Talk about a movie trying to be all things to all people: the problem with ATL boils down to the fact that I’m not sure what kind of movie it wanted to be. A story by Antwone Fisher (yes, that Antwone Fisher), it comes off as a sort of “Roll Bounce in the Hood.” As is so often the case, a voice over is the first sign of lazy story-telling. It’s a slice of life character study filled with a host of characters–like people you know from the neighborhood. It is a rite of passage movie, an examination of manhood and what it means to be a man; that also looks at the responsibility and obligations of family.

T.I. (playing Rashad) carries the movie on his dour yet charismatic shoulders, a performance easily on par with 50 Cent (Get Rich or Die Tryin’). Rashad works part time, saving money in order to look out for his younger brother, Ant (Evan Ross) after the death of their parents; practically raising him despite sharing a roof with their Uncle George (Mykelti Williamson). In their free time, they are a part of a skate crew, The Ones, while trying to figure out how to take the next step in their journey to manhood.

“Dreaming is the luxury of children and you should enjoy it.” Rashad’s Pop

ATL is about growing up and all of its inherent pitfalls. In the context of Atlanta, Georgia, pitfalls include falling in love and the lure of the streets and the fast money promises of the drug life. But mostly, the movie is about finding community, finding a place of belonging. Be it skate crews, clown posses, gangs, family, or even church, there is a need in us to find community. We were created as relational beings, and despite the myth of independence and self-sufficiently, we have this need in us to connect with others.

When institutions, from family to the church, fail to do what the were created to do, be what they were supposed to be about, other places–not often looking like one expects–will spring up to do their job. Gangs. Skate crews. New kinds of community that places a sense of belonging as its first priority, because our need to find a place is the first step in figuring out who we are..

C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, once said that “we are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The pursuit of keeping it real is a laudable one, the problem lies in what we call real. For New New (Lauren London), real meant ghetto.

Ghetto life is a reality, a cauldron of pain, anger, poverty, and injustice. Our culture too often reflects the self-hatred that comes from living a nihilistic existence. It’s bad enough that the “real hip hop” brand of blackness is marketed to death to our youth, with the “bling-bling” mentality fomenting a sense of entitlement through our music and culture. The ATL is directed by hip hop video director, Chris Robinson, and another hip hop artist, Big Boi, stars alongside T.I. The pursuit of money and the trappings of wealth, the pursuit of “making it” as themes in the movie all point to a greater identity problem.

“I can’t be a man for you. You have to figure out the best way to do that for yourself.” –Rashad

From “females to friends to funerals” Uncle George wants Rashad and Ant to be able to recognize what’s real so that they “don’t look back on life with a bunch of regrets.” And that’s where many of us find ourselves: examining our lives trying to figure out what is true and what is false. Like each member of The Ones, we’ve constructed a false self, where we are defined by what we do, by what we have, and by what people think about us. We believe this lie and try to fix it ourselves, essentially creating a self-salvation scheme as we try to re-create ourselves. “I am not”–a man, for example–but “I can be if”I have the right rims, the right car, the right kind of money, the right bling, the right girl, go to the right school, get the right job.

“Sometimes it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” –John Garnett (Keith David)

Finding your true self involves finding your identity in who you are in Christ. It means realizing what He’s done and made in You; your gifts and talents tied to Him and coming from Him.

ATL is often a wildly uneven movie, its tone veering between Friday and Menace II Society. Yet it has a nostalgic feel about it, along with an aimlessness about it, as it does a lot of surface exploration of many themes. Yes, you know these characters from around the way, but you like them. The movie pulses with warmth and heart, however, thus making it truly ghetto-fabulous.