Despite his pedigree as a hip-hop music video maestro, Chris Robinson skews more toward Roll Bounce authenticity than Belly superficiality with ATL, a tale of growing pains in the dirty South that reverberates with booming, chest-rattling bass. On the cusp of adulthood, responsible Rashad (rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris) and his friends navigate a thorny brush of racial, romantic, familial, and financial problems as they barrel toward high school graduation and the daunting grownup world that awaits them. With Cascade skating rink as the Sunday night epicenter of their social universe, Rashad, his boys, his foxy lady New-New (Lauren London), and his brother Ant (Evan Ross)—on the precipice of falling into a street-corner career slinging weed for dealer Marcus (Antwan Andre “Big Boi” Patton)—hang out, fall in love, fight, and try to stay on the straight-and-narrow, the divide between Atlanta’s North (wealthy, white) and South (impoverished, black) sides an ever-present factor in their tumultuous day-to-day lives.
Robinson scores these kids’ end-of-adolescence trials and tribulations to the locale’s trademark crunk-ified grooves and beats, yet rather than simply delivering another MTV-ish tale of hood woe, the neophyte feature director instead immerses himself in his humid, heated Georgia setting with a sociologist’s curiosity, using his wealth of unaffected environmental details as a prism for exploration rather than exploitation. Which isn’t to say that ATL is, in purely narrative terms, either original or realistic, since it’s rich-versus-poor, boy-versus-girl conflicts are established and resolved with a tidiness that routinely exhibits the omniscient hand of a screenwriter (here Tina Gordon Chism, working from a story by Antwone Fisher).
But even when it’s concocting facile ways to get Rashad’s preppie pal Esquire (Jackie Long) and self-made millionaire John Garnett (Keith David) onto the same tennis court, or allowing Big Boi to channel his cheerfully malevolent inner Scarface, the film rarely becomes critically impaired by its clichés and contrivances (or its nods to The Warriors), thanks both to Harris’s intensely laconic performance and to canny directorial flourishes—highlighted by a pitch-perfect focus-pull from Garnett’s smiling face to a Civil War painting—that speak to the still-fractious relations between Southern haves and have-nots.