Even if OutKast's Big Boi weren't in the cast for added credibility, ATL evokes its Atlanta setting so vividly that it couldn't be mistaken for any other place. Making his feature debut after cutting his teeth in high-profile music videos (Jay-Z, Nas, and Alicia Keys are among his clients), director Chris Robinson presents a virtual travelogue of the city: Moving from the slums of Mechanicsville to the mansions of Bucktown and everywhere between, he captures the lives of four black teenagers as they hang out in Waffle Houses and Krystal restaurants, spend Sunday nights at the skating rink, and, of course, deal with the overwhelming heat, which bears down in a sticky haze that makes the air feel wet. Getting the milieu right takes the film halfway home, but it doesn't go much further—it's dogged by a script that traffics in coming-of-age clichés like a li'l Boyz N The Hood.
Sporting a hard look that melts as easily as an ice-cream scoop in the Georgia sun, Tip "T.I." Harris stars as a levelheaded high-schooler who had to grow up fast after his parents died in a car accident. He and his troublemaking little brother Evan Ross Naess (nicknamed "Jellybean" because he's hard on the outside and soft in the center) live in a shabby Mechanicsville home with their uncle Mykelti Williamson, a man so cheap that he rations the cereal. Fronting a good-natured crew that includes a future Ivy Leaguer (Jackie Long) and a transplanted Brooklynite (Albert Daniels), Harris and his buddies live for Sunday nights, when they cruise for girls at the roller rink and pit their skills against rival skating gangs. With graduation on the horizon and his prospects uncertain, Harris gets some encouragement from Lauren London, a pretty girl who praises his hidden artistic talent, but hides a secret that could upend their relationship. Meanwhile, Naess starts working for a dangerous drug pusher (Big Boi) and quickly gets in over his head.
Based on a story by Antwone Fisher, who turned his own life story into inspirational goo a few years ago, ATL deals crudely with the gap between wealth and poverty, and the obvious perils of getting mixed up in drugs and violence. Triumph over adversity is Fisher's stock in trade, but it soon becomes obvious that every storyline will head in that direction, with all the road-bumps, major or minor, smoothed out by a tacked-on resolution in the final minutes. For a while, it seems like ATL is gearing up for a skating showdown between various gangs, each decked out in colorful style à la The Warriors, but the movie has so much narrative business to wrap up that it drops the idea altogether. Ultimately, the film could stand to be more inconsequential, because whenever anything happens to move the story along, it immediately loses its laid-back Southern charm.