EXCLUSIVE: 'Atlanta' Breakout Brian Tyree Henry Enjoys Turning Heads

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For Brian Tyree Henry, all the world’s a stage -- literally. As a black man, he refuses to be pigeonholed into what some may think his 6-foot-2 frame projects, and he enjoys turning those presumptions on their ear.

“One day in Atlanta, I was driving my Hyundai Sonata and I saw a Suburban booming Gucci Mane, so I assumed it was a black dude [driving],” Henry recalls to ET over the phone from his Harlem apartment on one of the first summer days in New York City. “When I pulled up, I saw four white boys going crazy to the music and when they saw me, they turned it down. And I said, ‘Hey man, you can turn that up because I’m listening to this.’ I was listening to Kylie Minogue. They were completely thrown off. People meet me on the red carpet and think I’ll be one way and I’m like, ‘That’s your fault, that’s what you get.’”

That’s Brian. For the 34-year-old actor, who jumped into the limelight with his wry portrayal of Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles on Donald Glover’s Atlanta, he hasn’t let the momentum die down. From singing Cheryl Lynn’s “Encore” with co-star Keith Stanfield just before they tighten up their tough drug-dealer exteriors for a business meeting to shuffling papers as a flustered public defendant on How to Get Away With Murder to portraying Sterling K. Brown’s long lost blues-singing cousin on This Is Us, Henry is proving himself to have all of the range.

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“I have been so lucky to be on every show I really loved. I’ve loved Shonda Rhimes since Grey’s Anatomy began and now I get to work with Viola Davis and the Cicely Tyson? Come on!” he exclaims.

Born in North Carolina, Henry is the youngest of five children and the only boy. After his parents divorced, his mother moved herself and her kids to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a special education teacher. After high school, Henry attended Morehouse College in Atlanta and Yale’s School of Drama, where he met Brown and a bevy of other working actors, which has made his recent string of roles as much a family reunion as a coming out party.

As forAtlanta, the debut began with buzz around creator Donald Glover, a 30 Rock and Community alum who’d enjoyed success but was ready to break out on his own. From the first episode, which opens with Henry’s character, Alfred, pulling a gun on another man outside of a convenience store and Earnest "Earn" Marks (Glover) pleading with him not to shoot and then flashing back to how the pair got there, it was clear -- viewers might’ve thought they knew what was going on in Glover’s head, but they had no idea it was this good. Henry plays Glover’s cousin, a professional weed dealer and part-time rapper. A deadpan but comical Glover is the protagonist, an Ivy League dropout with no real plan and a young daughter to care for who convinces his cousin to let him manage his fledgling rap career. But there are no Champagne bottles or strippers ahead. Instead Atlanta is a brass tacks peek at being poor, educated and black in America and how stressful treading financial waters can be when you seem to be surrounded by glistening yachts. For Henry, who says he became a man while attending Morehouse, he wanted to make sure that his depiction of Alfred was true to the city.

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“It’s so easy for people to label us and see me in a button-up with a gold chain, like, ‘He ain’t gon’ go nowhere, he ain’t read no books,’ and I didn’t want to put that on Alfred,” Henry says. “I didn’t want it to be a buffoonery of people who are from places like East Atlanta. I really wanted him to have a soul, feelings and be the most lovable dude, but it’s hard out here.”

The Atlanta cast succeeded in making their first season a critic and fan favorite, and were eventually rewarded with the 2017 Golden Globe for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy. During the ceremony, Henry and Stanfield embraced through tears and Glover thanked rappers Migos for not only being a part of his series but also making their hit “Bad and Boujee.” Glover’s acceptance speech and win wasn’t just for him and the cast, it was also a triumph for a show about black culture that doesn’t explain itself -- because, let’s be honest, most of the Globes audience probably didn’t know Migos from a can of paint.

“The show was a fresh voice that showed what it’s really like to be black in a way that’s universal,” says Henry, who hopes to be a dual Emmy contender this year for Atlanta and his guest role on This Is Us. “But also, you don’t know everything there is to know about us.”

Despite the success Henry is enjoying as a working actor -- in addition to a second season of Atlanta, Henry is filming the Darren Aronofsky-produced White Boy Rick and reuniting with Davis in Widows -- it's also a bittersweet time, as he recently celebrated his first Mother’s Day without his mom, who died on the last day of production for Atlanta. “We were shooting the promotion pictures with the peaches in our mouths and I’d been FaceTiming her all day about it,” he recalls.

Henry was still on set when he received the news of his mother’s passing, and his co-stars supported him. For his first Mother’s Day without his own matriarch this year, Henry spent the day driving to North Carolina with his sisters as a way to center himself despite the career whirlwind he’s enjoying. “Nothing is gonna get too big that I’ll forget where I came from,” he says. “My mom was the biggest cheerleader I had. I was her only son, I was her prince and she believed in me.”