Ava Grey does three poses with hands above her head and in her hair in an orange dress
Ava wears Sire Leo Lamar and jewelry from Ava Rose by Sail Away.Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi

Who Is the Girl in “Atlanta” Season 3? Scene-Stealer Ava Grey Aims to Expand TV’s View of Transness

“Being trans is just such a beautiful, large spectrum.”

If you Google season three episode eight of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, titled “New Jazz” and released this past spring, you’ll see it was nominated for an Emmy. You’ll also see the most commonly-searched question associated with the episode: “Who is the girl?”

That would be 26-year-old Ava Grey, who stole the show with her brief guest role in the episode. Ava plays Lorraine, a “gregarious font of unsolicited advice” accompanying Brian Tyree Henry’s Paperboi, aka Al, through Amsterdam bars and backrooms. Though Atlanta’s depiction of Black womanhood has received critical responses, Ava’s much-praised portrayal of Lorraine — part ghostly guide, part flirty wingman — was captivating, dynamic, imbued with a natural charisma. Whatever the episode’s overall effect, Vulture’s recap concludes, “Lorraine looks like the future.”

Ava wears Sire Leo Lamar and jewelry from Ava Rose by Sail Away.Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi

As we chat in advance of Transgender Week of Awareness, while cis people are certainly aware of trans people — for better or worse — we discuss the significance of an Emmy nomination for a work that couldn’t be what it was without her. “It's a great wake-up call of ‘Ava, you're doing something right,’” she tells Teen Vogue, Zooming from her New York City apartment. “I definitely thank everyone on the Atlanta team for trying their very hardest to get me in there, to make sure that I was seen and visible. And I know that the Television Academy will invite me [someday].”

Due to Emmy rules, Ava could not attend the Emmys; only the director could. In our conversation, it reminded her of the impact of Michaela Jaé Rodriguez’s snub at the 2021 Emmys after the conclusion of FX’s Pose. “She was Pose,” Ava emphasizes. “It was hard for me to not see her get an award for her work.” But Ava wanted to highlight Rodriguez’s resilience and success despite it. “She's there. She's doing it. I look up to her.”

Who else helped her, growing up, before the advent of stars like Rodriguez? I smile when she shares: Sandra Caldwell, who we both know from the Disney Channel Cheetah Girls movies — and who came out as trans much later in life, though Ava says she knew as a child, somehow. “When I tell you I identified with that character so much!” Ava laughs. “She's so full of life, so beautiful. Getting to meet her, side note, was a complete joy.”

Though Caldwell was not out as trans when Cheetah Girls was released, Avarecalls Caldwell’s glittering joyousness – a quality you can’t miss in Ava’s wide smile and wry eyes – as inspiration. “They still made me feel like I was seen, a little boy hoping to be a girl. I felt like I could relate to her. So icons like Sandra Caldwell, there needs to be more of [them], and more praise and giving her her flowers, because everything she does, she says it with the biggest smile ever.” You could say the same about Ava Grey.

Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi

Ava, who has spoken publicly about past experiences of abuse and homelessness from her time resettling in New York from Virginia, feels an additional level of urgency for better storytelling in service of trans lives, especially now that she’s a rising star. Before making it to TV, she was outed in the workplace at least twice: Once while working as a manager at Chipotle before guest-starring on Pose; again after entering the modeling industry. While her Chipotle coworkers were supportive, she told Repeller, “I got a lot of backlash [in the modeling industry], lost a lot of contacts — other models and photographers.”

We discuss a famous — some argue self-fulfilling — statistic for the life expectancy of Black trans women. The vulnerability in picturing a future for herself has impacted how she understands her own gender evolution. “I might always be transitioning just because I don't know what the end result is,” Ava reflects. “There’s not really many to look up to, that died of natural death. So I think until I really see that staple, I won't really know where I'll end up, what my body will be capable of.”

Trailblazing stars like Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, says Ava, remind us there can be a future for trans people, whether or not it’s been witnessed or recorded before. Her past struggles hammer home the double-edged sword of representation, and the dangers of a single story — a concept, admittedly, from a writer accused of transphobia, itself a reminder of why we need a broader understanding of gender than the white, cis, het norm.

“It's important that we are there [at awards shows], and we're not just in a hoodie on the street in the rain. Yes, that is a true aspect, I've been homeless, slept on the train and just rode it back and forth,” Ava continues. “But I mean, now I have my own place. I’m still struggling, still trying to find avenues of what's going to be consistent for me – but there does need to be hope.”

Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi

In Ava’s mind, a more holistic approach to representation — “certain nuances that the actor can bring if you're searching for that queer element, rather than exploiting us” — could be one source of hope for young people seeking a vision of a future for themselves, while she does the same.

Ava is a former classroom assistant and expressed particular concern for how reductive or incomplete representations may affect the education of young people. We turn to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” laws and other policies targeting queer and trans students. “I understand it to be the same tactic that schools used when it came to Black people,” Ava says. “There were so many accomplishments that I didn't understand, so many people that I had never heard of in the public school system that I've been raised in.’” Ava wondered why she never learned about, say, Audre Lorde; she worries about queer and trans children missing out on learning about their history and community.

“Kids have to understand that you should be passionate about human rights. Eradicating someone's accomplishments says that no one cares about us. Why would you even want to pursue that part of you?” she says, lamenting the goal of erasure. “When it's shown that no one cares, no one's going to fight for you. No one's going to understand you. You're going to be erased in the books.”

Which doesn’t mean she only considers trans identity and experience through the lens of trauma; Ava refuses to contribute to a narrative that exceptionalizes transness as something unusual or abnormal. Atlanta’s Lorraine’s gender and sexuality are simultaneously focal to the episode and left ambiguous, portrayed by Ava with a “gleeful slipperiness” – only making clear that she is desirable. Rather, Ava is interested in a more expansive portrayal of transness and gender, one that doesn’t require her to always directly address or name it for an audience that may see her as somehow “other.”

“Being trans is just such a beautiful, large spectrum: I need people to understand, it doesn't necessarily have to be the focus – and it also really isn't after a while,” Ava adds. “It's definitely not something I wake up and think about anymore.” In living her truth, she hopes to live outside others’ definitions for her identity, challenging them.

“This is accepting who I have always been,” Ava, calm and sweetly understated, says. “I would love for people to understand that being your authentic self is the easiest decision that I've ever made.”

Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi