[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Atlanta” Season 2, Episode 8, “Woods.”]
“Teddy Perkins” might have been the most horrific “Atlanta” episode to date, but Thursday’s “Woods” still gave viewers plenty of reason to flinch and be frightened. After ditching his not-girlfriend at the nail parlor, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) is walking home when three teenagers recognize him as Paper Boi, but decide to mug him anyway because he’s alone. The resulting struggle is messy, brutal, and difficult to watch. When one assailant pulls a gun, Alfred flees into the nearby woods.
As a main character, Alfred would normally be free from real consequences on a so-called comedy, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it here. With the murder-suicide and Darius’ (Lakeith Stanfield) close call in “Teddy Perkins,” it seemed as if maybe this would be the episode where one of our heroes dies. Alfred certainly doesn’t get away from the encounter unscathed.
“Our goal is always to make things feel as real as possible, which I think is why that mugging is so hard to watch, because it feels real,”“Atlanta” writer/producer Stefani Robinson told IndieWire. “It’s not just a quick flashy boom-boom-punch. There’s a real struggle going on, and it’s violent and dirty and at times Alfred has the upper hand and then he doesn’t, and he’s outnumbered. That type of stress comes from that ambiguity of ‘What’s going on? He could die.’
“We like creating a universe where there are real consequences much like the universe we live in, and I don’t think any of our characters are safe,” she added. “To be completely honest, I don’t think that we’re afraid of hurting someone or killing someone if that’s maybe what a story demands. I don’t think that we ever talk about having crazy boundaries about what the violence is. It’s kind of open-ended.”
Here’s what else Robinson had to say about Paper Boi, previous episodes “Teddy Perkins” and “Barbershop,” and what she’s working on next now that the “Deadpool” animated series is dead.
The Double Heartbreak
The violence Alfred encounters with the teens and later in the woods are only his physical struggles, but he’s grappling with something far more debilitating. In the opening scene, Alfred is sleeping on the couch when he is given grief for being lazy and messy. Later, he wakes from a call from Earn (Donald Glover) and sounds unmotivated about filling out paperwork related to his career.
“I don’t think it was supposed to be super apparent, but the episode takes place on the anniversary of Alfred’s mother’s death,” said Robinson. “She’s this weird kind of ghostly figure in the beginning and she’s noticeably absent throughout the entire episode. I think he’s dealing with the weight of that, not having a confidant and not having a parent anymore while he’s having to make these really big personal decisions and personal growth moments without any guidance, or seemingly any guidance.”
This loss is also Henry’s loss. The actor’s mother died in a car accident two years ago, which explains the dedication at the end of the episode: “In loving memory of Willow Deane Kearse.”
Robinson confirmed, “Yes, Brian’s mother, unfortunately, passed away after we were finished shooting Season 1. I think that was sort of one of the bigger thematic things that jumped out to Brian and I think he connected with the script obviously not a technical level but on a very emotional and personal level.”
This gives an extra layer of meaning to Alfred being lost in the woods. Robinson reveals how the episode’s director, Hiro Murai, was able to capture Alfred’s state of mind.
“We were talking after I saw the episode and I think it was important to him to show an accurate interpretation of grief,” she said. “Whether you know that that is what Paper Boi’s going through or not, it is about someone who’s grieving and feels lost and disoriented. I thought that he did such an amazing job in capturing the anger and the danger and especially that fight was so great.”
Into the Woods
After fleeing into the woods, Alfred encounters a man named Wally (Reggie Green), who appears a bit unhinged and yet overly familiar — saying things like, “Boy, you is just like your mama.” At one point, he holds a boxcutter to Alfred’s throat and threatens, “Make the decision. Keep standing still, you’re gone, boy. You’re wasting time, and the only people who’ve got time are dead.”
Wally, whose methods may not be the gentlest, may have had Alfred’s best interests at heart, according to Robinson.
“I think that he, the crazy guy, his role is probably the role of [Alfred’s] mom in a really weird bizarre way,” she said. “His mom, or the universe or God, or whatever, I think he’s a manifestation of someone or something proposing the idea that you’re either going forward or you’re going back. Like, ‘I can’t tell you where to go, but you have to go. You have to make a choice about where to go.’ And I think that that’s his role to directly, indirectly reference that.”
As for why all of this goes down in the woods, Robinson explained, “In a hero’s journey there’s always a point where our hero, Hercules or whoever, goes and has a brush with the underworld or hell or whatever that may be. That’s what that represented to me, is this sort of full of life, but devoid of life and we’ve got the dead animal and you’ve got this crazy creepy figure who’s almost like the ferrymen on the River Styx. He’s this character who’s walking him through, who knows the world and is sort of a guide to what’s going on even though he’s not a reliable guy.
“That’s emotionally and physically what’s happening with the woods,” she added. “He goes in one way and comes out different, and has a brush with something surreal. The junkie is humming the same gospel tune that his mom was humming in the beginning, and it’s sort of like this interesting connection between someone who’s died and someone who’s there.”
Paper Boi vs. Being Real
Alfred’s struggles with inertia plays out in how resistant he is to creating a persona – whether it’s buying a certain kind of shoe that makes him look like Black Aladdin, or posting selfies on Instagram. After his ordeal in the woods, he agrees to take a few selfies with an admiring fan. But there’s a price: Alfred’s smile in the photos is bloody from his earlier fight.
“He needs to choose if he wants to be Alfred or Paper Boi,” said Robinson. “We see him vacillating between being in the entertainment world – he’s got a little bit of fame and he’s going on meetings and he’s performing and things like that – but he’s also still hanging on to the things that make him feel regular. He continues to deal drugs even though he was robbed by his own dealer. He puts a premium, I think, on staying regular and he’s prideful in that he’s a regular person and that he’s just sort of that guy down from the street.
“There’s becoming a point in his career where he has to make a choice and you can’t just be a famous rapper selling drugs in the street anymore,” she added. “You have to choose if you’re in it or not, you gotta choose if you’re really wanting to get into the world of entertainment. And that was sort of the inspiration for the episode, dealing with how Alfred would come about making a choice like that.”
From “Barbershop” to ”Teddy Perkins”
Robinson also wrote another Alfred-centric episode this season. In “Barbershop,” Alfred is forced to follow his fast-talking but unreliable barber Bibby (Robert Powell) all day until he’s free to actually give him a haircut.
“It is the stereotype within the black community, especially the black hair community, that we’re sort of held hostage at times by your hairdressers or hair stylists or barbers,” she said. “We all reference different points in our lives where we had similar interactions with someone doing out hair. They’re either late or they’re eating or they’re doing your hair and they just leave or they’re talking to you and you don’t know if they’re talking to you or not. But you have to trust the person because they’re doing your hair, which is an incredibly intimate thing. African American hair or black hair is so specific, not only culturally but texturally. To find someone who understands the hair that grows out of your head is difficult in this country.”
As one of the more straight-out humorous episodes of the season, “Barbershop” lulled viewers into a sense of complacency and safety that was torn away the following week with “Teddy Perkins.” Although Robinson wasn’t the writer on that episode (that honor went to Donald Glover), she explained her take on it from the discussions in the writers’ room.
“I don’t even think I fully understand him to be completely honest. It’s undeniable that there are references to Michael Jackson and the idea of someone changing themselves within the industry,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s about Michael Jackson or a direct riff on him but more of a symbolic reference to the industry maybe and what you do for greatness, or what one will do to be perceived as great.
“As we were first talking, I think it was less about Teddy Perkins as it was about pain and a robbed childhood. There’s a lot happening thematically but I think the thing that really drew us to it were just the idea of this eccentric guy who’s just inexplicably changed his face, or is like a monster in his home but he’s nice and he’s polite but he’s also confusing and he’s got an ostrich egg.”
The scene in which Teddy eats the soft-boiled ostrich egg in front of Darius is perhaps one of the most disturbing sequences in the entire series.
“That was probably what spawned the whole thing. One day one of us posed the question like, ‘Can you hard-boil an ostrich egg?’” she said. “We Googled it, and it turns out you can. We watched this video of this Australian man who boiled an ostrich egg for his kids, and they were eating it, and it was the most foul thing that we had ever watched before. We were like, ‘Who on earth would do something like this?’ And we sort of created this character Teddy, and it’s like, oh he’s this scary-looking man … who eats this egg and that’s normal.
“When we were writing ‘Deadpool’ in London together, we actually did buy an ostrich egg,” she said. “Donald’s friend runs a grocery store. We put it on a grill and soft-boiled it, and it was just as disgusting as we could have imagined, a lot of egg smell. We were just drawn to the eccentricity of the character, and then Donald filled in the blanks of what was going on thematically and emotionally.”
After “Deadpool’s” Demise
As referenced above, Robinson had also been a writer/producer on the FX “Deadpool” animated series before Marvel pulled the plug. Unfortunately, she wasn’t privy to the exact details of why the deal was killed.
“I don’t know what happened to be completely honest. I’m not the showrunner. I was not involved in any of those conversations,” she said. “It was just creative differences. This is definitely not the first time it’s happened in the industry, and yeah it sucks, but it sort of is what it is, which is a bummer, but it’s okay.”
Robinson isn’t sitting around wringing her hands, however. She also has an overall deal with FX, and as “Atlanta’s” youngest and only female writer, she has a lot to offer.
“I have an overall deal with FX, so at least in the TV space I’ll be working with those guys, which is great,” she said. “They’re great with collaborating on original ideas I have. A couple are going to development, and hopefully I’ll be able to collaborate with other artists who do work with FX as well.
“Then I’m also writing a couple movies,” she added. “I’m writing a feature for Sony called ‘Princeless,’ and then I’m doing an original idea that I have for Fox Searchlight which is a passion project. I won’t speak a ton about it, but it’s super exciting and I’m having so much fun working in the features space. Obviously very different than meeting in a room with a bunch of goofy guys to talk about the internet and stuff!”
”Atlanta” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.