‘We’re All Hopefully Woke’: Brian Tyree Henry on ‘Atlanta,’ Race and Playing Paperboi

You may remember the teaser trailer for Atlanta that premiered during the finale of FX’s mini-series, The People v. O.J. Simpson. In it, Community actor Donald Glover is sitting on a couch with two other black men, commenting on the dramatic true crime anthology.

It was an ingenious bout of in-network marketing for Glover’s own show, which premieres on FX tonight and has already been making critical waves for its sweet-and-sour diesel look at the lives of black men hustling in the titular city. Glover plays Earn, a young father who is trying to break into music management. His cousin Alfred provides him the opportunity when he comes out with a viral hit video as the rapper Paperboy. In between, there’s a lot of other craziness, and everything–from the kinetic, fractured storytelling to the on-point dialogue to the dreamy, single-camera cinematography, feels as fresh as anything you’ve seen on TV this year. That’s all before you even get to the show’s beating, racially-charged heart, tackling the kind of subject matter that you’re more accustomed to seeing on your Facebook feed than a cable comedy.

The show held a premiere in Atlanta last week, and it’s from there that we were called by Atlanta cast-member Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Alfred (aka Paperboi), who was staying in town to catch up with old college friends.

Observer: Fans probably know you best from being in the original cast of The Book of Mormon. How did you get involved with Atlanta?

Brian Tyree Henry: I was working with my manager for a couple months and she came across this script. She told me it’d be great for me, since I had gone to college in Atlanta, how much I loved Atlanta. She said “There’s a character here that I think is really great for you.” When I read the script, my first thought was “I have to be a part of this.” And then to just see that it was Donald Glover’s baby, his creation…I’ve been a fan of Glover for years. Now I get to play his cousin. Just to see the way we talk, the environment, what the show is about…I mean, it just jumps off the page immediately. With the grace of Alexis Fogel casting me, I got to do it.

Observer: Did you audition for other parts besides Paperboi?

BTY: No, they definitely wanted to just see me play Alfred. I was like “I think I know this guy…I think I know this guy really well.” I got to be in the room with Donald and (director) Hiro (Murai) and the vibe was really great off jump. It made it…not easy…but familiar. I felt like these were my family, that these were my homies from back in the day. 

Observer: The pilot of the show does this thing that I think we normally associate with premium cable-quality TV, where it just throws you in the middle of an encounter, and people are talking in such a coded way, it’s almost another language. I definitely had the feeling “Oh shit, did I watch the wrong episode?” But then, as we flash back to see how things got to this parking lot altercation, it totally makes sense by the end. That’s a pretty high-concept cold open for a show. 

BTY: That’s kind of the life here in Atlanta though. You step out of your car, you don’t know what you’re going to get. That’s what I love about this city. Every time I leave my house, there’s something new and great and fresh to see. The episode really shows you that. It definitely jolts you a little bit, to throw you off, but it’s a story that you want to figure out and get into. How can you not want to step out and find something new and revolutionary? You might not know what it is, but you want to be a part of it. Atlanta definitely has that vibe. 


Observer: I’m sure this comparisons already been made, but the language, the pacing, the way the show immediately challenges you to understand it; Atlanta very much like that first season of The Wire in that way.

We’re all…hopefully, I’m praying…we’re all woke. We are going through the world with open eyes and not being completely complacent to the world going on around us. We wanted to set a tone and make a show that was like “Look, these are the circumstances. This is the world we are in. This is how it goes. You’ve got to let it ride.” – Brian Tyree Henry

BTY: You want to give your audience the benefit of the doubt. We’re all smart people. We’re all very aware of where we are in the world right now. We’re all…hopefully, I’m praying…we’re all woke. We are going through the world with open eyes and not being completely complacent to the world going on around us. We wanted to set a tone and make a show that was like “Look, these are the circumstances. This is the world we are in. This is how it goes. You’ve got to let it ride.” Or you can turn your back and pretend it’s not there, but it’s happening regardless. Atlanta is really trying to put that out there: these are just the lives of these people in this city, and this city is its own breathing, living thing, too. So how do you navigate through life, especially with dreams and aspirations in a world that tells you that you don’t deserve to have them. 

That’s the genius of Donald. He created–or he allowed this city to create– the story of these three guys. Every story is different. Every episode is a different story. Nothing really connects to the one before. But isn’t that like life? You just wake up and this is the situation you are in. One moment you are staring at a ceiling fan, the next minute you’re possibly in the parking lot, shooting someone.

Observer: No spoilers! I haven’t watched past the first episode…

BTY: You see what I mean, though. That’s why I love Alfred so much. There are no mistakes in his life. He makes the best out of everything he has, and he really cherishes his family and people that are close to him. Because it’s hard to have that. It’s hard to know who to trust, especially when you’re trying to navigate fame, or what people know you for. I could really relate to that with him, that “Oh, people perceive me this way, and people want me to be this way, but what do I want?” 

Observer: I want to go back to your use of “Woke.” It’s so unintentionally funny how it’s used by some people. Like yesterday, I was on the street and there were these two Amnesty International canvassers. Both white. They were trying to get people by flagging them down on St. Mark’s Street and yelling “Don’t you care about police brutality?” Finally the girl just went over to the guy with the clipboard and said really huffily, “Well! At least WE’RE woke!”

“Everything is not as it seems. That could be for better or for worse, but at least you have the observation and the skills to say ‘Hey, wait a minute, Morpheus. I’m going to take the blue pill!'”

BTY: But see, I think that needs to be the tagline for the rest of the century: “We’re woke!” That needs to apply to every single person in this world, not just in the states, but across the pond: in Africa, in Australia. Just to say “Woke” is to always be in a constant stream of consciousness where you don’t feel like the wool is pulled over your eyes so much. You question your belief that everything should just be presented to you on this beautiful plate. Everything is not as it seems. That could be for better or for worse, but at least you have the observation and the skills to say “Hey, wait a minute, Morpheus. I’m going to take the blue pill!”

…Hello?

Observer: Sorry, I’m here, I’m just laughing really, really hard. What an amazing reference.

BTY: Ha! It’s good to feel, especially as a millennial–and as much as I try to fight it, I am a millennial, I am a child of the 80’s–I watched this world and observed it in a completely different way, because everything is so accessible now. The Internets made it so easy to find out with a click what earthquake happened here, and also what Kim Kardashian wore. They both have the same weight on the same day, you know what I mean? It’s so weird. 

And I don’t want to make it seem like I think this is some dystopian future. But I’m constantly going “My god! The future!” I got in my rental car the other day, and it has a camera that shows you where you can back up. I was like “The future!” And my friend was like “The present?” And that’s the weird thing; that blurred line. Like we’re in the present, but I still feel like we’re in the future. Things are constantly evolving and anything could happen. And that’s exciting to me. The fact that this show exists is exciting to me. It shows that there are other people out there who wanted and desired something like this too, and it gives me hope. 

Observer: Donald talked a lot in his stand-up special about race; how everyone knew him from Community and expected him to be one way, but that he has this whole other experience as a black man. And it’s not the sitcom experience. 

BTY: No, it’s not. We know in America that black men and black women have endured and have persevered and are still trying to find a voice and be heard in this country, period. I think with Donald–or even us, being in the entertainment business–it’s about trying to navigate how to stay true to our and our blackness as we can. What’s so great about Atlanta is that we don’t have to try so hard for that. These stories are real. It’s raw. These characters exist.

And it’s not just us. I’m excited for Issa Rae’s (upcoming HBO show) Insecure; we know females like that. I’m excited that (OWN’s upcoming) Queen Sugar is happening. People are trying to go on this whole thing about diversity on television, which I’m just like “Well, this should have been the norm to begin with.” We all have stories to tell. I don’t want to completely level against the timing, I’m just incredibly grateful it’s happening…but now there’s been a floodgate that’s opened. I hope those rivers rush as hard as possible. I hope there’s a showcase for all this great talent and all these great lives that you might not necessarily be exposed to. 

Observer: In a way, it’s funny that Atlanta is a show about the music hustle. Because today, that’s where black culture completely dominates, and everyone else has to play catch-up and try to appropriate the verbiage and experience. But this is a show that’s almost the equivalent of a track you’d hear from an underground Atlanta artist like Paperboi.

BTY: I think that’s a testament to FX, because they’ve been so incredibly supportive. And they do groundbreaking television all the time. And that’s what this is…because remember, it’s still a comedy. That’s the great thing about life, too: those moments of pure rawness where you have to come back and laugh and say “Did I just witness that?”

Observer: My favorite moment in the pilot is when you drive up to Earn’s dad’s house (played by The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock Jr.) with your buddy, and he leans out and asks “Hey, I know you don’t know me, but my name is Darius, and I was just wondering…can I measure your tree?” It’s just such a perfect, bizarre, shady thing to do upon meeting someone’s parents. But of course, I’ve got a friend like that. A couple. 

BTY: We all have friends that are like any of these people. You know that guy. Everyone’s got an Alfred, whether they admit it or not. Everyone’s got an Earn, or has been Earn. We play with these concepts of what dreams are, and how to manifest these dreams when it feels like the world’s against you. When you feel like you can’t move forward, or the world puts these stigmas on you that aren’t who you are…how do you navigate that? 

Like, take me: I’m a 6’2, 260-pound black dude. I know that if I smile one minute, I’m perceived as this way. But if I go completely stone-faced, people have been threatened. They may not think I’m educated. But that’s just the walk of life, and we have to navigate it. It doesn’t mean that it’s right, at all, but that’s just how we move in America. Perceptions really do define what our realities are. What we’re hoping to do with Atlanta is to really shatter that. To shatter it completely wide open. To go from the furthest lane of absurdity to the furthest lane of reality and make them blend. 

Observer: Turn it into the freeway of reality.

BTY: There you go! I’m with that!

Atlanta premieres tonight on FX at 10 p.m. ET.