“Paper Boi,” the unofficial-official theme song of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, is lowkey a banger. In the show’s world, the song’s on fire—for the past six episodes, it’s been the talk of the city, and is seen and heard blasting out of car windows. Despite only about a minute of the full song having actually been played on the show, the presence of “Paper Boi” is fully felt, and a quick Twitter search will show you that the song is kind of poppin’ in the real world, too. With “Paper Boi,” Atlanta is proving that original music from music industry-based shows or movies doesn’t have to be corny.
To share the story behind the making of “Paper Boi,” we got on the phone with the song’s writer and rapper Stephen Glover (brother of Donald Glover), who’s one of the show's writers and a rapper in real life. He talks about how the Paper Boi character almost ended up with a different name (and song hook), the Atlanta legends who inspired the song’s sound, and what it takes to make the show’s original music good–but not too good.
STEPHEN GLOVER: When first coming up with the show idea, [the show’s creative team] knew there was gonna be a rapper on there. We were like, “What should this rapper’s name be?” The original idea was that we’d build this scary, black, gangsta, trap rapper, but his rap name would be White Boi. [laughs] We joked around about the hook to his song being: White boi, white boi, all about that white boi. That’s how it all started.
Then we realized we couldn’t use White Boi, because there might actually be a rapper named White Boi. So we’re like, “Okay, we’re gonna call this guy Paper Boi.” It still works: Paper Boi, Paper Boi, all about that paper, boi, that double entendre, triple entendre-type thing. That’s how it started.
It’s funny, there’s a real rapper named Paperboy. An old rapper, he’s got a song called “Ditty.” You might hear it on the radio, like on [Redondo Beach, California’s, 93.5 FM] KDAY once in a blue moon. So, I didn’t think we’d be able to use Paper Boi for a while either. I thought we were going to have to change his name again, but it’s cool. I’m sure he’s getting a lot of Spotify hits.
When we first started the show we talked about how Paper Boi would be a rapper but we didn’t want to make it too good. Donald would call it like a Finding Forrester-type moment, that when people would hear Paper Boi’s music they’d be like, “wow, he’s really good.” We didn’t want to make it where his music is so silly that it’s not believable, and we didn’t want to make it where it’s so good that it becomes a major point of the story. It worked out for the best, because the original idea was to have Paper Boi do songs, and maybe have a different person be Paper Boi each week. Maybe Young Thug can be Paper Boi one week, then Jeezy can do a Paper Boi song the next week. That sort of thing. We were like “it doesn’t matter what his voice sounds like.”
We didn’t want to have to force Brian [Tyree Henry, actor who plays Paper Boi] to rap. We felt that forcing him to rap would be weird. Maybe he’s not a good rapper, then what would we do? That’s where the idea of maybe switching the rapper each time came from. That’s an idea right now that might still happen.
Donald was like, “you’re gonna have to record the song for Paper Boi.” He had me and our homies Kari Faux and Malik [bLAck pARty] each write a version of the song.
I rap, and I work with this dude named Chemist, who lives in Virginia. He’s my go-to producer and does a lot of my own music—he’s on my Rich Black American mixtape. I needed a beat for “Paper Boi,” so I started looking through beats on my computer. I came across a really old one from two to three years ago that I had from Chemist, and I was like, “this definitely sounds like an Atlanta rap beat.” It reminded me of Rocko’s “Umma Do Me,” which is funny because when I talked to [Chemist], he was like, “Yeah, the beat’s inspired by that.” I decided to use it for the song.
Now we’re in Atlanta getting ready to shoot the pilot, and Donald’s like, “I need that song,” so I head to Blue Room studios, where I normally go to record when I’m in Atlanta. In the script for the first pilot, Donald wrote Paper boi, paper boi, all about that paper boi, got a team to serve a fiend from Cali to Decatur, boi—something close to that. I used that and tweaked it a little and made it the hook. So I’m in the studio, I got the beat, I had thought of chords a little bit, and then, in about fifteen-twenty minutes I wrote the song. Two verses, everything.
I went in the booth and I rapped it, and my homies Swank and Keith [Dawson]– Keith engineers for Migos, Future, YFN Lucci– were like “man, this is kind of good.” I thought, This song works. There are some lines that might go over people’s heads, but it’s catchy.
My favorite part of the song is still the “paper clip” line: paper clip, paper clip, yeah I need a paper clip. Once I knew the song should feel like that, it was easy, like kind of filling in what it should be. Like I said, I’m already a rapper, I’m from Atlanta, so I get that Jeezy-type rap or that Gucci Mane rap where it’s more feeling than anything else.
I sent the finished song to Donald. He said it was hype enough, and he ended up picking my version of the song for the pilot.
I think everything worked perfectly because I already rapped, I already did music, and so the song was real. It strikes a balance, where the audience is like “this is good, but it doesn’t feel cheesy, and it doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard, either.” It’s because it was written by a person who’s a rapper who understands that it’s about having fun—this is a fun song.
When people at FX had first heard it, they were like “you wrote this? You performed this, too? It’s kinda good.” I’m like, “Nah, you’re just saying that.” They had no idea I rapped, I guess
Since the show’s come out I’ve seen people being like “Yo this song is super catchy!” “I kind of like this song!” People who know my music are like “Yo, that’s Steve G-Lover rapping this “Paper Boi” song. It’s hot. I need this song.” It’s funny because the song came about so fast, but the idea had been simmering for a while.
I’m surprised that older people who watch the show like the song. I was at an Emmy’s party, and people who are like, 50 years old, were coming up to us being like “I love this show. And “Paper Boi” – I heard you did the song! I love that song!” That’s the weird part, these older people relating to this song. I think it just happened to toe the right line of not taking itself too seriously, and also not being cheesy or corny.
“Paper Boi” is one of those things that are an important part of the show, but everyone [on the show] just forgot about it. It’s funny; even a few weeks ago I got an email from the line producer that said “Oh, I think we have to pay you for recording that song.” Nobody thought about it, which is kind of funny.