I once stole. “Only once.” It was in the second grade. It was from a girl I liked, but I was more interested in her pencils with cool Nintendo toppers. I used that pencil to draw a lot of things and write a lot of things, but to this day, I still remember that. It never felt right. That one pencil got me into art for the first time and writing, but it wasn’t mine to take. No matter how much I flourished from that singular, solitary fusion of lead, wood, and plastic, it wasn’t mine to wrest and my mind was never at rest.
Welcome to the fourth episode of Atlanta (FX) titled “The Big Payback”.
We open in on a white man waiting in line at a coffee shop, drowning his ear canals with NPR. Before him stands a black man, talking on the phone. The white man spots a packet of Madelines and pockets them, surely with the full intent of paying for them. The white barista (Ashlyn Stallings) calls on the said white man to order, unabashedly ignoring the black man ostensibly in front of him.
Though offering his spot, the black man frustratingly blows it off, continuing on his day as if this shit wasn’t anything that novel.
In his car, the white man realizes that he didn’t pay for the treat, but instead of returning it, he brushes the ‘happy accident’ off, eating one as he drives off. The white eats something white and thinks naught of it. He took something that wasn’t his, but hey, they can afford it, right? After all, the company was presumably owned by some white billionaire, right?
I mean petty larceny isn’t a thing when both parties know that they’re both in the black, right?
Meet Marshall Johnson (Justin Bartha). This passive paragon of privilege is tailed by another vehicle all the way to his separated wife, Natalie to pick up their daughter, Katie for school.
On the ride, NPR relays the breaking news that the Tesla Trial had arrived at a landmark decision. A black litigant had won his case against Josh Beckford, an early investor in the brand on account that Mr. Beckford’s relatives had enslaved the plaintiff’s ancestors. This direct correlation between human capital and profit is commensurate to the financials of people like Josh and Oh! the best is yet to come…
Just before dropping her off, Katie (Scarlett Blum) seems to think her mother Natalie (Dahlia Legault) wants to get back with him. Consider it the brightest part of Mr. Johnson’s day, because things are about to go downhill at breakneck speed. He gets a phone call from an unknown number but ignores it.
The same tailing car waits ominously outside the office but that’s nothing compared to what awaits inside…
On the elevator up, the man’s co-worker thinks the watershed moment is ‘unfair’ but there’s bigger fish to choke on, as the office is alight with a rumor that the layoffs being handed down from higher-ups are all because of the Tesla verdict.
Correlation does not imply causation. Are you going on the elevator down (assumedly with a cardboard box in hand)?
Marshall’s coworker Paula (Madison Hatfield) is assuredly anxious. She lets him in on a little secret.
Even if he’s not partaken in any DNA tests if anybody in his family has, the lineage is easily accessible. If he’s won that lineal lottery, well, the descendants of his forebears’ slaves have just won the literal lottery.
All the whites in the office are chattering teeth as the blacks are excitedly chattering among themselves.
Marshall shrugs it off with nervous aplomb. In his words, he doesn’t ‘yell fire unless he sees flames’ with ‘no smoke’ on his end. Oh, pobrecito, there will be smoke. SO, so much smoke.
With a woman wailing in front of her pristine BMW, Marshall’s entered a near-fugue state to his car. This is especially true when passing the gas station, observing a black couple fueling up their luxury sports car. Is this some fever dream?
His daughter is eerily quiet in the back seat before shattering the ice, asking ole’ dad if they are racist because a kid at school told accused her of that.
Worriedly, he shuts that notion down, citing that not only did ‘that stuff’ transpire a long time ago but also because of his side being of Austro-Hungarian descent, as his people were enslaved during the Byzantine Empire. He shoots down that flight of fancy by saying demanding compensatory damages would be downright silly. Umm, yeah, my guy. Die on that hill.
Settling down for a meal with his kid, the phone once again buzzes. As before, he ignores it. To be fair, you can only ignore shit for so long before someone leaves a big flaming bag of it on your doorstep.
In this case, it’s in the form of a Served Notice. The cherry on top is the one who put the process into motion: Sheniqua Johnson of the St. Louis Johnsons.
Livestreaming his gobsmacked mug, she catches him up to speed. His family owned her great-great-grandparents for 12 years and it’s high time HE ponies up.
Before he could drag up his slacked jaw from the floor, she enters what is now her house, surveying the layout and though he threatens to call the authorities, they’ve already been notified, courtesy of the new tenant.
Katie bears witness to this and Marshall is without an alibi. At this moment, he probably wishes he were dead to the world rather than being dead to rights.
The next day Paula informs him that besides Willie and Lester, none of the black people came to work. She’s nothing to worry about, being of the Tribe, mostly Ashkenazi Jew, and though he tries to feed her the Byzantine Empire schpiel, she feeds back to him what he and others like him have asserted to most: it was so long ago.
In the bathroom, seeming to wash his hands for an extended period as if he was trying to clean the residual blood off, Marshall comes across a coworker wearing a t-shirt bearing the simple sentiment of “I OWNED SLAVES”.
Tim in accounting got off easy with that penance from the family about to sue him, just wanting him to acknowledge it twice a week.
Marshall’s day is only starting, as Sheniqua’s outside the edifice, megaphone in hand, demanding the $3M she’s owed in light of his surname’s iniquities, and though he pleads with her, dues are dues and the silence will be no longer.
Do you remember realizing that something was your birthright? I don’t, but this would be fucking all holidays wrapped up in one to me!
In the breakroom, Marshall goes to Lester (Exie Booker) for advice on his ‘situation’ and as my man savors Sheniqua’s shouting as if it were a lullaby, he dispenses advice in two simple steps: admit wrongdoing and commence payment.
Things aren’t looking so sunny for Marshall at the moment and even less so when Natalie messages him.
And though he tries to leverage her whiteness, deftly flaunting her Peruvian heritage as proof of being out of the crosshairs, he asserts that she ‘passed’ as white before that gavel came down, but it matters none.
The game is changed, the script is flipped and their marriage is now officially over as her finances cannot take the fallout.
Marshall is now living in a world where nothing makes sense, only left to the only sanctuary that belongs to him, but Lo!
Sheniqua and her family are out on the lawn, camping out and awaiting lawful entry, and before Marshall can even process the sins of his father’s father’s father’s father, he peels out.
Physically exhausted and mentally drained, he sits on the edge of the bed of his newfound home, a nice hotel room. He flickers on the lamp in a daze. Off. On. Dark. Light.
Noticing the complimentary cookie on his nightstand, he opens it only to find it to be a Double Chocolate Chip. Black? Meet the gaping maw of White.
Taking a bite, his tears flow, continuing to consume what is this painful and tasty metaphor.
Hazily treading into the lobby, he notices a fellow white man, Earnest (Tobias Segal), and orders whatever he’s imbibing. “E” just flew in from somewhere else. They conveniently “can’t find his luggage” though, so he’s just enjoying the libation with nothing but the clothes on his back.
The bond they share is only skin deep. Marshall, unaccepting of this new reality is wrought to his core. Earnest simply “doesn’t know.”
He regales that his grandfather told him that the foundation on which his family was built was from the ground up, but it all turned out to be more than just a white lie. ‘Twas a White Lie.
Marshall still feels the blood that nourished the roots of the crops their relatives subsisted on shouldn’t have any bearing on their present ‘situation’. “E” views it differently as he sees the reality for what it is.
That history in fact does have a price and a very steep one at that. In his words: “Confession is not absolution.” Truer words were never spake.
Earnest knows that to the black people of America, slavery isn’t a curious past but rather a painful present. It’s an omnipresent specter they can see in ways others cannot possibly fathom. You can give all the feather dusters you want. Bleach? We got too much of a contact high to see it as pretty.
To “E”, because Natalie and Katie are without Marshall, they can start anew, build anew, untainted without him.
Earnest believes the white man has been set free. What was once in the DARK has been brought into the LIGHT.
“E” excuses himself out to the pool area. I already knew what was coming as “It Never Entered My Mind” by Miles Davis softly ambled softly in the background.
Earnest finds zen. He makes peace with his mind.
It better be, because the pool staff must then observe pieces of his mind splattered all over the area as his watery grave serves as the most beautiful thing in Hiro Murari‘s beautiful mind.
And though Marshall is shocked awake, one of the servers isn’t in the least bit phased, knowing this is only a beginning, not an end.
Remember what I said before about Marshall wanting to be dead to the world rather than dead to rights?
“E” actually had the fucking bandwidth to make good with his maker rather than deal with the reality. He put that bullet where his head was.
Maybe his wealth was finding out the truth. Rather than doling it out, he’d more or less selfishly perish with it…
We cut to the future, where a waiter on a bus driven by a blonde white woman isn’t the new but rather the now.
A manager rallying his team on what to expect for a good night’s work is on deck. There isn’t any ego. Everybody is all hands-on.
Before the huddle breaks, he makes mention of anybody owning a portion of their paycheck to ‘Restitution Taxes’ to momentarily stay behind. Marshall is among those in line among the other white men that will be bestowing a percentage to the law.
It’s 15%, which is pretty hefty compared to the others’ 10%. That hurts, but it’s still a drop in the bucket to what the suffering had to accomplish.
Washing his hands for the day ahead, he’s teased by a Latin waiter.
Though both are cool, the co-worker jokingly threatens Marshall’s salty speech and threatens him into a busboy position. In this new world, jape against minorities may land serious repercussions. The white man isn’t a strawman anymore. He’s just a testament to how the chickens can come home to roost.
As Minnie Ripperton’s “Les Fleurs” fires up, so does dinner service. The kitchen is filled with people of ALL ethnicities. Marshall grabs his first two plates and saunters into the main hall, where minorities of all kinds are being served by whites. This isn’t minatory. It’s exemplary.
It only took one trickle to burst that dam, but DAMN if the rightful balance wasn’t restored.