I. The Presumption of Wealth
“With money, you are a dragon; with no money, a worm.” —Chinese Proverb
The premiere of FX’s Atlanta begins with what Aaron McGruder considers “A Nigga Moment.” Viewers are thrown into an altercation that unfolds in a swift sequence of three events: the destruction of property, unapologetic disrespect, and gunfire. This all occurs before the audience is properly introduced to Earnest "Earn" Marks, Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles, and Darius―the series' three main characters.
Alfred―who stands in the eye of the brewing storm―is acknowledged by his rap moniker, Paper Boi, by an unnamed woman who witnessed the kick that butchered his driver's side mirror. Perplexed by his irate attitude toward the man she’s with, the woman says, “Just get another mirror, you’re Paper Boi! You’re rich, right?”
Her half-question, half-statement is made with certainty, as if Paper Boi’s face was recently broadcast across television as a lottery winner who hit the Mega Millions.
The woman isn't the only one making assumptions. Earn’s TSA coworker, Swiff, introduced Earn to Paper Boi’s popular music video while promoting the rumor that labels were already offering his cousin millions. Real millions.
Viewers are shown Paper Boi’s home later in the episode. It’s obvious from the hood setting that his lifestyle lacks what has been widely assumed. There’s no million dollar contract beside the jug of spoiled milk or hidden riches being protected by his pistol―Paper Boi doesn’t have any real paper. Despite having a mixtape embraced by the streets like Jeezy’s 2005 Trap or Die Gangsta Grillz, a viral music video, and, by the end of episode one, a scorching single on local radio, it's drug money, not rap checks, that is funding his livelihood.
The aftermath of his wildfire visibility is seen throughout the Emmy award-winning first season. People recognize Paper Boi from his music and the headlines he makes on social media, but how he's perceived is mostly from the perspective of bystanders who only see a brooding gangster or buzzing gangster rapper.
II. Price of Fame
"And he kept asking me, 'What kinda car you drive? / I know you paid, I know y'all got buku of hoes / From all them songs that y'all done made'" —André 3000, "Elevators (Me & You)"
In the second episode of season two, dubbed Atlanta: Robbin' Season, the show fast-forwards several months after the conclusion of season one. Paper Boi’s rap profile has continued to rise, but dealing drugs is still his primary source of income. There’s a sense of overwhelming paranoia as he enters the car of his plug, a man he’s been buying drugs from for the past 10 years. After a decade of business and trust-building, the former friend commits an act of deception that would cause Brutus to shudder.
The robbery isn’t carried out with malice, like when Rico robs and kills Mitch in Paid in Full. Rather; the unnamed plug demands the money while apologizing—he seems sincerely sorry—and simultaneously pointing a gun in Paper Boi's direction. It’s like watching Mr. Rogers politely rob his beloved neighbor while holding a Glock.
“You’ll be alright, though,” he remarks. “The song's hot, it’ll probably go Platinum." When Alfred admits no money is being made off the untitled song, the plug replies, “I need this shit, bruh.” In a split second, Alfred realizes that presumption led to this stick-up. This isn’t an outsider or some stranger off the street, but a former acquaintance glaring with jaded eyes at a cash cow. It’s an act inspired by the illusion of wealth, not the reality of earnings; this man found justification in taking a few dimes from what he believed is a wishing well filled with quarters.
Need is a powerful statement when passion crosses into desperation. In episode three of the new season, a young waiter fervently requests for Paper Boi to "put him on."
“I’m trying to get like you. I need this shit,” he says, echoing a desperate desire comparable to the plug who robbed the buzzing rapper. The needs of Alfred are no longer a factor when all people see is Paper Boi. He entered rap with the intent of being paid, but the achievement comes with baggage and a bullseye.
Success will change how the world sees you; Cardi B has often voiced the ills of fame in her interviews. Privacy is lost, perception warps reality, attention comes in abundance, and the needs of others become louder than your own. Through the first four episodes, Atlanta: Robbin' Season has shown us who is in Paper Boi’s care, but we have yet to see who is truly in his corner. As he transitions from one life to another, does he even know what’s best for him?
III. Portrait of Alfred
"Justin Scott trapped as Big K.R.I.T. screamin', 'It's really me'" —Big K.R.I.T. ("Price of Fame")
Alfred saw rap as the gateway to a payday, but the road to riches is paved with fame’s integral foundation. One unforgettable scene from season one occurs during "Nobody Beats the Biebs," when the attractive journalist has no interest in our burgeoning rapper―a rapper’s role is to be the bad guy. This comes after his childish scuffle with Bieber during a celebrity basketball game. Instead of allowing him the chance to explain his side, she lays it out: his job is to be the asshole in the ecosystem of celebrities.
Justin Beiber can change his narrative with an apology and a pop song, but Paper Boi, the rapper, isn't so lucky.
As a 6'2", 207-lb black man with a scowl that could intimidate an angry Bruce Banner, Brian Tyree Henry, who plays the role of Paper Boi, comes off as the cliché tough, thug rapper. He’s big, mean, and has the exterior to back his authentic street image. What makes his character so beloved, and true to many artists who exist with a similar image, is the glimmer of what's beyond the weed smoke and get-rich schemes. In “The Streisand Effect,” the episode preceding the encounter with the journalist, Paper Boi has a moment of openness where he talks about his reason for rapping:
"'Cause I have to. I scare people at ATMs. I have to rap. That's what rap is. Making the best out of a bad situation." —Paper Boi
This poignant awareness counterbalances the identity of his persona. His viewpoint of rap isn’t a scheme just to get rich, but an exit from society’s constraints. It speaks to what nudges many men, especially young black men, to use rap as an artwork and a tool, not just for their financial circumstances but as a road that provides a hopeful alternative. Hip-hop offers hope when all signs scream that life is hopeless. The world has strict rules, and the gatekeepers in rap are very different than the world's systematic keyholders. One simply has more favorable odds of success.
Rap is a space where the lawless who see no other way can find one; where the archetypes feared by Middle America because of their exterior can be embraced; where bad situations become the stories that bring prosperity. Watching FX's Atlanta is viewing Alfred Miles’ ongoing attempt to make the best out of bad situations. Music has become the answer and a problem as his drug dealing and stardom begin to overlap―what is done in the shadows versus what is seen underneath spotlights.
"Even though Alfred may not be all the way to the peak of success that he thinks he should be [at]—because first of all, he didn't even want to be a fuckin' rapper to begin with, he didn't ask for this fuckin success. But it happened. And now it's like, What you do? Where do you go? Who do you really trust? What streets [are] that you used to navigate with ease that you can't really navigate anymore? You realize that more people are going to be running up to you asking to be put on, and [asking] what you can do for them. And essentially, everybody kinda gets robbed of something that they once possessed and once cared for. And it's a lot." —"Atlanta Robbin' Season Is Brian Tyree Henry's Most Dangerous Performance Yet"
IV. We Know What We Are, But Not What We May Be
Paper Boi’s biggest struggle is something many artists have to face: selecting an identity. After the shooting that opens the first episode of season one, the act of violence earns props from the J.R. Cricket employee who urges the street rapper to never lose his edge. He compares Alfred to rappers of old, back in the ‘90s when beef wasn’t Twitter fingers and following exes on Instagram. "That nigga who blew that other nigga brains out," as Justin Bieber called him, is a harsh image to carry, especially when the story continues to be untold. On the flip side, Earn, who fulfills the role of his manager, sees money in endorsement deals and commercial jingles.
For all his interest in making money, the job portion of being a rapper doesn't seem to enthuse Paper Boi. What was meant to be his escape from a bad situation has created new obstacles that show the occupational side of a rap career is more than studio sessions and strip clubs. Every decision counts. Who will he be when all is said and done? Will he even have the final say in the matter? Fame has a way of influencing the identity that is chosen for you. Especially when you're given a part to play and you aren't able to decide the role you hoped to fulfill.
All the vignettes of Paper Boi’s fictional blossoming are in close proximity of what rappers face when reaching the middle between notoriety and celebrity. How he continues to adjust will likely play a huge role in where his career falls. For a character so familiar, the nuances of his rise have made FX's Atlanta a refreshing watch. While his actual music continues to play a background character's role, viewers are catching glimpses of what slow stardom looks like from an authentic trap rapper in the era of trap music. Money is being made, the dream came true, and everyone wants their piece.
Paper Boi isn’t amongst us in the physical, but we know him. You can see slices of an artist like Cardi B adjusting to fame while her privacy is slowly invaded; an early street rapper like Tity Boi crafting clever hits between serving clientele; T.I. during the making of Trap Muzik, young, naive, and unsure whether he'll find success in rap or return to the dope game; 50 Cent after being shot nine times and uncertain whether he would get rich or die tryin' first.
Atlanta and Paper Boi are displaying the most authentic rapper's journey to ever grace television. Through him, we see a portrayal of how success alters what people see. Through entertainment, we are staring at an honest reflection of the relationship between what is real and what is perceived to be a reality at the heart of celebrity culture.
By Yoh, aka, All About That Paper Yoh aka @Yoh31