EXCLUSIVE: Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry on the new TV series that has taken America by storm
The hottest new import from across the pond has finally arrived in the UK.
Atlanta is the brand new existential comedy created by and starring Community star Donald Glover, which has received rave reviews in the US for its offbeat humour, honest and gritty depiction of life’s hardships and insightful commentary on race.
It tells the story of Earn Marks (Glover), a penniless father of one who jumps at the opportunity to manage his cousin Alfred’s (Brian Tyree Henry) burgeoning rap career. However, Alfred’s impulsiveness might end his music career before it’s even started. It’ll take all of Earn and best friend Darius’ efforts to make a success of Alfred and raise their families out of poverty.
We chatted with series star Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Alfred – also known as “Paper Boi”, about why Atlanta has captured the hearts of viewers worldwide, the acclaim the show has received and how the show marks a turning point in the representation of minorities on television.
Here’s what Brian had to say on each of these topics:
On how Atlanta is a different story about the music industry
What I love about this show is that it seems that it starts with this guy who is a hip hop artist, and it seems like you’re gonna have an episode where I’m in the studio dropping beats, dropping rhymes, or I’m gonna have concerts, but it’s not about that. Throughout the whole season, you only see Paper Boi rap once and that’s in his music video.
Really, it’s about how we’re making it in this city and this world together as three black men navigating fame, brotherhood, relationships and being a human being in the world. [It’s about] finding a way to find humour in that – finding a way to showcase these absurdities in our world that have become normality.
On the widespread success of Atlanta in the States
I love that this show has created a platform for us to bring our stories into the homes of the people from all different walks of life, and that these stories are resounding amongst people, whether it’s stuff that they know or not.
I’ve been approached by a lot of white women between the ages of 50 and 70 and the first thing they say is ‘we know we’re not your target demographic but Paper Boi is amazing’. Never in a million years did I think that our show would reach that far wide. I can’t wait for the day when they can approach me without having to preface by saying ‘we know we’re not your demographic’.
We never thought when we made Atlanta that it was going to be important, we never went anywhere with the idea that it had to be this important thing, we just had to tell our stories. We really wanted to tell our stories from our perspective and to have fun with it and to really show people look, in our universe, our Justin Bieber is black [laughs].
On increasing representation for people of colour
I feel like Atlanta has created this visibility that people have been yearning for. It’s created this visibility for a generation that didn’t even know they needed it.
It would be really hard to move forward saying that the world is changing if we don’t feel like we have the representations of all walks of life being reflected to us and I’m really glad that the small screen has taken this huge leap. It shouldn’t seem like a huge leap, but diversity is real. Diversity is real and we are all here.
On portraying the volatile but good-hearted rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles
I wanted all the Alfreds of the world to feel like they really had someone that reflected them, because we all have Alfreds in our lives. My father’s an Alfred. I wanted to make sure that people would see Alfred beyond the stigma and microaggression and stereotypes. He is still a person, still a creative and still someone who has a big heart who cares about his family.
On whether his portrayal is influenced by his father
You know, absolutely. My father is a black man that was born in this country in 1940, who has gone through Jim Crow, who was drafted in the Vietnam War against his will three times, who has constantly been met with the word no. He’s still with us and he is still living his life and he is still watching how the world is changing. He’s coming along and has his only son in an era where the world tells you that he’s gonna be okay, he’s going to be accepted, but he knows better. Playing Alfred was a huge calling for me to do because I really wanted him to know that I see you. I see you, and I got you, and I’m gonna replicate you the best way possible.
He tells me all the time it’s one of his favourite shows. He tells me all the time that we needed this show. I’m so glad that regardless of his age and regardless of what he’s been through in this world that there is a show that he feels speaks to his heart and his core and is getting things out there.
On Earn and Alfred’s relationship
There’s nothing more special than having someone in your family who has seen you grow and believes in you more than you believe in yourself and will do anything they can to make sure you understand that and make sure the world sees that. I feel like that’s exactly the through line of Earn and Alfred.
No matter how far apart we go, no matter how long we’ve been distant, we believe in each other, and we love each other and we will constantly hold each other accountable. I think it’s the most beautiful relationship in the show. Brotherhood and sisterhood, we’re nothing without them.