The last two episodes of Atlanta followed Earn, Al, Darius and Van in the early stages of a European tour. The fourth episode diverts the action into the title town, away from the main quartet and into an unrelated story (the same approach taken since the season opener, “Three Slaps”). It’s hard not to feel a little fooled by these anthology-style episodes: AtlantaThe lead quartet is as well written and performed as any character on TV, and I always want to spend more time with them. (I’m still having trouble figuring out that Season 4 will be the show’s last.) But this detour, a dark satire that tackles systemic racism and the concept of reparation, exposing the worst nightmares of the anti-CRT brigade, is absolutely worth it. worth taking.
The episode opens as we follow Marshall (guest star Justin Bartha) in line at a coffee shop. AirPods instead of him, absentmindedly shoves cookies into his jacket pocket as he witnesses a confrontation between the cashier and a black customer. Marshall takes his coffee and moves on smoothly while the other man goes down the line. Marshall turns out to be a separate father; While accompanying his daughter to school, he hears a radio news report about a black man who successfully sued a Tesla investor because his ancestors enslaved the plaintiff’s ancestors. It is a development that the anchor notes could have “far-reaching” implications, “especially in America”. (By the way, they follow a lot of plot and episode spoilers, but they’re worth unpacking.)
In the office, Marshall’s colleagues express disbelief and concern over the story as layoffs are announced; his company was sued for the same reason. His white colleague says he’s researching his family tree online – “everyone does it” – while observing their black colleagues, “Lucky them, not a concern in the world.”
At home, Marshall is found at his front door by a black woman, Sheniqua Johnson (Melissa Youngblood), who is live streaming on his phone that Marshall’s ancestors enslaved his, owes her money and she will likely take his home. She later shows up with a megaphone outside his office, demanding payment.
This is stuff beyond the heavy, but it’s cleverly written and directed. Many moments in this script (by Francesca Sloane) would make Paddy Chayevsky proud, particularly when Marshall seeks advice from a black colleague and his ex-wife will not allow him to see their daughter due to her ancestral past. “I’m Peruvian,” he says. “It would never have happened to me!” Marshall protests: “You were white yesterday!” His wife replies that they have to make the divorce official because “I can’t take a hard hit on my finances.”
Relegated to a hotel because Sheniqua and several compatriots have camped out on the lawn outside his apartment, Marshall turns on the TV and sees a commercial for a law firm, shot in classic ambulance hunter style, urging anyone eligible to claim own money. (It’s another time worthy of Net.) In the lobby bar, Marshall meets a man (“Ernest” – homophonically the same as Donald Glover’s character, of course – “call me E”) who claims to be “in the same boat … you owe a lot”.
“Two days ago, I had a good life, and now I’m getting fucked up by shit I haven’t even done,” complains Marshall.
The man from the lobby (a captivating Tobias Segal) reveals that he was recently briefed on some realities about his grandfather, a man always sold as part of the myth of “he pulled himself up from his own bootstrap”: “It turns out he had a a lot of help and a lot of children.
“We don’t deserve it,” Marshall says.
“What to do they deserve? “And fold. For blacks, he says, slavery has not passed and has a monetary value that continues to increase. But as white men, they will be fine. “We are free,” he says, before going out and shooting himself in the head. My first impression was that this was a misstep, an example of overloading the dramatic hitter. His monologue, with the premise that white men are privileged even when they’re broken, was powerful enough. But the end of the episode made him feel justified. Some people can bear certain truths and others can’t.
Eventually, we see that Marshall is working in a restaurant, where 15 percent of his salary will go to “restitution taxes” paid to Sheniqua. In a touching moment, we are led through the kitchen, where almost everyone in line is a black person. Marshall, of course, is a waiter, an acceptable face for the front-of-house, and the episode ends with him serving up fine fare at a black party.
Direction by Hiro Murai is stellar, as usual: he knows how to land irony without hitting you in the head, and the performances are perfectly modulated. Segal is an amazing character and Bartha is very effective as an everyday man avatar who lets life happen to him, trying to do the right things on the surface, but not doing too much to right the wrong. This episode and “Three Slaps” are so dramatically rich that I would love to see the Glovers and Murai launch their anthology series, an update. Twilight zone. There is no need to label it science fiction or horror. Modern life is only a step or two from each other.
For a show labeled comedy (for lack of a more suitable genre), “Big Payback” isn’t 30+ minute entertainment, but it’s great television. Atlanta it is addressing the big and uncomfortable questions that no one else would dare – namely, can we resolve systemic racism and reconcile this country’s history with slavery, when some won’t even recognize it – and this episode is worth the time. Unfortunately, the people who need to consider the issues most of him won’t see him; they can afford to turn their backs.
- Another good moment: Marshall states that his background is “Austro-Hungarian … we too have been enslaved” (looking up at his colleague). But he is not interested in seeking the truth about his ancestors.
- E’s lobby bar monologue is outstanding writing. “We treat slavery as if it were a mystery buried in the past, something to investigate if we so wish. That story has monetary value. Confession is not absolution, “she says, and slavery has not passed for blacks: it is” a cruel and inevitable ghost that persecutes in a way we cannot see. “
- Episodes two and three this season have been so moody and evocative that I keep finding myself thinking about where the main characters are, a lucky / unfortunate consequence of watching a show that takes place week after week and is unstoppable.
- Writing in the first four episodes of Atlanta it’s better than I’ve ever seen in any drama this season. But it’s a 30-minute show, so where are the scripts for “Three Slaps” and “The Big Payback” sent? Is there any way to diversify the Emmy’s rigid comedy-drama dichotomy (which has punished some excellent but ambiguous 30-minute shows in recent years)?