The first scene in this week’s Atlanta focuses on a man we’ve never seen on the show before: Marshall (Justin Bartha), a guy waiting in line at a coffee shop, his AirPods blasting WNYC’s Radiolab directly into his brain. He’s listening to an episode called “Wild Talk,” about scientists who learn to better decipher the language of animals in the jungle or prairie by listening to them more critically.
But Marshall is not listening critically to his own environment — specifically, the Black man in front of him who’s having an intense conversation on his cell phone. The audio of the man remains soft and muted until Marshall removes one of his AirPods and realizes the clerk has asked this person to go to the back of the line. Marshall offers to have him go ahead and order his beverage, but the customer demurs. So without asking what happened, Marshall gets his coffee and, upon returning to his car, realizes he accidentally pocketed a bag of madeleines without paying for it. He could return it. Instead, he tears open the bag and bites into one of the cookies, pleased that the universe has given him an unexpected treat.
This is a small, almost banal scene, but like so much in “The Big Payback,” it is dense with details that illuminate the characters and broader themes that will be addressed in what turns out to be a scripted-TV case for reparations. This installment of Atlanta imagines a United States where the white descendants of slave owners are being sued, often successfully, by the Black descendants of those slaves, now seeking financial compensation for decades of suffering. Marshall, a white, separated, middle-aged dad, is one of the people whose life gets disrupted, in his case because a woman named Sheniqua (Melissa Youngblood) insists he owes her $3 million as restitution for her great-great-grandparents, who worked as slaves for Marshall’s great-great-grandfather. Sheniqua, who follows Marshall around, sometimes with a megaphone in hand, refuses to let him plug his ears and forget his responsibility.
As directed by Hiro Murai, making his 18th contribution to the series, and written by Francesca Sloane, who joined the Atlanta writers’ room for seasons three and four, “The Big Payback” dances between serious discussions of social justice, button-pushing satire, and evocations of horror that will scare the hell out of any white person who has railed against critical race theory without actually understanding what critical race theory is. At its core, it is about exactly what we witness in that coffee shop scene: the degree to which well-meaning but privileged white people like Marshall are able to block out racial injustices and just go on about their lives, as if the weight they carry were as light as everyone else’s. This is an episode about a man being jolted out of his bubble and forced to pay attention, and it in turn demands close attention from viewers.
When TV shows, especially half-hour comedies, address racial issues, they often do so in a simplified way that tells the audience how to digest what they’ve just watched. Even really good broadcast sitcoms designed to handle these topics, such as Black-ish, can sometimes draw pat conclusions in order to ensure that their audience — which, to be fair, includes children and families — takes away the right messages. But Atlanta stubbornly, admirably refuses to simplify or overexplain, particularly in this episode. Murai and Sloane infuse every detail and creative choice with multiple layers of pointed, deliberate significance that enable the audience to draw their own conclusions about what Atlanta is telling us here.
Like the season premiere, “Three Slaps,” this episode marks a slight detour from the usual. To an even greater extent than that opener, “The Big Payback” ignores the central Atlanta characters and their experiences traveling through Europe; the only principal character represented in this episode is the city of Atlanta, where Marshall’s story unfolds. But there are definitely connections between this chapter and the other stories we’ve seen this season that make clear “The Big Payback” is no random one-off.
Go back to the coffee shop scene, for example, and consider why the sound of other people’s voices being dampened sounds familiar. It’s a callback to the opening of “Three Slaps,” in which a white man tells his Black fishing companion about a self-governing Black town that was washed out of existence, leaving the souls of hundreds of Black people below the lake where they planted their boat. (As our recapper Jordan Taliha McDonald noted, this is an allusion to Georgia’s Lake Lanier.) “The thing about being white, it blinds you,” the white fisherman explains. “It’s easy to say the Black man is cursed because you have separated yourself from him.” Shortly thereafter, the audio of the white man’s voice is temporarily muted, as if someone is trying to make out what he’s saying from underwater or perhaps some other sunken place. The Black fisherman, who gets yanked into the lake, does not choose to mute his friend. Marshall, on the other hand, absolutely elects to drown out the voices of others. Being white not only blinds Marshall, it also allows him to turn a deaf ear.
This episode also builds on some of the ideas presented in the previous installment, “The Old Man and the Tree,” which followed Earn, Al, Darius, and Van into a London party thrown by a wealthy white man. That episode wrestles with, among other things, the ways in which white people control financial and power dynamics. Earn in particular realizes it’s in his best interest to negotiate a cut of the funding that a fledgling Black artist has finagled out of an investor rather than tell the rich white money man that he’s being conned. “White kids be scammin’ all the fucking time,” Al reminds him. “What the hell you think TikTok is? Shit, Black kids need to scam more.” The subtext of Al’s argument: The system has always been rigged against Black people, so Black people may as well try to make it work in their favor.
In “The Big Payback,” the system stops being rigged, and guys like Marshall — certain that he is not racist and that no one in his family could have ever owned slaves mainly because it’s easier to assume that — are under pressure to pay significant amounts of cash in the interest of leveling a socioeconomically biased playing field. Just as “Three Slaps” asks its audience to imagine how it feels to be a young Black boy shoved into an unfamiliar home where everything is weird and threatening, and episodes two and three of this season consider an odd and unexpectedly racist Europe through the eyes of Earn and his friends, “The Big Payback” explores how a comfortable white man deals with a suddenly uncomfortable world where he is targeted, cast out, and blamed for everything that’s wrong with society. Those previous episodes establish how much empathy we, as viewers, naturally have for protagonists put into strange, disorienting situations. Having set that precedent, Atlanta challenges us to experience similar empathy for a clueless white dude whose new reality feels as unsettling to him as a freaky foster home or a gaggle of Sinterklaases in blackface.
Within the episode itself, “The Big Payback” plants further seeds of significance via sly pop-culture allusions such as Sheniqua’s repeated insistence that her relatives were owned by Marshall’s relatives for 12 years, a pointed figure to lob at a white man whose engagement with slavery may well be limited to what he saw in Steve McQueen’s 2014 Best Picture winner. Or take Marshall’s initial job in marketing at a company that sells shrimp, a seeming reference to the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, the restaurant chain inspired by Forrest Gump. In that Academy Award–winning movie, Bubba, Forrest’s best friend, lives for only about 20 minutes of the movie before getting killed in Vietnam. Ultimately, two white guys, Forrest and Lieutenant Dan, are the ones who successfully launch the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. But notably, Forrest shares his profits with Bubba’s family, making him a man happy to pay a Black family what they’re owed but also something of a white savior. I have no doubt that the racial messiness baked into the Bubba character was on the minds of the Atlanta writers when they decided to give Marshall a job in the shrimp business.
Many of the episode’s allusions are baked into character names such as Willy and Lester, the only two Black employees who show up at Marshall’s office once others start cashing in their reparations checks, a nod to the famous Black ventriloquist Willie Tyler and his dummy, Lester, who were so interconnected they were basically of one body. Even Marshall’s name is a masterful piece of nomenclature, a word that, with one fewer l, is synonymous with high-ranking enforcers of law and order as well as being in part derived from the German word for servant. As a surname, Marshall reminds us of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice; as a forename, it calls to mind Marshall Mathers III, a.k.a. Eminem, one of the most successful hip-hop artists in history, who also happens to be white. The multiplicity of Marshall the character is reflected in all the reactions his name elicits.
Then there’s the guy named Earnest, or E, whom Marshall meets at a hotel bar after checking in to avoid Sheniqua. (In an echo of the madeleines he snacks on in the first sequence, the first thing Marshall does in his room is take a bite of a free hotel cookie. He immediately starts to cry.) Earnest, of course, is a name shared with Atlanta’s main character, Earn, though this Earnest is white. He may look familiar since he’s the same white fisherman who told the story about the Black town that got washed away in “Three Slaps.” He’s even wearing the same clothes. One of the first things he says to Marshall underlines that connection: “I have a feeling we’re in the same boat.”
Earnest, played by Tobias Segal, speaks at length about how slavery is “a true, unavoidable ghost that haunts in ways we” — meaning white people — “cannot see” and contends that the reparation payments have liberated everyone. “Your daughter’s going to be okay,” he tells Marshall reassuringly. “The curse has been lifted from her, from all of us.” This is a direct echo of the words he hisses in episode one just before his Black friend gets dragged out of their boat: “We are cursed, too,” that “we” again meaning white people.
There is something melancholy and eerie in this entire exchange, which unfolds while Roberta Flack’s version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” a song about love and discovery, plays softly in the bar. That cover segues into another: “It Never Entered My Mind” by Miles Davis, a title that matches Marshall’s headspace in the moment, as he ponders how shortsighted he’s been about grasping why reparations are necessary. It also functions as sonic foreshadowing because moments later, Earnest can be seen in the background doing something we did not expect: shooting himself in the head by the hotel pool. An overhead shot of his body, face down in the chlorinated water, resembles the famous image of Joe Gillis from Sunset Boulevard, floating in Norma Desmond’s pool after he explains that her potential return to relevance is a delusion and she shoots him dead. In this case, Earnest has both perpetuated a delusion, by telling Marshall everything will be fine, and then found his own way to escape it. It’s bleak and sad and, as a Black member of the hotel wait staff observes, “There’s more where that came from.” The reordering of society, it seems, could give birth to a new form of white flight.
But “The Big Payback” saves its biggest pop-culture pull for its final scene. We see Marshall, now working his job as a waiter who gets 15 percent restitution tax taken out of every paycheck, serving a lovely meal to a trio of happy Black customers. As the camera slowly expands our view of the dining room, we can see that most of the people eating here are Black and most of those serving them are white. As this realization sets in, “Les Fleurs” swells on the soundtrack and Minnie Riperton sings: “Light up the sky with your prayers of gladness and rejoice for the darkness is gone / Throw off your fears, let your heart beat freely at the sign that a new time is born.” This is the same song that plays during the closing sequence of Jordan Peele’s Us as a camera pans wide over California landscapes until it grazes over an image of hundreds of people, once tethered and hidden underground but now free and joined together, Hands Across America–style. As I wrote about the film at the time, this reimagined version of Hands Across America elevates those once forced to live “below” and empowers them to make the world better.
That’s exactly what this episode of Atlanta does by showing us a place where the scales of racial, class, and economic fairness appear to be more balanced. For 36 minutes, this series dreams of the possibility that a new day could be born. But it also argues that we can’t get there without walking through some profound discomfort. Ultimately, “The Big Payback” is asking all its viewers, but especially the white ones, if they’re willing to remove their AirPods to hear what’s being said by those around them and let it really, truly sink in.