The most recent episode of the hit show’s final season Atlantasimply titled “New Jazz”, is not only one of the best in the series for its sense of humor, but also for the way it centers on a remarkable perpetual Brian Tyree Henry like the enigmatic Alfred ‘Paper Boi’ Miles. It’s part of a trajectory of episodes that have been sprinkled throughout the series that reveal what troubles the rapper beneath all his bravado. Specifically, the episodes that always stood out the most were “Barbershop” and “Woods,” which also centered around Paper Boi dealing with a challenge that can often turn dark. Uniting them all is Henry’s irreplaceable sense of presence and vulnerability that he conveys as an actor, an element of the show that wouldn’t be the same without him. It makes him one of the best parts of the show and one of the best actors working today for everything he manages to do even in the simplest of times.
In ‘New Jazz’, we find Paper Boi and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) deciding to take a little trip. It’s something I mean in multiple senses of the word, as the duo not only roam the city of Amsterdam, but also on what Darius calls “spiritual expansion devices,” which is their coy way to refer to drugs. More specifically, it’s what he explains to be a “Nepalese space cake”, a concoction of weed mixed with hallucinogenic Nepalese honey. Or, at least, that’s what he thinks it is because he’s not entirely sure. After initially wandering peacefully waiting for the drugs to kick in, Paper Boi parts ways with Darius. His happy day is shattered when a group of youths approach him on the street, becoming increasingly aggressive until he is forced to hide in a side building to escape. It’s reminiscent of what happened in ‘Woods’ when he was robbed by children and had to flee into the forest as he was shot. It was probably in the back of Paper Boi’s mind, something Henry conveys in the immediate way he tries to run away before something similar can happen to him again.
This is just the start of his increasingly bad journey, something the show conveys with an ingrained sense of reality that gives the actor all the room he needs to shine. Avoiding the typical distortion of visuals to indicate a character is getting high, we instead focus on their emotional state. The key to this is when he walks into an art gallery and meets a stranger named Lorraine. She’s a humorous yet chaotic presence who takes an immediate interest in Paper Boi in a wonderfully charismatic performance by Ava Gray. As Lorraine challenges the rapper on her biggest insecurities and fears, we see how the two play off each other perfectly to better bring out who their characters are. In particular, we see how often shy and insecure Paper Boi can be when juxtaposed with the suave and confident Lorraine. Henry brings this to life with a precision that is felt in every aspect of his performance. From the oft-interrupted way he speaks with uncertainty woven into his tone to that closed posture and peering eyes, we begin to feel just how vulnerable he is. Even his laughter and charm deepens this, quickly turning into deflection when put on the defensive.
This has been the most intriguing aspect Henry has brought to Paper Boi through the show. You can see him all the way back in “Barbershop” where he just wanted to get a haircut, despite being dragged into bigger and bigger disasters that he seemed unable to escape. Regardless of his desire to get out of the situation, Henry showed the character’s sense of sheepishness that held him back from doing so. It’s all part of how he’ll show the truth beneath Paper Boi’s tough exterior, letting his guard down piece by piece when confronted with hard truths. In particular, when Lorraine reads it like a book at the end of the episode, we see him literally fall into a shaky mess that transforms him into the man he himself crossed paths with at the start. As we hear the words “don’t be like him” ring out before he passes out, Henry’s overwhelming but incisive work pays off as the pieces come together. Once again, the fear the rapper is trying so hard to contain has resurfaced despite his best efforts. The fact that Henry can hit all of these different emotional beats with such quiet confidence is amazing to see. To be able to go from a bizarre scene where Liam Neeson making an appearance as himself in a more low-key film where he captures the more nuanced internal conflicts of Paper Boi shows just how good Henry is.
From the way he creates barriers between himself and others to the way he tries to brush off anyone who tries to reach him, everything he does reveals just how intriguing the character is. It shows us how, behind all that brash confidence, he is often alone and uncertain about his future. Although he’s doing better than ever with his music, there’s still a sense that he might not be in full control and instead be at the behest of others. The strength of his performance is what makes it all work, serving as a bright spot amid the narrative’s borderline surrealism. It shows how he can do a lot with very little, speaking volumes with a little look or a chuckle that masks a deeper sadness that has been felt throughout the series. It was his dedication that made the series a character study that unfolded smoothly in its remaining episodes. In Henry’s last speech from the episode where Paper Boi interrogates Donald Glover‘s Earn know if he has the masters of his own music, he just seems tired and beaten down by it all. We feel in every word how fame, wealth and success have failed to bring him the sense of peace he still desperately seeks. It is thanks to Henry’s delicate and dedicated work that it continually strikes.
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