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Brian Tyree Henry of 'Atlanta' talks working his way up

The versatile actor moves from Broadway to one of the hottest shows on television.

If you’re a fan of hip hop and well-written television, you should be watching Donald Glover's “Atlanta.” The series follows, Earn (Glover), a broke Princeton University drop out who sees opportunity in his cousinAlfred Miles (aka “Paper Boi”), a local rapper on the rise to become the next hip hop breakout. On a similar ascent to the top is the actor who portrays Paper Boi in the series — Brian Tyree Henry. From his days at Yale School of Drama to his critically acclaimed performance as The General in “Book of Mormon,” the 34-year-old has seamlessly transitioned from stage to screen. Henry chatted with us about his growing career and that time he folded jeans at American Eagle Outfitters.

What was your initial reaction to “Atlanta?”
I was like, “Ah finally. This writing is just perfection. This is what I wanted. This is great.” It spoke to me — Alfred spoke to me. And, I was just so excited to read something so fresh and so different, so new. It just reflected a life that I know wasn’t really showcased.

Where did you draw inspiration from for Alfred’s character?
I went to college in Atlanta, and have a lot of friends who have been to Atlanta, lived in Atlanta. I tried not to study any personas that people may know. I just wanted him to come across as a person someone could really relate to, so that people who watch it could be like, “That’s my cousin!” or “That’s my best friend!”

In the show you have characters grappling with the dream of making it in the music business vs. settling. Was there ever a time when you contemplated doing something else?
This is something that really changed my life. I think it was a way for me to find a community that I belonged in. The community is the part that means the most to me — not so much booking the gigs, not so much getting the money or the fame — it was the community that really brought me to this place. And, you know I never really thought of being an actor. There were so many people who saw how much I liked doing plays, and saw how much I loved the art. They said, “You know what, you should really give yourself a shot and go as far as you can.” Now, yes if I needed to go and get a side hustle, I would but this is my thing.

What were some of your side hustles?
I worked in retail all throughout college at American Eagle Outfitters, but I mean this was before American Eagle was big, you know. I think I was the only person of color on the floor, and I did all the windows and I know how to do a fashion fold to this day. It really makes me angry. [Laughs] When I moved to New York, I was very fortunate enough to work in the service industry but working in the service industry gave me such a drive because I was like, “I can’t do this forever.” So, it made it easier to get up and go and really hit those auditions. I definitely have done my share of hustling.

It paid off with“Atlanta."What do you and the cast do in your downtime together?
Text each other [Laughs]. We are constantly staying in touch with each other and constantly sending each other crazy gifs. Constantly checking in on each other. They are the most supportive group of people ever in the world. We just try to stay connected as much as we can. You know, we really love each other.

I read that you grew up with all sisters. What was that like?
It was amazing and it was terrifying at the same time. But, it was definitely the thing that defined me and made me who I am. I am grateful to be a black man raised by all black women because they have showed me so much strength. They are some of the toughest women I have ever met in my life, and the most loving. They did most of their living — including my mother — without a male figure in their life. And for them to have a little brother — you know, the first boy — they really molded me into the man I am today. I will spend the rest of my life repaying them.

A new episode of “Atlanta” airs on FX this Tuesday at 10 p.m.

 

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