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September 02, 2016

Hip Hop Hooray!

Brian Tyree Henry returns to the city where he discovered his voice and love for acting, and he describes his latest role in Atlanta as a love letter to his friends.

Ny MaGee
  • Deborah Lopez
  • Deborah Lopez
  • FX
  • FX

“What’s great about Atlanta is that from any walk of life, you will be able to relate to it because it’s going to represent for all those people who felt like they weren’t heard or understood.”

Brian Tyree Henry is most recognizable for originating the role of The General”in the critically acclaimed Broadway musical The Book of Mormon. Now the versatile actor will star alongside Donald Glover in the original FX series Atlanta. Henry believes the series will “shock people” because it is “a representation of all of us,” that will explore “how much we all can relate to each other.”

Henry describes his character Alfred Miles as, “That dude that everyone knows in any circle. We all have that cousin or that uncle or that brother that would ride or die for you. I have several friends that reflect Alfred to me, and I just wanted to make sure that they were represented.”

He continued, “The best thing about Alfred is that the carefreeness of him, and the lightheartedness of who he can be, is more intriguing. He’s just that guy who can make you laugh but can also kind of scare you with how much he wants to protect his own.”

Exploring Alfred’s truth, and how he blurs the lines between real life and street life, allowed Henry to approach the role from a perspective he hopes that will resonate with viewers.

“The one thing I wanted to do was be truthful to who he was and to really find out where his heart was, because to me, I know that the way Alfred can be perceived, or even what he does, would make people feel a certain way about him, and I wanted people to know that there is more to him than that. I wanted people to be able to relate.”

Atlanta was created by and stars Donald Glover, and follows two cousins as they navigate their way in the city’s rap scene in an effort to improve their lives and the lives of their families. Through these characters, the series will also highlight the importance of fatherhood and parent-child relations in general.

“We live in an era where the images of black culture — black men and black women — we sometimes feel like there are parts of us left out, and I don’t feel that our show will do that. We really try to show the importance of family because sometimes that’s all you've got.”

Henry noted how Glover did a “really fantastic job of showcasing” how the black men and women in his vision of the city of Atlanta are tied to each other in a way “that is more than just money and being powerful.”

“We want to get to the core necessities that we are a family and we do want to make it, but not always by any means necessary. We want to make it together.”

A graduate of Atlanta’s Morehouse College, Henry received his MFA from Yale’s School of Drama. He’s proud that the ATL is also where he discovered, “Who I was and what my voice was in this world.”

He describes returning to the city to film the series as a “culmination of all those things that Atlanta made me to be.”

Location often serves as a narrative device, and Henry explained how the “pulse” of Atlanta helped to influence the tone of this 10-episode series.

“Atlanta has its own creativity. It has its own nooks and crannies where people can find their own and find themselves represented. I love Atlanta because it’s constantly growing in every facet of culture. From fashion to food to music to movies, it’s constantly evolving. We really wanted to capture the life of Atlanta. You can’t find Atlanta natives anywhere but Atlanta.”

The series may rely on nostalgia to hook certain viewers, as Henry noted that, “Natives of Atlanta will really feel like they have something to hook into and see that we’re representing the city fully — kinda like an homage.”

Atlanta will show viewers how the city itself “has its own vibe and its own life,” Henry said. He’s confident viewers of various backgrounds will find the series palatable because of rap/Hip-Hop’s global influence, and because both genres, and the culture that it speaks to, are constantly a hub for conversation and gossip.

“Let’s say we were having a dinner, and you have all different kinds of people there. Hip-hop is the one that comes in the room and gets the party stated. Hip-Hop is the one that’s gonna dress different. Hip-Hop is the one that’s going to turn you on to something new. Hip-Hop is going to be talked about. Hip-Hop will come into the party and just get it live,” he said.

“You can be anything or be anyone from any side of the world and still be successful with Hip-Hop because it’s about what you’re saying and how you say it. Hip-Hop is still a form of poetry.”

Henry has appeared in numerous television shows, including Boardwalk Empire, The Knick, The Good Wife, Law & Order, and HBO’s Vice Principals. One of the themes that Atlanta explores is the dynamic of friendships, and Henry attributes his personal friends as part of the reason why his career is flourishing.

“I would not be where I am if I didn’t have them taking notice of who I am and pushing me to be that. I had no idea that acting was something I wanted to pursue until my friends were like, “Ya know, you could actually do this.” And so, every day that I do this, I’m doing this for them. They saw things in me that I didn’t see myself.”

A lonely and arduous rise to the top can be daunting on any performer, and Henry believes true friends, “see you for more than what you can see in yourself, and they will always support you and push you to be better.”

“That’s important because as much as you need the doers, you need the people who are there to tell you that you can do. And that’s why my friends are so important to me. This show is a love letter [and] a badge for them. I’m like, ‘You guys, this is it. This is a culmination of what you’ve all seen and worked hard for, and seen me work hard for.’ I wouldn’t be here without them.”

In addition to his work for both TV and film, including Focus Features’ Puerto Ricans in Paris — Henry’s resume boasts a wide-range of theater credits. On his off-days, his friends may find him relaxing at his New York pad and watching reruns of Bob’s Burgers.

“My idea of happiness is to wake up everyday and try to hold on to happiness and to always strive to find it no matter where you are. Because no matter what, in this day and age, it’s hard to be happy about things.”

Henry also describes his idea of happiness as, “That one song that you love and you play it on repeat and you play it loud and you just dance in your room with the windows open — that’s happiness to me. I think it’s important that we all hold on to those little things that make us happy.”

Filming Atlanta also allowed Henry to add memorable moments to his idea of happiness because it didn’t feel like a job.

“I never said I was going to work. I always said I was going to play with my friends, and that makes it special because then it’s not work. It’s just you going to be happy.”

Atlanta premieres September 6 on FX.

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