I’ve been preparing for more episodes taking wild steps away from the core characters, yet I still don’t know if I was ready for “The Big Payback.” Atlanta has not been afraid to tackle a variety of ideas centered around race and culture without the backing of Earn and the gang to support them. “Three Slaps” certainly introduced a twisted way of bringing us back into this world created by Donald Glover. “The Big Payback” continues down that path by addressing the concept of reparations taken to the most extreme levels and depicting it from the point of view of a white man. The results are tense, hilarious, and entirely fitting for a show setting out to challenge its audience.
Right away, “The Big Payback” opens up with Justin Bartha’s Marshall Johnson to let you know we’re in for something different than the European adventures that involve the Paper Boi music tour. Instead, we watch Marshall go through a daily routine that includes visiting a convenience story and accidentally stealing some madeleines (Glover fully knows this was the whitest product he could go with). Is that going to get Marshall in trouble? How about going in front of the black man waiting to handle his purchase? A mysterious car begins following Marshall around, so we know something is up.
The way this episode slowly builds up what’s going on in this world is clever. Hearing about a case over the radio where a black person sued the relatives of their family’s former slave owner is the sort of wild concept that could feel like a throwaway bit. Instead, it’s only the start of something major. Picking up his daughter, she questions Marshall about whether or not they are racist. As Marshall spots various black people around town driving high-end sports vehicles, it’s dawning on him that being Austro-Hungarian may not be the most reliable way to deal with a possible situation.
As Marshall, Justin Bartha is the perfectly innocuous actor one could rely on to deliver. Generally used as a comedic supporting character in films such as National Treasure, let alone the MacGuffin in question in The Hangover, asking him to play a naïve officer worker who is forced to question his own understandings of how things are working today suits him. We only have so much to go on with Marshall, which plays well for expectation. Marshall is the sort o character who has likely used the words “woke” and “ally” to describe himself without seriously considering the society around him, relying on his own white privilege and presumed intelligence to believe he’s a good guy.
All of this crumbles when the episode introduces Sheniqua Johnson (Melissa Youngblood), a black woman who tells Marshall he owes her money while live-streaming the meeting for everyone to see. Marshall tries to stay calm and collected, but he’s going to find himself stuck in denial for a bit before attempting to deal with what’s happening. His fellow employees have little sympathy. One is worse off already, as he is forced to wear a shirt that says “I Owned Slaves” two days of the week (including Sunday). What’s Marshall going to do? He doesn’t have the $3 million being asked of him.
His first instinct is to ask one of his black co-workers. In one of the funniest edits of the episode, we don’t even see the end of this conversation as Marshall heads to his white co-workers to hear their thoughts and hopefully find an easy way out. He can’t. All he can do is listen to Sheniqua calling him out on her megaphone from outside in the parking lot.
Marshall is separated from his wife. At the beginning of this episode, his daughter hints at a chance they can reconcile. By the middle of this new day, she wants to finalize the divorce and stay out of the financial impact that’s going to occur. Plus, she’s Peruvian, even as Marshall exclaims, “You were white yesterday!”
As much as this plays like a Twilight Zone episode meant to put white people in serious check, it’s not without plenty of humor. Marshall attempts to go back to his home at one point, only to find Sheniqua having a cookout with friends on his doorstep. Trying to drive away quickly, one of Sheniqua’s group removes his shoes and chases after Marshall’s speeding car. It’s basically a scene out of a horror movie. Still, making Marshall look so pathetic is a reminder that as wild as Atlanta can be, it’s also often hilarious.
Acceptance comes near the end of this episode, as Marshall checks into a room in a hotel. We deliberately only see white occupants at this point, as the episode wants us to know these people are being cast out of their comfortable living. The hotel is a purgatory, but who will guide Marshall? A man, fittingly named Earnest, strikes up a conversation with Marshall about their predicament. He has a few thoughts on the situation.
For an episode dealing with the impact of restitution taxes, there are some great choices on how to treat the thematic understanding of what’s taking place and how individuals are dealing with it. Some flee, others embrace, and some reconsider their worldview. “We were treating slavery as a mystery,” Earnest notes, cluing Marshall in on exactly why they are, in fact, in the wrong. His way of explaining how Sheniqua is a human and is entirely in her right to make her claims hits about as hard as it can, coming from a white man explaining things.
It’s only fitting that this conversation ends with Earnest making his way over to the pool area and shooting himself in the head. As I said, Atlanta can be funny like that.
Cut to a few months later, and Marshall is now working at a restaurant, with 15% of his check going to Sheniqua. This is the status quo now. Will that affect Earn, Al, Darius, and Van? I have no idea. As it stands, though, this fancy restaurant reveals many Black people enjoying their dinners while served by those who have owed them for a long time.
- Marshall asks his wife if he can have a lamp to bring to his apartment. The next time he sees her, the lamp is in the garbage. That’s a good gag.
- “Don’t tell your mother about this.” – Marshall really thought, for a second, that this would blow over.
- “This concerns all of us.” “No, it doesn’t.” – The Black employees at Marshall’s job are rightfully having a big laugh.
- The episode ends with a pullback shot and Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs” on the soundtrack, not too dissimilar from Jordan Peele’s Us.
- I’ll be curious if the series has more of these disconnected episodes to further emphasize the changing landscape, let alone full-on fables and off-the-wall stories such as this.
- Better yet, finding a way to combine these sorts of stories with Earn and the gang could allow for even more wild events.
- I’m sure there are plenty of visual and dialogue moments that dig even further into the concept behind this episode, it’s a layered series, but I’ll rewatch it eventually.