I. Genuine, Not an Imitation
“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” —Yoh (“How ‘Atlanta’’s Paper Boi Is Highlighting the Warped Reality of Newfound Rap Fame”)
“I just wanted to say you the n*gga, mane. You Paper Boi. I heard about that shoot-out you had on Twitter. You one of the last real rappers, man,” an unnamed J.R. Cricket employee tells Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (played by Brian Tyree Henry) in the second episode of the critically acclaimed FX series, Atlanta. “It’s good to see a rapper who will blow a n*gga brains out in the streets,” he adds without a hint of sarcasm or irony.
Before receiving this lofty praise, Paper Boi was musing on the shooting with a sense of uneasiness. Despite being seeped in a lifestyle of lawless risk-taking, unpredictable predicaments, and unwise decisions, he isn’t an unfeeling gangster, like O-Dog, the classic character from 1993 motion picture Menace II Society. O-Dog, played by Larenz Tate, grinned with glee while showing friends the video of a murder he committed.
That’s not Alfred; the fictional Atlanta rapper carried no exaggerated fulfillment from the altercation or the arrest that followed. Keeping it real in a heated moment of disrespect could’ve cost him his life or freedom, but instead, it was the crux of his accelerated local notoriety.
An emphasis on realness is similar to the early narrative that surrounded 21 Savage. “21 Savage is important because he’s one of the last real street niggas left making music,” Metro Boomin told Alex Russell in a 2015 FADER profile entitled “Meet 21 Savage, Atlanta’s Most Respected New Rapper.” The profile predates the string of inescapable singles that catapulted 21 to being renowned in regions of the world beyond his East Atlanta homestead, thus allowing the publication a glimpse into the genesis of a recording career being built upon esteemed reverence. Respect has power in a city like Atlanta, where authenticity is considered a cultural currency.
Atlanta’s music scene is inseparable from the streets and hoods that hold the most substantial influence on the art—a scene that embraces, uplifts, and respects those recognized for being “real.” Celebrity doesn’t come overnight; you’ll be surprised how quickly an artist can go from incarceration to an in-depth interview on local radio station V-103. Once the music begins to move, and the co-signs follow, the city reacts justly.
In FX’s Atlanta, the speedy come up route is evident when Paper Boi takes part in a celebrity basketball game without a major record deal or debut album. All it took was a viral street single, a newsworthy shooting, and a mixtape before his name was big enough to foul Justin Bieber.
Paper Boi and 21 Savage are both championed as if the quality of realness was on the verge of extinction. Yet, the distinction is one of honor, and it matters a great deal. “Red Opps,” one of 21 Savage’s earliest street anthems, created local traction due to the exciting terror it aroused. His deadpan bravado, arresting vocal presence, and exquisite ear for dystopian club production would be less impactful if his tales of havoc and hedonism came from a voice who we didn’t believe to be bona fide. The bark does not affect without the fear of the bite, and 21 Savage was as fascinating as he was frightening.
II. No Legacy Is so Rich as Honesty
In a New Yorker profile of Coach K―the co-founder of the revered Atlanta-based record label Quality Control―senior writer Kelefa Sanneh provides an excellent portrait of Thanksgiving in Atlanta with QC artists Quavo and Takeoff of Migos (Offset wasn’t present) giving away free turkeys. The location of their charity wasn’t provided to the public beforehand, but surrounding shoppers weren’t surprised to learn who was in the U-Haul truck.
“Atlanta is the hip-hop capital of the world, which means that it is full of worldwide stars who are also—and perhaps primarily—neighborhood guys,” Sanneh writes. The quote encapsulates how Migos’ musical and physical presence in the city has affected public familiarity even at the height of their stardom.
The image of a neighborhood rap star was how FX’s Atlanta creator, writer, and star Donald Glover imaged Paper Boi from the very beginning:
“Paper Boi’s, you know, he’s, like, a real dope-boy rapper. He’s like a real Atlanta, like, dope-boy rapper, like, kind of archetypical dope-boy rapper that we—I don’t know, like me and my brother kind of grew up on, like that kind of feel where it’s like, yeah, like, you know, almost like hood famous. Like, they’re in your neighborhood, but you also hear them on the radio because they’re famous for, you know, selling, but also just, like, you know, coming up with something catchy.” —Donald Glover, “Donald Glover Challenges Stereotypes About Rappers In Atlanta”
Glover and FX’s Atlanta writing staff portray this context in the aftermath of Alfred’s arrest. His face is on the news, his song is on the radio, and publications like Complex are giving him coverage. He experiences the immediate recognition that comes with reaching the next plateau of a local celebrity—requests to take photos with strangers, newfound favoritism from local businesses, his actions imitated by neighborhood children, and the feeling of watchful eyes in the most casual of locations.
Before the episode ends, a masked man arrives at his front door, and asks, “Does Paper Boi live here?” The scene exemplifies how celebrity is a magnet, and the gravitational pull will bring guests to your welcome mat. You won’t always know them, but they will know you.
III. Blessed by Love but Damned by Hate
In a 2014 cover story for Creative Lofting—an Atlanta-based monthly publication—Maurice Garland detailed how Decatur, Georgia’s own B.o.B was globally beloved, but locally overlooked. Somewhere between the chart-topping “Nothin’ On You” and the party-starting “We Still In This Bitch,” his music drifted too far from the city’s pulse. The city couldn’t feel his presence in its concrete. Remaining present allows the idea of neighborhood glory, but to be blessed with love from home also means the risk of being damned by hate.
Hate is what Migos felt on June 11, 2014. The trio attended a party at the Gwinnett County Quality Inn, a hotel located north of Atlanta, where the three call home. What should’ve been a joyous celebration was disrupted by a shooting. Two men entered the party and began firing into the small crowd of 40. The Migos escaped unscathed, but an innocent bystander, Paris Brown, 23, wasn’t so lucky; she lost her life that night. Local news reported that the violent episode was the result of an ongoing six-month feud between Migos and 2G, another local rap group.
Following Brown’s death, we learned that Offset was the intended target. In an interview with The FADER following his eight-month incarceration for a probation violation in 2013, he said the following about life before rapping with his cousins:
“We’re all brothers. They’re my cousins, but we’re family. I’m 21, Quavo’s the oldest. We all treat each other the same, we’re grown men. Ain’t no little brother going on. When we met, I was in the streets and they put me on the stage; they told me to go ahead and start rapping. I took that and ran with it cause I didn't really have no way else out the streets. We had our spot before the rap took off, we were already getting money. The spot was the bando, that’s what we called it. There was a lot of things going on that I really don’t wanna talk about.” —Offset, “Interview: Offset of Migos”
In the fourth episode of FX’s Atlanta, “The Streisand Effect,” Paper Boi presents his ethos for rapping: “I scare people at ATMs, boy,” he says. “I have to rap. That’s what rap is: making the best out of a bad situation.” We find the same sentiment in the stories of countless rappers who pivoted into hip-hop from a life in the streets. 21 Savage told Seth Rogen it was drug money from the uncle of his murdered best friend who funded the studio setup after the rapper was shot six times.
Similarly, if you ask Lil Baby, the latest rising star from Atlanta signed to Quality Control, he’ll be the first to admit he didn’t plan on becoming a rapper; he was a street guy who came from the same side of town as QC’s co-founder, Pierre “Pee” Thomas. After serving two years of a five-year sentence for dealing drugs, Pee and Coach K encouraged Lil Baby to rap; not because they saw the talent of a prodigy, but because they saw an authentic young man who was living the lifestyle most rappers describe. As Pusha-T eloquently states on his latest album, DAYTONA:
“A rapper turned trapper can’t morph into us / But a trapper turned rapper can morph into Puff” —Pusha-T (“If You Know You Know”)
IV. Money Bag Shawty
Paper Boi is real, a rapper living two opposing lives—one demands the spotlight, and the other reaps its benefits from moving silently into the shadows. In the second season of FX’s Atlanta (stylized as Atlanta: Robbin' Season), we learn that Paper Boi’s stock has risen tremendously.
The rise in his celebrity hasn’t alleviated the need to deal drugs, but the risks are much higher now that the city sees a rapper on the cusp of stardom, and no longer just a man just trying to survive. In the second episode of Robbin’ Season, “Sportin' Waves,” Alfred stares down the barrel of a gun held by the plug who has been supplying his weed for the last ten years.
“I ain’t making no money off that fucking song,” Paper Boi barks back after being told he’ll “be alright” because his viral song will likely “go Platinum.” The excuse he gives for committing the act: “I need this shit.” It’s the assumption of wealth that changed the dynamic of his long-term relationship. In the eyes of his former dealer, Alfred went from loyal customer to hip-hop cash cow.
When Alfred shares the story of the robbery with his cousin and manager Earnest “Earn” Marks (played by Donald Glover), he is frank about his desire to harm the betrayer. Alfred’s mentality hasn’t transitioned away from the laws that are upheld in the streets. According to renowned poet JAY-Z, “If I shoot you, I’m brainless, but if you shoot me, you're famous,” a sentiment relevant to who Alfred is becoming—even if he doesn’t quite realize it yet.
Throughout the episode, Alfred is searching for a new plug, but the underbelly business of drug purchasing isn’t a simple practice when there’s a spotlight on the buyer. To everyone he meets, he’s Paper Boi, a local celebrity and budding rapper; their reactions are those of fans. The same response befalls Alfred in the third episode of Robbin’ Season, “Money Bag Shawty,” when an unnamed waiter provides Paper Boi and company with a round of free shots, a precursor to a simple proposition: “Put me on. I need this shit.”
During the daylong high jinks with longtime barber Bibby in episode five, “Barbershop,” the two encounter Bibby’s son while he is skipping school. The young man is perplexed by Paper Boi’s unruly appearance and disappointed the famous rapper didn’t have a look to match his local stature. After Paper Boi responds by lecturing the boy on how he’s a regular person, the boy retorts, “Can you put me on? I got a fire mixtape. I’m like Lonzo Ball.”
Paper Boi saw rap as a solution, but his growing popularity presented nothing but unforeseen problems. Robbin’ Season displays his attempts to maintain a semblance of realness, resisting a rapidly-changing life.
V. When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong
A necessary reality check comes on the season’s eighth episode, “Woods.” Spending the day with Sierra—a stripper turned famous Instagram model—puts Paper Boi in the company of someone else dealing with newfound fame. Money motivates Sierra, but unlike Alfred, she understands the importance of image, branding, and the power of social media utilization. When she speaks of their potential relationship, it’s as collaborators, not a couple.
“I’m not into all that fake shit, I’m just trying to stay real,” he tells Sierra after she suggests posting more photos to Instagram. “You on the radio and you making money, you been not real,” she responds. After she takes a picture of the pair getting pedicures together, Paper Boi storms off.
Dave Chappelle famously introduced the concept of when keeping it real can go wrong. Atlanta: Robbin’ Season reinforces that notion through Paper Boi’s resilience against doing what he believes is fake. He was real before rap and intended to be real for the duration of his success. In the same episode, Alfred encounters a trio of young men who recognize him while walking home. The enthusiasm of young fans quickly turns to questions about his lack of a vehicle. “You keeping it real.”
How FX’s Atlanta plays with perception is intelligent, thoughtful, and allows a microscope underneath the unexplored nuances of being a rapper. In the flashback episode, “Fubu,” the focus of Earn and Alfred’s middle school dilemma is rooted in authenticity versus imitation. Is the Fubu shirt real or fake? This doesn't change in rap—is the rapper real or fake? Perception plays a hand in how we frame reality. Alfred doesn’t want to become an imitation, so he interacts with the world as if nothing has changed.
In an interview with Complex, writer Stefani Robinson explains the significance of “Woods” and why it’s an essential lesson for Paper Boi:
It’s sort of a rehashing of the weed dealer episode because you see that he didn't really learn anything. After his weed dealer robs him, instead of thinking, “Wow, what does this mean for me as a person?” his response is just, “Okay, I need a new dealer.” The universe is trying to tell him something, God is trying to tell him something. So we see it again but more violent and scarier. He ignored the first warning and the second came harder and faster and spoke to him in a way where he was more able to look at the situation and make a decision about his life.
The hustle doesn’t reward part-time effort, and neither does the music business. When hesitance stalls commitment, life forces a decision.
It’s impossible to coexist in both worlds; reality will continue to send reminders until you can no longer ignore the warning signs. Being real can get you praise, respect, and even make you a celebrity, but it will also get you robbed, jailed, or killed. T.I. once rapped, “I don’t know what you will do for your respect but I will die for mine,” and the sad truth is that we’ve lost rappers who felt the same way.
Rap is a cultural space that respects authenticity but challenges realness. Paper Boi is the perfect medium to show how the motif of keeping it real can be a dangerous practice. There’s a reason why rappers murdered in their home states is a reoccurring headline. Rapper Soulja Slim was gunned down in front of the New Orleans home he bought for his mother. Bankroll Fresh was killed in the studio that was the hub and home for all artists signed to Street Execs. Jimmy Wopo was murdered in his home state of Pittsburg the same day XXXTentacion was murdered in South Florida, his backyard.
From city to city, rapper to rapper, the ones posterized for their realness rarely escape the lion’s den they were raised in.
Atlanta is a city where authenticity is currency, but authenticity comes with a tax. FX’s Atlanta uses Paper Boi—the ambitious hustler moonlighting as a rapper—to show a city, the natives, and a unique music scene the perils realness can create.
By Yoh, aka, FX's Yohlanta aka @Yoh31