'Atlanta' Continues To Tackle Issues People Keep Trying To Push Aside
This week’s episode of Atlanta again pivots away from our central characters for another standalone story – further proving that it’s one of the boldest shows on TV. Like, there were no episodes of Seinfeld that suddenly followed an entirely new character that may or may not live inside Jerry’s subconscious.
Again, Atlanta is using its platform to interrogate uncomfortable truths that are being outright ignored, or in some cases, aggressively stifled, by mainstream culture. In this week’s episode, “The Big Payback,” we get the Twilight Zone-esque tale of a Justin Bartha-esque white guy, Marshall Johnson (played by Justin Bartha) who blindly takes advantage of his own privilege (like, say, shoplifting Starbucks cookies with zero consequences). But following the legal precedent of a Tesla executive, who is sued for reparations over his slave-owning ancestor and loses, soon Marshall’s home ends up occupied by a Black woman, Sheniqua, and her family, who claim he owes $3 million for his family’s crimes.
Obviously, the episode is unflinchingly dealing with some huge issues here. Most overtly, the argument for paying reparations for Black Americans, the importance of teaching critical race theory (illustrated by how Marshall really bungles explaining the situation to his young daughter), and even the day-to-day disconnection with real-world tragedy. It’s likely not a coincidence that Marshall works in an unnamed company that, judging from its logo is in the shrimp business; an industry that, even today, is exploiting slave labor in Thailand.
At the end of the show, Marshall flees, feeling as though he is the victim of a grave injustice – until he meets a fellow displaced white guy in a swank hotel bar, who helps shape his perspective on the matter (he previously ignored the advice from his Black co-worker). The stranger is named Ernest but goes by E, and – take a great big sip of coffee right now – it’s the same guy from the creepy nightmare scene at the beginning of the season premiere, with the two men fishing on Lake Lanier.
So who is this guy? In both scenes, this character (credited only as “White” in the premiere) is wearing the same clothes and similarly talks about the haunting of America's bloody history – both figuratively and literally. After all, ghosts have been a consistent throughline in this season. In both scenes, he specifically uses the word “haunt” – here about how Black people are haunted by the horrors of slavery in a way that white people “can't see” and have the luxury of treating as a “historical curiosity.”
He previously talked about how white people have the “curse of whiteness” and are blind to the injustices of their own institutional comforts – which seems more than a little relevant in the context of this episode. Justin Bartha described him as a white man at the end of his path of investigating what “whiteness” is – and now he’s become the “ghost that’s haunted him.”
It also shouldn’t go without mentioning that this character also shares the same name of the show’s ostensible protagonist: Earnest. And his first appearance, at the lake, was technically a dream within Earn’s dream. So, while this may seem wildly divergent from our primary narrative, implicitly, E is a part of Earn’s mind, and how he is emotionally unpacking the world.
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Top Image: FX