Paris, London, New York City, and Los Angeles are more than cities. Due to their frequent appearances in films, they have transformed into “characters” that continually romanticize and demythologize our perception of them. Atlanta, Georgia is not quite up to that level. There are literary traditions and a certain Sherman’s March to the Sea; IMDB cites 396 television shows and films that feature the city, but Atlanta has yet to transcend geography to become a personality. It’s a positive thing for first-time director Chris Robinson, whose film “ATL” takes place primarily in south Atlanta. He doesn’t have to worry about setting upstaging story.
“ATL” establishes its premise around high school seniors Rashad (T.I.), Teddy (Jason Weaver), Brooklyn (Albert Daniels), and Esquire (Jackie Long), each of them anxious for the start of summer vacation and the rest of their life. Incorporated into the coming-of-age plot are elements typical of teen films: love interests, adolescent rebellion, and forging one’s self-identity and autonomy. “ATL” is, however, more than an exploration of teenage life. It draws from a variety of narratives and political sentiments and is constructed in such a way that makes it a challenge to categorize.
“ATL” assigns narrator duties to Rashad, but the film itself is driven by Esquire and Ant’s (Evan Ross Naess) plotlines. Esquire aspires to be an Ivy Leaguer and the steps he takes to get there inevitably affect Rashad. Likewise, Ant’s desire to make some fast and furious cash sends him into the company of drug dealer Marcus (Big Boi), which means Rashad must expend more energy as Ant’s big brother. “ATL” is organized as a series of linear vignettes, each prefaced by a title card that indicates a location change or plot shift. For instance, the “Sunday Night” segments take place in the Cascade roller rink, functioning as an intersection of plot threads as well as an opportunity for the filmmaker to mix in aesthetics of hip-hop music videos in gloriously stylized slow-motion, bright colors, and attention to certain parts of the female body.
Incidentally, it is the roller skating rink where the film gives the impression that winning a dance/skate competition is the end goal. As the latter half of “ATL” reveals, this contest is not the point of the film at all. In addition to the ideological and narrative implications of Esquire’s story, Ant’s experimentation with deviant behavior is the real conflict, thereby becoming the most compelling aspect of the film. Ant’s errors in judgment allow Uncle George (Mykelti Williamson) to offer comfort as well as comic relief, to be more than legal guardian. Moreover, the scenes of Ant and Rashad enable T.I. to demonstrate strong acting skills. His charm and sense of humor facilitate narrative accessibility but complicate genre expectations.
“ATL” is too funny to be a straightforward drama; and, since it touches on topics such as class difference, historical legacy, and growing up without parents, it is too serious to be a comedy. For instance, the issue of social mobility and how it operates within the film as a whole is fascinating. It provides narrative texture and character complexity and manifests itself largely through visual and aural juxtapositions. A particularly striking scene unfolds at the country club where former south side resident John Garnett (Keith David) toasts financial success with his white colleagues while standing in front of a painting of a Confederate soldier.
Part family drama, part ensemble cast/teen flick comedy, “ATL” skims the surface of its slice-of-life scenario. Given its title, though, one cannot ignore or discount that Robinson is not only trying to tell a conventional tale unconventionally, but he is also attempting to put Atlanta on the map of cinematic city characters. References to “Buckhead,” “Sandy Springs,” “not going outside 285” and images of the fountain rings at Centennial Olympic Park, a MARTA subway car, downtown’s skyline, and a Waffle House definitely put a smile on an insider’s face, but outsiders can enjoy the “ATL” too. The only prerequisite here is the ability to laugh.