), waiting in line for his turn to order while he listens to NPR’s “RadioLab.”  He’s an average white guy – he works at a boring job that he tolerates, is estranged from his wife, is currently sharing duties parenting his daughter, Kate, and gets to skip the line at the coffee house just for being a white man. He also gets to accidentally steal cookies because, you know, white men don’t steal and if they do, it’s never on purpose! Early throughout the episode we see Marshall being followed by a mysterious blue Ford, adding an air of creepiness to the story. On the radio, we learn that a Black family has just won a lawsuit agaisnt the owner of Tesla, whose family owned slaves, and that the owner must now pay the family millions of dollars. This obviously is lightly related to the real-life story of Elon Musk, whose family was linked to South African apartheid.

Marshall isn’t that worried, after all, the owner of Tesla is rich, and it doesn’t really matter to him because he can afford it. But maybe he should be worried because when he arrives home (after still being followed by the blue Ford), he gets a knock at the door, interrupting his dinner with his daughter. He gets to the door, only to find out that he’s being served a lawsuit, and a few seconds later, out pops a Black woman named Sheniqua Johnson (Melissa Youngblood), claiming his family owned her great-great grandparents, and now Marshall owes her $3 million. She pushes her way into a flabbergasted Marshall’s house, and declares it’s her house now, as she live streams the entire event. After finally threatening to call the police, he gets Sheniqua to leave but not before she points out that the police are on her side. The next day at work, the few Black workers are absent, assumedly off celebrating their reparations come up, and Marshall is worried. He tries to let himself off the hook because he’s of Austro-Hungarian descent, and Austro-Hungarians were slaves of the Byzantine empire, which is laughed off by a co-worker who’s escaped the reparations fate because her DNA proves she’s mostly Ashkenazi Jewish. 

As the episode continues, we see Marshall’s life unravel — his wife wants to make their divorce official because she can’t bear the financial burden brought on by Marshall’s slave owning family. When a bewildered Marshall says it could’ve happened to her, she scoffs at the notion because she’s Peruvian.

At one point, we see Marshall at his job (which is laying off most of the staff because the owner of the company was caught up in the reparations lawsuits), turning to one of the few Black co-workers left for advice. The man tells Marshall all he really has to do is apologize to Sheniqua, offer to give her what he has, and take his dressing down from her, but before he’s done talking, the camera cuts to Marshall seeking advice from his white co-workers, showing he really didn’t want to hear from his Black co-worker after all. 

By the end of the episode, we see Marshall’s checked into a hotel, because he was run off from his apartment by Sheniqua and her family, who are barbecuing and partying in front of his door. He heads to the lobby to drown his sorrows in a drink when he runs into Ernest (named for our show’s star, Earn?), the creepy white fisherman from the “Three Slaps” episode. It’s again obvious that “E,” as he likes to be called, is a ghost, sent here to school people about the illusion of whiteness and the racism that’s deeply embedded in American society and beyond. Marshall expects E, who implies he’s also lost everything in the reparations lawsuits, to sympathize. 

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

But E isn’t trying to hear it. Instead, he tells Marshall a story about how the things he was taught by his dad about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is basically a lie, that his dad had a lot of help and benefited from the systems in place that favored him. He explains that, basically, reparations are just leveling the playing field: 

He says that slavery isn’t in the past for Black people, it’s “a cruel, unavoidable ghost that haunts in a way we can’t see.”

E leaves Marshall to think about the wisdom he’s just doled out, while he heads outside to the pool area to smoke and then blow his brains out. While the white patrons rush to the window in shock, the Black waiter is completely unaffected:

By the end of the episode we see that Marshall has taken a job as a waiter at a restaurant. The staff is diverse, and he seems pretty content to dole out his 15 percent in reparations taxes. As he heads with his plates into the dining area, we see the restaurant is nearly all Black, while the wait staff is all white, in what is supposedly a glaring role reversal. 

The only thing is, in Atlanta, that isn’t really a role reversal. Pulling up on an upscale restaurant and seeing a dining room full of Black folks isn’t rare. And while the episode’s points about institutionalized racism and the way it shapes everyday Black lives are well-intentioned, as is the point it’s making about the validity of reparations, it felt off the mark in its obvious delivery. It would’ve been far more interesting to play with the idea of Black people finally getting long overdue reparations in a way that more honestly depicts how reparations would be doled out (it would not be in the form of an individual white person’s tax), and examine how white society interacted with that reality.