'Atlanta' Is the Most Prophetic Show on Television

Donald Glover’s creation is always good at seeing the future. A new standalone episode analyzes reparations at a time when they are becoming a real possibility in California.

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Illustration by Chineme Elobuike/Thrillist; photos courtesy of FX
Illustration by Chineme Elobuike/Thrillist; photos courtesy of FX

As Donald Glover’s opus Atlanta edges closer to the midway point of its third season, there’s an intriguing pattern that forms when you examine how spot-on the series has been at touching on the videos we make viral, the trends we run into the ground, and the world around us as it changes. Many times, Atlanta plays as a skilled mime, perfectly nailing each subtle movement and nuance in recreating the memes that were featured in this season’s first episode, itself an examination of the kind of life that Devonte Hart had to live before disappearing. Oftentimes Atlanta, in its efforts to become the “Black fairytale” that Glover and company envisions, will create an episode of television that’s eerily similar to what’s going on in real life. Case in point: Their seemingly wild (albeit sound in theory) standalone episode on reparations from slavery, “The Big Payback,” comes out roughly a week after discussions in California are examining who would even be eligible for payments. Life imitating art this is not; this is the brains behind Atlanta either a) having a Delorean stashed somewhere to get all the information à la old man Biff in Back to the Future Part II, or b) they are just that damn good at predicting the future.

For many, reparations—which, in this instance, would be payments that Black people would receive today because their ancestors suffered as slaves—felt like a great idea that they’d never see manifest in their lifetime. Where would the funds even come from? Who would be eligible? The latter question is exactly what’s being discussed in California, where reports from March 30 state that California’s reparations task force voted that Black Californians who can prove a direct lineage to enslaved ancestors would be able to take part in a groundbreaking initiative into reparation, which their motions says is “determined by an individual being an African American descendant of a chattel enslaved person or the descendant of a free Black person living in the US prior to the end of the 19th century.”

Two years ago, a bill authored by Assemblymember Shirley Weber (who is now California’s secretary of state) was signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, giving “special consideration” to Black Americans who are related to enslaved ancestors. There’s still a ways to go before actual cash could potentially hit people’s hands, with the reparations task force set to release a proposal in June 2023; there still isn’t a firm understanding of how any Black Americans in California who can prove their ancestry would get paid, but that’s where Atlanta comes in.

Justin Bartha as Marshall Johnson. | FX Networks

While not a dream-within-a-dream à la the Season 3 opener “Three Slaps,” “The Big Payback” and the season premiere both take place outside of the main story involving Earn (Glover), Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), and Van (Zazie Beetz), throwing us into an Atlanta of quite possibly a not-so-distant future. The episode follows Marshall—perfectly played by Justin Bartha of the Hangover trilogy and The New Normal—during a time when CEOs are running scared after successful reparations cases are hitting the news. On the day Marshall successfully shoplifts some cookies and sees positive inroads in his estranged relationship with his wife, he finds out an awful truth: his family owned slaves, with his great-great-grandfather owning the great-great-grandfather of Sheniqua (Melissa Youngblood), who has been calling his phone and following him throughout the day.

Marshall’s life hits a 180: His wife wants to finalize their divorce (so her finances don’t take a hit), Marshall has to look over his shoulder before leaving his job or his home, and he has a $3 million bill dangling over his head, which he finds unfair because he’s being punished for stuff he didn’t do. (The irony being that Black people—anyone who wasn’t born one particular way—are immediately judged and mistreated due to things they didn’t do, like pick their race or gender or sexuality.) Marshall has to pay the piper at the end of the day—reparations for slavery are legal, you know—in installments (think paying back a college loan, only as a waiter and with the ability to change the percentage when you want) and we’re left contemplating, “Well, hell, maybe there is a future where reparations for slavery is a part of our society.”

For those paying attention, Atlanta has long been setting up for episodic excursions like “The Big Payback.” From “B.A.N.” to “Teddy Perkins,” Atlanta has been forcing audiences to remove themselves from the main story. Rewards include a cavalcade of commercials that perfectly recreate the drivel you’re fed during the day, or a horrific tale that touches on parental abuse and the ills of celebrity. Neither of those episodes furthered the main story, and both have been accepted as some of Atlanta’s best. The ante has been upped in Season 3, where we’ve already jumped ahead in time and are reacquainting ourselves with the new Earn, Alfred, Van, and Darius. Fans may want to get to their stories ASAP, but like Biggie said, “The more money you make, the more problems you get.” The question is, where do these episodes exist? “Three Slaps” was a dream Earn was having; could “The Big Payback” exist in his head as well, another “Black fairytale” he’s having while living lavishly (and unfulfilled) in Europe? We have the rest of Season 3—and potentially parts of Season 4—to find out.

“The Big Payback,” which was written by Francesca Sloane (who is also working on Glover’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith series for Amazon Prime Video), and “Three Slaps” find Atlanta pushing the boundaries for a series that already felt unconfined. Almost midway through this penultimate season, viewers are unsure what to expect on the other side of that cold open. That’s a testament to the risks Glover and crew are willing to take to get these stories heard. Black shows have tackled the reparations conversation before, but never to this degree. It’s hard to think of a series on television right now that would dare go this far, and when you couple that with the fact that these conversations are starting to actually pop up in your news feeds, it’s hard to tell if any show can match Atlanta’s prophetic brilliance.

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Writer from Jersey. Pop culture enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter @khal.