This fall, Atlanta star Brian Tyree Henry has been the funniest thing to happen to Tuesday night TV. Assuming the role of Paper Boi, Henry dominates the screen as an emerging ATL rapper trying to wade through the absurdity of daily life. Thanks to the show's surreal creativity -- courtesy of creator Donald Glover and his team -- Atlanta has exceeded expectations. It's a program uninterested in conforming to narrative conventions, blending reality and surrealism until you can't tell the difference.
To help us understand the fake talk shows, invisible cars, and consecrated chicken wings, Henry told us all about the making of Atlanta, episode by episode.
Episode 1: "The Big Bang"
How did you determine Paper Boi's origins for the first episode? How did the opening track play into that?
Brian Tyree Henry: I really, really felt like Alfred was the most relatable person to me. I love the way that Donald wrote this show because it's really just us talking, you know? It's real life, it's what's going on. My favorite was the opening scene. The dialogue that goes on between me and this girl and this guy because he kicks my window off, and I just love how we're in this parking lot as I'm holding my rearview mirror in my hand, being like, "You gotta pay for this." And my favorite part is that someone's off to the side screaming, "Worldstar!" When I saw that I was like, This is fantastic. This is fantastic.
That's the moment you realize that the show gets the world it's in.
Henry: I also love the way that Alfred is on the page. The way that he talks and the way that he moves, Donald definitely wrote that in there, and I just wanted to make him as relatable as someone that you know, someone that you see, someone that you can relate to. Not a lot of Alfreds from Atlanta are represented out there, so I really wanted all the Alfreds. That's what informed me the most, because I know Alfred. I have several friends from Atlanta that are Alfred, my cousins and my best friends, so I just really wanted to represent him in that way.
Episode 2: "Streets on Lock"
The accidental "coming out" scene in the jail was one of the most amazing TV moments of the year.
Henry: I love that Donald thinks of things like that because it's like, well, how do we show the dichotomy of masculinity? And yet at the same time we're all locked in this jail cell, and you all have the audacity to judge this person for doing that or this person for doing that, but we're all in here, you know what I mean? My favorite thing is that all he says is, "Sexuality is a spectrum, man. No one's judging you in here." I think it's brilliant, and I love that it started conversations and that people could laugh at it, because that is the absurdity of it.
But Paper Boi's going through this crazy, existential, What does fame mean? Do I want this? These kids are emulating me shooting people in the street. Is that something that I really wanted? It's what this fame is doing to him. He basically goes through this whole day trying to figure out what his actions have done to reflect on society, because he's caught kids shooting each other. Like, that dude is giving me special treatment with lemon-pepper wet wings, but he's threatening me to never let him down because you never know what I'll do. I think Paper Boi's trying to grapple with what his life is now, with this newfound fame.
How is your life changing with the success of the show?
Henry: This is why I love New York so much, because New York is not really worried about your ass, if you're a celebrity or not. We all gotta live here. I live in Harlem, and I still ride the subway, I still take the bus, I still do what I've got to do. I go to my bodega, you know, and I just love hearing people screaming, "Paper Boi, ay!" They're thanking me for the show. There was a situation where I was walking down the street with my manager, and we were walking down 33rd after dinner, and these two dudes were standing on the street. We walk past them and they say, "Hey, man, Atlanta, man. I fucks with that show, man, I fucks with Atlanta." I was like, "Dude, that's the best compliment I've ever gotten," whereas my manager was like, "I fucks with. Is that good?" I'm like, "It's the best compliment you've ever gotten in your life."
Episode 3: "Go for Broke"
What happened on set with Migos?
Henry: Man, we were in the woods, it was cold, and we shot late at night for hours. The whole scene is basically me going to purchase drugs from them, but we watch a murder first, man. I thought I was about that trap life? No, really, they really about that trap life. I loved it because it was a look into Alfred's life that he hasn't really changed the way that he lives and how he makes his living. I say it in the first episode: "Rappers need managers, I'm just trying to get paid." There's no reason Paper Boi should've been out there to begin with.
How many takes did you need to get through that moment when Earn calls you like, "Hey, did you guys do the drug deal yet?" It's so funny.
Henry: If we're not constantly cracking up on set, then something must be wrong. These people are my family and I love them very much, and there's nothing we can't talk about or discuss. It's great because you want to keep doing the takes over and over again. I love watching Donald laugh because Donald is one of the funniest people in the world, and if I can't make this brother laugh, then I'm doing something wrong.
Is that how you two became friends, through comedy?
Henry: Pretty much. Everyone on set, our senses of humor are incredibly connected. There's no shame of talking about anything. That's family. We just go in and trip out and have the best times of our lives. I remember when the Birdman interview came out on The Breakfast Club, we were all on set dying laughing and sharing stories. That's what we do. I just love that Donald creates an environment like that.
Episode 4: "The Streisand Effect"
What did the little kid say that was bleeped out?
Henry: Ha! I can't give that away, man. Come on! That little actor, that's Bankroll PJ. He was only 5 years old when we shot that. This kid is the most entertaining kid I've ever seen in my life. He is just so authentically ATL, but he's still a kid. He's just the best. We did a couple of takes where we just told him to tell a story. Just tell a story, but because he's such a character, his stories were always just a mess. One story was about a cow doing something, one story was about a girl who owed him money. He already has Vine videos, so he's brilliant. We just let him go.
Earn says that black people don't know who the actor Steve McQueen is -- is that true? Did you know who he was before this episode?
Henry: We now have an amazing black director named Steve McQueen, so I was like, "Wait, which one are we talking about here?" You know what's funny? I actually watched The Sand Pebbles recently. It was on my television and I was like, "Aw, damn, The Sand Pebbles is on!" I just thought -- especially now, with the director Steve McQueen -- that the black community would know that Steve McQueen and not necessarily the actor Steve McQueen. I mean, he said it, if somebody came in and asked about that poster, they're trying to rob you. That's the best security I've ever seen, because I damn sure wouldn't have asked about it.
Episode 5: "Nobody Beats the Biebs"
OK, black Justin Bieber. How did that happen?
Henry: Why not have a black Justin Bieber? He's running around, being on people's shoulders, getting carried to the Great Wall of China, he's doing all these things. What would we do if we made him black? What would people actually think it we made him black? And why does Paper Boi have this goddamn beef with Justin Bieber, of all people? Of all people to have a beef with, Paper Boi has a beef with Justin Bieber, I think it's hilarious.
Sometimes I wonder if anyone likes Paper Boi.
Henry: I mean, people love Paper Boi, and Paper Boi also doesn't give a fuck. You can love him or like him or not, he's still going to do his thing. I think the funniest part about that episode is not that it's black Justin Bieber, but that I can't fucking play basketball. So I had to learn basketball.
Have you seen what people have been saying about your basketball abilities?
Henry: Nah, cause they're trying to play me, I don't want to know shit about it. I don't need to know. That's the one stereotype I didn't pick up. I don't play basketball, but I love that because at the end of the day it ain't even really about the game, anyway, it's about this beef. It's also just what celebrity does. I can't believe that because Justin Bieber's a celebrity, it allows him to put his hand in this woman's face and smush it to the ground, you know what I mean? The fact that people gasped when he turned his hat around, like, "No, that can't be him! No!" But that's what we do sometimes, we give celebrities these passes like they're these demigods and we can only find the answers through them, but they haven't changed anything. They haven't done anything to make life better for you. It's just a celebrity, and you allowed them to get away with this. If you listen to the words of the song, you see he hasn't changed at all!
Episode 6: "Value"
In Episode 6, you and Van have a pretty unexpected phone call.
Henry: Zazie [Beetz, the actress who plays Van] is one of my favorite people in the world, but as we were looking at the scripts I said, "I don't think we have any scenes together." And they were like, "Yeah, y'all don't fuck with each other." It would be hilarious if there was a running gag in the show that Alfred and Van are never in the same scenes together. They either talk on the phone or are in a different room -- but I can't wait until you see the backstory of what that history is. Of course I don't have her number saved in my phone, because we don't fuck with each other. People all week were texting me, "You sloppy AF."
But he's still down to help her.
Henry: That's who he is, but I answered pretending it wasn't me. "What could you possibly want from me? Oh, and you smoked weed? Oh, and you need my help? Oh, like the thing that you always rag on my ass about?" So I gotta play you right now. We've all been on petty patrol at some point in our lives to one friend or another. I think that pettiness keeps people on their toes. It keeps their asses humble.
Episode 7: "B.A.N."
Is this episode a dream or a nightmare?
Henry: I think Donald really wanted to experiment with throwing people off of their axis every week. That's how this world is, man. Every week seems to be something different, and every week people seem to champion a cause that makes them forget the last cause they were championing. I find it incredibly interesting that people were insulted that I put a tweet about not wanting to fuck Caitlin Jenner, but you don't seem to have a problem with all these black men being shot in the street.
I love our show because it can say things without saying anything at all. We just like to present it as the world we live in. This is how it is, and this is how we're trying to navigate through it. Take from that Mickey's Malt liquor commercial what you will, take from the Dodge commercial what you will, take from what Alfred calls "trans-racial identity" what you will -- which we really saw in this world. At some point we are going to have look back and go, "Nah, she really did that. There was somebody who really thought she was black!"
"I don't need you to walk a mile in my shoes, but I need you to at least recognize that I'm wearing them and that I want to walk."
We have to laugh at these things sometimes. We also have to see the absurdity in it. That could be the thing that links us together. We are human beings and my life matters, too. You want to sit here and defend Caitlin Jenner, who is a staunch Republican, who does this and does that. But what about my life? What about me, as a black man? All across the board, from LGBTQ to black and Mexican and Muslim, why don't you take a minute to listen to us? I don't need you to walk a mile in my shoes, but I need you to at least recognize that I'm wearing them and that I want to walk.
There's no such thing as not being woke anymore. There's a revolution of wokeness happening right now, and I really hope everyone is in line and ready to do it. Once you see things in this world, you can't unsee them anymore. They're captured on film, in video and photos. If you choose not to see what's happening in this world, you are making the conscious choice to not see it.
Episode 8: "The Club"
The invisible car. What the fuck?
Henry: [Laughs.] Dude, he has one. Ain't shit I can do about it. He got it, and that's it. If you want to talk about truly stuntin', he is stuntin' on you hoes. He has the car. This is the episode where I was like, "People aren't listening to me as Paper Boi. I told you I don't fucking like the club." This is what comes with it. It's just so painful. Watching the episode is so painful. Marcus Miles is here. Google lent this dude an invisible car, and don't act like they ain't going to happen! Is it so far-fetched? We got Google Glass, we got self-parking cars. The fact that I can FaceTime people is still bizarre to me.
Is that end scene Paper Boi's greatest moment of strength?
Henry: Hell yeah. Here's the thing. Let's get it 100: Paper Boi is always going to take care of his business, man. All. The. Time. He just needs to know what business you want me to take care of. Just don't have me out here looking sloppy AF. Paper Boi doesn't want to be sloppy. Like the show -- when I find out that I'm not getting paid, I'm like, Are you kidding me?
Is Earn bad at his job?
Henry: I think Earn is excellent at this job. His life… that's another thing. Earn believes in his cousin so much that he is willing to go to a damn radio station, overstep this white guy, put a CD underneath there, because he wants to make it, too. I think it's great when people see more in you than you see in yourself.
Did that happen in your career?
Henry: Absolutely. I wouldn't be here talking to you if it wasn't for people saying, "You can do this." I didn't buy it. I didn't believe it.
Henry: Because I was aware! Here I am, a black boy from the South. I like to act. Ain't nobody going to put me on. If they put me on, I'm going to be playing these roles that mean nothing. People are not going to care that I'm educated. People are not going to care that I can do the King's English. They're just going to want me to put in a fucking do-rag and run around. I didn't want that. I love that I've had people in my life who saw beyond that and say, "No, make your own lane. You can excel in that way. Show people things they've never seen before." And I have to do it for them. It's not much different than what Earn is doing for Alfred. I have my Earns in my life, too, and I'm not going to let them down.
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