“Atlanta”’s Paper Boi Just May Be Even Cooler In Real Life (Video)
The accolades for Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta keep piling up. Not only is he being heralded as the series creator, one of its writers, and its lead star, but Glover is making television history across the board with the new show, which focuses on the come-up of a rapper named Paper Boi and his managerial-minded cousin. Critically, the show has been a rave, earning a 100% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, a website long considered to be the preeminent television and film-rating outfit of its kind. But beyond the critics, Atlanta has touched a cultural nerve that has elevated it from being a great TV show to being an important one, and it is being lauded for its smart and witty take on race and class.
Not surprisingly, much of the show’s success has to do with its incredible cast of (all Black) writers. But the cast also plays a monumental role in bringing the characters to life, and there is no doubt that Brian Tyree Henry is the show’s breakout star. Earlier this week, the actor visited Sway, who called Atlanta “the premier show for Hip-Hop on the planet” before engaging Henry in a truly entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the man behind Paper Boi. While the interview begins as a tongue-in-cheek discussion between Sway and the character Henry plays on television, it eventually turns into Henry revealing some real-life anecdotes, including his Ivy League education, his affinity for Shakespearean renditions of 2 Chainz, and much more.
Sporting a shirt emblazoned with the Desmond Tutu phrase “if you remain neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” (which he says he is wearing as a statement on the current presidential election), Henry details the day he first met Glover, which happened to be the same day he came in for the audition. He shares the anecdote that, after finishing the audition, “I had to catch a flight back to South Carolina to finish filming Vice Principals, and by the time my flight landed, they’re like ‘yeah, you got the part.’ I screamed so loud on the plane, these White folks were like ‘what’s going on?'” But it isn’t long before Sway begins to acknowledge more than Henry’s clear propensity for humor. “You’re so talented to me, because this is a dude who’s done Broadway, you know what I mean? And you’re also playing [Paper Boi] and the dichotomy,” he says before asking Henry if one role is harder than the other (6:28). It’s then that Henry details his experience playing a warlord in Book of Mormon, which he said was an exercise in finding levity in a villain’s character. “But with [Paper Boi], I didn’t want anyone all of a sudden to start labeling me as a thug,” adding “I wanted to get to the heart of who he was, and I really wanted to represent Atlanta in the best way I could.” He says he prides himself on making the character relatable to the audience, hoping that they might see their cousin or their homeboy in Paper Boy.
Around the 8:03 mark, the conversation turns to the topic of diversity in television, and the role Glover is playing on shedding light on the talents of those who may otherwise be overlooked. “I think it’s interesting that they’re going on this whole thing about diversity in television and I’m like ‘yeah, way overdue. We have had these stories forever. We’ve wanted to tell these stories forever. Y’all just wasn’t given us the shine we wanted.’ And so what better way then to go and take it? You know? Donald was no-holds-barred. He was like ‘yeah, you want him to be in a trap house, but Paper Boi is a drug dealer, so he would have an apartment. Like, what are you talking about?'”
The dichotomy Sway mentions returns to the conversation at the 9:20 mark, when Henry begins to discuss his first gig, which was Shakespeare in the park. “I was doing Romeo & Juliet in ’07,” he begins before explaining that when he tried to register his name with the theater company as Brian Henry, he was told he couldn’t as another thespian already had that name. “Well, I guess I gotta do what most Black actors do and add my middle name,” he says. “And every Black actor I know with three names is amazing.” Shortly thereafter, he tells a story about being a Black actor at Yale, saying the students and faculty would ask him “Brian Henry what?” when he introduced himself as just Brian Henry, as if expecting him to have a three-name moniker. “Tyree, I guess, has a little bit of ethnicity in there,” he says of his middle name, suggesting that it helps identify him as an actor of color. It’s then that an unsuspecting Henry gets put to the test, asked to recite the lyrics to 2 Chainz’s “Birthday Song” in his best Shakespearean lilt.
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