'Atlanta' Star Brian Tyree Henry on Season 3's Theme of 'Worth' and Paper Boi Fans Turning Up to His Concert in Blackface

Brian Tyree Henry reflects on his own fame, as well as that of his 'Atlanta' character.
by Danielle Turchiano — 

Brian Tyree Henry in 'Atlanta'


Warning: This story contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Atlanta Season 3. Read at your own risk!

After almost four long years, Atlanta is finally back on FX. But fans who were clamoring to see what Earn (Donald Glover), Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), Van (Zazie Beetz), and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) have been up to had to wait a little longer than expected. Instead of picking right back up with them about to embark on their European tour, which is where things were left off at the end of Season 2, subtitled Robbin' Season, Season 3 opened with a story that followed a young boy named Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar) who is placed in a foster home with two white women. Though the story, which takes a Jennifer Hart-level twist (but thankfully doesn't end as tragically), is seemingly standalone in plot, it seamlessly sets up the themes of racism the rest of Season 3 is going to explore.

Unfortunately for Earn, Alfred, and the rest, they are the ones who experience that racism going forward. In the second episode, titled "Sinterklaas is Coming to Town," the audience finally joins them on their European tour — only for their star Alfred, aka Paper Boi, to be in jail. Since it is Christmastime and they are in Amsterdam, they also have to confront the Dutch "Black Pete" blackface tradition.


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"This season is about worth, but not just about the money aspect because there's some elements of being told that I'm famous and respected, but if you go into the wrong store they won't take my money. Or I can hail a cab, but they still won't stop for me. I can have a billboard on the street, and they still won't see me," Henry tells Metacritic. "For Alfred and myself, I think we're past proving [what we can do] and now we actually get to live in it. It was always a survival mode kind of life, but now we're meeting Alfred where he's trying to live in it."

Here, Henry talks to Metacritic about how real-life fame and other experiences influenced his character in Season 3 of Atlanta, the state of Alfred and Earn's relationship in the episodes to come, and how it felt to not be in the first episode after so much time away from the show and character.

After so much time away from the show, what was your reaction when you saw the Season 3 premiere script and realized you weren't even in it?

I was thankful. I wanted to tell this story. We always want to give the viewer a taste of all different dimensions and we don't ever want you to think that you have us pegged. So, of course, let's give an intro in this weird, bizarro world, and tell it in our way, and then sit down and realize, "Oh s--t, this really did happen." I think all our seasons reflect that. We always like to give an interlude. It reminds me of the old days of theater with the epilogue and the prologue. And this was the prologue because what you're doing is seeing what life is like in America with this American family, this American storytelling, and then we wake up and we're in a whole other country. So, let's lay groundwork with the prologue to give viewers something to think about and talk about. And also, who else is going to tell that story?

That's true. But did you at any point wish there was a way to work your character into that story?

No, what I love about us not being in the first episode is that you waited this long and the four heroes aren't even there. [Laughs] But it's also that thing of, if you keep walking with us, I guarantee you'll be satisfied.

So much changed between seasons of Atlanta, from the COVID-19 pandemic to you taking on other roles and then having to come back to playing Alfred much later than originally expected. How did that affect how you re-found the character?

I missed him very much. I missed Alfred in a way I can't even explain. I know this sounds artsy-fartsy, but there's a true connection between Alfred and I. Having time off from him allowed me space to really focus on me, but then I realized there's not a lot of differences between Alfred and I. He really reflected a lot of personal things that I was going through, and going back to him, I was like, "Do I even know him anymore? It's been so long since I walked in his shoes, since I sounded like him, since I walked through the world like him; will he come back to me?"

How quickly did he come back to you?

When we got off the plane in Europe, I had a feeling about where this show had taken me and what all new things have happened because I showed up for him. That was my mantra: Just show up for Alfred the way I would show up for myself. He gave me a language of how to show up for myself because basically what happened with Alfred is that somebody saw something in him and said, "Hey maybe you can actually make it out here, and regardless of if you want to fight it, people really do relate to you; people really care."

Do you see any parallels between this show's notoriety and your own fame, and Alfred's rise in the third season?

Whatever the royal definition of fame is, regardless of if you sign up for it or not, you're a part of it. And that's where we found Alfred at the end of Season 2: This man had never been on a plane. He's sitting there on this plane, headed to a country he's ever been to because he never even thought he could leave Atlanta. And I think about how I felt that way sometimes. I loved acting, I loved doing plays, but I didn't really see people who looked like me, so why even try? But I wanted to have fun, so I did it. And I think that's an important message for a lot of us, that no one is going to limit us more than we limit ourselves. You've got to sign on for the possibilities of what could happen.

Alfred was already met with a lot of things saying he shouldn't have what he has or he shouldn't be where he is, but most of the hard work is showing up. So, with the help of his cousin — who, of course, had his own self-serving reasons of showing up — somebody saw something in him, and Alfred just had to go with it. So, when you find him in Europe, you see him in an elevated place in his life because Alfred has accepted these things. He knows the back doors: where to get things tailored, how to get better cheeses and wines, how to check into a hotel with anonymity. He knows his brand at this point. And I used to hate that word, but at the end of the day, it's true: It's just knowing who you are and what you will and won't take.

So now, you take the four of us and drop our Black asses in Europe, and the possibilities have opened up even more. Nothing really tells you how far you've made it, really, until you go across the sea and people who speak all different kinds of languages are telling you that you're the greatest thing. I was shocked, being in London and watching people come up and say that Atlanta is their favorite show or any other number of projects that I've done. And I think that went for all four of us; all four of us have advanced our reach. And so, that was something I really wanted to bring to Alfred.

How would you say Alfred is different this season, and how much of it is because of his new fame?

Alfred's dressing better, he's eating better, he's not smoking as much. Alfred is like, "I'm here. I'm doing it." The great thing about his trajectory this season is he's leaning in and showing up. It was definitely [parallel] to something that was going on with me because for a long time I wanted to fight that anybody knew my name. There was a big point in time that I thought people were only going to call me Paper Boi. So, it was very interesting to hear people say all three of my names — my full government name — to me or to say other characters that I've played or to say that this movie that I did here touched them in another country. I had to be very aware that the more that I do and the more that I try to showcase what I love to do, the more that I'm going to be out there, the profile is going to get bigger. And I think that that also happened with Alfred. Alfred's owning his position. He's like, "We're here because I've blown up." Because he actually did sign on and drink the punch that Earn wanted him to drink.

What is Alfred and Earn's relationship like going forward in Season 3?

It's really them leaning into who they are. It's really everyone leaning into who they are, so the relationship between the four of us [is] so much more sealed together because we're all we have over there; we're the only ones that speak the same language, for lack of better words. We know each other. Earn is leaning into being a better manager. He knows the game at this point and what Alfred should have, and he wants to make Alfred proud. I feel like the first and second season it was Alfred trying to make him proud. But now they're all showing up for themselves. And they have to because there's that Lost in Translation-ness of fame, of race, and wherever the f--k you go, there you are.

And I would argue that the world is what the world is. Because when we see Alfred in jail in Amsterdam, it's a nice space and he is treated with respect, but then he steps back onto the street and is immediately confronted with blackface.

Immediately! And if you notice, everyone in blackface is joyous. Everyone is like, "This is great! This is a tradition, and we're all going to be here because we really love you, but we also love this tradition." There's no one going, "Maybe we should take this off before we go to Paper Boi's concert." And no one prepped [Alfred] for that.

I always laugh about the concept of blackface, especially here in America because you already know that traditional blackface is stupid, but in order to do blackface you have to go, "Man, you know what? I'm gonna do blackface today." And then you have to leave your hope to go somewhere to buy blackface. And not just that makeup, you've got to get a facial cleanser, you've got to get a moisturizer. If you don't have a mirror, you've got to get one of those. Then, you've got to go back to your home. So you've had lots of time in between home and the store and home again to go, "This is probably not a good idea." Then you have to sit down and apply it and go, "This is the right amount of blackface." And then you're going to call somebody and show them what you've done and then you leave your house again to go out. So, there are a lot of steps, and the first step should be, "Maybe I shouldn't do blackface." That, to me, is [Atlanta's] third season in a nutshell: There's so many steps that these people could have all taken by embracing us and our country, letting us rejoice in our fame in our country, and there's still some kind of absurd thing that nobody prefaced us on.

But that's just how it is. So you have to watch the gang go through that and try to remain elevated. It's hard.

And just to clarify, you weren't filming those scenes during Christmas when that tradition was going on around you for real, right?

No. [Laughs] We filmed in the springtime. That episode was written so superbly, though. Sometimes that's just what you have to do. When you travel, when your fame takes you to places like this, you might end up in a place that's just celebrating blackface. That's just how it goes. And

And for Alfred, there were those moments of, "Man, they love me." Where we saw him before, he was getting jumped and being chased in the woods, and now he wants to embrace his fans and take pictures with them because he actually feels that love somewhere. We teeter on that line of ego, especially being Black artists, because the minute that we say we love what we do or that we're good at what we do, people are like, "You need to bring yourself down to Earth a little bit." But when we're down-to-earth, it's like, "You're not doing enough." So, there's always a scrutiny and a weird seesaw for how to celebrate yourself as a Black artist — as a Black person, period.

Atlanta airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

Get to know Brian Tyree Henry:
In addition to Atlanta, which has a Metascore of 93, Henry stars as part of the voice cast in Fox's Housebroken (Metascore: 66). Other notable television performances have been on Boardwalk Empire (83), This Is Us (76), and Vice Principals (56). Meanwhile, his notable film performances include If Beale Street Could Talk (87), Widows (84), and Eternals (52).