Justin Bartha On the Psychological Horror of the ‘Atlanta’ Reparations Episode


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.



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