‘Atlanta’ Star Brian Tyree Henry on Paper Boi, Black Mecca and Why He’s ‘Not Scared’ About the Election

Atlanta TV Show
Courtesy of FX

Brian Tyree Henry is not Alfred Miles, who is not Paper Boi. They all just play each other on “Atlanta,” the FX comedy that finished its first season Tuesday night. Alfred is a delicate balancing act of a character, gruff with a big heart, a rapper (Paper Boi) who hates going to the club. Luckily, Henry has an M.F.A. from Yale and a list of credits that include HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and Cinemax’s “The Knick.” He called Variety after the ‘Atlanta’ finale to talk all things Alfred, why this election cycle doesn’t scare him, and what Atlanta — both city and series — means to him.

You’ve said New York has your heart, but you’re from the South originally.

I went to college in Atlanta, at Morehouse, which I call my formative years, because that’s where I discovered that I wanted to be an actor and discovered these friendships I still have to this day. And I discovered how turnt Atlanta is. I was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina; I was raised in D.C.; and I became a man in Atlanta.

What were some of the more transformative experiences you had in Atlanta while in school?

The city really gave us a place to go and explore who we are as young black men seeking a higher education. It wasn’t about the institutions we were at, it was about how we maneuvered through the world those institutions were set in. We were so grateful and lucky to be in Atlanta, in this Black Mecca in the South. Here we are, young black kids in a society trying to get a higher education but also still dealing with a society that doesn’t really want us to be educated.

Atlanta really is all about community. I think we reflect that in the show. We’re in a world that tells us “No,” so how do we make it say “Yes,” together? I love that sense of brotherhood and community that is so desperately needed and yearned for. There’s something about the show that talks about how, if you know that dude, then you know that other dude, and that one, and you’re basically all dudes together.

That’s the one thing I really liked the most about playing Alfred: He’s That Dude. Everyone has an Alfred in their life. I feel like Atlanta is a breeding ground for Alfreds, these people with great big hearts that can make you laugh at any given moment, because life is hard out there. And what better way to remedy that than laughing at the absurdities of the world? That’s what Alfred does.

Who’s your Alfred?

I’ve collected a lot of Alfreds. And I’m sure at some point in my life I’ve been an Alfred to them. I call them my brothers — I was the only boy in a house full of women, I had five moms altogether, really. I always yearned for that connection, what brotherhood is, to know what it is to walk in this life as a black man with another black man.

But it’s good to pass the Alfred torch sometimes, because I think Alfred is always yearning for something bigger, but doesn’t necessarily know how to get there. It’s very important to have people see you for who you are, and will guide you and tell you that you can have what you want, you can be bigger and better than anything else in the world. That is exactly how I’m sitting here talking to you today, because of the Alfreds in my life: the people who believe in you more than you can even imagine.

I’ll be damned if I leave this earth without fulfilling that dream for them. When someone really believes in you, it is your duty, your calling, your charge in life to make sure you see it through. And they’re not just men! There are tons of sisters who’ve been behind me and beside me, walking with me.

What would your rap name be?

I have a list on my phone of baby names and rapper names. I don’t want kids at all, I’m the uncle of 11 kids, and I’m really good. But if I were to have some, these are the names I would give them, and it turns out they also work as rapper names: Conduit and Diatribe, who are twins, obviously. Diminuendo. Anomaly. And, for some reason, Bronco Hot Pockets is on here. [Laughs] And clearly I was very adamant about Bronco Hot Pockets, because it’s in all-caps: “BRONCO HOT POCKETS.”

Are you on Twitter? That would make a good display name.

Eventually I’ll get to Twitter. But I have a big mouth, so I gotta wait until after the election.

This election cycle has been sort of terrifying.

Don’t be scared! I’m not scared at all. Here’s the thing: Whoever wins this election, this world cannot unsee what we’ve seen. This election shouldn’t be scary, because there’s no going back. But if we really want to move forward, we have to do this s— together. You can’t act like you can’t see what’s happening in the streets, like you don’t see this pipeline being built, that this man called an entire people rapists. So, we move forward. If you choose not to be woke, that’s your choice — you’re choosing it.

I’ve been rocking this Vince Staples album, and he has this lyric: “My teachers told me we was slaves, my mama told me we was kings.” And you know, I always believe what my mother told me.