The place where you find yourself holds a special power over you. For actor Brian Tyree Henry, that place happens to share the name of his latest job.
In Atlanta, Donald Glover’s new FX series that premiered last night, Henry plays Alfred Miles/Paper Boi, a hood-famous rapper eager to leave his day job as a drug-dealer and its accompanying dangers behind. His estranged cousin, Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover), offers to manage him, triggering justifiable suspicion about Earn’s abrupt reappearance in his life. For his portrayal, the 34-year-old Washington, D.C. (by way of Fayetteville, N.C.) native pooled characteristics of people he met during his time in Atlanta while attending Morehouse College. To Atlanta and Henry’s credit, Paper Boi remains an alter ego; we learn more about who Alfred is. Still, every detail—be it personal, musical, or regarding illicit activity—was inspired by Henry’s time in the city.
Armed with an MFA from Yale School of Drama, Henry has built a varied body of work. His performance in the Broadway production The Book of Mormon was lauded, and he’s appeared on the small screen in The Good Wife, Boardwalk Empire, The Knick, and, most recently, Vice Principals. But of all Henry’s work, Atlanta is the most personal feature on his resume to date.
One of the best things about Alfred is that his internal conflict is very genuine. He’s a low-level drug-dealer who’s just starting to get attention as a rapper—a story we’ve heard many times before, but his is quite nuanced. What’s his origin?
[When] I went to Morehouse, I really spent a lot of time not on campus, but on the streets of Atlanta, to be honest with you. [Laughs.] One of the things I wanted to make sure of is that Alfred embodied the essence of the people from Atlanta. I really tried to zero in on the friends I’ve encountered because I think everybody who’s anybody from Atlanta has a friend like Alfred. He’s just that guy with the biggest heart. He’ll make you bust a gut laughing at something, he’s really down for family; he’s very loyal, and he’s willing to be on one for you if anything goes wrong. So I just wanted him to be that dude who people could look at and say “I fuck with this guy” or “I love this guy.”
I’m glad you mentioned your undergrad days at Morehouse. I’ve always felt that Atlanta has tons of stories. What role does the city play in the show?
Oh man, it’s the character, honestly. It’s the pulse; the heartbeat. You can’t be in the city without letting it become a part of you. That’s why the show is so brilliantly titled: you are just a person in this city. The city is what makes or breaks you. This is the city that kind of formulated who I am. And, not only that, but to be black in Atlanta is one of the greatest things because you can go anywhere and feel familiar with anyone who’s right next to you, from Bankhead to Buckhead. It’s not without its flaws—it’s still the South and the Bible Belt—but Atlanta is one of those cities that’s really good at uniting people. I can go get a slice at Fellini’s [Pizza] and not have to worry about anything. I can go and chill at The West End and feel completely comfortable. Atlanta, in itself, is its own living, breathing thing.
Atlanta is about rap, to an extent, but how specific is it to the Atlanta hip-hop scene?
I don’t want to release too much, because I don’t think even the first few episodes encapsulate everything the show is about. This show is really going to cover all things, and nothing at all. Yes, Alfred is a rapper, but it’s not about rap. Yes, Earn is my manager, but it’s not about music. Yes, I’m a drug-dealer, but it ain’t about the streets. There are things on this show that will surprise everyone because when you think you’re going left, we’re gonna take a detour on your ass.
The show’s most important dynamic is the relationship between Donald Glover’s character, Earn, and Alfred. They’re family, so there’s a special bond there, but things are also a little icy between them. Will we get to the root of that?
The history between Alfred and Earn is thick, and I really believe they were tighter than brothers at some point in life, but now they’re trying to figure out how to rebuild that with the addition of success and personal obstacles. I think that’s what brotherhood is at all times. At the end of the day, I think there’s nothing more important than the black male bond, because they help you flourish. So I’m really excited and honored to be playing this part with Donald because I really feel like that brotherhood between me and him—and Keith [Stanfield]—is very present. I think we need to see more black men being in each other’s corners and holding each other up, especially today, and I really hope that comes across with Alfred, Earn, and Darius.
Speaking of Darius, Keith Stanfield steals so many scenes with his understated, perpetually stoned aura.
We all know that dude, though. The thing I love about Darius is that Alfred is the only one who can really understand him. That’s why he’s around; he will hold me up and have my back no matter what, but at the same time, it’s like, “What the fuck did you just say?!” Because everything that comes out of his mouth is true and true to him, and I feel like Alfred is the only one unfazed by it because he believes everything Darius says. Everyone else who’s thrown off by it, they’re the weird ones.
I also like that Atlanta focuses on the pursuit of the “American Dream” without ever shying away from the fact that the main characters are black. It’s very thorough in its examination of the black experience.
We weren’t aiming to carry a banner saying “Hey, this is what TV or America needs,” because diversity should already be a priority in America. It’s a place where you can have your hopes and dreams fulfilled—or so we’ve been told. As we grow older, we realize that’s not always the case. It’s great that the show is so unapologetically what it is. It’s created its own lane and its own universe, and that shouldn’t shake people. It shouldn’t make you go, “Oh there are three black men on TV.” We shouldn’t need to celebrate that in 2016. We, as black people, have stories, too; we have [things] we want to express. At the end of the day, it’s incredibly important to have a show like Atlanta because if we can’t stand up for and celebrate each other, then who will? Who will do it better? I’m glad it’s being done and that I’m a part of it because [telling these stories] is necessary. Their lives matter; we matter, and it’s important that we have a show like this portraying all of its sides. And what better place to do that than Atlanta?