On “The Big Payback,” the latest episode of Atlanta, the idea of the “woke” white man gets explored even further.
We’re all in the same boat — at least that’s what Earnest contends in “Three Slaps,” the season three premiere of the FX series Atlanta. Seated across from an unnamed Black man — who viewers later discover is named “Black” in the post-episode credits — Earnest divulges in a tale of a self-governed Black town that was drowned to form a lake beneath the boat. A paranoid Black, who recalls once swimming in the same lake as a child and felt like he was being pulled below, grows concerned about the lake being haunted, which Earnest affirms.
Earnest’s explanation then turns into a montage about the town being whitewashed, although he claims that former Black residents were financially secure enough to be “almost white.”
“With enough blood and money, anyone can be white. It’s always been that way,” Earnest explains to Black. “But the thing about being white is…it blinds you. It’s easy to see the Black man is cursed because you’ve separated yourself from him. But you don’t know you’re enslaved just like him. Cold whiteness. Hypothermic. You lose logic. You see the blood and you think someone else is bleeding. Everyone is screaming at you to turn the machine off, but you can’t hear ‘em – you can’t even hear yourself. See, we’re cursed too. We’re cursed too.”
The “curse of whiteness” seeps into the new season of Atlanta, as “Three Slaps” writer (and frequent Atlanta writer) Stephen Glover said during the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
“White people have blind spots, obviously to race and things that are going on,” Glover said. “They’re affected by this, too. It’s not just Black people who are going through this and having a hard time. You’re actually affected by it, too.”
At the center of this “curse of whiteness” are primarily white men, particularly those that one might describe as “woke.” Throughout Atlanta, the idea of “woke” white men has been explored — from white characters being satirical caricatures of societal wokeness to becoming tragic, martyr-like figures. The series began with innocent, albeit tone-deaf glimpses of wokeness, turning into folklore of “progressive” white men who succumb – sometimes fatally – to their privilege in the latest season.
The season one episode “Juneteenth” first explores this with Craig, a white optometrist who presses Earn about his African lineage and holds a spoken word poetry jam where he claims to be “haunted” by Jim Crow. Unable to take Craig’s audacity, Earn snaps towards the end of the episode while in the heat of an argument with Craig’s pretentious Black wife, telling Craig that he can’t simply visit Africa because he’s “broke.”
The presence of woke white men has intensified in the third season, as seen in “The Old Man and the Tree,” when London party-goer Socks mistakes an interaction between Darius and a Korean woman, MK, as racist. Attempting to befriend Darius, Socks’ white guilt takes over as he likens MK to being on “some real 12 Years A Slave shit,” corrals fellow white party attendees to hear his exaggerated details of the conversation and, ultimately, turn on MK and pounce on her. It’s a comedic exchange that showcases the type of performative ally ship white people who call themselves woke would do, pretending to support someone when they could actually care less.
In the new episode “The Big Payback,” Earnest returns and the woke white man trope gets more sinister. Written by Francesca Sloane, the episode follows Marshall Johnson, a white everyman who lives in Atlanta while separated from his wife, Natalie. Transporting his daughter, Katie, between two households while maintaining his office job at the fictionalized “Superior Shrimp,” Johnson tries to ignore news of a rise in restitution clauses targeting white people whose ancestors were slave owners. Through the law, descendants of slaves are able to sue descendants of slave owners for long overdue reparations.
Tension builds as a mysterious vehicle follows Johnson throughout a workday, and the restitution law rattles Johnson’s white co-workers who are told that the company is having layoffs because of another reparations suit. Black employees congregate in celebration of the new clause, as white co-workers worry about consequential doom, rushing to take genealogy tests. Having his own blind spot, Marshall continues to ignore the issue until it literally shows up at his front door. While cooking dinner for Katie at home, Marshall unexpectedly receives a visit from Sheniqua Johnson, a Black woman whose great-great grandparents were slaves of Marshall’s great-great-grandfather in St. Louis for 12 years. Marshall rushes to get Sheniqua to leave his apartment, as she declares to sue him for three million dollars.
Shaken by the encounter, Marshall goes to work the next day and asks for advice from a Black male colleague, Lester, when a megaphone-toting Sheniqua appears at his job to demand her reparations. Marshall soon finds that he’s unable to escape Sheniqua, who later hosts a barbeque on Marshall’s porch upon his return from his former house with Natalie, who wants to finalize their divorce so Marshall’s impending financial straits don’t put her at risk.
Down on his luck, Marshall checks into a hotel where he’s tormented by a commercial of a Black and Jewish lawyer defending Black restitution clients. He goes to the hotel lobby for a drink to escape his woes where he encounters Earnest, who says he just arrived from out of town (although he’s misplaced his luggage). Earnest correctly guesses from Marshall’s emotional state that both are “in the same boat,” to which Marshall expounds on his dilemma with Sheniqua.
Marshall insists that his hands are clean despite his ancestors’ wrongdoing, saying that white people don’t deserve the financial reckoning they’re being put through. Earnest pushes back with a monologue with equal weight as the season’s opening boat scene.
“We were treating slavery as if it were a mystery buried in the past,” Earnest says. Something to investigate if we chose to. Now that history has a monetary value, confession is not absolution.”
“Slavery is not past and it’s not a mystery,” Earnest continues. “It is not a historical curiosity. It is a cruel, unavoidable ghost that haunts in a way we can’t see. None of us are perfect.”
Earnest tries to alleviate Marshall’s struggle, saying that if Marshall pays Sheniqua restitution, he’ll lift the burden from Katie, who will have to build her wealth from the ground-up, but at least she’ll be relieved of paying for the crimes of her slave-owning ancestors.
“The curse has been lifted from her. All of us. We were running from it, now we’re free,” Earnest says before excusing himself to stand by a pool outside the hotel. Marshall visits Sheniqua’s Instagram page to humanize her despite previously feeling harassed, and Earnest shockingly shoots himself in the head, falling in the pool.
“The Big Payback” ends with Marshall being laid off from his job to work as a restaurant server, and paying 15 percent of restitution taxes to Sheniqua from his paycheck. The episode concludes with a societal reimagination where Black Americans are financially equal to white Americans, who are stripped of their wealth to pay for their ancestors’ wrongdoings.
In exploring the “curse of whiteness” within this season, Atlanta has offered a more poignant take on whiteness than it has in previous episodes, primarily using these woke white men not just as comedic fodder but as a poignant commentary on race — all while giving Black viewers the “fairytale” we’ve dreamed of.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a contributing news writer for Okayplayer with bylines at Billboard, MTV News, NYLON, Recording Academy and more. Read her mind on Twitter at @hernameisjae.