While Donald Glover is the creative genius behind Atlanta, and the series’ aesthetic owes much to frequent director Hiro Murai, Brian Tyree Henry is the show’s MVP. Sure, Henry is by default the center of Atlanta’s often nonlinear universe: He is Paper Boi, the consistently put-upon up-and-coming rapper around whom Glover’s Earn and Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius revolve. But Henry’s contributions to Atlanta are about more than structural narrative geography. As Paper Boi (real name Alfred), Henry conveys complexity and deep insecurity, and communicates the show’s overarching message that “making it” doesn’t negate life’s struggles, with a staggering level of subtlety.
Take the fifth episode of Atlanta’s first season, “Nobody Beats the Biebs”—also known as “The one with black Justin Bieber.” At a charity basketball tournament, Paper Boi approaches a local reporter and offers her an opportunity to learn about the “real” Paper Boi, the side of him that isn’t making the headlines.
“Play your part,” the reporter responds. “People don’t want Justin to be the asshole; they want you to be the asshole. You’re a rapper—that’s your job.” Paper Boi’s letdown isn’t projected by any words from Henry—rather, he takes a slightly longer than usual blink, and solemnly stares at nothing in particular. Henry typically drawls through scenes, but by the end of “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” he quite literally wants to beat up the Biebs. He doesn’t want to be stereotyped, but becomes one anyway. Those blank eyes appeared again in Season 2’s “Sportin’ Waves,” just before Paper Boi bailed on performing for a smattering of disinterested employees at the offices of not-Spotify. Above all things, Paper Boi desires to find some authenticity in himself, while the world around him—the one he thought he wanted to be a part of—presents more and more roadblocks.
Season 2’s fifth episode, “Barbershop”—which barely takes place in an actual barbershop—is Paper Boi’s life of enduring futility in a bottle, and a showcase for Brian Tyree Henry. All Paper Boi wants is a haircut—if only it were that simple.
When we meet his usual barber, Bibby (played perfectly by comedian Robert Powell III), it takes maybe 30 seconds for it to become clear that Paper Boi’s day is about to get ruined. “I thought quince meant 18! What’d she have on a wedding dress for?!” Bibby says over the phone, as Paper Boi waits impatiently. Just when things seem to get on track, as Bibby trims away a chunk of Paper Boi’s hair, Bibby gets another call. And the reality of what’s going on sets in, for us and for Paper Boi: Bibby cut just enough hair to trap Paper Boi. This is a hostage situation.
In Atlanta, and especially in Season 2’s “Robbin’ Season,” everyone has a hustle. Bibby has about five, that we know of. Someone stole T-Mobile phones—and he has the hook-up if you want one. He’s got leftover Zaxby’s chicken on deck. He’s selling cable plans as the “Kable Kompany”—the K’s are unfortunate, not “clever.” He’s running some scheme involving wood stolen from a construction site. He’s stealing his girl’s money; he definitely has more than one girl, too. In “Barbershop,” Paper Boi has no choice but to tag along while Bibby sees to all of these very-poorly-managed hustles. When Bibby visits one of his women, he gives her son a cut while Paper Boi looks on incredulously. He is nearly implicated in Bibby’s wood-stealing enterprise, and later, in a hit-and-run after Bibby rear-ends an Asian woman’s car. All of that is bad enough without considering that Paper Boi is still on probation.
If it sounds aggravating, it is. Bibby is spectacularly over the top and frustratingly hard to pin down, and after 20 minutes of high jinks you just want Paper Boi to get the damn cut he’s been very stoically waiting for. His patience should be commended by the Dalai Lama, the Pope, and Oprah.
You feel Paper Boi’s exasperation in every telling glance from Henry. It goes from mild annoyance to “WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING?!” in a manner of minutes, even though he’s just saying some iteration of “Bibby, come on, bruh” nearly every time. This is the key to Henry’s excellent performance as Paper Boi: You know how he’s feeling without him needing to tell you anything. Sometimes he’s intimidating, more often you pity him, but above everything you understand him, through Henry’s stolid charm and caustic one-liners.
Why does Paper Boi stick with Bibby through all that bullshit? Henry explains—again, without needing to say a thing. There is a brief act of defiance when Paper Boi returns to the barbershop some time later, and sits down with a different barber. “A two or a three?” the new barber asks. Paper Boi doesn’t know what to say. “The usual” with Bibby was so ingrained in his routine that he doesn’t know what he wants. He stares across the room: He really wants Bibby, even though he doesn’t. And he hates it. Just look at this face!
This expression, the facial cues that embody Henry’s best qualities as a performer, is worth a thousand words. Though Atlanta’s first season was showered with praise and awarded two Emmys, Henry was notably excluded; he wasn’t even nominated. If there’s any justice in this world, “Barbershop” is the showcase that will force the Emmys to recognize Henry this year. And then we’ll get something new: Paper Boi, smiling infectiously.