Justin Bartha was proud to personify white vulnerability in Atlanta

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Justin Bartha wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of becoming the white face of reparations in season four of Atlanta† In fact, he was overjoyed about it. “I mean, honestly, this is going to sound really strange, but I was so happy and grateful to have this opportunity,” he says.

In the second standalone episode of the season, “The Big Payback,” Bartha stars as Marshall, an average white man whose life is turned upside down when descendants of slaves his family owned knock on his door demanding restitution, with specifically $3 million dollars. As demands for reparations suddenly flood the country, Marshall sees white people all around him come face to face with the legacy of slavery and their role in it.

“I wanted to make sure he was an everyone,” Bartha says of Marshall. “He was a person that anyone who looked at — regardless of their skin color or background — could feel a little bit like.” Bartha jumped on the phone with VF to talk about Atlanta Easter eggs, Brooklyn dining and the spirit of slavery.

How did you get involved with this season of? Atlanta

It’s not the most exciting story. Legendary casting director Alexa Vogel reached out to my reps to see if I wanted to read with her. I jumped at the chance because I was already a big fan of the show. I thought there was no way I would be lucky enough to get involved in the show, and then it worked.

Can you tell me about Marshall? He’s not a super conservative or liberal guy – he’s kind of everyone.

You hit him right on the head. My main idea – my instinct from the start – was that Marshall is a man in the middle. He is a passive participant in life. He doesn’t log in, which is again in the script. Like most in the middle, he didn’t take a deep dive and considered his own privilege. He hasn’t had to consider his social reality – he’s just a guy trying to make ends meet. He struggles with his private life, with his ex-wife and his daughter. His work isn’t exactly inspiring, but he does it like a cog in the machine.

It was important [for Marshall] have no political affiliations. He is a bit liberal, but he has no strong beliefs, political or religious. His social views on the surface are to respect everyone, as I think most people in the middle do. He’s probably a bit conflict averse. He lets life happen to him. That was the starting point – the kind of foundation of who this man was.

I loved the cookie metaphor, where Marshall absently stole a cookie at the beginning of the episode. It seemed to really underscore the central argument of the episode and of the advocacy for reparations: “How did you get the things you have?”

The cookie is really the key. When [Marshall] getting that cookie from the coffee shop seems crazy, but the more I deciphered the script, I found three different metaphors to pick from there. He has the privilege of being able to eat the cookie without thinking about what might happen to him. there’s the real one [metaphor of] what is involved in making the cookie. And then there is the greater theft, the theft of slavery. The journey of the cookie is about where this man is [in terms of] taking into account those three different levels of metaphors. He doesn’t consider them at first, and then we can see the three different metaphors sinking into this character as he goes along.

The episode felt a bit like a horror movie to me. What was the most poignant part of filming?

The most important thing I got from actually filming it is the working relationship with [director] Hiro Murai† I cannot sing his praises enough. I think he is one of the best works of today. He directs the first 4 episodes of the season. Although two of them are bottle episodes, they are all connected, especially the two bottle episodes, with the first making up the scene on Lake Lanier where you also have a character who also appears in this episode. I thought the “horror” tone was a little more overt in the first scene of that first episode. Then stylistically it shifts a bit as you get to each new episode, which I think shows how awesome Hiro is. Us [episode] is… I don’t quite see the horror element. Hiro is like Paul Thomas AndersonDavid Lynch† There is a surreal curve and a skew off center.

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