The power trio behind ‘Atlanta’ reveal its living, breathing inner workings

Two men at cafe tables talk together in a scene from "Atlanta."
Brian Tyree Henry, left, plays Paper Boi, whose rap career is starting to take off in “Atlanta.” “Paper Boi’s journey is kind of the writers’ journey,” says series star and creator Donald Glover. “Because we’re trying to figure out what we’re doing.”
(Coco Olakunle/FX)

The Emmy-winning FX series “Atlanta” returned for Season 3 sporting a location switch (Paper Boi touring Europe) and bold narrative detours (episodes without the regulars) while still offering the rich, absurdist pleasures of its core characters dealing with success, change and life’s weirder realities.

Over a group Zoom recently, creator-star Donald Glover; actor Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Alfred, a.k.a. rapper Paper Boi; and director-executive producer Hiro Murai mused on “Atlanta” — its strengths, its joys and why it’s always changing.

This felt like Paper Boi’s season, flexing his fame in another country but also processing his feelings about it.


Henry: I have this weird idea about how fame speeds up your mortality, because now all of a sudden you belong to everybody. Fame feels like a multiverse. I just didn’t know who the hell I was until we were in Europe being screamed at by white people in different languages. And it’s like, “Oh, they’re screaming ‘cause they care about who we are.”

Glover: That’s a good theory.

Murai: It’s also about subjectivity, right? Inherently it’s a little bit skewed from objective reality. Everything’s a little turned up and heightened, things are curling around the edges.

Glover: Paper Boi’s journey is kind of the writers’ journey; what all of us are going through is kind of what Al goes through. Because we’re trying to figure out what we’re doing. Like, we did this thing we didn’t think anybody would care about, and now people care about it. Are we supposed to keep doing the same thing? How do you deal with that?

Henry: We share war stories a lot. It’s therapeutic in a way. You step into these characters’ shoes and play out this s— that you sat with for a while. Like, I know that happened. I don’t know why that happened. Am I the only one that happened to? And now that we’re in a whole other country, we can shine a light on what that craziness is.

The pandemic hit after writing Season 3, and you waited another year to shoot. Did scripts change?

Glover: We thought about time. I’m very proud of the fact that the show is rewatchable. I watch “Looney Tunes” with my son, and these are from the 1930s and they’re extremely rewatchable. Our show has specifics, but that’s not what makes them enjoyable. So we got a little longer to work on the scripts, with an eye toward making them more classic, I guess.


Henry: Each story is a living, breathing thing. We never hold anything too precious.

Murai: It changes as we’re making it. I look back at the episodes we shot in Europe, and I go, “Wow.” Like, the thing I’m proudest of about the show is each season is like a time capsule for how we were feeling in that moment.

One of those feelings was surely confidence when it came to layering in episodes that didn’t feature the main cast yet still commented on the season’s preoccupations.

Glover: Hiro said this: It’s like a concept album. You let the theme do the work, and that first episode [“Three Slaps”], the thesis is there, and I’m like, “OK, here are a bunch of flavors of that.” We tried to echo things. If it was just [our characters], it would feel small to what we were talking about. What did it feel like when you read those scripts, Hiro?

Murai: I was laughing, but in the back of my head, I was like, “Where’s Earn, though?” But it also felt like us. Like, we’re interested in this now.

Henry: I was just saying, we’re not precious. The minute people think they know the formula of “Atlanta,” it’s like, “Psych!” Our universe allows “Trini 2 De Bone” to exist. Why not tell that story?

Glover: I had a friend call me, white guy, really nice, he said, “I was raised by a Trinidadian woman in the exact same fashion, and I’ve struggled with all the things I know. She raised me.” That was really cool, and that story was never going to happen unless we did it.


Henry: It’s like what you said about “Looney Tunes,” right? You think it’s supposed to be about Bugs Bunny, then next week it’s about, like, chipmunks, then it’s a crossover with Daffy. But within the pantheon of the universe that is “Looney Tunes,” it’s still funny. “Atlanta” is that place. Like, here are the other people sucked into this.

Glover: All we can play with is time and space.

And Brian’s many priceless reaction shots. This season was like a master class.

Murai: The editors and I, we always talk about how “Atlanta’s” subtitle should be “Alfred Reacting to S—.” As an editor, it’s so valuable. Every time a scene’s not working, they go, “What’s Alfred doing right now?”

Glover: Hiro and Brian always have these tough Al episodes, and they tend to be my favorite, because they’re really cool ways of showing this internal process of growing up. They’re funny to me.

Murai: Honestly, I think [Alfred is] the heart and soul of this show. A lot of my friends who don’t know Atlanta, the rap scene, they say, “I don’t know why, but the person I relate to most on this show is Paper Boi.” Brian is just so empathetic and present, and as a viewer, you automatically latch onto his perspective. His reaction shots, each one is a GIF-able gift.

Henry: All I think of all the time is, how close to danger is Alfred? What are the repercussions if Alfred reacts? And, like, “What the f—?” Most of the time, I start with “What the f—?” But he’s most powerful in his silence, right? He is the biggest observer. He lives in that. Dealers are the ones who know their periphery. They can read people. He doesn’t have to say much. And that’s helped me, because Brian always wants to scream. I’m ready to flip a table at any moment.


Glover: And he has.

Henry: And I have!

Glover: Our production office was a mess. When he was happy!

Henry: I’m really sorry. But it was enjoyable.