“And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.” —Revelation 16:20
“Get ready, you mother.” —James Brown
On the fourth episode of Atlanta’s third season, recompense strikes like a tidal wave, flooding both the suburbs and the slums. The team behind the series named it the “The Big Payback,” an appropriate title to say the least, though it does ever-so-slightly undersell the transformative nature of the proceedings. For the second time in as many weeks, the show’s familiar figures—Earn, Van, Al, and Darius—are absent. Atlanta has long reveled in blurring the lines between expectations and reality, anthology and sitcom. Most often, the series exists to be, well, undefinable. It’s getting easier with each passing episode to wonder whether the production, fresh off a multi-year hiatus, might be taking that sentiment a little too close to heart.
The episode kicks off at a Starbucks, with a clean-cut white man in the foreground and a backward-capped Black man on the phone nearby. A cashier asks the former to step forward, while the latter is relegated to the back presumably because he’s big, Brown, and boisterous. The pencil pusher, who we later learn is named Marshall, steps forward and orders a coffee. By the time he makes it back to his car, he realizes he accidentally swiped a bag of madeleines too. As he smirks and pulls off, a car appears to start tailing him.
Marshall stops by his ex’s (they’re separated but not divorced) and picks up their daughter, after which a public radio segment plays from the car’s speakers. The gist of the report is that a new lawsuit against a white Tesla investor has opened up the floodgates to reparations. If the descendants of the enslaved can prove that a white citizen is related to their ancestors’ captors, they now have legal standing to receive a portion of their counterparts’ assets.
Considering the news, Marshall seems pretty calm. He drops his daughter off at school and heads to work, oblivious to the sedan that’s continued to shadow him. On the elevator ride up, a scruffy, blond-haired coworker scoffs indignantly, “This whole thing is crazy.”
The elevator doors open and they stumble upon an impromptu officewide meeting. A supervisor breaks the news that there will be layoffs. Rumor is, management’s about to be sued, just like the Tesla guy. So begins an elaborate chorus of white employees whispering at water coolers and in cubicles, debating if it’s worth getting a DNA test. Meanwhile, the company’s Black staffers excitedly gossip near the kitchen. It’s reminiscent of the faux reparations newscasts that aired when Chappelle’s Show was at its zenith; but where Chappelle’s eye was fixed on the imagined reaction of Brothas and Sistas, Atlanta homes in on what realized recompense would mean to the white masses.
“I don’t yell fire unless I see flames,” Marshall tells a coworker. “There’s no smoke on my end.” But on his phone there are a lot of missed calls from an unknown number, and it’s clear that despite his posture, Marshall’s starting to crack. Later, with his daughter in the car again, the father spots a couple of exuberant youts, gassing up a shiny blue Lamborghini. The resentment practically hops from his eyes.
Plus the kid’s starting to ask questions; someone at school told her she’s racist and she wants to know if it’s true. Are we slave owners? Marshall guffaws.
“Do you see any slaves in our backyard?”
What follows is Atlanta at its finest: the daughter referencing their landscaper, and the father, sincerely rebutting, “No, I pay Mr. Pedro.” The interaction threads the line between surreal and searing, in the way that only this show can.
That night, there’s a knock at the front door and a process server informs Marshall that he’s being sued. Behind the messenger, a woman introduces herself: “My name is Sheniqua Johnson, of the St. Louis Johnsons. Your family owned my great-great-grandmother and father for 12 years. You owe me money.” Sheniqua invites herself into the apartment, bouncing from room to room, before announcing her remodeling plans while live-streaming the entire interaction.
There is a certain hilarity in watching a Black woman exhibit the very same prerogative that Europeans used centuries ago—a prerogative still often wielded. (What else were settlers if not people who showed up on land that wasn’t theirs, helped themselves to material to which they had no claim, and established countries over entire civilizations?) The next day, when Sheniqua shows up at his job with a megaphone and an ax to grind, Marshall says he’d do anything to make it stop—except, of course, actually compensating her.
His Peruvian wife finds out about his background and promptly decides to finalize the divorce. One of the things that’s most enrapturing about the story line is seeing Marshall go through the stages of grief: By this point he’s outright terrified and defensive. Having seen how the internet works, my guess is folks will connect this episode to feelings of white guilt. But “The Big Payback” is really less a demonstration of regret than it is mourning.
After a brief, comic ambush scene at Marshall’s apartment (Sheniqua decides to stage a family cookout right outside his front door), the divorcé opts to sleep at a hotel. In the main lobby, with a bunch of other down-on-their-luck white folks, he encounters the fisherman from Episode 1, “Three Slaps,” who turned eyeless before being swallowed by that haunted lake. This time he introduces himself as Ernest. Marshall and Ernest have a somber little chat wherein Ernest argues that this is actually a good thing. “The curse has been lifted,” he says, tipsy with relief. “We were running from it, but now we’re free.”
Then he gets up, walks out to the pool and—while Marshall empathetically scans an Instagram post of Sheniqua and her kids—fires a bullet through his own temple. An overhead shot tracks Ernest’s floating body spreading blood throughout the pool. Lilting in the background is the Miles Davis masterpiece “It Never Entered My Mind.”
Now, I personally prefer to take Atlanta only so seriously. It’s not that the series hasn’t had stunning, sobering moments, but I mostly love Atlanta because it makes me laugh in the way that my people so often do, which is to say, in the face of imminent plunder. To laugh precisely because laughing shouldn’t be an option and yet, here we are, making it one.
But in its most recent outings the series has seemed very intent on being taken capital-s Seriously, and the culmination of a narrative like this is the result. The show appears so dedicated to proving that it can be absolutely anything—that it can do more than just provoke laughter or even unease and is, instead, equally capable of instructing and excoriating—that it’s now willing to throw self-control and self-deprecation by the wayside. The question I keep falling back on, even at just four episodes in, is: How much longer is Atlanta going to keep trying so damn hard?
Case in point, the episode’s closing sequence: Marshall now works as a waiter at a swanky bistro. It’s clear he’s been taken down a peg, and judging by the optional 15 percent “restitution tax” he has his employer withhold, the change in fortune seems consensual.
The mood of the sequence is supposed to be victorious, and from a certain lens it reads as such. If the thesis of the episode is that our history cannot be ignored, that folks have to grapple with the blood on their hands, then this image is a kind of win. The problem is that it’s imprecise, or at the very least, too limited. In focusing so much on what goes on in the minds of white people, “The Big Payback” loses track of the fact that flip-flopping our current social structures is not a form of redress. The kitchen staff at the restaurant is still, after all, mostly Black and Brown. Plus—and this is really the most important part—I don’t have interest in switching roles with white people. If whiteness is, as I believe and the show has argued, fictive, then what I want is, simply, for no one to be white at all.
The episode’s final scene culminates with Marshall grabbing two plates of food and entering the dining room. The restaurant’s filled to the brim with Black patrons, resplendent in their newfound status. Marshall’s got a strip of linen draped over his arm. He fits the part. The soundtrack presents as celebratory—horns and a thoroughly upbeat chorus—but it’s clear that one of the guys he’s waiting on looks pissed. The brother’s food isn’t ready. It’s not necessarily Marshall’s fault, though it doesn’t look like the customer cares.
And understandably so. Limited social reformation aside, this place looks bougie as hell; a meal must’ve cost a pretty penny. Some kinds of “payback” just ain’t worth the price.