Atlanta Season 3 Gets Ready For 'The Big Payback'

The latest episode of "Atlanta" is ... exhausting in every sense of the word. These 36 minutes felt like a strange eternity. Like the season premiere, "The Big Payback" doesn't feature any of the main cast, so we aren't given a follow-up to the events in last week's episode. We do, however, get an interesting storyline and the surprising return of a relatively new character, as well as further expansion on the themes prevalent throughout the season so far. 

I imagine a lot of viewers will be left deeply uncomfortable, and honestly, I'm not even sure how I feel about it yet, so let's work through our feelings together with an episode recap.

Where there's smoke...

"The Big Payback" opens with a racist scene at a coffee shop, in which the white barista ignores the Black man who is next in line in favor of the white man (named Marshall) behind him. She tells the Black man that he can get back in line. Marshall gently insists that the Black man can go, but doesn't really make an effort beyond that to call out what just happened, and the Black man, annoyed, shrugs it off and leaves. When Marshall gets to his car, he realizes he accidentally stole a pack of cookies from the coffee shop, smiles to himself, and enjoys them on his way to pick his daughter up for school, completely unaware of the car that appears to be following him.

On the car radio, there's a discussion about a Black man winning a lawsuit against a wealthy white man — who is identified as one of the founding members of Tesla — on the basis that the white man's ancestors enslaved his ancestors. The radio commentator states that the suit could have "very far-reaching consequences all around the world." Marshall and his daughter don't seem to care much about this news, and the daughter indicates that her mom, Marshall's estranged wife, may want him to finally move back home — indicating that their strained marital relationship may be on the verge of reconciliation, much to Marshall's delight.

At work, Marshall is in the elevator with another white guy who comments on how unfair the aforementioned lawsuit is. Marshall replies that he doesn't think it's a big deal because the Tesla exec is rich, so it's not like he's going to even notice a little dent in his fortune. Before the other white guy can reply, they're called to an emergency work meeting. Several white employees are visibly distraught and exhibiting physical signs of distress, clearly rattled by the lawsuit. A manager announces that the company is conducting mass layoffs, and it turns out that this is due to the precedent set by the lawsuit. This results in mass panic among white people, who begin deep diving into their family trees to see if they could be implicated and forced to pay up for the crimes of their potentially slave-owning ancestors.

Despite the mounting hysteria, Marshall is apathetic because he believes his family couldn't have possibly been involved in the slave trade, and that he's safe from the incoming wave of reparation lawsuits. He even says, "I don't yell fire unless there's smoke," ignoring the smoke all around him — like the racist incident at the coffee shop, the legal precedent set by the lawsuit, the nervous white people, the calls from an unknown number that he continues to ignore, and the wailing white lady in the parking lot outside of his job. He continues about his daily life, convinced he's safe despite the obvious signs that he should at least be a little proactive and look into his family tree.

When his daughter asks him if they're racist after a boy at school says she's is, he has an opportunity to address what racism is and how it has impacted everyone in different ways, giving white people an advantage. Instead, he stops himself and simply says, "Don't listen to that kid in school. We're not racist," once again ignoring reality in hopes it won't hit him or anyone he loves. When his daughter responds by asking if they own slaves, he asks, "Do you see any slaves in our backyard?" with a playful smile that gave me horrible flashbacks to my high school human geography class in which I was one of two Black faces in a sea of willfully ignorant white kids. Fun, fun. His gotcha moment doesn't work as expected when the daughter, without missing a beat, replies, "Mr. Pedro," who we can only assume is the landscaper. 

Marshall then says it's different because he pays Mr. Pedro, but if his daughter sees Mr. Pedro as a type of slave, I can't imagine he's paid or treated particularly well. Having failed to quell his daughter's concerns, Marshall reaches all the way back to the Byzantine empire to say that their ancestors were also enslaved, which is sad and hilarious for so many reasons that I will not bother getting into. His daughter is unmoved by this comparison.

...there's fire

That night at dinner with his daughter, Marshall once again ignores a call from an unknown number. A loud knock at the door immediately follows, and he answers the door to be served papers. Then, a Black woman named Shaniqua, recording the entire ordeal, says that his family owned hers and that he owes her money. He is still in denial, and she barges into his home and proclaims that it will be hers. Since she's live-streaming, it's somewhat clear she's putting on a show for social media, but it's also yet another example of the show touting negative stereotypes about Black women — loud, aggressive, etc. I'm f***ing tired of it — but I'll finish the recap and circle back to that later.

Back at work, most of Marshall's Black coworkers don't bother to show up. One of his white coworkers is delighted to reveal that she's Jewish and that her family never owned slaves. The mood in the office is somber. There's a white guy wearing a black shirt that reads "I owned slaves" in big bold white letters as repayment for his ancestors' part in the slave trade. Meanwhile, Shaniqua is outside of Marshall's with a megaphone proclaiming that Marshall owes her money since his great-great grandfather owned her great-great grandfather. He seeks counsel from a Black coworker, who tells him that he should admit he was wrong and pay up whatever he can. It's clear he doesn't want to hear that, since the episode immediately cuts to him seeking more palatable advice from other white people instead. It's truly amazing stuff, honestly. The way "Atlanta" grounds its absurdity in painfully recognizable realities is amusing.

Shortly after, Marshall gets a text message from his white wife saying that they need to talk ASAP. It's important to note that she uses a dark brown emoji in the message. When he goes to speak with her, she won't let him in the house or near their daughter. She tells him that's no longer interested in reconciliation or even association with her husband; instead, she wants to finalize the divorce to avoid financial responsibility in Marshall's reparation lawsuit. In disbelief, Marshall says that she should look into her own family history, to which she responds, "I'm Peruvian, this would never happen to me!"

Marshall, completely aghast, exclaims, "You were white yesterday!" which is a direct reference to the monologue on the fishing boat that takes place in "Three Slaps" — you know, the one about whiteness being a construct that one can buy into or be pushed out of. This results in a very upset Marshall driving to Shaniqua's home, presumably to try and talk things out. Instead, he's terrified by all the Black people he sees and speeds off after Shaniqua tells one of the guys to "Go get him." Even so, Marshall didn't really try to speak with her — he didn't even get out of his car. Throughout the episode, Marshall stops just short of trying to confront his own complicity in America's racism, and the way he benefits from it even if he isn't actively perpetuating it by burning crosses or dropping slurs in every other sentence. I also want to point out that since Shaniqua wants repayment, she likely didn't want to have him hurt or killed. He didn't really give her or the guy approaching him a chance to speak with him.

Burn, baby, burn

The next scene shows Marshall is in a cheap hotel, eating a cookie, and then breaking down. I mean, hardcore sobbing. He then goes to the hotel's bar to drown his sorrows, and this is when things get super interesting. The white guy from the boat in "Three Slaps" is there. And guess what? HIS NAME IS EARNEST, WHICH IS ALSO EARN'S NAME. TWO EARNS. WHAT DOES IT MEAN? White Earn is happy to listen to Marshall's woes about his Shaniqua dilemma. Marshall laments that his good life is being destroyed over something he didn't even do.

White Earn responds by telling Marshall about how he was taught that his great grandfather built everything they had from the ground up, really pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and then later learned that this wasn't true. "He had a lot of help," he says, implying that at least some of the "help" he had was the result of slavery and racism. He then says, in reference to the reparations lawsuits, "Maybe it's only right," and talks about how America treats slavery as a "mystery [we] investigate if we choose to" as opposed to "a history that has monetary value." Facts, White Earn, big facts. He says, "Confession is not absolution" and that to Shaniqua and other Black people, "Slavery is not past, it is not a mystery, it is not a historical curiosity. It is a cruel, unavoidable ghost that haunts in a way we can't see." He points out that the predicament Marshall and his family are now in is not unlike the position many Black people are put in, and that this is a way to balance things out and lift the curse that slavery has had on them.

These are valid points that Marshall seems to consider as he watches a video of Shaniqua doting over her children on social media. In the background, a white person commits suicide by taking a bullet to the head and falling into the hotel pool. Apparently, this is a common thing in the wake of the restitution/reparation wave in this fictional alternate universe in which the law somehow rules in favor of Black people en masse. The episode ends with Marshall working as a waiter, happily paying his dues to Shaniqua because, as White Earn said, in doing so, we can be all be free as the curse of racism and looming, hideous legacy of slavery is lifted.

So about the misogynoir

The concept of white people being held responsible for the actions of other white people sounds insane until you look at how that has played out for Black people and other people of color in this country's history alone. From the mass lynchings of Black men based on typically false accusations against one, to present-day the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes based on idiotic conspiracy theories and xenophobia in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The episode is essentially subverting America's own racism with an extreme, surreal, satirical version of how reparations paid to Black American descendants of slave owners might play out. I'm not sure how successful it is in whatever point it is trying to make, despite the powerful dialog White Earn delivers.

For me, the glaring issue that continues to undermine the good things about "Atlanta" is the prevalent use of stereotypical tropes when it comes to the show's Black women characters. I mentioned this issue with how the Black mom in "Three Slaps" was portrayed, and even gave the writers the benefit of the doubt there. This time, however, it's hard to ignore. With respect to the actress, who I'm sure is a lovely person, the character Shaniqua may as well be the "Sassy Black Woman" TV trope personified. I'm tired of it. Aside from the brief moment Marshall spends seeing her as a happy mom, she's portrayed as loud and aggressive. "Atlanta" — and by extension, the show's creator, Donald Glover — has a troubling history of misogynoir, and it's making the show harder for me to enjoy as time goes on. With the exception of Van, who has enjoyed significantly less screen time and character development than the men on "Atlanta," nearly every Black woman featured throughout the show's run is presented as a crass, one-dimensional non-person that other people have to put up with.

I want to give it a chance, but in the wake of Donald Glover's latest stunt — a self-conducted interview in which he asks and dodges a question about his long-standing issues with Black women — it's getting hard to ignore or have faith that things will get any better in terms of offering more nuanced, less stereotypical portrayals of Black women in "Atlanta." 

The issue is painfully obvious when we look at the range of personalities that we get when it comes to the show's Black male leads and side characters, so what gives? It's hard to take the show's criticisms of racism and racial issues seriously when it willfully engages in harmful racist stereotypes against Black women. Even in the scene where Marshall asks his Black coworker how to deal with Shaniqua, there's a generalization about Black women being made, and his advice is just to tell her she's right and give her as much money as possible. Considering the show's habit of portraying Black women as abrasive, money-hungry, clout chasers, it's not a good look.