'Atlanta' Director Explains How 'Paper Boi' Came About, Talks Acclaimed Drama's 'Strange' Approach to Music

Joyce Kim
Hiro Murai

In FX’s breakout Tuesday-night hit Atlanta, writer-creator Donald Glover stars as Earnest Marks, manager to fictional Atlanta rapper Paper Boi (played by Brian Tyree Henry). It’s the first TV show for director Hiro Murai, 33, who previously created surreal, dreamlike videos for Glover (aka Childish Gambino) and St. Vincent.

How are you using music in Atlanta?
It’s a strange thing, because the show is kind of a quiet show — there’s a lot of ambient sound. In some ways, it’s the opposite of a music video. We’ll very rarely use music to support a scene. The cool thing we’ve been exploring is how to use that music diegetically. So if you hear music, the song is rarely just played over the image. It’s supposed to be originating from some dude’s trunk or through the walls of a club or whatever. It has been fun to take music and use the essence of a track but distort it or mesh it into the scene so it gets a little bit abstracted, but you still get the essence of the song.

 

How do you select the music for the show?
[Music supervisor Jen Malone] does that as well the writers and editors and also Donald. I’m pretty sure Donald wrote the Kodak Black track [“SKRT”] into the third episode. The scene where [Atlanta characters] Alfred and Darius are singing [Cheryl Lynn’s] “Encore” in the car, that stuff is all written into the script. And then there will be other times where it’s either me or Jen working things in. The Shabazz Palaces track [“An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum”] came from me when we were trying to figure out a segue. It’s kind of like a weird, eclectic mix of people bringing their two cents and trying to figure out the identity of the show.

Who wrote the “Paper Boi” song?
That’s by Stephen Glover, Donald’s brother. It’s performed by him, too. In the pilot, they’re looking at the music video for the song. That was actually the very first thing we shot for the show. We didn’t know the crew or the cast all that well at that point, so it was a weird first day on the job.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8 issue of Billboard.