‘Atlanta’ actor Brian Tyree Henry reveals why ‘Paper Boi’ is so damn woke

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Just like his character, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles on Atlanta, Brian Tyree Henry is woke.

The young actor was raised in the South, (Fayetteville, North Carolina) and later attended Morehouse College. He then honed his acting talents at the Yale School of Drama. “Paper Boi” is Henry’s biggest role on screen to date, with roles on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Vice Principals among his many acting credits. 

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His character, a drug-dealing rapper, is more multifaceted than most characters on TV right now. The biggest commonality between Henry and his character is that they both understand what it means to be a black man in society. 

And another thing: They love Atlanta.

Henry fell for the city, the community and its creative energy when he was there, and that love is captured both on-screen and off. 

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The layers of Henry’s character Paper Boi run deep. And a key takeaway from the show just may be that not all rappers are who they are perceived to be.

“It’s so easy to label rappers and label people in hip-hop,” Henry told theGrio.com in an interview. “Or [to] label people for wearing a gold chain, with a Polo button-up to the top. It’s so easy for us to already be like, ‘let me cross the street with this dude.’ But you don’t even know that this man loves Amadeus the movie, or this guy actually may be incredibly fascinated with Stephen Hawking. There’s so many different layers to what artists are, so when you get pigeon-holed into one thing, it can either make you collapse or continue to expand the stuff that you like anyway.”

Henry’s point isn’t lost on Atlanta’s script writers. In many ways, “Paper Boi” can’t be labeled.

“I love Alfred, because he is hella f***ing woke,” Henry said. “He’s hella smart. He’s not by any means your average, run of the mill dude. He’s very educated and very loving and is very funny.”

Yes, Henry earned degrees from Morehouse and Yale, and he’s currently rapping and acting his ass off on Atlanta. And he loves pushing boundaries and expectations for his fans and the growing fanbase of the hit show. 

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“No one knows what my education background is, or my familial structure is,” he said. “Nobody knows what city or projects I came up in, and no one cares to know that. They just know what they see is what they get. And that is not at all how it goes.”

So far this season, we’ve seen Paper Boi deal with issues of race, class, sex and more. His character’s biggest concern is his status as a black man in society: The struggle, the come-up and the eventual (hopefully) triumph.

“The moment he wakes up and walks out of his door, there are going to be things that people put on him, and he knows that,” Henry said of his character. “As most of black people in society have learned thus far, when we step out that door, no matter who tells us we’re important, and tells us that we’re smart, there’s going to be 15,000 other people that tell you that you’re not. So how do you walk in life and keep that sense of self, and keep that self awareness without completely going nuts? And I feel like Alfred has found a way to really maneuver in the world that he has created for himself, and the world that has been on him, with a finesse that I respect. You may not like him, but you’re going to have to respect him.”

Catch Atlanta tonight at 10 pm ET on FX.

Kimberly Wilson is a writer and social media director at theGrio. Follow her on Twitter.