Emmy spotlight: Brian Tyree Henry (‘Atlanta’) brings depth and nuance to Paper Boi

Few shows this season enjoyed the kind of breakout success of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” and due credit must be given to supporting player Brian Tyree Henry. As Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, a small-time rapper navigating the Atlanta music scene, Henry brings depth and nuance to a familiar character, and was uproariously funny while doing so. With the FX program poised to make a major splash at the Emmys, here’s hoping voters take notice of Henry as they’re filling out their ballots.

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In our webcam chat last November (watch here), Henry described Alfred as being “a petty champion,” while still having “one of the biggest hearts of anybody I’ve ever seen.” He’s someone who’s had “all these different stigmas and stereotypes put on him, and all he is is just a dude that wants to get up and make a living and survive.” It’s that dynamism that makes Alfred so fascinating to watch, especially in his dealings with Earnest (Glover), the cousin who desperately wants to manage his career. At first, his reticence towards “Earn” seems almost childish, but that masks a deeper wound: where, he asks, was this estranged relative when he needed him most?

The real greatness of the show comes in the high jinks between Alfred, Earnest and the eccentric Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). Like a modern day Three Stooges, this trio just can’t seem to stay out of trouble, whether it’s a charity basketball event gone wrong or a treacherous hunt for a lost jacket. Yet unlike the Stooges, these adventures can sometimes turn deadly serious.

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Henry faces stiff competition in the Comedy Supporting Actor category. Last year, voters found room for seven contenders: Andre Braugher (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), Tituss Burgess (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), Ty Burrell (“Modern Family”), Tony Hale (“Veep”), Keegan-Michael Key (“Key and Peele”), Matt Walsh (“Veep”), and eventual champ Louie Anderson (“Baskets”). Of that bunch, only Key is not returning, but watch out for Alec Baldwin (“Saturday Night Live”) to be a threat as well.

Given “Atlanta’s” buzz, it’s hard to believe Henry won’t be in the running. It certainly helps that his star has been on the rise, with recent appearances on “Vice Principles,” “This Is Us” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” as well as the films “Person to Person,” “Crown Heights,” “White Boy Rick” and “Fam-i-ly.”

Should he be nominated, the episode “B.A.N.” would be a strong Emmy submission. Directed by Glover, it’s a wildly inventive half hour that imagines Alfred appearing as a guest on a Charlie Rose-esque talk show for the Black Action Network, a local access station in Atlanta. Henry dominates the episode, sparring with the persnickety host Montague (Alano Miller) during a tedious interview about transphobia and toxic masculinity. It’s a tour-de-force worthy of Emmy gold.

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Critics have praised Henry’s work, including Emily Nussbaum of “The New Yorker”, who writes, “Played with weary authority by Brian Tyree Henry, Paper Boi seems, at first, like a confident O.G. He’s a low-level drug dealer; he’s a musician and the proud inventor of the compound sexual verb ‘mucking’ (for ‘massage and . . .’). But Paper Boi, with his paunch and sweaty brow, also comes off as fascinatingly depressed by impending fame, thrown by how fans perceive him as a symbol of street authenticity.” Tim Grierson of “The Wrap” agrees, saying, “Henry expertly balances vulnerability with sarcasm, giving us a man who wants to be seen as a bad-ass but who quickly loses his cool once someone starts clowning him on social media.”

After victories at the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, PGA and WGA, “Atlanta” looks likely to show up in several categories at the Emmys, and Henry deserves to be carried along for the ride.

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