‘Atlanta’ Star Brian Tyree Henry Navigates Highs and Lows After a Breakout Year (Exclusive)

Brian Tyree Henry
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Following his breakout role as budding rapper Alfred “Paperboi” Miles on "Atlanta," Brian Tyree Henry became ubiquitous. The actor talks to ET about season two, his return to Broadway and slate of upcoming films.

Following his breakout role as budding rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles on Atlanta, Brian Tyree Henry has become ubiquitous.

In the year since its debut, Atlanta won the Golden Globe for Best Television Series -- Musical or Comedy, as well as several accolades for creator and star Donald Glover, cementing the buzzworthy status of the FX series, which recently returned with season two. Meanwhile, Henry appeared alongside Viola Davis, on How to Get Away With Murder, and his good friend Sterling K. Brown, earning an Emmy nomination for his guest appearance on This Is Us. He landed in a list of films -- no fewer than seven slated for release in 2018 -- alongside Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Kate McKinnon, Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. He was directed by Oscar-nominated director Steve McQueen and Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins in their highly anticipated forthcoming projects Windows and If Beale Street Could Talk, respectively -- and that’s just what he’s willing to share.

Henry’s highs have been incredible, but he’s doing it all in the shadow of the biggest loss one can suffer: the death of his mother. Just after the promotional photo shoot for the first season of Atlanta, which he’d excitedly told his mother about over FaceTime, she passed away in a car crash. “I’ve had people here one minute and gone the next,” he tells ET. “I’ve been through a whirlwind.”

Admitting and welcoming the unknown is empowering for Henry, because it allows him to open himself to the next lesson, the next opportunity, the next role without ego clouding his judgement. “People like to use the word naiveté as a negative, but not for me,” he says. “I don’t ever want to be become a person that can’t grow; that’s a boring-ass life. The humility keeps me going forward.”

To that end, Henry has returned to theater, where he got his start alongside Brown and Vice Principals actress Kimberly Hébert Gregory in 2009’s The Brother/Sister Plays at the Public Theatre before making his Broadway debut in 2011 as part of the original cast of The Book of Mormon. Now, he’s earning rave reviews for his return to Broadway in Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero with Chris Evans, Michael Cera and Bel Powley. As William, a hotel security supervisor, he’s dedicated to doing what’s right until he finds himself mired between protecting his family and the trappings of being black in America. And despite the dire circumstances his character faces, his portrayal of the blue-collar worker is a mixture of humor, care, nerves and dwindling patience beside Cera, who plays William’s quirky, mediocre employee.

“The topics are still relevant today and this play was written 20 years ago,” Henry says. “I related to it and I was angry that I related to it. It took me aback that we’re still talking about these topics [including systematic racism and sexism] as something people still need to understand.”

Brian Tyree Henry and Chris Evans on stage in "Lobby Hero." - Joan Marcus

Elsewhere, for Paper Boi in the second season of Atlanta aptly entitled “Robbin’ Season” (noting the time just before the holidays when people get what they need by any means necessary), the word of the day is consistently “restraint.”

“You’re going to learn a lot more about the Alfred’s journey and past,” he says. “I’ve never learned more about restraint than this season. I’m being tested at every turn, and what sucks is that no one’s using it with me!”

From a meeting at a mock-Spotify where Alfred walks out mid-performance to aggressive fans approaching and interrupting him mid-conversation, he’s indeed too hot. And as season continues, everyone’s relationships become tenuous.

“It’s a little darker, it’s the fall, whereas the first season was in the summer,” he admits. “It’s really introspective; we’re all trying to figure out who we are. You put in the work and the sweat [for your place], but now people want to draw blood, so it’s like, what does that mean?”

As Henry’s star continues to ascend, his life has begun to parallel Paper Boi’s off-screen. He’s struggling to maintain his real-life privacy, recently telling the New York Times that a neighbor in his Harlem, New York, apartment building, whom he’d never spoken to before, recognized him as Paper Boi and then shared on Facebook that they lived in the same building. And now, he’s got some lessons from life’s conundrums to share.

“You can’t share your magic with everyone,” Henry says. “Your job is to live within your magic. And if other magical people find you, then let’s go and make a brew. [My life right now] is really about me waking up every day and realizing that I have no idea what I’m about to accomplish or lose and to just move through that.”