Atlanta star Brian Tyree Henry: if Trump gets elected ‘it’s going to be Mad Max’

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Smart, timely and unapologetic, Atlanta is one of the biggest TV shows this season, telling how it feels to be a black American in this country right now

Brian Tyree Henry has a question. Have you heard of the Arctic Apple? he asks in the restaurant of the Ace Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Before I can confess that Ive never heard of it or start Googling, theres an explanation. If you bite it, it doesnt go brown, it stays white. It never oxidises. I was like, this is next to Soylent Green; I bet you were going to start eating people. So yeah, welcome to the future.

Its a challenge to keep up with Henry. Fans of Atlanta Donald Glovers auteur drama on FX, which drew three million viewers with its season premiere will recognise him as Alfred Miles aka Paper Boi, the laconic would-be rapper around whom much of the action revolves. But theres nothing laconic about Henry, who seems determined to put the world to rights one genetically modified piece of fruit at a time.

You can put Trump in the White House, but you need to prepare for a revolt because Im going nuts, says Henry, as he waits for his English breakfast a deconstructed version including black pudding to arrive. Its going to be Escape From New York in here and you might as well call me Kurt Russell because Im going to be fucking people up. Its going to be Mad Max.

From the coldly seething anger to the apocalyptic references, Henrys takedown of the Republican presidential candidate and his possibly cataclysmic consequences could come straight from the script of Atlanta. It has been the most popular of FXs offerings this autumn and one of the most critically lauded of the TV fall debutants. Its been called genre defying, earned comparisons to fellow FX show Louie and The Wire, and was dubbed shrewd, emotional, and impolite by the New Yorkers Emily Nussbaum.

Its also black. Brazenly so from its cast and crew to its subject matter, to the city in which its set. Atlanta has managed to stand out during a season thats been heralded for embracing diversity. But where other shows such as Luke Cage, Pitch or Queen Sugar may exist in alternate universes or times, Atlanta is set in the here and now, in contemporary America. And that setting, slap bang in the middle of the most divisive election race in recent history, feels apt.

We should be over this by now but were not, says Henry of race relations in the US. Which is why Im glad were doing our show because were going to be telling you exactly how we feel and exactly where were coming from, and exactly how it feels to be a black American in this country right now.

Variations on that line have been used by a lot of the cast while promoting the show Donald Glover said he wanted to show white people, you dont know everything about black culture. During the shows first episode, which focuses around a shooting in a car park, the standout moment is when a white friend casually throws around the N-word. Its a scene which finishes on Glover and Henry staring down the camera at their acquaintance, and it feels like theyre also looking at the viewer and America at large. Its as if those scenes are supposed to elicit a knowing nod from African Americans and a wince from white America.

Jumping
Jumping the couch: Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles. Photograph: FX

No one seems give a shit about what they say about any race in this country, says Henry. Which is funny because the last time I checked isnt this the land of immigration? Isnt this where youre supposed to come and be what you want to be? Its like, yeah, but only if we say so, though.

His words are shrewd, emotional and a little impolite, at least by conservative Americas standards, but his tell-it-how-you-see-it approach began early. Henry was the youngest in a house with four older sisters in Washington DC. Acting was a survival mechanism as much as a hobby. My sisters were teenagers when I was born so the last thing they wanted was a little nappy-headed boy running around, he recalls. I would imitate them or copy things off TV. I would leave the house and be these people.

That early play turned into something more when Henry started acting at Morehouse College, the most famous of the historically black colleges and the same place Samuel L Jackson caught the acting bug. The first play he auditioned for was August Wilsons classic tale of newly freed slaves, Joe Turners Come and Gone and he landed the lead role of Herald Loomis. Henry still calls theater his first love and after Morehouse he moved to Yale to take part in the acting programme. Uprooting from one of the blackest campuses in the US to one which is notoriously monocultural was a wakeup call.

At Morehouse I found myself and my voice and I didnt want to lose that at Yale, he says. [At Yale] youre learning Ibsen and Chekhov and you need to learn the Alexander technique, and I was like yeah, but I want to be Brian when I leave.

Into
Into the woods: Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles, Keith Stanfield as Darius. Photograph: Guy D’Alema/FX

That theater background gave Henry connections. Hes the godfather to recent Emmy winner Sterling K Browns child and played Tybalt in Shakespeare in the Park in New York alongside a young Oscar Isaac, who played Romeo. It also saw him land the role of the General in the original lineup of the Book of Mormon (I was like, OK, Im playing a warlord and I get to say fuck and shit on Broadway. Lets do it). He made the transfer from stage to screen with bit parts in The Good Wife, The Knick and Boardwalk Empire, alongside Michael K Williams. Hes in HBOs Vice Principals, but Atlanta is where Henry looks most at home, which isnt surprising considering its where (at Morehouse) he matured.

But the city itself is important to Henry for another reason: We went there, we created it, we made it a metropolitan, he says. Its the place where a lot of black history happened: Martin Luther King was there, Jim Crow was there, even the Olympics were there.

Atlanta has become and has always been a place where you create your own universe. Thats what our show is trying to do; create our own universe with these two young men trying to make it in this universe which is still part of this bigger picture. Its still part of America, its still part of Georgia, its still part of the south, but its created its own entity and I love that.

Talking to Henry, that idea of identity and defining yourself comes up frequently. Whether its talking about his favourite book as a kid, Antoine de Saint-Exuprys The Little Prince ([its about] opening your mind and not letting people limit you), his dress sense (I love wearing a fitted hat because as soon as I put it on people go oh wait, he went to Yale?) or his love of rap (Its the place I feel like black artists have the most room to be who they want to be), its there in the background.

Questioning, teasing and often provoking, theres an obvious link between the world Henry and Glover have created and the real one they inhabit. So what about the world of Atlanta hip-hop? Its often presented as an out of control, drug-laced trap house where debauchery is next to godliness. For Henry its much more complicated than that.

In hip-hop you can be anything. What you look like is the least of it: Fetty Wap has one eye. Gucci Mane has an ice cream cone tattooed on his face, and theyre both still great, he says. Thats what I love about hip-hop: it challenges the norms of what we, especially as black men should be and look like. It welcomes the freaks and the ones who havent been heard.

Is that what Atlanta is doing? I dont want to say its necessary, but it is absolutely necessary, he says. Welcome to the future.

Atlanta continues on FX tonight at 10pm ET

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/sep/20/atlanta-brian-tyree-henry-tv-fx-black-culture