Brian Tyree Henry Comes Home to Atlanta After 4 Years Conquering the World
“ATLANTA” -- "Sinterklaas is Coming to Town" -- Season 3, Episode 2 (Airs March 24) Pictured (L-R): Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles. CR: Coco Olakunle/FX

“I haven’t been home to my place in New York in over four years,” says Brian Tyree Henry, and the main reason is Atlanta.

The FX show, which is back for its third season almost four years after Season 2 left off, helped kickstart a very busy period in the actor’s career. He has more than two dozen screen credits since 2018, the year we last saw his Atlanta char- acter, Alfred Miles, a rising rapper who records under the name Paper Boi. He has appeared in everything from big-budget comic-book movies like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Joker and Eternals to intense dramas like If Beale Street Could Talk and Widows. And he worked in a charming, introspective performance as an everyday New Yorker, locked out of his apartment, in 2020’s The Outside Story, his first leading role in a film.

Atlanta helped open a lot of doors. So many that when you ask, “Where’s home?,” he’s not sure how to answer.

“Where’s home? is the question I’ve been asking myself for the past 20-something years. That is something that I’m really working on right now, as we speak,” he tells MovieMaker. “I’m always moving and making places that I’m not very familiar with my home, for the time being, just because I have to follow the projects. Right now, I’ve been in Atlanta for almost, oh my gosh, like almost nine months. So this is one form of home. And then sometimes I’m filming in Australia. Sometimes I’m in L.A. I was in New Orleans.

“I’m pretty much a nomad. I move where I need to be.”

Brian Tyree Henry Comes Home to Atlanta After 4 Years of Conquering the World

Donald Glover as Earn Marks and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles. in Atlanta Season 3, Episode 2, “Sinterklaas is Coming to Town. Photo by Coco Olakunle, courtesy of FX.

He grew up in North Carolina, spent some time in Washington, D.C., where much of his family lives, and attended Atlanta’s Morehouse College. He studied theater arts and got to know a city that would turn out to be very important to his life and career. He went to grad school at the Yale School of Drama, and went straight from there to New York City stages: Shakespeare in the Park, Moonlight Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney’s plays at the Public Theater, and the original Broadway run of The Book of Mormon.

Won’t You Take 10 Seconds to Sign Up for Our Newsletter?

“I was very, very fortunate to be able to be in a city like New York and do all the stage that I’ve ever wanted to do and work with so many creatives that I wanted to work with. I’m very fortunate to have only fed myself by acting,” he laughs. “It’s very rare that that happens, I find. And for a long time, I kind of undersold myself on that. But I’ve only fed myself and kept lights on and clothes on my back from acting. … I have a huge thanks to New York for giving me my chops and breaking me in.”

His stage success led to plenty of screen work, including on Law & Order, The Good Wife and Boardwalk Empire. But Atlanta, in which he’s part of a core ensemble that includes LaKeith Stanfied, Zazie Beetz, and the show’s creator, Donald Glover, put his range on spectacular display: Alfred isn’t the typical TV rapper, living big and braggadociously: He’s a low-key, emotional, vulnerable guy who hasn’t really been out of Atlanta, trying to live up to the unrealistic expectations of his growing fanbase.

One of the best episodes of the show, Season 2’s “Barbershop,” directed by Glover and written by Stefani Robinson, starts with a simple setup: Alfred needs
a haircut for a big photo shoot, and goes to the same barber he’s always gone to. But while Alfred is rising up in the world, his barber, Bibby (Robert S. Powell III) is mired in a series of hustles that keep him from upholding any of his commitments — including appointments with longtime customers. Alfred has to try to stay humble — despite all his success, he’s the same old Alfred, right? — but keeping his cool gets harder as Bibby’s hustles start to bump up against legality. Alfred is on parole, and can’t blow it by being caught up in a lumber theft or hit-and-run with Bibby. He also can’t explode on Bibby, which could mean both jail time, and no more haircuts.

Also Read: Making The Outside Story Taught Me That Shooting on Rooftops Is Hard

Henry says Robinson is brilliant at “exposing these characters to an environment that they may not know, but also exposing them to their feelings.”

“So she does this really amazingly nuanced thing of making him move through this world that is throwing everything at him, and he has to maneuver in such a languid way, where he does not get in trouble, or get exposed to any kind of violence or any kind of persecution, because the stakes are higher.”

Three episodes after “Barbershop” came another Robinson-written episode that closely tracked Henry’s own struggle. His mother died unexpectedly in 2016, just as Atlanta was taking off, leaving him in emotional turmoil.

“I started going through my rise in my career without the most important person in my life. And there is nothing like the loss of a parent. There is also nothing like the loss of a parent when the world is telling you, ‘You should be celebrating your success.’ There’s nothing like maneuvering through that, because at the end of the day, all you want is that person there.”

The episode begins on the anniversary of Alfred’s mother’s death.

“All he wants to do is be normal, all he wants to do is walk around his town like he always did. And people are telling him, You can’t move on the streets like that. There’s a character that at the beginning is like, You need to get your money, you need to do this, you have a bigger profile, you need to do that. And he ignores all that, and he walks down the street and gets mugged, and almost killed.

Brian Tyree Henry stars in Bullet Train.

Brian Tyree Henry stars in Bullet Train, coming this summer. Photo by Scott Garfield, courtesy of Sony Entertainment.

“And then he runs into a forest — that is in his hometown — and he’s lost. And that’s what grief feels like: You’re running through a familiar forest that you’ve probably driven past 100 times. And then you’re in it and you’re lost, you don’t know how you got in, and you don’t know how to get out. And so he had a decision at the end of the episode. Either you keep fighting it and keep running from it, or you lean into it and embrace it. And I think that we saw the decision at the end. And it was something that I honestly had to go through too.

“That’s what I love the most about our show, is the humaneness of it, the vulnerability of it — the nowhere-to-hide of it.”

Henry, whose accolades include a Tony nomination and two Emmy nods, one for Atlanta, has no break in sight. As we spoke, he was in Atlanta shooting the FX limited series Class of ‘09, a sci-fi FBI drama in which he and Kate Mara are the leads. This summer he’ll appear with Brad Pitt in Bullet Train, shot in Los Angeles during the pandemic. The film’s wry, giddy trailer finds a British-accented Henry sparring with Pitt, physically and verbally, in the train’s quiet car. Henry has finished filming not just the third season of Atlanta, but also the fourth. It wrapped last year.

Season 3, now airing on FX, takes the four main characters to Europe, where instead of going off on solo journeys, they stick close together.

“What I really appreciate about Season 3 is that now all of us — Zazie, LaKeith, Donald and myself… we all had that time to go off, and be apart, in our own ways, be successful in our own ways, and then come back to this environment in this universe, where the same has happened for all four of our heroes.

“And not only that, the world changed,” he says. “The entire world changed.”

Atlanta, in which Brian Tyree Henry plays Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, is now airing on FX.

Main Image: Brian Tyree Henry in Atlanta Season 3. Photo by Coco Olakunle, courtesy of FX.

Mentioned This Article: