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Best Performances: How Atlanta Helped Brian Tyree Henry Heal After Personal Tragedy

The actor takes us behind Alfred's pain in "Woods"

Megan Vick

Best Performances is TV Guide's Emmys video series highlighting the best acting performances of the year. Actors take viewers behind the scenes of their Emmy-nominated performances and explain the secrets of their craft.

Atlanta: Robbin' Season set out to show each of its characters having something stolen from them, both in the literal and metaphorical sense, but the season's eighth episode, titled "Woods," ended up being a gift of healing for Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Alfred, a.k.a. Paper Boi, on the FX comedy.

The episode takes place a year after the death of Alfred's mother and centers on Alfred's journey through the Atlanta woods after he is mugged on his way home. As he stumbles to find his way, Alfred has to confront the heavy weight of his grief -- a journey that paralleled Henry's own struggles.

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"I lost my mother two years ago, right as we wrapped the first season," Henry explains to TV Guide as part of our Best Performances series. "Stephanie Robinson, who wrote this episode, really just wanted to -- I don't want to say force me to confront what these things were, but at the same time, at least acknowledge the fact that you may not know everything and there is a feeling of being lost. You do have to make a decision, whether you're going to crumble underneath that grief, or you're going to get up and walk with your head up and keep pushing forward. A lot of those things is what Alfred had to confront in this episode."

A lot of the palpable grief seen onscreen is born from the opening scene, in which Alfred can hear his mother talking to him, nagging him to get off the couch and do his chores. The character never lifts his head to make contact with the woman speaking to him. It was intentional -- a request from Henry -- so he could carry the rest of the emotion required for the episode ahead.

"Everyone really made sure that I never interacted with [the actress] until the very end," Henry explains. "I just remember running into her arms, and I hugged her. I said, 'I just have to thank you, because what you did was no easy task. I didn't want you to think I was a jerk or anything by not wanting to see you, but that's the realness of it. There's a permanence that I feel that I will never see my mom again. If I hear you and see you at the same time, it won't give me the sense of longing that I need for the episode.' And she was very understanding."

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The episode's climax comes when a homeless man, who has been tailing Alfred through the woods, pulls out a boxcutter and threatens to slash the rapper's throat. The bum doesn't ask for money or food, but instead spouts spiritual guidance. In a single moment, Henry has to display Alfred's fear and the absorption of what the homeless man is saying.

"It was a moment of not just fear but vulnerability. Here I am, a massive guy, and this guy has a boxcutter. In a split second he could slit my throat and I could just be left out here where nobody knows where I am," Henry says. "In my mind, all the things that must be going through Alfred's head in that moment -- 'Did you tell all the people that you love them? Did you get things right with the family members that you have? Did you really reach the element of success that you wanted?'"

Alfred eventually makes it out of the literal woods, and Henry credits the episode with helping him out of the metaphorical wilderness of grief.

"There is nothing crazier than that moment when you know your life is about to end. You're in this place where you're lost and you don't know where to go or where to turn," Henry adds. "It was the most jarring kind of out of body experience I've ever had, but it healed me in a very huge way."

Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta​

Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta