From Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” to the HBO limited series Watchmen — which features a police-enforced special reparations program for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre — the concept of reparations for slavery and racial violence has become increasingly mainstream, inspiring political, artistic, and intellectual work across the spectrum of beliefs. With yet another stand-alone installment in the series, Atlanta throws its hat in the reparations ring and sets out to wrestle the topic’s enormous and amorphous implications with satire. In episode four of this season, “Big Payback,” what begins as the mundane story of a white man named Marshall Johnson, an NPR listener with a stable corporate job, turns into a tale about slavery, reparations, and historical memory.
On a day like any other, Marshall picks up his food from a local coffee shop as a podcast plays in his ears. When a Black man in front of him is told to get back in line, Marshall initially hesitates to go forward when the cashier beckons him. “It’s whatever,” the man tells him, shrugging off the dismissal. Taking him at his word, Marshall reaps his unearned favor, leaving the cafe with his treats in hand. As he drives off, his car is followed by a blue car from which he is silently surveilled. After picking up his daughter Katie from his wife’s home (they’re separated!), Marshall drives her to school as the details of a legal case are discussed over the radio.
As the story goes, a wealthy Tesla investor named Josh Beckford has been sued by a Black man’ whose ancestors were enslaved by Beckford’s ancestors. Arguing the generational wealth which facilitated Beckford’s contemporary investments was born of slavery, the Black plaintiff is granted a hefty payout.
At work, the news of the Tesla reparations trial has all of Marshall’s white coworkers in a tizzy. The company that employs Marshall may also be liable to pay a settlement due to its ties to slavery and may have to lay off employees, putting the entire office on edge. A white guy on the elevator turns to Marshall and mentions the “unfair” case and how the Black man is now “set for life” following the billionaire’s settlement. Marshall doesn’t share his sense of injustice and notes that the investor in question is rich enough to bounce back from the ordeal. When he arrives at his desk, his white cubicle neighbor informs him that the Tesla case has set a precedent for personal litigation and encourages him to look up his ancestry and family ties online. “It’s scary,” she tells him. When she notes that the few Black employees at the office are free from such anxieties, she scoffs. “Lucky them. Not a care in the world,” she says. Again, Marshall is unphased, and his coworker challenges his blissful ignorance about his ancestral history. Marshall misunderstands the scope of the biological and historical mapping taking place: If anyone related to him has established their roots online, he is already available for implication, whether he elected to be or not.
All the signs are there, but Marshall is steadfast in his confidence that this legal watershed moment will not stain him. Having already dismissed the white panic of his white peers and declined several calls from an unknown number, denial becomes second nature to Marshall. He picks Katie up from school, and on the drive home, she asks, “Are we racist?” herself having been confronted by the tensions rising throughout the country. Katie is unconvinced by her father’s efforts at deflection.
Marshall and Katie eat dinner when the ugly truth appears at his door. After a white process server hands him legal documents and leaves, a Black woman named Shaniqua actively live-streams the confrontation. “My name is Shaniqua Johnson of the St. Louis Johnsons; your family owned my great grandmother and [grand]father for twelve years; you owe me money,” she tells him. While surveying his home and noting all the nice things in his possession, Shaniqua informs him that he owes her $3 million dollars in restitution. “Your family’s got blood on its hands,” she asserts as Marshall pushes her out of his home and shuts the door aggressively. “Don’t slam my door,” Shaniqua yells from outside (LMAO!).
The next day, Shaniqua shows up at his job with a megaphone. “I’m not the Tesla guy, I don’t make that kind of money,” Marshall whines. Shaniqua asks what he makes in a year, and he refuses to provide the numbers. “I bet you it’s more than I do,” she says. But not every descendent of slave owners has to pay financially. Marshall learns that the Black family suing Tim from accounting instead opted for an agreement that he commits to acknowledging the history by wearing the shirt that reads “I owned slaves” twice a week. “I think he got off kind of easy,” Marshall’s cubicle neighbor says. Pulling aside Lester, one of the few Black men in the break room, Marshall asks for advice. “I’m just a guy trying to get by, and I feel like this woman is harassing me and ruining my life,” Marshall cries. “Look man, I grew up with Black women,” Lester says (Oh brother, where’s this going???). “The only thing you can do is say you were wrong and give her as much money as you can,” Lester explains (Let’s give it up for the Black woman whisperer!). Returning to his white bases for advice, Marshall resists Black insight, instead fielding white suggestions that capture and cosign his perspective. Whether they feel shameless or guilty, the white coworkers are united by their desire to center themselves as the ones aggrieved by historical grievance. “You gotta fight that shit, man,” one white guy tells him.
“Is it true?” Natalie asks him when he goes to pick up Katie. When Marshall suggests the same could happen to her, she rejects the premise because she is Peruvian and this would “never happen to her.” “You were white yesterday!” he shouts. (He should’ve told her not to get too cocky now cause we got Peru’s colonial tea, too!) Natalie tells him they must finalize the divorce to ensure that she doesn’t have to pay financially for his family’s sins. Shaniqua and friends stage a cookout in front of his apartment, and Marshall flees, finding a hotel where he can sleep and weep and lick his wounds.
In the hotel lobby, Marshall talks to a white man named Earnest, who is in “the same boat.” Those who recall the season’s first episode will remember him as the white man fishing in the haunted lake. His recurrence as a character who serves as a vehicle for the narrative is especially interesting considering he shares a name with the show’s Black protagonist, Earn. As Earn’s older, whiter, wiser (?) tethered, Earnest is more message than man. Just as he did in “Three Slaps,” when he informed a Black man about the drowned Black city beneath them, in this episode, Earnest muses on whiteness again, but this time to a fellow white man. Unlike Marshall, Earnest has embraced how reparations have remade his world. “Turns out [my grandad] had a lot of help and a lot of kids,” Earnest remarks, noting how the truth of the past chipped away at the lie of his family’s self-made status. “Maybe it’s only right,” he says, explaining to Marshall that a curse has been lifted. “Now we’re free,” he declares (Yes, because certainly, this is all about white freedom!).
Earnest then likens the position Marshall’s daughter is in, now being raised by a single mother and without financial security, to the position white people have placed Black people in (I nearly threw up listening to this part, I’m not gon lie!). The analogy he attempts to make here is a troubling one that imperils the episode with short-sightedness. How can centuries of gratuitous violence be atoned for in a single gesture or compared to the minor setbacks experienced by a singular white girl? Swallowed up by false equivalencies and exhausted by white freedom, Earnest shoots himself in the head before he can answer such a question. A Black bartender thinks aloud as Earnest bleeds out in the pool: “It’s more where that came from,” he says. Where the episode is concerned, this “more” only refers to how whiteness reckons with reparation. And in the end, the options appear to be suicide, resentment, or acceptance. Marshall chooses the latter and finds himself working as a waiter at an upscale restaurant where he has to serve tables of Black people and allocate 15% of his checks to a restitution tax for Shaniqua.
Though the episode comes to a close, it does not feel like closure. What it gets right is that debt is an intimate affair. To owe another is to be tied to them until one’s debts have been paid. When one incurs an unpayable debt, having run up a tab that defies the logic of calculation, haunting is bound to set in. The soul is repossessed. But what “The Big Payback” fails to grasp fully is what happens when debts are accrued without consent. This is an entirely different matter when one takes without even the performative courtesy of a contract. Under such circumstances, repair and repayment prove to be presumptuous. Lump sums of money and spectacles of white humiliation might satiate and soothe, but they do not secure liberation. Unintentionally, the episode exposes the limits of reparation without revolution. Atlanta sublimates Black precarity to fixate on white fragility and thus, forecloses a more complex exploration of the problems money cannot solve. Perhaps this would explain why its satirical engagement with Black characters is so secondary and sensational. To sit with Shaniqua’s character and the history that made her would unsettle the thought exercise. Marshall’s money may be in her hands, but her people’s blood remains on his.
A Reparations Mix for Shaniqua
• “Ghosts” by Ibeyi: “To them, slavery is not past,” Earnest tells Marshall.
• “Haunted” by Beyoncé: Speaking of Shaniqua like a ghost, Marshall cries that “she follows me everywhere. She won’t leave me alone.” Marshall can barely handle even a small dose of the historical haunting Shaniqua has always had to contend with.
• “Bitch Better Have My Money” by Rihanna: Explaining why reparations threaten to change the accountability game, Earnest tells Marshall that “now that history has a monetary value, confession is not absolution.”
• “I Owe You Nothing/Remember” by Seinabo Sey: Even though Shaniqua is not the first Black person in the episode to seek legal reparations via personal litigation, she is frequently characterized as an unreasonable woman whose unwillingness to settle for less than she is owed is racialized and disparaged by both Marshall and Lester alike. Shaniqua refuses to cower or coddle Marshall in the request for reparation. She won’t let calls for decorum disregard her grievances or her grandparents’ pain. She doesn’t owe Marshall such pleasantries.