Stefani Robinson on writing an 'Alfred we'd never seen before'
Warning: This article contains spoilers from the latest episode of Atlanta, “Woods.” Read at your own risk!
Alfred had yet another misadventure on Atlanta.
Brian Tyree Henry’s Alfred Miles, a.k.a. Paper Boi, has been struggling to adjust his newfound level of fame since season 2 started. In fact, he’s kind of resisted it. Well, that’s changed after Thursday’s episode. In “Woods,” which was written by Stefani Robinson, who penned this season’s other Alfred-centric installment, “Barbershop,” Alfred ends up taking a strange and scary trip through the woods after a group of supposed fans mug him — because lest you forget, it’s still Robbin’ Season. As he trudges through the dirt, he meets a deranged homeless man who inadvertently pushes him to accept his newfound level of fame. After making it out of the woods, Alfred makes his way to a gas station, where he runs into another fan and willingly agrees to have his photo taken, something he never would’ve done before.
EW hopped on the phone with Robinson to discuss the challenges of writing this episode, and why she loves writing the character of Alfred.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for this episode come from?
STEFANI ROBINSON: I think we were looking for an episode or an idea for an episode that sort of directly or indirectly related to Paper Boi’s music journey. He’s someone who prides himself on being regular, someone who sells drugs and keeps it real, and who’s just sort of in life in a very real way. That obviously starts changing once he gets more exposure and once he sort of steps into the entertainment industry. In the writers’ room, we were talking about how at some point he’s going to make a choice: Is he going to be a regular guy or is he going to accept the fact that maybe he’s the semi-famous rapper, and you can’t be both?
I think it’s sort of a continuation of the idea of when he’s robbed by his own drug dealer earlier in the season. That was sort of like the moment where it’s like, “Can you be someone famous and high-profile and still do things like that?” This was the episode where we were like, “Okay, how do we show that he’s made a choice and walk through what that journey might look like?”
One of the things I took away from this episode is how you lose something when you become famous, which ties into the idea of Robbin’ Season.
I think fame is a tricky thing because you are sort of available to everyone at all times. It was a pretty simple: He has to either embrace that or not. Fame is something where you kind of belong to everybody and you can’t just “keep it real,” whatever that means to you.
“Woods” is tonally different than “Barbershop,” which you also wrote. The latter was a pretty comedic episode, whereas this one was kind of dark. What was the most challenging part about writing this episode?
Conveying grief the right way. I don’t know how apparent it is, and it’s not really the focus of the episode, but a major part of Alfred’s mood in this episode is that it’s the anniversary of this mother’s death, and you sort of get a glimpse of his mother in the beginning and people are kind of checking in [on him], and he seems a bit morose. It’s sort of within this grief that he sort of has this awakening. That was tough, but I also really enjoyed writing it because it was an Alfred we hadn’t seen before. He’s a strong black male presence who, for the most part on this show, has been aggressively male and dominant and strong. It’s sort of nice to peel back the layer and show him cry and feel. I still feel this way now, but I don’t know how people are going to react that.
I think just dealing with the whole woods scene in general with the sort of homeless man that is following him [was also hard]. For me, it was tough to be like, “Okay, how can this be someone entertaining yet transformative?” There is an Alice in Wonderland quality to it, of Alfred walking through the woods and meeting the Cheshire Cat. There’s something fantastical about it, but there’s just a lot going on, and I think it’s a very delicate process to sort of balance grief and fame and someone struggling with their identity.
One of the things that comes up in the episode too is that Earn might not be doing everything he’s supposed to be doing as Alfred’s manager. Can we expect some decision to be made about the future of their professional relationship?
Yeah, I think that definitely plays into it. If he’s going to choose to be a famous rapper or if that’s what he wants, he’s going to have to be well-equipped, and I think you do kind of hint at Earn maybe not being that guy. Yeah, I won’t say more on it, but it’s deinfitely something that’s percolating.
With “Barbershop” and this episode, it kind of seems like you’ve become the Paper Boi whisperer of the season. What attracts you to the character of Alfred?
He’s my favorite character on the show, and I was so honored to be able to write such crazy different [episodes] on the spectrum of Atlanta. One is so funny, one is so dark. I do feel honored that I can tell those stories for Alfred and Brian, who’s an amazing actor. But I’m drawn to Paper Boi and Alfred because I think there is something so complex about him. There’s almost a weird Kurt Cobain-ness to him, if that makes sense. Part of him is in love with the music and the celebrity, and I think part of him wants to be famous and recognized. You see that in last season and this season as well. When he’s in the club last season, he wants people to celebrate him and take pictures of him, but at the same time, he doesn’t want that.
I think that’s so well encapsulated in the pilot episode, actually. He gets his song on the radio, and for a brief moment he’s super into it and so excited, and then he turns it off and is like, “I hate this song.” There’s a self-loathing there, and I think there’s something real — not the self-loathing aspect, about wanting credit, and wanting respect, and wanting people to notice you and celebrate your work, and wanting perks. But it’s like, at what cost? At the same time, I think it’s very natural for people to want safety and security.
Your career is also taking off right now. In the fall, you signed an overall deal with FX. Do you relate to Alfred’s struggle to adjust to fame?
Yeah, I’d say so for sure. I think there is an adjustment period. Again, I feel so honored and humbled and blessed to have people recognize my thoughts and ideas and react, good or badly, to anything I put out there, but once you do put yourself out there in such a visible way and in such a vulnerable way, you are vulnerable, you are open to what everyone wants — people reaching out, like, “Oh give me advice on my pilot,” “Help me with this. Help lift me up,” or, “Call this person,” “Send this to the contact you know.” It is sort of this weird push and pull that’s happening, to be completely honest. At some point, whether it’s my choice or not, I think one of those things is going to have to give and you sort of step into a new version of yourself, whatever that may be. It is a confusing time when it hasn’t been a part of your life at all. Prior to writing to any TV show, I was, I think, quite normal, and it’s sort of shifting gears when your name is thrown on the TV for millions of people to potentially view. It’s an interesting transition, for sure.
Have you found ways of making this transition period more bearable or manageable?
The best way to make it bearable is to enjoy it, which is hard. I’ve heard advice from people much older than me who have gone through things like this, which is, “Just enjoy the ride, just enjoy life, and enjoy the time.” I’ve really taken that to heart, and that’s hopefully how I’m going to approach all of this from now on. This is an incredible ride, and I’m in a really incredible situation, and I have a very unique platform, and why not enjoy it? It’s not going to last forever, and recognizing that makes it a lot more fun. There are parts that are incredibly stressful and hard, and that’s just life. But if you just overthink it or fight the current, then it’s not fun. I don’t want to regret later in life looking back, “Wow, I should’ve enjoyed that because my life has gotten so much harder and different.”
Atlanta airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.