Atlanta S3 E4: The Big Payback – “Les Fleur”

Jayson Buford and Abe Beame return to break down an 'Atlanta' episode upended by both historic and fictional reparations.
By    April 11, 2022
Photo via FX/Hulu

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Jayson Buford isn’t here for the ‘Because The Internet’ revisionism.

Abe Beame believes Jake Gyllenhaal’s neck veins deserve a best supporting actor nod in Michael Bay’s ‘Ambulance’.

“Slavery is not past. It is not a mystery. It is not a historical curiosity. It is a cruel, unavoidable ghost that haunts in ways that we can’t see.”

When I am deep in thought, somewhere between two Montauk Ale’s and one bong rip, I come to wonder why the chips seem so stacked against me. It’s not because of so-called financial illiteracy. It’s because, when I was born, I became another in the line of Black men in my family who are followed by the ghost of slavery. That same ghost that Frederick Douglas had. The same ghost that Harriet Tubman had. Ms. Sojourner Truth had it too. That same ghost that Shaniqua from this recent Atlanta episode has.

We open with a white man named Marshall (Justin Bartha) who is as average as breaking even on the golf course. He has a cubicle, picks his daughter up from school, and is thinking of getting back together with his ex-wife. If there is a definition of the average white man in a vest, it has the picture of Marshall Johnson on it. While his regular-seeming life is unfolding, it is upended by a historic and fictional reparations case where a man who owned a woman’s family had to pay her back. The gist of it is this: A white Tesla investor is being sued. If the descendants of the enslaved can prove that a white citizens was their ancestor’s master, they now have the right to not only get their 40 acres and a mule, but to get the green currency we call U.S. dollars.

As he begins his daily activities, he is dumbfounded to learn that a woman named Shaniqua is demanding that he pay $10,000 to her. She shows up at his apartment with plans to remodel while live streaming it on her Instagram. She shows up at his office with a megaphone. Marshall is feeling the pressure. Donald Glover has Shaniqua be a socially inferior but morally superior free safety in this episode. She roams around wreaking havoc for Marshall. She’s demanding the money that Marshall owes her and isn’t doing it quietly. Watching Marshall whimper is funny. After all, he is a white man with no politics to him, except the politics of apathetic moderation. His life is being made into a cautionary tale now. He’s forced to confront the horrors of his family history. It makes this downfall a comedic one in the same vein as A Serious Man but in no way shape or form are we ever rooting for Marshall.

After deciding to have a family cookout in front of Marshall’s home, he decides to check into a hotel. A white man is at the hotel, presumably for the same “get out of dodge” thing that Marshall is there for, and he begins a speech. In one of Glover’s best written speeches, he talks about how slavery is a ghost for Black people. It is. It’s what we can’t get away from. It’s the start of a systemic abuse that has happened for generations and remains alive to each day. It’s why Brother Malcolm changed his name from Little to X. It’s the ghost of our master whipping us until our scars got too visible to be seen in the house. It’s Thomas Jefferson sexually enslaving Sally Hemings. It’s the ghost of us being denied our acres and mule. White men like Marshall Johnson don’t just have more money than Black people because of circumstance. They have more money than Black people because of slavery.

Here is the thing though: These are facts any Black person knows. You’d be surprised how many whites do not. Atlanta used to be a show about Blackness and its absurdity – in dealing with white folks, themselves, and the system of capitalism that keeps us in the same quicksand as usual. This past episode, Atlanta turned its attention to the whites. It’s a far cry from the episode where Earn goes back to his past or where the white people function as background, as opposed to the central plot. It’s a fantastic story and their funniest episode to date but the lens is frustrating. It’s also not about Shaniqua at all. She’s not given an arc; she’s given some highlights. Letting her win is not a substitute for writing her with intelligence. The gaze is a white one; it’s predicated on teaching people a lesson. That’s never been what made this show great.

I have my doubts about He thinks Black people don’t like him because he is smart. I don’t like him because he is a pretentious cornball. But this episode has its strengths. It speaks to a truth about how white people view Black angst and pain. Marshall Johnson (Justin Bartha) thinks that the reparations that Shaniqua’s asking for are too much. He didn’t do it. His ancestors did. When Marshall realizes that his time is up, it is not from the advice of his Black co-worker, but when a fellow white (the reason for the quote above) who seems to be going through the same predicament as Marshall, shoots himself dead in the pool. Marshall wises up. The ghost that follows Shaniqua is too much for him to bear. In the end, Shaniqua gets a fancy dinner on Marshall. It’s a start. The food looks great. And Marshall is dressed like a busboy, ready to be in service for the Black family. That won’t nearly be enough. There’s a whole generation, in fact, two of them, that they owe us. They owe us education, money, land, and our psyche back. I just wish Glover cared more about the angst of Shaniqua’s family. Here to talk about this with me is Abe Beame. Abe, what’s up?

Abe: Oh brother. Tough to decide if this was ok to comment on or just kind of stammer nervously and rub my hands together as I gently remind anyone who will listen that my family was expelled from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century and spent most of our time here in the Lower East Side and Canada selling smoked fish and shmatas. My feelings about the episode are predictably complicated. They literally quoted yet another Chappelle Show sketch. “Les Fleur”, the Minnie Riperton song they used to close the episode is a direct Jordan Peele quote. It dropped the day of an all-time troll interview. He’s leaning into every criticism of the show and himself and pumping the volume to 111, and yet there were moments in this that were so powerful I’ll never forget them.

I’m wondering if these anthology episodes are building to something, if the worlds will collide, if they all are going to hang together to tell us a story along with this season, I have no idea but it has this puzzle box quality that is on par with Lost. The one thing I’d recommend to anyone who was mad on an initial viewing is watch it again. I hate to be that guy when discussing what ostensibly is a half-hour comedy, but I’ve appreciated every episode this season more on a second viewing . I’m rambling and my brain is on fire. Jay, help me focus. It was an episode about repayment, about solving this structural bullshit and explaining to white folks how good they have it and how much they take for granted. What did you make of Justin Bartha’s plight?

Jay: It reminded me of watching someone keep sinking in only the most inane ways possible. What I felt was interesting is his first instinct is to ask the Black co-worker for advice that he does not take. He, of course, accepts the advice from the white co-worker who tells him to fight it. Bartha is excellent in this. He has a “why me?” attitude that is only matched by Lakers fans who don’t understand why they’ve been terrible this season. He’s so uninspiring that it makes you angry. It’s never been easier not to feel bad for someone. I have my issues with this episode but Bartha was excellent. What do you think?

Abe: Yeah I mean the magic trick is you somehow emphasize with him as he’s getting his due comeuppance, at least that’s how I felt? They set it up like horror, or at least a Grimm fairytale, there’s so much I’d like to ask Glover about. It sucks he fucking interviewed himself the day of this episode and didn’t address it. I’m just gonna soft toss this underhand, what did you make of Shaniqua and why do you think they set up that specific character in the manner they did?

Jay: Glover is a complicated man. The way he makes Shaniqua look is often a trope with darker skinned Black women. They never contain the nuances that his other characters have. With that being said, Shaniqua is hilarious and speaks to what I said in the review: There is a ghost that haunts us. This is Marshall’s reckoning in the form of a Black woman that is getting back what her family is owed. How far are you willing to go? Marshall got off easier. I think they set her character up as a foil, as this free safety, this kind of heroine who is functioning as an antagonizer. I wish they let us into her psyche and her nuances. I liked the scene where Marshall looks at her Instagram and it has Shaniqua being a Mom. Give me more of that. It’s less cheesy than the mad Black woman trope. How about you?

Abe: Yeah. I think you nailed it. You start with this character who is serving as a stereotype, and the rules, life being inverted forces this “normal” privileged white guy to consider her as human being. It’s masterfully done. The premise is supposed to disconcert I think. Three million sounds like such an insane number. But I think what our narrator, or whatever you want to call the specter from the opening of the first episode, puts it succinctly: Ultimately, this guy and his kid are going to be fine.

I’m sure there’s some ungodly discrepancy between white people and any other group of people in America where the annual income exceeds the 15% Barta is having his check garnished at the end. The ultimate cost of this reparations scenario that would never actually happen is privileged whites would live like everyone else, without the stepping stool of generational wealth. It’s just fantastically constructed. I hate that it had to come in this format that will force anyone watching to yell at their TV or laptop: “WHERE THE FUCK IS PAPER BOI??!?”

Jay: That’s the problem with this season of Atlanta. We didn’t like this show because of Glover and his need for prestige, we liked it because of the work of Brian Tyree Henry. This feels antithetical to why I enjoyed this show. It instead feels like Glover’s want for Sopranos recognition. That’s fine. But do that on your own time. Don’t do it in replace of a show that had a great combination of absurdity and realism. He’s tipped those scales.

Abe: Hard to argue. Glover has his own fucking channel coming on Amazon, wish he could just set up the Black Mirror for race he’s embedded in this season of Atlanta, because what I just watched was so fucking good, but it’s like he can’t help himself as a provocateur asshole performatively making everyone recognize how complicated and brilliant he is. I have hopes there is a grand design to this season and it’s going to culminate in something bigger and more meaningful than these alternating bottle episodes, but if not, if we can isolate this effort on its own merits, it feels like the one you send off for Emmy consideration. Fucking brilliant and infuriating. Not unlike its creator.

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