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Brian Tyree Henry stars in 'Atlanta' season 3

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

"Atlanta" is back for Season 3, and the series is still going there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")

DONALD GLOVER: (As Earnest "Earn" Marks) That's just going to make it harder for me and other Black kids who are actually talented. I don't know what to do.

BRIAN TYREE HENRY: (As Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles) Yeah, but you Black, though.

GLOVER: (As Earnest "Earn" Marks) That don't mean I got to help him, right? I mean, yeah, he's Black, but he's still scamming.

HENRY: (As Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles) Yeah, man, so what? White kids be scamming all the time. Hell you think TikTok is? Black kids need to scam more.

RASCOE: That's Donald Glover's Earnest and Brian Tyree Henry's Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles. Brian Tyree Henry joins us now from Atlanta, appropriately.

Thanks so much for joining us.

HENRY: Of course. Happy to be here.

RASCOE: So Season 3 of "Atlanta" is a little bit different because you guys are barely in Georgia. Like, your character, Paper Boi, is now a successful rapper, and this season finds him on tour in Amsterdam and the U.K. and Hungary. So why take this season on the road and away from Atlanta?

HENRY: Well, I think that is a kind of way of knowing that you have made it successfully - right? - once you become international. What's great about this season is that you get to see Alfred lean into that a little bit more. You get to see him really, really understand that he is now basically, like, a pop star. He has reached far and wide. You know, I had this joke of, like, man, you really know that you've made it when white people are running up to you, speaking different languages.

RASCOE: (Laughter) I mean, you mentioned, like, what it means to make it big. And was it always a given that there would be a Season 3 of "Atlanta" because all of y'all, the main actors on this show, done made it big, right? Like, y'all (laughter) - y'all have blown up.

HENRY: "Atlanta" did something so crazy where we have created this universe that really reflects us back to ourselves. And yeah, like, after Season 2 - well, even, like, the beginning of Season 1, our lives just, like, went all over the place. Like, every single one of us were like, all right, like...

RASCOE: You're doing Marvel movies, right?

HENRY: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HENRY: Like, me and Alfred just have so much more in common than, like - we have - I hold him very close to my heart. Alfred has done this remarkable thing of protecting me and being able to stand up for me in places that Brian never felt like he could stand up for himself. And then I feel, like, special responsibility of protecting him and showing him things that he's never seen. And I know that this sounds crunchy granola.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

HENRY: I know this sounds like - you know what I mean? I know it sounds so actor-y (ph), but it's true, man, because, like...

RASCOE: It's the process. It's the craft (laughter).

HENRY: It really is. Like, you know, I really, really care about this man, man. I really, really care about Alfred, and the biggest thing that I wanted is for everyone to care about him, too. You know, especially being Black in America, we are always in survival mode. Like, there's always us trying to survive, and we rarely get a chance to experience what it's like to live. And so what I find this season is you get to see Alfred truly, like, living.

RASCOE: And he opens up a bit. Like, when you, as Paper Boi, have lost your phone and you've been interrogating this really annoying guy who you think has the phone...

HENRY: Right.

RASCOE: ...It's not going anywhere, the interrogation, and, like, Paper Boi - Alfred - opens up about why, you know, he really needed that phone. I think we've got a clip of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")

HENRY: (As Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles) Tonight. I was out there on the dock before the show and I finally heard it. I finally heard him. My voice - I heard a man loud and clear. Like, he was singing this melody, man. He singing this melody, like he was a kid on a bus. And I started singing with him. And it was (laughter) - and I recorded that on the phone. If I don't get it back now, then I'm afraid I'm going to lose it forever.

RASCOE: What I love about your performance is there is that depth there. Paper Boi has made it, but there's a part of him that doesn't seem happy. So, like, what did you tap into for that to make that scene work?

HENRY: Wow. I remember that scene very, very vividly because it's how I felt about my life. I remember thinking, you know, so I'm an actor now. You know, like, so now I'm an actor, and people are telling me left and right that I should be happy, and I should be celebrating. And I remember a lot of that was when I was really, really deep in grief of my mother. And I was like, well, how can I in any way celebrate the success of what this is when I've lost so much? And I remember especially feeling like that in 2020. I remember I had just finished "Eternals." And, you know, I had done this Marvel movie, like, playing this role that I was incredibly proud of. And, you know, now we're sitting down dealing with this pandemic and dealing with loss and dealing with social injustice in the streets. And everyone is telling me that you're - you know, actually, you're doing great, like everything is great. And I was like, what are you talking about? Like, the world is on fire. The world is on fire. What if there is no comeback from this? What if there's - like, I just grapple with a lot of stuff.

RASCOE: Yeah. No.

HENRY: As I'm sure we all did. And I'm sure we all did.

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.

HENRY: And so we feel like other people know what's better for us than we do ourselves. But I have come to learn, as Brian, that instinctually, I was built to always listen to my heart. And I think that Alfred is finding the same thing with him. So when you see him sitting with this kid, not Earn, not Darius, not anyone else - he's sitting with this complete stranger because, sometimes, you find solace in giving your heart to complete strangers sometimes because, you know, there's no winning or losing. It's just somebody to listen. And I think, you know, and those moments when Alfred feels like he's being listened to are truly rewarding for me, Brian, to play because I always am trying to find someone to listen to my heart, I feel, sometimes because I'm always so busy. And I'm always doing this and I'm playing this character over here but I think that I'm always just waiting for a moment for somebody to truly hear me say, hey, acting isn't always what I wanted to do. This isn't - I didn't really know that this was what my life was going to be. I didn't know that these doors were going to open up like that. And yo, I'm scared.

RASCOE: What are you scared of?

HENRY: You know, I get scared that one, it will all go away at any given moment. I get scared that I might become stagnant. You know, I don't want to drown in it. I don't want to lose the fibers that make me me. I don't want to lose that 11-year-old kid that put, like, movie posters up in his locker. You know, I don't want to lose that kid that truly, truly went to the movie theaters, like, on a weekend and watched three movies at one time with a bucket of popcorn and was like, this is awesome.

RASCOE: Yeah.

HENRY: And so it's a work in progress. And I think that you're reading Alfred in that, as well. But when he really is anchored, when he's really anchored and being able to be vulnerable, I think that that's where he shines the brightest. So I, Brian, am also trying to let that reflect in me, as well.

RASCOE: I wanted to tell you this, and I didn't know what because I didn't want you to be offended - because I know you are an actor, and, you know, this is a craft. But when I first saw "Atlanta," I did not realize you were, like, a trained - I don't know why because I had never seen a character like this - I grew up in North Carolina - that felt so real.

HENRY: You in North Carolina, too? Where are you from?

RASCOE: Durham. I'm from Durham, N.C.

HENRY: I'm from Fayetteville.

RASCOE: Oh, you're from the Ville? Oh, my goodness.

HENRY: Yeah.

RASCOE: OK. I'm from Durham (laughter).

HENRY: This is crazy. I love this. See - family everywhere. It's great.

RASCOE: Yes. Yes. I'm from Durham.

HENRY: OK, Durham.

RASCOE: And so when I saw - Durham, yes. So when I saw Paper Boi, I was like - I thought they went out in Atlanta and found somebody and say, hey, can you act, like, from the block (laughter)?

HENRY: This is one of the - that right there is one of the most amazing compliments I could ever get in my career when especially, you know, because you're my folk. You know what I mean?

RASCOE: Yeah, no, I...

HENRY: Like, you're my folk. So, like, when people say that to me, I'm always incredibly honored because that's what I wanted. I really wanted to make sure that he was as authentic to what I knew my folk to be.

RASCOE: Yes.

HENRY: And I didn't want there - I didn't want to, like, ham him up. I didn't want him to - you know? And I also wanted to respect the city of Atlanta, you know, because Atlanta is where I discovered who the hell I was. Like, you know, I was here from 18 to 22 years old. And I was in these streets. Like, I'm just going to just say it. I was in these streets...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

HENRY: I was having the time of my life, you know? And, like, I loved it here. And it developed me. And I wanted to make sure, like, when I got this script and I saw that the show itself was called "Atlanta," I was like, well, that's the fifth character, the city in and of itself. And if Alfred is going to be - you know, it's a beautiful thing, but it also comes - like, there's sacrifices to fame. You know, fame is a scary thing. It is especially scary when you're navigating it as a person of color because, you know, you're being told, hey, actually, you're up on this level. And then you go somewhere, and they're like, we don't know you. I don't know you. I don't feel - like, you know, I still have...

RASCOE: Have you experienced that? Do you experience that a lot?

HENRY: Oh, absolutely.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

HENRY: Absolutely. Like, that's never going to change. Like, that's - like, let's be - let's be really, really real. That's never going to change. But I think the way that it has affected me is different. I can kind of, like, laugh at it now and also be very aware of where to spend my time and where to spend my money. You know what I mean? Like, at the end of the day, it's like it's - I'm better now for knowing the difference.

RASCOE: Brian Tyree Henry stars in "Atlanta." Its third season is airing now on FX. Brian Tyree Henry, thank you so much for joining me today. And whenever I see you, I'm going to expect to see acting with a capital A.

HENRY: (Laughter) I'll make sure. I'll make sure.

(LAUGHTER)

HENRY: I'll make sure - for sure. Thank you for everything. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.