[Warning: The following contains spoilers from Atlanta's most recent episode, "Woods." Read at your own risk]
Atlanta's second season has been wilder, funnier and creepier than anyone could've ever predicted — often delighting in letting viewers interpret things however they want, or vaguely connecting dots that may or may not be there at all. But Episode 8, "Woods," was different.
In the episode, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) is grieving; it's the anniversary of his mother's death. Then, after a robbery that nearly kills him, he gets lost in the woods, falling into an otherworldly experience that leads to a personal breakthrough. "Woods" is crystal clear in the ways it correlates Alfred's grief and career ambiguity to the idea of meandering through a spooky forest, but it mirrored what was happening to Henry off-screen too. Just as production wrapped on Season 1, Henry's mother died in a car accident. The devastating loss came just as his career shot into the stratosphere, leaving him little time to grieve.
TV Guide caught up with the actor between performances of Lobby Hero in New York to talk about his work in "Woods," — a stunning performance that's generating awards buzz but better still, brought him some measure of peace.
How'd this episode come together?
Brian Tyree Henry: We were all together in the first season when I went through the loss of my mother. Stefani Robinson, who wrote this episode — she's truly one of my best friends — was championing me to go through the experience. The parallels were the same. This season delves into the backstory of who all the characters are, where they came from — the characters as people. Alfred's family means so much to him, as you saw in the beginning of the season with his uncle. They decided to write this episode about Alfred having to confront this loss in a way — to really deal with it. It was something I did not know was being written. I remember asking Hiro [Murai, director], 'Is there an episode about my mother?' I said, 'All I ask is that you guys bear with me.' But there was so much care shown to me in filming, from hair and makeup to the [assistant directors] — everyone knew what I was about to confront.
It was very instrumental in my healing. At the time [of the accident] I didn't really get to grieve; [the episode] was the hardest thing I ever did. Alfred is in this place, in the woods...he can't understand how his environment shifted. That's what loss feels like. You're wandering in the woods; it seems like there isn't anyone there to help me. Stephanie challenged me to confront that. She saved my life. It was a time that I was very uncertain about a lot of things. There are times you want to give up. [This episode] was something I knew I had to do. I wanted to show the two sides of Alfred: He's vulnerable, he's scared, he's in pain. I just wanted to make sure the world knew how that felt. It was terrifying. I was exposing a part of my heart I didn't think I was ready to show.
What was the experience like while filming?
Henry: I was silent a lot. I have to give a big thanks to the woman who played my mother. I told them, 'If I hear her in the beginning, I can't see her. I can't connect with her until we're done.' People made sure I never ran into her. I had to feel that — feeling somebody but to never see them. That's what it feels like [losing a loved one]. Even the actor playing the homeless man didn't know what was going on. I told him afterwards, 'Just so you know Alfred's mother is dead, and so is mine.' The result is really therapeutic. [The loss] is something that looms over you. It never goes away. Mourning a person you love, there's no way to get out, no escape no matter where you turn. It's always there.
Everyone can see I'm (Alfred) hurting, I'm scared. It's something that's constantly there, and I think the woods is the best metaphor for that. I know I'm not the only person who lost his lost mother. I was hoping that this episode shows others that they're not alone, and aid in someone's healing. I can't thank them enough for dedicating the episode to my mother. I really did this episode for my family: my sister and nephews...And there are parallels. On the outside he's going through all this fame and recognition, but dealing with something deeper. After she passed, I never had a chance to mourn. The episode really allowed me to confront that and I will spend the rest of my life thanking [the Atlanta crew].
Was the homeless man in the woods real, or a figment of Al's imagination?
Henry: I can't answer that. I really can't explain the course of that day. It takes place in just a day...I just knew the situations were very much real. I just remember when I got jumped, I'm alone in the woods and I can't get out. I'm really wandering around in the dark, and all I could hear in my mind was voices...When you start to navigate [grief] that way it's like you're hallucinating, hearing things, not tending to your own wounds. Everything [the homeless man] was saying was so true, 'You better stand up and make a decision.' It feels like that, man. It's hard to convey in interviews. Nobody is really walking with you. There's no understanding grief and loss, what to do next. That's just how it be sometimes. Yet still, you have to get up and go forth and do things. I still have a play to do tonight...For me, part of it is showing there's more to Paper Boi than what's on the outside.
At the end, Paper Boi is bloodied and bruised, yet he takes time to snap a pic with a young white fan, signaling that he's progressing instead of stagnating. What's next for this new Paper Boi?
Henry: It's not so much a about new self. It's more so about how to recognize what should and shouldn't be there. He's really going to discover his stance on what he needs in order to prosper. Once you go through something like he went through that night, you are changed whether you want to or not. Change is inevitable — you either change or you perish. That is what he's gonna realize.
This sounds like he's going to fire Earn as his manager. How's that going to play out?
Henry: I can't talk about that, sorry. But what happens if you change before others do? You can't just sit there. I think that's what he realizes now. He knows you have to put up or shut up, accept what's going on or continue to deny. I don't think he has a choice anymore about the change coming his way. In the end I hope he makes it and I hope that people see that he's trying. There's a lot to lose when you gain a lot.
Can you tell me what discussions about Season 3 have been like?
Henry: Yes and no. There's a little more of Season 2 left but trust and believe when it comes back it'll come back in a different way than before. Or maybe not. We're just trying to get through this season. But whatever it does, it's going to leave a mark on you. That's what I'm hoping.
Atlanta airs Thursdays at 10/9c on FX.