Early in ATL, the first feature film from director Chris Robinson, a stylized montage of Southern life gives a sense of the film's intentions and limitations. A Confederate flag flaps, a barbecue grill smokes, cotton, churches, and archived footage of Martin Luther King are all intercut with the grill of a cruising El Camino driven by rapper and first-time actor T.I. Harris. This is a movie about growing up poor and black, the challenges and decisions one is presented with, and the way friends, family, and community intertwine.
Robinson gets two fine performances from that risky asset, the rapper-turned-actor. T.I., whose 2003 album Trap Muzik explored similar territory, plays the brooding older brother Rashad, who has taken on the responsibility of caring for his younger brother Ant (Evan Ross Naess) after their parents die in a car crash. Antwon Patton, aka Big Boi of Outkast, sparkles as the local drug lord, a character whose eccentricities -- rims, pastels, pit bulls, and punchlines -- are really no stretch for Patton's musical persona.
ATL has a convincing ease to it. The dialogue and interactions between friends and lovers are all natural. But Robinson, perhaps succumbing to first-time jitters, uses voiceovers, subtitles, and interludes to guide the viewer through exposition that could have been handled with the camera alone.
What the film lacks is a spark. There is fine chemistry between the four friends who make up T.I.'s rollerskate crew but not a lot of excitement. Robinson does a poor job filming the action of the skate teams, keeping the rink in a natural shadow that downplays the sense of magic to which a voiceover keeps alluding. The best skating comes from a scene late in the film, when Rashad and his love interest stop in to watch some old pros who finally get the camera's attention.
Essentially, the film replays territory covered by last year's You Got Served: the struggle to escape the poverty of the inner city, the trust between friends and lovers, the lure of drug dealing, and a shooting that comes as a final wake-up call. The acting and direction of ATL are superior, but then again, there are none of the earlier film's kinetic thrills.