In preparation for the release of Donald Glover’s unique, surreal, and critically acclaimed TV show Atlanta, I spoke to Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Alfred, aka Paper Boi – whom the show follows along with Glover’s character Earn, his friend Darius, as Alfred tries to make it as a rapper in Atlanta – home to a rap scene that birthed artists like T.I., Ludacris and the legendary Outkast.
How did you find filming the show?
Man, it’s been a dream, it really has. I know it sounds incredibly cliché, but it’s been a dream. To work with Donald, it’s like going to play with my brother, you know? It’s like a kind of reunion every single time. He really created an environment with this show that really allowed us to be ourselves, that allowed us to play and allowed us to bring our ideas to the table which is something that’s very rare, I think, in the land of TV – especially in the land of TV where the show is predominantly black. I think that Donald allowed us to be as truthful with these characters as we possibly could, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.
Atlanta, as far as most TV shows go, is extremely experimental in that it has a really loose structure – it’s strange in that it starts off with having a clear narrative arc, but then abandons it to explore other things. What’s it like working within that kind of structure?
It’s a breath of fresh air – it’s not often that you get the opportunity to come in with this new idea that people haven’t seen before, to showcase a city that people only know a certain way, and tell these stories that people haven’t really seen. They really gave us a chance to experiment and to play – Donald always refers to the show as ‘Twin Peaks for rappers’, that’s kind of what it is! It’s kinda that thing, it’s completely believable that in this world, people have invisible cars (laughs), it’s completely believable that in this world Justin Bieber is black.
It’s quite absurd, kinda like a parallel universe at times, and we felt that Atlanta is the perfect city to showcase that. I mean Atlanta is still in the south, it’s still in the Bible Belt, it’s in Georgia, which really doesn’t have a history of being that open – and we decided to take that and flip it on its head. Atlanta is a city that has people that reflect me – to me its still a place that is black-owned, it’s like a black Mecca. I’m glad that Donald has created a show that reflects that, and that people are receiving it the way that they are. It does my heart so good, man.
It is a really universal show in that sense; there’s attitudes on display in the show that I’ve encountered in my life, even in the UK. Is there anything that the show has put out there that you identify with in particular?
Yeah, I mean especially in the finale, I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet, but there is a moment where we are approached by police enforcements, and you know – that’s still a struggle that we deal with in this country – living while black, LWB. It’s something that people have really begun to take notice of, I mean not that it hasn’t been around forever but it still exists, and it’s ridiculous. I mean it’s ridiculous, and there’s no apparent place where people can hide from it, and I love that we kind of make fun of that – in the show we point that out, and show how incredibly stupid that is (laughs) – like in the episode B.A.N. there’s the I end up defending what I say in a tweet on a talkshow – and then there’s the fake adverts we made, like the ‘Coconut Crunchos’ one which made people say “woah, did that officer just call that kid ‘sir’?” We really wanted to make sure that we made things that reflected what was going on in our community, and people from any community. I’m glad people have been really going along with it as well, it’s the greatest compliment when people come up to us and say “we really needed this show”.
I love how the show does this; how it uses this absurd atmosphere to parody things like this, and the general treatment of black people in America…
Yeah, and we’re gonna keep going with that. We’re in this space where it’s hard to believe in anything anymore when you don’t feel like you’re being heard. But you know, if for 30 minutes we can come into your living rooms, wherever you are, and really champion for you – and you see yourself in these characters, no matter what country or timezone you’re in and you can say “oh hey, I know that dude” or “I know someone who said that”, then we’d be doing our duty.
Alfred is often misunderstood by people who don’t know him – he struggles to be known in more than one dimension. What would you say is the most important thing to know about Alfred?
That he exists. We’ve lived in a world where the Alfreds aren’t really reflected in this way, we live in a world where we’re told where people like him are criminals, we’re told that they don’t have heart, we’re told that they’re not smart. The Alfreds of the world are constantly walking through life with these kind of microaggressions put upon them, you know what I mean? It’s so easy for you see this dude, like, “okay yeah he’s wearing a gold chain and a button up polo, all of a sudden I’m intimidated”, but you don’t know that he likes Fellini films, you don’t even know that this guy’s favourite movie is Amadeus, you don’t even know that he could be rolling around with a James Baldwin book in his car, you don’t know! And you don’t wanna know.
But the thing I like about Alfred is that he is exactly who he presents himself to be. There’s layers to him, but he presents himself exactly as he is, and he’s a person with big heart, a person who can make you laugh, and a person who will protect his family by any means necessary – I mean he loves his cousin, and it’s very rare that people would let a character like that into their homes in real life, so I like that we created a show where you don’t really have a choice (laughs), like he’s going to come up in your home and show you who he is whether you like it or not and I think that that is progress. I hope it keeps going, and that people let the Alfreds of the world into their homes.
I’ve actually had a lot of white women between the age of 50 and 70 years old come up to me and say that Paper Boi is their favourite character, and that he really resounds with them, and of course my jaw hits the table – I’m like “what? Really?” They always start with something like, ‘I know I’m not your demographic’, and I’m just waiting for the day where we can do away with ‘demographic’ and just say “I fucks with this show, it’s amazing”. I like that it’s happening with this show. It makes me incredibly happy that this show is resounding with so many different people. It makes me very very excited to see where this world is going.
Yeah, well you’ve been renewed for a second season as well – I mean it was a while ago, but congratulations anyway.
Thank you, thank you. I’m excited to see exactly how it’ll unfold.
Especially when it’s so different episode-to-episode, like with the “Value” episode that focuses on Val, “B.A.N.” the interview episode, it’s such a broad variety.
I love that episode with Van. I know lots of black women and women of colour that have gone through that situation. I liked it’s exploration of what female friendship is, and what ‘value’ means – like her friend saying what it means to be ‘valued’ in this world. Coming from a home with four older sisters, and being the uncle of 11 nieces and nephews, I’m just thinking that they need to see this, that there is someone telling this story out there, and somebody knows what they’re going through. And they can sit down and say “no don’t do that! Van why’d you do that, Van why are you angry with her” – I love that it’s this visceral thing that people can watch and be like “noo, did that really happen?” I love that. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a TV experience like that, I’m glad that we’re providing it.
You working on anything else at the moment? What’s going on?
Oh man yeah there’s tons of projects coming up that I’m really excited about, I’m working day to day to do the best I can. Also I’m standing out here championing for Donald right now, with him being cast as Lando Calrissian for Star Wars! I wanna like, run down the streets and throw confetti about, it’s so fantastic that’s happening for him. We’re all one big family, we all talk to each other every day, we’re all constantly checking in with each other and sending each other stupid GIFs, making each other laugh, keeping each other lighthearted on this ride we’re all on together. It’s so much fun.
Now that you mention your other cast members, is there a similar relationship between Alfred, Earn and Darius?
It’s a brotherhood. Not from the same mother and father, but there’s something to be said about this like black brotherhood, you know what I mean? Regardless of where we come from, or what our environment is we’re still black men in the United States of America. We create our brotherhoods wherever we can get them, unite however we can because our walks of life already tell us we’re going to go through the same thing, based on how we look. It’s real easy for us to know that we live in a world that’ll meet us with rejection, with these stereotypes they put upon us. That’s kinda why I like the idea of Alfred’s couch, you know, because it’s just like the kind of therapy that they need. We can go out on this couch out in this field in the middle of Atlanta and sit with my two brothers and talk about anything, from sunflower seeds to (laughs) you know, to Uber drivers. I hope there’s more places in the world where people can do that. It’s important, showcasing that brotherhood that black brotherhood, because sometimes it can feel like you’re alone, that there’s no one championing for you – I feel like Atlanta, with Alfred, Earn and Darius, that we’ve found a way as these three brothers to get on in this life together and hold each other down no matter what.
Atlanta, Saturdays at 10pm, only on FOX.