This is posted on Thursday, November 3, 2016 by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
Brian Tyree Henry, a 34-year-old Morehouse College graduate, returned to Atlanta earlier this year to shoot 10 episodes of FX's "Atlanta."
The breakthrough hit was definitely worth the effort for Henry, who now lives in Harlem. As Paper Boi, Henry plays Earn's cousin Alfred, a rapper who generated a hit single and is now grappling with his newfound fame. In the first 10 episodes, he battled a social media critic, got defensive about his lyrics on a talk show, had a beef with a black Justin Bieber at a charity basketball game and shook down a club owner to get the money he was owed.
"It's been amazing, man!" Henry said in an interview the day the season finale aired on Tuesday. "The response from the fans has been unlike anything I've seen before. There is so much love everywhere. There is so much passion from the fans who come up to you. We really needed this show. This show is important. We're so happy to have a show like this. And we're happy to give them more."
Here are some highlights from my interview with him:
On Alfred handling fame: "I use the metaphor of a buoy in the sea. He's dropped into this sea of fame and family and friendship at the same time. He is a guide beacon for others. He may rock back and forth and be tossed about but he finds a way to rise above and float above to guide others. I feel like he is never really lost. He's seeking out a place of solitude. Fame is not anything he really asked for. He doesn't have to be famous. He just wants to survive and he uses rap as his vehicle to survive in a place where he was born and raised... He's resilient. Shenanigans happen around him all the time. I think he's trying to navigate through his life. He can't do it alone."
His antipathy toward the nightclub [from episode 8]: "The club episode in particular, you could tell from the beginning, his attitude was, 'F*** the club.' He always felt that way. That club episode was kind of a test of Alfred's ego, for Alfred's self esteem. He is being told left and right that he's shining and he's hot. The reality is nobody is checking for him. He has to take a backseat to [bigger fictional celebrity] Marcus Miles. If Justin Bieber wants to play basketball, he has to take a backseat... He was in this VIP with people he had never seen and his best friend [Darius] was at him. Alfred's ego gets bruised but his spirit never dies. I think that whole night shook him to the core and sometimes he has to act out. [Meaning, he terrorized the club owner for his money.]
How did Paper Boi get away with attacking the club owner? "Isn't that something we ask ourselves? What are the consequences? That seems to be the running theme in society. Show me the consequences! The show is more focused on the day to day with these people... When he was having that conversation in jail, these things happen. Who knows what will happen. Alfred is just focused on getting to the next day."
On the season finale: "It was very emotional for me to watch the finale. It really was all about how we have to retrace our steps. That was the theme of the entire episode. No matter what your journey is, you end up coming back to where you started. I really love and respect where they start, back on the Alfred's couch in the field, now in bloom all around us. We're still there doing the same thing."
Jacket as metaphor: "He wanted this one thing in his jacket to get to this place he hadn't moved from. He was looking for his storage locker key. It holds the memories to things he still had. He's seen flipping through $200. Did he make it? Was it worth it? Has he come further than before? What I love about the episode is the familial bond between Alfred and Earn. Earn always kept his word. He's always looked out for Alfred. Alfred also kept his word to his cousin by paying him. He gave him his cut. He believed in him. We're still discovering each other. Love never changes. There's this resilience we carry between us."
Why Earn chose to spend the night in the storage locker: "Because after going through everything in this world of constantly being told no and you don't belong, of constantly being told to get it together, there's nothing more gratifying than taking space for yourself. 'I did that. Me alone, I did that!' I feel like Earn set the foundation making changes in his life. He had to go back to where it all began. He had to go to part of his life that wasn't complete and reflect what this is."
On Henry's own life, as reflected through Alfred: "I've also known there was something bigger and better for me. I never wanted to be restricted from the things I thought I could have. It was never about fame. It was never about notoriety or recognition. It was about survival, trying to find a place to kamikaze live. Something in my heart. Acting was definitely that. The community of actors were that. I am constantly encouraged by people around me. They believe in me. That's the overall theme of the show. What it's like to have someone believe in you more than you believe in yourself... I feel like the theme of Alfred and Earn's relationship, we see something bigger than each other. The heart is there no matter the circumstances. You have to lift it. We are both sharing the same heartbeat... I have plenty of Alfreds and Darius's and Earns in my life. That's the great part about this show. I really hope in the end that people really relate to these personalities. We all have Alfreds in our lives. We all feel a certain way about how Alfred can move forward. That's what I really wanted to put out there."
On his actual rapping skills: "People always come up to me and ask, 'Do you really rap?' I feel like being an actor, I can do anything. If you ask me, I can learn Braille. I can learn ASL [sign language]. Shakespeare was written in verse. When it came to Alfred, it was not so much his ability to rap but his ability to be a human being. I wanted to get to the heart of who Alfred is more than the persona of who Paper Boi is. The Alfreds of the world out there can find a voice through me. The rap essence is something that will follow Alfred."
On getting season two: "I'm really glad FX took notice and has given us a place to go and be fearless and tell stories of these people. I was ecstatic when we got the news of a second season. There are so many stories that yet to be told."