FX has found a winner in their new comedy Atlanta. Conceived and written by Donald “Childish Gambino Glover,” who also stars, it tells the story of a young man, Earnest ‘Earn’ Marks, who hopes his aspiring rap star cousin Alfred ‘Paper Boi’ Miles can help him out of the struggle he’s been in since dropping out of Princeton.
Among the scene-stealers of the show is Paper Boi, brought to life by actor Brian Tyree Henry. The North Carolina native and Morehouse grad plays the reluctant, budding star with equal parts pathos and humor, going behind the stereotype to reveal a much richer truth of a young man trying to find any way to upgrade his circumstances. Though Henry is no rookie – he’s had roles on Broadway in The Book Of Mormon and on HBO in Vice Principals, among other shows – Paper Boi is clearly his breakout role.
WARNING: Mature references
We caught up with Henry to find out how recognition is working for him, the values of a classic education and the real life tragedy that came in the midst of success.
I thought at first that they’d found a guy to come off the street to play Paper Boi, that’s how real the character is. But then I thought, I’ll bet that actor went to Juilliard or something. Turns out, I was close, you went to Yale School Of Drama. Does that education give you the skills to play a character with such accuracy?
That is the best compliment I’ve ever gotten in my life. Thank you for that. I mean, it doesn’t hurt. Yale School of Drama was one of the best times in my life but also the hardest. Alfred reminds me of my family and my homeboys that I grew up with So I just wanted to make sure he was genuine and as relatable as possible because once I read him, I felt like ‘I know this dude.’
I never really paid that much attention to Childish Gambino’s rap career although my niece loves him. But when I saw the show, I was like this dude is an amazing writer. Did you recognize that from the first time you saw the script?
It just jumped off the page to me. I went to college in Atlanta and it’s like my second home. Donald really captured the essence of all that is from the people to the places. He really gave himself to the show.
You’re not new to the rodeo, you’ve done other work. But Atlanta is blowing up on social media. How much has your profile gone up since the first couple of episodes have aired?
That’s what I like about living in New York. I still ride the subway, I still go to my bodega around the corner. It’s really funny just being called Paper Boi when I’m walking down the street. I live between an elementary school and a middle school so I have to make sure I get on the train before they get out or it kinda goes down.
What is it like on the Atlanta set? It looks like it would be a fun place to work.
Man, this is best experience I’ve ever had in my life. From cast to crew, from AD’s to wardrobe to hair and makeup, we are all tight. We are undeniably black AF, it’s the most supportive, most fun loving set I’ve been a part of. And we all still talk. We’ve talked non-stop since we wrapped. It’s family.
We’re used to Black sitcoms being more predictable, but there’s a lot of nuance in this show, particularly in your character. How do you prepare for that when the humor is sometimes pretty subtle?
It’s just kind of the vibe that we all share. There’s a [vibe] between Donald and I and I just want it to always come across that we are family. That that is my cousin. We don’t have a lot of backstory about our lives growing up or what has caused us to have distance over time but it’s playing around and finding a groove between the two of us. And Keith, (Stansfied, who plays Darius), Keith is just the homie.
Are you already feeling like you’re becoming a part of the cultural zeitgeist with people quoting lines and scenes that will live on for years to come?
The things that people are kind of glomming onto are things that I never, never would have thought that people would [think twice about.] It’s really good that people can find something to connect to and see themselves reflected in a time and age where people aren’t seeing themselves as much as whites do. But now I see that people are waking up to diversity and are willing to show it. It should have been around a long time ago. This is the norm for us. This is their world, this is their universe and I’m really glad and grateful to FX that they gave us the platform to go out there and share this world with people.
Do you think it’s fair that the work that you do is so relatable that it’s not viewed as acting but as people playing themselves? And is that fair, because I think that gets laid on Black actors much more.
Our stories are everyone’s stories. That was one of the things – we didn’t want people to feel that since it’s an all-Black cast and it takes place in Atlanta [other people couldn’t watch it.] Yeah, it is, but these stories could relate to anybody. That’s why I love Episode 4 so much because I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been in a friendship that hasn’t had to make choices like that. I feel like the show reflects these questions and the places we end up in our lives.
I know that when you got the show, you also experienced a very personal tragedy. How has that impacted you and your ability to move forward?
Life is something. It’s so interesting. My mother passed the day that we wrapped the show. Doing the show, she was very much a part of it. We talked every day. All the commercials and the posters you see, that was Mother’s Day. It’s very important that I live in the success of the show, honoring her nonstop. Because this is what she wanted to see. Atlanta will always hold a huge place in my heart because it’s a reminder of my mother. My cast is family and my sisters understand, especially, that they have to hold me down and it’s important to never forget that this show is all for her. I’m very happy that everyone is supportive. I still have things to do and this is all for her.
PHOTO: Actor promo/Deborah Lopez
Atlanta airs on FX Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
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