Like countless other coming-of-age dramas, from Diner to American Graffiti, ATL is about a group of close friends on the precipice of adulthood.
ATL adds a distinctly African-American spirit to its rite of passage set in this iconoclastically black city -- an Atlanta perpetually transitioning from a fitful city adolescence into a grown-up metropolis.
With the hometown setting come shout-outs to local culture, including downtown's Eddie's Gold Teeth, Value Village, Wayfield Foods, UrbanMedium's Chetrooper street art, the Krog Street tunnel, as well as the usual coffee-table-book shots of the Fox Theatre, Centennial Olympic Park, kudzu and cotton fields. But the most recognizable feature of any locale here is the awareness that black and white doesn't cut by neighborhood, but is a more dramatic divide between north and south Atlanta.
That color line also separates the "real" from the surreal life in ATL -- between the stucco mega-mansions of Sandy Springs where black millionaire John Garnett (Keith David) hopes to forget his south-side roots, and the gritty Mechanicsville where ATL's high school senior Rashad (Tip "T.I." Harris) and his friends fight the battles, woo the girls and resist the temptations of local drug lords that define life on the south side.
The Cascade area roller rink exerts the story's emotional gravitational pull, luring Rashad, Teddy (Jason Weaver), Brooklyn (Albert Daniels) and Esquire (Jackie Long) back to their childhood haunt every Sunday night to practice their spins and work up to a climactic skate-off contest.
The friends each have their individual dramatic arcs, some pursued more aggressively and passionately than others by former video director Chris Robinson, who wanders distractedly from story line to story line, often allowing the narrative tension to grow irritatingly slack.
ATL is a film with such an amorphous trajectory and tenuous hold on its competing story lines, even the promised skate-off retreats from our interest.
Brooklyn is the whisper-voiced, chubby pussycat who can't hold a job at any fast food dive in town. Teddy is 21 and still in his senior year, while preppy Esquire wants to get into the Ivy Leagues -- even if it means denying his downtown roots so high-rolling businessman John will pen his letter of recommendation.
But at the heart of the film are orphans Rashad and his younger brother, "Ant" (Evan Ross Naess), who are being raised by a janitor uncle so selfish he hoards his Cocoa Krispies in his bedroom.
Ant drifts toward the blinged-out lifestyle of local hood Marcus (Big Boi), who, in screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism's (working from a story by Antwone Fisher) hilarious puncturing of thug sophistication, drinks cognac from a Styrofoam cup and dates girls from the local high school.
Viewers may laugh at the innocence of gang wars fought at the local roller rink, where the dueling factions duke it out with spins and deep knee bends, not unlike the finger-snapping, leaping Jets and Sharks of West Side Story. Like West Side Story and about 90 percent of all teen dramas, ATL also invokes the classic chestnut of the impossible love affair between Rashad and New-New (Lauren London), thus named because of her taste for all that is fresh in fly-girl attire.
The peculiarities of the subculture provide maximum interest. The roller rink and the film's unexpected streak of innocence turn out to be ATL's saving grace.
"Dreaming is a luxury of children," says Rashad in the film's opening voice-over, and ATL milks some real retro tenderness from the Cascade rink, which represents the connection to childhood that Rashad and his posse hang onto.
For a film loaded with hard-edged rap, drug culture and a character called "Big Booty Judy," ATL is a surprisingly wholesome entry in the coming-of-age genre. The kids make out with their clothes on and even a deadbeat mama with a wad of Andrew Jacksons in her cleavage takes a zero-tolerance stance when it comes to her twin daughters' shoplifting.
Like the folksy wrong-side-of-the-tracks home base in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the ghetto is ATL's preferred venue, a tar paper and cinder-block memorial to not forgetting where you come from. With its humble frame houses bathed in a honeyed light, its raucous house parties and even its high school with graffitied walls and drug-sniffing dogs, ATL's Atlanta proves far more appealing than the cold, white-pillared, Confederate-flag waving alternative. The painting of a Confederate soldier at the north-side country club hanging behind John says everything about what its black characters have to put up with when they cross the north-south divide.
Where every other American film is obsessed with getting paid and financial success as the ticket out and up, ATL has its own streak of integrity for appreciating psychological over material growth.