Brian Tyree Henry: Fame is a weird maze to navigate, there's no guidebook'
Donald Glover's award-winning comedy Atlanta is back for a second series. Its star, Brian Tyree Henry, tells Laura Harding about the dangers of celebrity
There is more than one way to be robbed. That appears to be the main lesson when Atlanta returns for a surreal, creative and ambitious second series. There is literal robbery, when rapper-on-the-rise Paper Boi, played by Brian Tyree Henry, is shaken down by his own drug dealer, but there is also the theft of privacy, dignity and sense of self.
The first series bagged creator Donald Glover both a Golden Globe and a couple of Emmy Awards, and now the show is back for a second outing, dubbed "Atlanta Robbin' Season".
"It's very much literal and metaphorical at the same time," Henry (36) says. "Alfred (Paper Boi's proper name) is going through this season with a lot of recognition, so in his own way he's being robbed of his anonymity because now people know who he is. People are shouting, 'Paper Boi' from across the street, people are telling him that they hear his song on the radio."
The show follows Alfred and Earn (played by Glover) as they try to make it in the music industry, Alfred as Paper Boi and Earn as his hapless manager. While the first series of Atlanta buzzed with lazy - but vibrant - summer sunshine, the second is filled with an eerie darkness and hustlers doing anything to get ahead.
"Robbin' Season" refers to a real period of time in the city, right before Thanksgiving and Christmas, when theft and robberies increase.
"The opening was the most perfect way to just alert everyone that what they are viewing is Robbin' Season. This is how it's going down, man," Henry says. "That is what I like about the shock and awe value of Atlanta. When you think you know what is going on, you don't know what's going on at all."
So, while Alfred and Earn may be on the rise, that success brings with it alienation and disillusionment. In fact, there are few shows that depict disappointment and failure like Atlanta does.
"You normally see where the protagonist wins in the end and you hold up the crown and everyone is, like, hurrah," Henry says. "There is very much that concept of fame - especially when you're up-and-coming as an artist of colour.
"Fame is such a weird maze to navigate. It kind of feels like that maze at the end of The Shining. In the first season, if somebody would cross Alfred, or did something he thought wasn't right, he could just go off and backhand them, but now there are a lot of people looking up to him. And that is really hard for him to understand, because nobody has really given him the guidebook of how to navigate fame."
The first series starts with him jumping out of a car to shoot somebody, but the rest of the episodes go about proving Alfred is not the thug, or gangster, you might at first think.
"There are all kinds of things that led him to get to where he is. He has heart, he's somebody's cousin, somebody's best friend, somebody's confidant. I really wanted to focus on those things because it is very easy for me to put on a polo and a gold chain and all of a sudden I'm labelled as a thug, I'm labelled as a threat."
Indeed, born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Henry has been swerving stereotypes since he started out on Broadway in Book of Mormon after studying at Yale Drama School.
"Acting is my job. It's my craft - it's what I love to do and I refuse to be pigeonholed by any kind of standards that people hold up to say that, if you're going to play this, then you have to look this way. We are in a time that representation is incredibly important and diversity is incredibly important.
"It's always been important, but it's all about the storyteller now. It's really about how we come out unapologetically and lay these stories out in front of you and you can take from the buffet, or you can sit your ass down somewhere else. I love that."
Fingering his beads, he adds: "I think there are no accidents. This happened when it was supposed to happen and I'm really glad that I was a part of this kind of renaissance.
"People are always like, 'You're having a moment' and I'm like, 'I'm not having a moment, we are having a movement'. We charge in and knock down every wall. The show is so quintessentially black, but at the same time the experiences of being a black person around the world can resonate with anyone.
"We all know what its like to be overlooked, we all know what injustice looks like, we all know what it feels like to be the underdog."
Atlanta: season 2, Fox, Sunday, 10pm