Normally, the quickest way to kill an ensemble show is to tinker even slightly with the alchemy that made it a hit in the first place, i.e. add a new member. Granted, it’s diminutive to refer to Atlanta as a straightforward ensemble show, but of the show’s many surrealist digressions and disassociation from typical narrative conventions, the cast has been the one constant. Black Biebers, Clay Davis Dads, and Mystery Bus Men come and go. Earn, Alfred, Darius, and sometimes Van are the constants. (The title belt for appearing in every episode thus far goes to Paper Boi solely.)
And yet, Donald’s gonna Donald. So the show is coming off a year-plus hiatus to insane expectations? Cool, let’s do the one thing every other writer’s room in our position would consider a death kiss. At the end of last week's premiere “Alligator Man,” expectant couch surfer Earn is startled to learn his spot is already occupied by Tracy, Al’s ex-con friend. Dude literally materializes from nowhere mid-joke like when Michelle Trachtenberg popped up in Buffy season five acting like she’d been there for the entire series.
This being Atlanta, it was reasonable to assume Tracy’s only purpose was to displace Earn to drive the episode’s themes home, and that was the last we’d see of him. But lo and behold, he doesn’t just figure prominently in episode two, as it practically plays like an introduction spotlight. Thankfully, Tracy, as played by Khris Davis, is fucking hilarious. He goes from dubious presence to a certified scene-stealing charmer and in just one episode, I’m at the point where I’ll be mad as fuck if he isn’t around for the majority of the action to come. (Very minimal spoiler: he pops up next week, the last episode made available to critics in advance. So, crisis averted for now.)
Complex hopped on the phone with Davis to talk Tracy, Robbin Season, No Chase Policies, and, of course, the art of the perfect 360 waves.
What did the role call for when you auditioned? What was it described as?
I don't remember what the description was on the audition call but essentially [it had] everything that we know about him: that he's just out of prison, he's friends with Paper Boi, real basic description of the guy but enough to form your own idea of who this character is. I guess that varies from person to person [of the guys] who auditioned for it.
Which of his qualities, if any, did you put in yourself?
going to prison can and will change you, but that doesn't mean that you're not still human... I wanted people to see somebody like Tracy as easily lovable, somebody they'd hang out with.
I guess his charm and likability. Oftentimes when you think of an ex-con, you think of somebody who looks a little dangerous, right? [Actors] forget to play their humanity. We think, "Oh, he's been to prison, he's gotta be really hard edge, he's gotta be mean all the fucking time." That's not the fucking truth. And one thing I do know for sure is that going to prison can and will change you, but that doesn't mean that you're not still human, that you don't have these amazing qualities that make you smart, make you charismatic and loving. Prison doesn't just take away your magnetic energy, you're born with that and you will [retain] that. Those qualities are really important, I didn't want to misrepresent people like Tracy, I wanted people to see somebody like Tracy as easily lovable, somebody they'd hang out with. If you're lucky enough to know somebody like that, you know how trustworthy they are and how loyal they are when they like you.
It's interesting you say that because I feel like Tracy's charisma does make him immediately lovable, and someone who audiences can warm up to quicker than they would most new characters in an ensemble. Did you have any trepidation being the new guy mixing it up with the core cast?
I just wanted whatever I was doing to complement the work that they were doing. Because they're so good. I didn't want whatever that energy was to be disrupted by anything I was doing. I only wanted what I was bringing to match it, to complement it, to uplift it. Working with the guys, it took a couple days, a couple moments of us shooting together, for everyone to be like, Oh, this is the thing, Tracy's not just like a random ass player for an episode. You know, they have like, a relationship. Working with everybody was pretty cool, I loved it. This was my first TV show, [so] getting to examine them was really nice.
What kind of things did you learn?
Well, when I saw them, I saw how relaxed they were, I saw how willing they were to make choices and take chances. I come from the theater world—it's completely different. When you're performing, we have to shrink the eye to capture the moments on TV and film, whereas in theater, the eye sees a wide range, like a panoramic view. The size of what I'm doing on theater versus film and the choices that I can make, I wasn't really sure about [at first]. But when I saw those guys, how they moved—I spoke to [Atlanta director] Hiro Murai and he was like, "Khris, anything you wanna try, let me know, we can just go ahead and make some moves." And I was like, "Oh, say less." And a combination of that made me feel really confident and comfortable in what I was doing.
We gotta talk about the No Chase Policy scene, because that feels like it's about to be an instant classic. Talk to me about filming that scene—you do this barely noticeable bit of physical comedy where you start kind of a run then stop and slow it to an inconspicuous walk that's hilarious.
[Laughs] Man, that scene was funny as hell. If you think about it, the no chase policy, and the fact that he's in the mall, not only is he stealing out the store, you got to get out the mall! It was a fun experience, working with Donald, there were a lot of laughs while we were doing it. I was laughing at the lines, at the faces people were making, I was laughing at myself for taking it serious. Even that little skip-hop jog run, I was like, man, that is some silly ass shit, man—that's in the script actually.
Is that a thing they made up? Or something you've heard of before?
Nah, my dad worked in loss prevention for a long time. He still does actually. He does loss prevention and he's a general manager for CVS and did it for a bunch of places, Hollywood Video, Pep Boys, he's the man. He's a private investigator as well. But all that's to be said, when I was in high school I worked at Hollywood Video. He had ingrained in me that if I see someone stealing, don't chase them, it's against the law. It's to protect the employee actually, that policy—100%. You know what I mean? You never know, you go chasing them out the store, they may have a blade on them. If they're willing to steal then...
They could be down for whatever.
Right! Let them take it, the cameras are on.
We also have to talk waves. Are you as committed to the regimen in real life as Tracy is?
Hellll no, that's so much work! Man, nah...shit! [laughs] They had me coming down and they were doing the hair test right? They had me using this wave pomade. They had me using this night pomade and one for the morning. And then I had to use this wave shampoo and conditioner, and brush my shit in the shower. So I had a brush for the shower and a brush for—I'm telling you! Then [I'd] wear the wave cap all day, brushing my hair all day, my shit was dripping, I don't care what nobody said!
Nobody truly wants to be a hustler, a robber. Everybody wants to be something else, everybody wants to be the shiniest star in the sky. But it's not until somebody says "No, you're not shiny, you're dim," you give up hope.
So then, I showed it to Donald, and he was like, "Nah. That's not what I'm looking for." I was like, "Whoa, you know what it took me to get these?" So he showed me this picture of this guy on Instagram. And his shit, bruh, was scary! And I was like, "Oh, my god, how the fuck does he do that to his hair?" I think he was Puerto Rican. But you know the texture of his hair is completely different from mine. So they bought this weave, put the weave on the cap on my head, put that shit down, edged that shit down, matted that motherfucker then a barber came in and did this bomb ass coloration with his clippers to make the hairpiece go naturally with my natural hair, then he sprayed it a little bit, man, tightened that shit up. So hats off to hair and makeup, it was bananas.
The job interview scene, as funny as Tracy is, there's a flicker across your face that's a real heavy sense of disappointment. And it feels like it addressed a common heartbreak ex-cons deal with without being preachy.
When you're doing the best you can in life, man, life happens to throw you a bone and you look to your fellow man and say, "Hey, I'm hungry and I'm willing to work, despite what you may think of me, despite what I did in my past, I'm ready to move forward." And then the person looks at you and says, "Hey, I'm gonna hold you accountable for something that you did in the past, there is no moving forward," what could you do? When you still hold on to hope and then you look to someone and they tell you, "No, you're hopeless as fuck to believe in," what do you do? It breaks your heart. Nobody truly wants to be a hustler, a robber. Everybody wants to be something else, everybody wants to be the shiniest star in the sky. But it's not until somebody says "No, you're not shiny, you're dim," you give up hope. In that moment [Tracy] believed in himself, he was shining, then he saw his light be dimmed. And his circumstances just can't seem to get off of his fucking back no matter how hard he tries, you know what I'm saying? There's so many brothers out there who have tried to get out of that ocean of systematic oppression, really tried and tried and tried, but that tide is strong, man, and if you're lucky to get out of that shit and break out, hats off, man.
I know you can't give much away but in vague terms, how much more of Tracy can we expect to see in Robbin Season?
You can expect to see a good dose of Tracy, he's gonna be around. Yeah. I don't wanna give anything away, but... shit's about to go down.