From the beginning to the end, ATL suffers from multiple personality disorder. While telling a story of four youths struggling to keep their heads above water, the film flounders at times as it runs the gamut from a gritty and realistic view of life on the Atlanta streets to Hollywood fluff.
The four friends are approaching the end of high school and face the next stages of their lives. Tip “T.I.” Harris plays Rashad and stands out as the star, but the hip-hop actors do a better than expected job of creating believable characters. Rashad is graduating and has enough musical talent to get a record deal and get off the streets, but doesn’t believe in himself. All the while he has to worry about his budding relationship and raising a trouble seeking little brother. Such is life on the South side of the ATL.
The plot is loosely based on the adolescent memories of the film’s creators Tionne Watkins (T-Boz from TLC) and Antwone Fisher who grew up going to a local skating rink. The rink is legend in the hip-hop community for congregating rap industry stalwarts and giving Atlanta youths a respite from their everyday poverty ridden lives. The rink is featured, but as exciting as the rink and its frequenter’s antics are, the real action happens on the streets.
“Ant,” Rashad’s little brother is swallowed up by the glitz and glamour of the ever-prevalent drug trade. Enter Big Boi (of Outkast fame) as the urban warrior and local drug lord who is more than willing to take Ant under his wing. The drug kingpin’s character shines light on a real issue, the willingness of inner city criminals to abuse the lives of adolescents while they roll through their comfortable lives on “24’s.”
For every realistic scene, the film unfortunately counters with canned Hollywood garbage. Rashad’s best friend Esquire is a local who fought all odds to get a job at a country club and a scholarship to a swanky private school. Many of the kids plan to enter college after high school and live lives too easy to be believable for the South Side, especially Esquire and his Ivy League aspirations. The love story hits similar sappy lows.
While ATL flirts with being a biting drama, it excuses itself into a lighthearted feel good story with too much regularity. The film, like so many rap videos today, is just a little too ghetto-fabulous to take seriously all the time. Regardless, the film celebrates the urban center responsible for so many of today’s musical sensations and boasts a hot soundtrack headed by Champaign-born Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. T.I. And most importantly, this film is a welcome sociological change of pace from the rest of the white-bred, romantic comedy travesties that studios are pumping out at breakneck speed.