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The Untold Truth Of Atlanta's Paper Boi

"Atlanta" focuses the lion's share of attention on Earn (Donald Glover), a Princeton dropout who's just trying to find a way to get a steady income in this world, so he can care for his daughter and baby mama. The best way he sees fit to make that happen is to become the manager for his cousin, Alfred a.k.a. Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), who's been gaining a following as a popular rapper in Atlanta.

Paper Boi starts off the series with a decent-sized fanbase in the underground music scene. As the show goes on, he steadily becomes more and more popular, which eventually culminates in his landing a European tour. He's come a long way, thanks in part to Earn's help in getting him gigs, which allow him to grow into the superstar he's destined to be. But at the end of the day, it's all in the pursuit of chasing that paper, boy. Henry plays Alfred with a calm, cool demeanor, which he's able to keep ... until someone crosses him. 

Henry's proven himself a competent actor time and time again with his roles in "If Beale Street Could Talk," "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," and "Eternals," to name a few. But to a generation of viewers, he'll always be Paper Boi. So, if you want to know more about the character behind the glitz, then here's the untold truth of Paper Boi to get you through your next "Atlanta" binge-watch.

A lot of work went into crafting the Paper Boi song

When we're first introduced to Paper Boi in "Atlanta," he's just acquired his first taste of fame. He has a song — appropriately titled "Paper Boi" — that's making it big in the underground scene. And unlike a lot of songs that are made specifically for films and TV shows, it's actually pretty catchy. In the universe of "Atlanta," you can genuinely feel like it's a track that would make it big.

What may come as a surprise is that's not Brian Tyree Henry rapping on the song. It's actually Donald Glover's brother, Stephen, who's the voice of the track. Stephen is a writer for "Atlanta" and a rapper as well, who goes by the name Steve G. Lover on stage. Thrillist details how the beat was created by producer Christopher Cobb, a.k.a. Chemist, who's worked with the likes of Tory Lanez and Nipsey Hussle. Cobb said of his inspiration for the track, "[Donald] is trying to capture that vibe of pure Atlanta hip-hop scene, which seems to be a dying one — or maybe not a dying one but a changing one — that sound really comes from 2003 or 2008, when most of those synths were developed, those heavy horns and electronic synths. ... I was just trying to capture the essence of Atlanta."

While Cobb doesn't hail from Atlanta himself, he knows what kind of sound he wanted to represent: "With a lot of pop, everything is so fine-tuned and very well mixed and engineered, but with a lot of hip-hop producers, we don't know anything. We just grab expensive equipment and start chopping, and whatever we come up with is whatever we come up with. The ones who work the hardest come up with unique sounds." The result is an instant hit that will have you humming it long after you watch the pilot.

Don't expect a Paper Boi album any time soon

Given how much "Atlanta" draws inspiration from the local music scene, one would surmise there would be a Paper Boi album in the works, especially since Paper Boi has enough tracks to go on a full tour. Although folks can listen to the self-titled track as many times as they want on YouTube, it would make for a great promotional piece to have an album that people can listen to outside of the show. It certainly would have made the long wait between Seasons 2 and 3 a bit more bearable to have some more Paper Boi in our lives.

According to Thrillist, Donald Glover discussed the probability for a Paper Boi album during a conversation at the Paley Center: "We made songs, and the Paper Boi songs we obviously made. I just wanna release [the album] in the coolest way, and also have it live up to what most of the time that stuff doesn't live up to. Something cool, and people will be like ... I actually want to listen to this,' as opposed to it being a novelty project."

There hasn't even been a soundtrack for the non-Paper Boi songs that are used frequently throughout the show. The show's music supervisor, Jen Malone, spoke with Decider about such a release and was awfully cryptic about any impending news. "We want to figure out the best way so that people will know when this scene is happening, what song is playing," she mentioned. "Besides using Twitter and maybe posting stuff, that's definitely going to be a priority." No doubt plenty of fans are waiting on bated breath for an official soundtrack release.

Brian Tyree Henry didn't study other rappers

Although Brian Tyree Henry may not be the one actually rapping for Paper Boi, he does fully embody the role. In the era of method acting and intensive research, it's only natural to wonder if he based his character off of any particular rapper.

Henry was asked as much during an interview with NPR, and he answered, "I wanted to be so far removed from that because I think that every rapper, you know — even their names are ways that they want you to know them. It's not their birth names. It's not, you know — it's very rare that you get a rapper that's known by their own name." It sounds like Henry wanted to put Alfred front and center and focus on developing him as a character, rather than fine-tuning the public persona that would become Paper Boi.

Henry went on to say, "I didn't really want to study any rappers per se because I wanted to get to who he was, you know, who, like — who Alfred really was and where he came from before I could even go to where he was going. Like, Paper Boi is where he's going." However, just because Henry didn't base the character off of anyone in particular, that doesn't mean that real-life inspiration didn't come into the creation of the character. During a Paley Center discussion with Angela Yee, Donald Glover noted that they "wanted to base [Paper Boi] off of what kind of Atlanta hood icons were." He continued, "Like, when Gucci [Mane] first came out ... kind of crossed with Doe B, who's not from Atlanta, just that polo fresh kind of look, which feels like the freshness you get in the country" (via Thrillist).

Brian Tyree Henry only refers to Paper Boi as Alfred

There are two sides to Paper Boi: the rapper that everyone wants a piece of, and Alfred, who's always needed to hustle to survive. The two names are often used interchangeably in "Atlanta," and you can tell a lot about a person by which name they use for this character. According to Brian Tyree Henry, however, he only ever refers to himself as "Alfred." When asked to describe these two parts of his persona, Henry explained to NPR, "Any time that I talk about him, I only call him Alfred. I've never referred to him as Paper Boi. ... It's not who he is."

Henry goes on to refer to Alfred as a "trap boy," which refers to someone who grew up in a poor neighborhood, usually where "you got the projects and things like that. Have you ever noticed that these residencies look like prisons ... And we call them the trap because what do you do with a trap? When you're in the trap, there's really no way for you to get out."  As a result, Alfred needs to do whatever he can to survive, whether that means starting a rap career or selling drugs. 

He finds success with the former, so Alfred finds himself thrust into the limelight, even though he never necessarily wanted that for himself. All he's really wanted is stability, so it makes sense that Henry would only view his character as Alfred. Paper Boi is merely one of many side hustles; it's just proven to be the most lucrative thus far. 

But just because Henry knows who the character is, that doesn't mean everyone is in the same boat. People now just see Paper Boi and his fame without getting to know who he is, which is "causing him to get a little further away from the essence of who Alfred is. And, you know — and it's a struggle."

His name wasn't always going to be Paper Boi

At first glance, "Paper Boi" seems like a great name for a rapper. It's catchy and it fits into a song really well. But as tends to be the case, a fair amount of brainstorming had to go into the creation of such an iconic moniker. 

"Paper Boi" wasn't the first name the "Atlanta" creatives wanted to go with, which Stephen Glover revealed in an interview with The Fader. Early on, the "Atlanta" creators knew they'd need a central rap figure. Glover elaborated, "We were like, 'What should this rapper's name be?' The original idea was that we'd build this scary, Black, gangsta, trap rapper, but his rap name would be White Boi." The song would even have the same catchy hook, going, "White boi, white boi, all about that white boi."

At that point, they found out there might have been a real rapper named White Boi, so they had to pivot. Glover went on to describe the process: "So we're like, 'Okay, we're gonna call this guy Paper Boi.' It still works: Paper Boi, Paper Boi, all about that paper, boi, that double entendre, triple entendre-type thing. That's how it started." Granted, there's also another real rapper named Paperboy, but they didn't let that deter them this time.

A different rapper was supposed to be Paper Boi each week

"Atlanta" is a show that thrives on absurdity. It doesn't matter if things don't make sense all the time because sometimes, real life doesn't make much sense either. That's why Justin Bieber can be Black in an episode or Drake can be Mexican. Reality is more of a guideline than a set rule, and as surprising as it might sound, things were supposed to be even weirder in the world of "Atlanta." 

In an interview with The Fader, Stephen Glover talked about the original idea they had for Paper Boi, which was to have different rappers play him over the course of the series. He mentioned, "We didn't want to have to force Brian [Tyree Henry] to rap. We felt that forcing him to rap would be weird. Maybe he's not a good rapper, then what would we do? That's where the idea of maybe switching the rapper each time came from."

Glover talks about different rappers they had in mind, like Jeezy and Young Thug, who could come in to be Paper Boi at different times. "Atlanta" clearly doesn't have a problem getting rapper cameos — for example, Migos popped up as Alfred's drug suppliers — but this would have taken things to the next level. It also would have required the audience to accept a different-looking person each time Paper Boi shows up on screen, which might have taken some getting used to. Although, fans have come to accept a lot from "Atlanta," so maybe it wouldn't have been so bad. 

Brian Tyree Henry was thankful not to be in the Season 3 premiere

After a four-year hiatus, "Atlanta" Season 3 finally came back in March 2022. It was a long time coming, and to pretty much everyone's surprise, the story didn't actually involve the main group of characters. Instead of focusing on another adventure with Earn, Alfred, and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), we meet a student named Loquareeous, who gets in trouble in class. Due to a series of unfortunate events, he ends up in foster care with a lesbian couple, who can't season their food right and make Loquareeous (or Larry, as they call him) do back-breaking labor. 

It's an absurd story that finally makes sense when it's revealed that it was all Earn's dream. It functions as a prologue to the rest of the season, which takes place in Europe instead of the ATL. It's only natural to wonder how Brian Tyree Henry felt being cast aside for the episode, especially since it had been so long since he had a chance to inhabit this character. He actually didn't mind the break at all. In an interview with Metacritic, Henry was asked how he felt upon reading the script, to which he answered, "I was thankful. I wanted to tell this story. We always want to give the viewer a taste of all different dimensions and we don't ever want you to think that you have us pegged. So, of course, let's give an intro in this weird, bizarro world, and tell it in our way."

He went on to talk about how amusing he found it that audiences waited so long to be reunited with this world of Paper Boi, Earn, and the others, and in the opening episode of the season, these beloved characters are not even in it. But that's "Atlanta" for you: You always need to go in with an open mind and expect the unexpected. 

Brian Tyree Henry missed playing Paper Boi for so long

The lengthy four-year hiatus between Seasons 2 and 3 of "Atlanta" is mostly unheard of with TV shows. During the interim, Brian Tyree Henry and the rest of the "Atlanta" cast had plenty of opportunities to pursue other projects, but Henry always held a candle for Alfred. 

In a conversation with Metacritic, Henry discussed how he missed playing Alfred, even after portraying numerous other characters over the years. He stated, "I missed him very much. I missed Alfred in a way I can't even explain. I know this sounds artsy-fartsy, but there's a true connection between Alfred and I. Having time off from him allowed me space to really focus on me, but then I realized there's not a lot of differences between Alfred and I." In fact, so much time passed between seasons that Henry was even worried if he would be able to step into those shoes once again and do justice to the character. 

Fortunately, he didn't allow that to stand in his way for very long. When the cast and crew touched down in Europe to film "Atlanta" Season 3, he was already thinking about Alfred: "That was my mantra: Just show up for Alfred the way I would show up for myself." He elaborated, "He gave me a language of how to show up for myself because basically what happened with Alfred is that somebody saw something in him and said, 'Hey maybe you can actually make it out here, and regardless of if you want to fight it, people really do relate to you; people really care.'"

And the fans have shown how much they care about Alfred, a.k.a. Paper Boi, by showing up for the series through thick and thin. "Atlanta" may be ending after Season 4, but its legacy, like a good rap song, will live on.