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How Paper Boi Became the Star of ‘Atlanta’

The laconic rapper has superseded Donald Glover’s Earn to create a portrayal of a slow-boiling music stardom

Paper Boi on ‘Atlanta’ FX/Ringer illustration

The second season of Atlanta has—at least in my mind—promoted Paper Boi to the protagonist role. The grouchy and reluctant rap star has wrested the narrative from his fussy cousin, Earn, who manages his music career. The most recent episodes of Atlanta have all telegraphed this unceremonious transfer of power. Ideally, Atlanta’s central rapper will become Atlanta’s central force, elevating the show’s brilliant interrogation of modern rap stardom.

In last week’s episode, “North of the Border,” Paper Boi tells Earn he intends to fire him in favor of new management. It’s a righteous coup, both on the story merits and for the viewer’s sake. Throughout both seasons of Atlanta, it’s rarely clear what Earn might ideally be doing with his life. His talents are vague, and his ambitions are unclear. I have no idea what would make Earn happy. In contrast, Paper Boi is a deceptively simple figure. The man wants to rap, smoke weed, and get money without interruption; but his rap stardom is, itself, a great interruption, and so Paper Boi must reconcile himself.

The actor Brian Tyree Henry has described Paper Boi—whom he pointedly refers to by only his “real” name, Alfred, in interviews—as the embodiment of two conflicted modes, authenticity and dramatization. In general—in reality—consumers and even critics eagerly mistake an entertainer’s persona for their personal narrative and actual disposition. Atlanta resists this conflation through refusing to glamorize, or even show, the Paper Boi persona in action. In truth, the viewer rarely sees Paper Boi as a Paper Boi fan would understand him; we really know only Al. In most scenes, Al refuses to perform the Paper Boi persona, and so, for the viewer, it’s a cipher. Even the rapper’s breakout single, the eponymous “Paper Boi,” relates his persona’s broad potential through a chorus’s vague optimism: “Paper Boi! Paper Boi! All about that paper, boy!” The chorus also encapsulates the dissonance between Al and his own persona. For Paper Boi, the spotlight is lucrative. For Alfred Miles, the spotlight is offensively bright.

Supposedly, Paper Boi’s biggest commercial hurdle is the insufficiency of his manager, Earn—played by creator Donald Glover—whom Atlanta now characterizes as a cowardly slacker who has failed his client. Earn lacks confidence, resourcefulness, and gusto—all indispensable qualities for a talent manager—so he sets himself up to lose the ascendant Paper Boi’s favor. “North of the Border” begins with Earn having booked Paper Boi for an unpaid performance at a college, a decision that Paper Boi immediately resents, as it illustrates Earn’s amateur business judgment. To be fair, Earn does seem to have competently cultivated Paper Boi’s success. Early in the second season, Earn brings Paper Boi to an Atlanta-based music-streaming company for a meeting with executives. Here, Paper Boi falters, grunting and mumbling his way through conversations with the white boys who guard hip-hop’s fortunes. In a room full of music-industry grunts, Paper Boi refuses to perform, and he barely even speaks; he storms out of the offices, apparently leaving whatever money on the table. In “Woods,” Earn nags Paper Boi to sign some crucial paperwork he’s been ignoring. Clearly, Earn is the only figure tending to Paper Boi’s career momentum. And Paper Boi is Earn’s only client. The rapper and his manager are apparently codependent. Thus, Paper Boi’s intention to fire Earn incites a game of chicken between them. Neither seem wholly confident in their respective courses, but where Earn stalls, Paper Boi hits the gas. The rival rapper Clark County’s manager seems to have promised the world to Paper Boi, and so the rapper has resolved to “level up.” Given the show’s depictions of Clark County as a goofy sellout, Paper Boi may live to regret his defection; perhaps this all culminates with the trap star Paper Boi rapping preposterous jingles for Target commercials. Such is Atlanta. Such is hip-hop.

Does Paper Boi even deserve to be a star? Does he have what it takes? Consistently, Atlanta suggests that his breakout success was a fluke, and that his subsequent successes aren’t hard work, but rather a bleak fate to which Paper Boi is more so resigned than eagerly committed. His stardom is a slog. His fans routinely humiliate him; more than once they’ve mugged him. There are few, pure, fringe benefits. Empire would never allow rap stardom to seem so banal and unprofitable. In Empire, hip-hop stardom is exquisite melodrama. In Netflix’s The Get Down, the mere pursuit of a music career calls for superhero physics and constant showstopper performances. But in Atlanta, music is low-class labor—unglamorous, unsung, unseen. Indeed, the show alienates Paper Boi from his own songs. The viewer doesn’t see Paper Boi writing or recording them, in fact we rarely even hear them. The viewer knows Paper Boi is a popular rapper only because the fans he frequently encounters refer to and interact with him as such. Paper Boi’s music plays on a radio, and he cringes.

Atlanta rappers have run hip-hop for more than two decades now, and so it’s tempting to search Paper Boi for verisimilitude and hints of satire. Who is Paper Boi based on? Who does he resemble? Glover moonlights as Childish Gambino, a wordy, middlebrow rap act that couldn’t seem any less related to Paper Boi’s trap aesthetics. Plus, Glover—a rapper, singer, comedian, actor, and director—is far more explicitly ambitious than Paper Boi ever seems on Atlanta. Paper Boi eschews the most obvious, popular archetypes; he is neither grand nor seedy. He’s an everyman who could have entered any number of professions, but who, for better or worse, makes his living as a rapper in the early streaming economy. Paper Boi’s only trope is his paranoia, which Tyree Henry plays as introversion and irritation that rarely sours into true anger. If Paper Boi does hire a new manager with more cynical designs on his rap career, the demands and perils of stardom may indeed put him over the edge.