[Ed note: Spoilers for the fourth episode of Atlanta’s Season 3 below.]
What would repairs actually look like? That’s what this week’s Atlanta episode, titled “The Big Payback,” attempted to depict, and Justin Bartha, who plays Mashall Johnson, a run-of-the-mill middle-aged white guy, is at the center of it. Bartha is known for his secondary roles in films like National Treasure, Gigliand The Hangoverbut he really excels as the lead in this episode and it’s one of his best performances to date.
In Atlanta, he plays a man in denial about his family’s impact on slavery, and viewers got to watch his character face the truth about his ancestors. In less than an hour, Bartha’s character goes from desperation and affliction to slowly coming to terms with the past and surrendering to his new life as a server at a restaurant in order to pay his due. “For Marshall, he goes through the five stages of grievance within the episode,” Bartha tells Complex. “It’s willful ignorance. I started thinking about it as a very fine line between willful ignorance and curated innocence, or whether the spectrum of bad faith or a conscious bad faith with this feeling of self-imposed powerlessness.”
The episode was written by Francesca Sloane and directed by Hiro Murai, and it’s a unique exploration of what reparations could mean for our society if it ever comes to fruition. The characters in Episode 4 are learning about a Black man winning a lawsuit against a Tesla executive whose relatives enslaved the man’s ancestors (similar to a recent racism lawsuit against the car company). “The Big Payback” is another reminder of the deep symbolism and historical references that have made Atlanta the show that it is, especially in Season 3. While Earn, Darius, and the rest of the crew are learning what it’s like to be Black in Europe, Murai brings viewers back to America to show what the future could bring.
“I was a huge fan of the show. I’d seen every episode and it was one of the few shows that I would watch in real-time. When I got a call to meet with the casting director, I was like, ‘I would’ve done a walk-on background part in Atlanta,’” Bartha says. “I honestly think it’s one of the great shows of our times. So I was as surprised as you were when you turned on that episode.”
Complex hopped on a call with Bartha before the episode premiered, and we broke down the intricacies of this story, as well as what it was like for him as an actor to take on this role.