Warning: This article contains spoilers from season three of “Atlanta.”
“Atlanta” once again takes the series in another direction with a completely different story that has nothing to do with the journey Earn (Donald Glover), Al “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry), Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) and Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) embark on in Europe. In season three, episode four, we are taken back to Atlanta, Georgia, with new characters.
In “The Big Payback,” we see the story of Marshall Johnson, played by Justin Bartha, who lives a normal life. He is a father who juggles spending time with his daughter, Katie (Scarlett Blum), after his separation from her mother, Natalie (Dahlia Legault), and works a desk job in a small cubicle. That is until one day, he gets documents asking for reparations because his great-great-grandfather was a slaveowner back in the day.
Before diving into an analysis of the episode, we must have a clear definition of what reparations are.
Reparations, according to Merriam Webster, are an “act of making amends, offering expiation or giving satisfaction for a wrong or an injury.” In this case, African Americans are asking for reparations because of the slavery that existed in the 17th and 18th centuries. There’s also debate over reparations for the prison system having alarming amounts of African Americans in their jails and for the police brutality that has occurred for many years.
This episode explores a very controversial topic in the United States with the ease “Atlanta” is known for. It creates a psychological thriller over reparations for slavery, and it’s stunning how they do it.
Marshall gets harassed by Sheniqua Johnson (Melissa Youngblood) everywhere he goes because she wants him to pay up after her great-great-grandmother was enslaved for 12 years by his ancestors. We see not only him getting reparation subpoenas, but also every person whose family has a history of this humanitarian injustice.
At first, I thought this was going to be a similar dynamic from the first episode consisting of a child with crazy, adoptive mothers. However, this episode takes many turns, from a thriller to an interesting reflection on why reparations are important.
Marshall, after losing his family and job to the constant harassment from Sheniqua, decides to stay in a hotel and meets a man named “E” (Tobias Segal), who goes through the same situation but sees the silver lining in all the commotion. Their ancestors did horrible things, and many African American families must live through the racism that still exists after slaves were liberated in the United States. The best they can do, according to E, is to pay the price for the past because African Americans do that every day.
“Atlanta,” week after week, makes us contemplate different issues that surround the African American community in the present. We can see how Glover, creator, writer and star of the show, explores these topics that have been so relevant since movements like Black Lives Matter had a resurgence after George Floyd’s tragic death.
This series is one of the only shows that can completely take you away from the main storyline in one episode and make it not feel like simple filler. It adds to the amazing surrealist environment “Atlanta” creates in the modern United States.
Check out “Atlanta” as it premieres every Thursday on FX and streams the next day on Hulu.