Justin Bartha On the Psychological Horror of Atlanta’s Reparations Episode
After a four-year absence, Atlanta’s third season wasted no time flipping the bird to convention once again. Brilliant and maddening, sometimes in the same episode, the FX comedy has consistently confounded viewers with the topics it has addressed and the execution of its ideas. In its first three episodes, the new season has offered its own distinctively bizarre slant on the history of Georgia’s Lake Lanier, the tragic story of Devonte Hart and his siblings, blackface in Europe, and self-centered allyship. With the fourth episode, “The Big Payback” (already the second major narrative deviation of the season), Atlanta went there by making its own case for reparations. The vessel for this journey is a face many viewers will recognize.
The episode, directed by Hiro Murai and written by Francesca Sloane, follows Marshall Johnson—who’s played by Justin Bartha, best known for his role as Doug Billings in The Hangover trilogy. Marshall is the average white guy: a blank page without any strong opinions. He lives a milquetoast existence, save for the fact that he exists in a world where white people can be sued for reparations if it’s determined that their families owned slaves. Marshall’s life is upended when Sheniqua Johnson (Melissa Youngblood), whose great-grandparents were enslaved by his family (for 12 years, of course), hits him with a $3 million lawsuit. After believing—and perhaps secretly hoping—it wouldn’t happen to him, Marshall quickly spirals in the face of Sheniqua’s aggressive strategy to make him pay up. Atlanta continues to lean into psychological horror, and “The Big Payback” shows how terrifying accountability can be for white people, especially when it involves material consequences.
Bartha, who most recently portrayed the former New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau on Epix’s Godfather of Harlem, is an Atlanta fan who eagerly awaited the show’s return. “I’ve been excited for it to come back, so I didn’t care if it was a background role,” he says. Bartha spoke to GQ about the episode’s many nuances, what he loves about Atlanta, and, of course, reparations.
So how did you end up with this role?
The casting director—a legendary casting director, Alexa Fogel—reached out just to see if I’d want to meet about this secret part in Atlanta and I immediately said yes. Like a lot of people, it’s one of my favorite shows. I didn’t think much would come of it, but they called and said they wanted me to do it. I didn’t even read the full script until they told me they wanted me to do it and I just went from there.
Since you watch Atlanta, you kind of knew what you were signing up for without knowing exactly what you were signing up for, right?
Well I knew it would be special no matter what. I honestly think it’s one of the great shows of our time and that’s why I knew it would be interesting and thought provoking. And that’s exactly the kind of work that I want to do.
Do you have a favorite episode?
It’s tough to pick a favorite. I appreciate what people call the “bottle episodes” like “Teddy Perkins” and “B.A.N.” I think with “B.A.N.,” with the kind of Charlie Rose-esque interview, that’s when I first realized the bravery of Donald [Glover] and the rest of the cast and crew. It showed how they’re able to tell these interpersonal stories about the main characters and that there was kind of a bigger umbrella meaning to the entire series. And also, that it could go anywhere, but was tethered to a very strong, deep, specific vision—which is something we’re all looking for in our art. Sometimes, the entertainment we consume can be on the spectrum of mindless—and that’s fine, too—but this was challenging and entertaining at the same time. And that’s pretty rare.
You play Marshall Johnson, this average guy who’s separated from his wife but trying to work that out. At first it seems like he’s avoiding a debt collector, but we slowly begin to understand the nature of the debt. What was your reaction to finding out where this episode was going?
I had an idea of what was going to happen, but honestly, I probably cried from joy and gratitude that I was given this opportunity to be a part of this [laughs]. And then I googled the writer, Francesca Sloane, because the script was just so good and deceptively simple in the way it was written. Then I read it again and again and it was so exciting that I could be a part of it that I got to work on trying to break it down. As an actor, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it.
But that being said, like the finished product, it takes a few viewings to really get all of the tiny intricacies that are in that script and direction. I worked so hard on that performance to really layer in different things. Because what this guy is going through could seem broad at first: “Oh hey, it’s the reparations episode. It’s this normal guy, how does he react?” But it’s balanced between his personal reality of wife, job, kid, housing, meeting up with this societal reality that he’s never quite acknowledged before because he’s been blind to it. It’s this awakening to the greater reality. So the more I read it, the more I saw how these things weave into each other, and how I was going to have to structure the performance.
You can see early on that Marshall is a little bit indifferent to the circumstances because, in my interpretation, he didn’t necessarily think it could happen to him. He didn’t care if it happened to a Tesla exec because that money is a drop in the bucket to him. But how did you find the balance of playing Marshall as someone who’s not a victim, but does find himself in a tight situation?
I don’t think he looks at himself as a victim, but I think part of the thesis of this season is that we’re all haunted by this ghost: white, Black, every color. And I think that with Marshall, the main foundation is that he’s this everyman; this man in the middle. He’s never had to face this ghost and probably never really given it that much thought. He listens to podcasts, he understands what’s going on, but he’s within his personal reality bubble, and I think he’s stuck there like I think the majority of all of us are. And when it comes to being faced with this societal reality, he goes on a journey of grief. He keeps it at bay, then he goes through the denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, and then finally, in a way, acceptance of what the reality is. And, like most of us, I don’t think he can go on until it literally lands on his front door. Or at our job with a megaphone—until it actually starts to affect us.
Do you think this episode illustrates how some white people are unable to face the uncomfortable truths about race and racism in America? Marshall’s even reluctant to have the conversation with his daughter because he doesn’t have the language.
I just don’t think he’s equipped. I think he’s lived in that bubble—and when I say we, I don’t just mean white people. Humans have a hard time taking any journey unless they’re forced to. What’s interesting about his relationship with his daughter is that the way he deals with her is kind of how he deals with the reparations that are coming. Or the way he deals with his wife. He doesn’t know how to. He doesn’t have the tools to actually do it. And you can actually see that his daughter is probably more willing to face reality and more curious about it than Marshall is. That’s all baked into the story as well. He’s living within his comfort—and I wouldn’t say that he’s happy. I’d say that he’s kind of at a rebuilding point in his life, and the crossroads of the societal reality and his personal reality that we see is the beginning of this journey, from the second he steals that cookie from the coffee shop.
He even spouts false equivalence: “Our family was enslaved during the Byzantine empire. Should I fly to Hungary and ask for money?” Do you think that illustrates how little thought he’s given to reparations and the lasting effects of slavery?
Yes, that’s not something he considers in his life, and not because he’s a bad person. A big thing with that character was how do you portray this…white guy to kind of get empathy through this journey. Because the stages he has to navigate—and not consciously; he’s being pushed in the way we all need to be pushed—so you can’t make him a person who has strong political beliefs. As he would put it, he’s just a guy trying to get by. He’s just trying to take care of his family and do his job, but he’s never had to consider that even that is a privilege.
Because when he takes a cookie, he doesn’t have to think of the repercussions or what went into making that cookie. He just gets to go: “Oh shit, free cookie? That’s maybe a little bit of a good omen.” He would never think, “Oh, if I were Black, this would definitely be a lot worse if I were caught. What went into the sugar in this cookie? What is the company that distributes it? Who are the workers that make it in the factory? Who am I hurting by not paying for this cookie?” He doesn’t ever have to think about any of these things—and most of us don’t. But that’s a cookie, right? Just that one little metaphor that this episode is just packed with, from top to bottom. It’s overwhelming for this character, so he just eats the cookie.
You had to convey a lot non-verbally to show Marshall’s mounting discomfort, but that’s where a lot of the humor comes from. How do you get that type of expressive performance right?
I approach everything a little bit like a silent film. So much of the humor comes out of that awkwardness of what happens when we let the greater reality in. There’s not much humor, per se, until that first meeting. When they call the meeting in the office and we see the one woman in front of Marshall let out: “This is bullshit!” and he jerks and watches her rub her neck. Those little moments let you know this is a beat that’s an opening of the reality into the physicality of this character. Now we have to follow how the greater reality and his personal reality are going to start melding and awkwardly conflicting with each other.
I think a lot of the work was just finding those beats and that crossover beforehand, and I talked with the director, Hiro, a lot about this. It’s inherently going to be funny to see a white person have to deal with this. And I think the other interesting part of it is that because he’s not on either side of the ideological spectrum—he’s not a guy who’s going to be super angry—he’s just all of us, in a way. Seeing his two worlds collide and seeing him running from the truth. I think there’s humor in someone trying to stay in denial.
My favorite scenes are when Sheniqua’s family has occupied his front yard and when he tries to solicit advice from his Black co-worker, Lester, but then there’s a smash cut to him asking his white coworkers for help because he clearly didn’t like what he heard. Do you have a favorite scene?
When he asks Lester (Exie Booker), his Black co-worker, what to do in the snack room, we tried to fold in as much of the personal reality as possible with every beat. That scene can play out in a linear way, but in the middle of this crisis Marshall is going through, you see Lester offer him a potato chip [laughs]. Marshall has to figure out how to get what he wants out of this person, which is kind of his bargaining stage—which is also funny, because he’s really bargaining with himself and the world with how to not face reality, all while seeing little bits of reality sink in. As broad as those moments can be, trying to keep them as grounded as possible are my favorite moments.
So yeah, the cut from Lester to his white co-workers is a brilliant editing choice that was in the script. But also just seeing Lester’s reality—”I’m eating this chip just like you used to be able to”—of watching this guy squirm. Those little moments, like the rubbing of the neck and these objective truths that he’s trying to run away from are what I think is so identifiable.
How did the encounter with E at the hotel—which, by that point, became this house for broken dreams and people—impact Marshall?
That was the most difficult scene for me and something Hiro and I would talk a lot about. Because I looked at that hotel lobby as purgatory. He’s entered into this depressive phase and this is the real crossroads where he’s been dropped off into the new reality. And we meet E, who is further down the path of his awakening: he’s at acceptance. So when Marshall sits down with E, it was interesting trying to listen to that wonderful actor, Tobias Segal, talk about the ghosts of slavery and his own acceptance. Marshall isn’t quite there yet. He’s picking up certain aspects of what he’s doing, but it leads to him looking at Sheniqua’s Instagram and seeing her personal reality. He clicks on a video and sees her playing with her kids, then suddenly it hits him: “Wait a second, I’ve never actually acknowledged this woman’s reality.”
It’s like how most people don’t truly empathize with what’s going on in the world because it’s too painful. What’s amazing about that scene is that you just sit in this moment where he’s absorbing this other white man’s future path of acceptance. He gets to a point of being able to see Sheniqua’s reality—and then immediately, the shock of the suicide. That’s where he has to make a decision: Does he go that route or go down the route of acceptance in a different way?
When did you make the connection that E is the same person who appears in the season’s opening scene?
I hadn’t seen the first episode, but we’d talked about how there’s connective tissue throughout the entire season. It’s not just an Easter egg because it’s the same actor. It’s almost like, “Is this guy a ghost?” the way he became a ghost in that Lake Lanier scene. I believe the first episode is the thesis of the season: This idea that white is where you are and it’s when you are. It’s kind of that path of acceptance. For Marshall, this is where he is right now with being a white man. And E is further down that path—he’s at the end of it. Then he becomes that ghost that’s haunted him. But I think so much of that line from the first episode—”Being white blinds you”—is in this episode. It’s about being able to open your eyes and start down that path to acceptance.
At the end, we see Marshall working as a server at a restaurant. Did he lose his last job or has he taken on a second job to help pay his debt? Because we see that it’s being taken out of his paycheck.
[Laughs] That’s up for interpretation. I’m not sure I want to go that deep into exactly what’s going on, but I would say that’s his job. He’s a server now. And I think part of the depth of this brilliant script and brilliant direction by Hiro and his whole crew are those layers to the story. So I think when it comes to that epilogue of seeing Marshall as a server in this restaurant, you can think back to what his job was before. We don’t know much about it, but we know that it involved him looking at a picture of three different types of shrimp. So it was most likely a low-skill job that he got paid pretty well for. So now he’s a server—you could say a low-skilled job, whatever that is—but also, if we look at it through the lens of COVID-19 and how our perception has changed, you could say it’s an essential job.
Maybe he’s gone down a notch if you look at it through another lens, but he’s out of that office where he probably wasn’t very happy in the first place. He seems a little more happy because he’s among the people; he isn’t just in the cubicle by himself. He’s on his feet. He’s friends with a Latino dude and there’s an interesting joke there where the guy says, “At least you’re not a busboy” after he calls Marshall white trash. But this is a guy who definitely seems more at peace; he’s at a place of acceptance. And then he goes into that restaurant to serve a predominantly Black patronage.
I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but California’s reparations task force recently voted to limit reparations to the descendants of free and enslaved Black people who were in the United States during the 19th century. After this episode, I feel the need to ask how you feel about the concept of reparations being given out on state and federal levels, the latter of which is apparently more difficult to suss out?
I don’t know much about the California bill, but obviously the idea of reparations has been around for hundreds of years. Personally, I hadn’t given it much thought until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article in The Atlantic about eight years ago. He’s obviously one of our great writers, but you can’t argue against what he laid out. Within that piece, there’s the context of Israel and I’m a Jewish man—and not like the wonderful actress, Madison Hatfield, says in the episode: “Sixty-nine percent Ashkenazi Jew,” I’m 100 percent Jew [laughs]—so when it knocks on your front door and you read about Israel, what was done after the war, and you’re left with those words, you can’t ignore that. So I think it’s all about opening up the conversation, and that article, in modern times, opened up the conversation in a real way.
It’s obviously incredibly difficult to implement, but we are seeing the bill that you just spoke about. We know that [Senator] Cory Booker in New Jersey has brought up reparations. Who knows exactly how, if ever, it will be taken seriously by our political system. I guess it depends on people’s awareness and awakening to how it’s still in effect today. But one of the things about this episode that I’m so proud of is exactly your question: It’s a conduit to actually talk about it, which is kind of the hardest part at first, and then we go from there if the people push for it.
It’s difficult to say what each season of Atlanta is about without having seen most of it, but at this juncture, the third season has had more narrative detours than its predecessors. How do you feel about television that doesn’t necessarily advance the plot in a conventional manner?
I guess it’s kind of personal, but I find it exciting. I get a little bored by the constant linear narrative of everything that’s out there. I’ve always loved anthology shows and I think, in a way, this season of Atlanta is almost an extension of Black Mirror, which was an extension of The Twilight Zone, which has been around forever. I’ve always loved those types of shows and, personally, I’ve heard from a couple of other writers that some people on Twitter get annoyed that [Atlanta] doesn’t do this or doesn’t do that. I don’t understand it, I think they’ve created these beloved characters that we all want to live with and watch their stories.
But I think when we’re dealing with the true talent of what this show is able to display—when you’re talking about Donald and Stephen Glover; when you’re talking about writers like Francesca Sloane; when you’re talking about Hiro Murai and his entire crew; when you’re talking about all of the cast, writers, and producers—this is a rare, special show that we, if we’re fans of television and entertainment in general, need to just pause, watch, and see what they have to say. Because not only is it interesting, it’s important, it’s entertaining, it’s brilliant, and it’s art. They’ve earned the right to show an entire season and then have viewers look back and be like, “Oh wow, look at the way this all connects. Look at what they’re doing.” It’s not a full anthology show, it’s not a full episodic show, it’s almost kind of a new thing that we should just enjoy and have conversations about before we judge.
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