Things I Learned Watching ATL

SMALLTIpaint.jpg T.I. portrait by Grand Siedlecki

T.I.'s been going around for a few weeks saying that he's been hoping to have the #1 album and the #1 movie in the country at the exact same time, and that didn't happen. He'll probably top this week's albums list, but ATL lost out to Ice Age 2 and the surprisingly resilient Inside Man at the box office. Still ATL is doing pretty well, especially for a low-key, low-budget coming-of-ageish movie with no known actors directed by a music video guy who's never made a movie; these things do, after all, usually go straight to video. More surprisingly, it's really good, a warm and easy and likable Sunday-afternoon movie with understated performances and nice rollerskating scenes and a truly strong and definite sense of place. The last rapper who tried to make the movie-star leap was 50 Cent, who relied on goofily plausible gangster-movie cliches and his own mythology, and he basically fell on his face. T.I. plays a character very different from the one he plays on record, a decent and hard-working person who wants to get out of the ghetto and keep his family out of trouble, chastising his little brother from doing the same stuff T.I. brags about doing in his music. (T.I.'s character has a dream to become a cartoonist, not a rapper or a drug-dealer.) On his masterful new album, King (more on it when the Quarterly Report drops tomorrow), T.I. leaves behind all the self-doubt and vulnerability and defensiveness he showed on Trap Muzik tracks like "I Still Love U" and "Doin My Job" and morphs into this indestructible hard-rolling superhero. So with Rashad, his ATL character, it's like he's split his persona into two distinct and opposing halves, something he's always talked about doing. It's a little surprising when the closing credits roll and all of a sudden "What You Know" is on and he's talking about the knapsack where he's holding all the work at, since he's just spent the entire movie telling another character not to be holding the work. But then, he's just made a great album and a good movie, so he's doing something right. Here are some things I learned watching ATL:

• I actually already knew this, but Take the Lead looks Snakes on a Plane-level horrible, one of those movies where it's truly embarrassing just to watch the damn preview. Pretty soon, the doofy white kid with the red cornrows is going to start showing up in my nightmares saying "Check this out!"

• T.I. has managed to pull a Schwarzenegger-in-Conan, finding a vehicle where his thick-ass accent is an asset rather than a liability. During the gorgeous opening local-color montage, which I imagine totally captures Atlanta even though I've never been there, his slurry, humid drawl sounds just perfect.

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• He looks older than his 25 years, but T.I. somehow manages to be halfway believable as a high-school senior. That's acting, I guess. Or suspension of disbelief. He's easier to buy than the guy who plays his friend Esquire, anyway.

• The time-honored tradition of the pencil-fight has finally been immortalized on film.

• The guy who plays Brooklyn, T.I.'s friend from New York, is a local rapper named Al B. Back; I saw him open for Rakim a couple of months ago. He's also Big Pun's cousin or something like that. He's really good! He'd probably have a real career ahead of him if he could think of a better rap name than Al B. Back. Anyway, he gets a fun scene where he makes fun of the South and T.I. makes fun of New York.

• The dialogue scenes are warm and unforced, but it becomes really obvious that Chris Robinson was a music-video director during the party scenes: a great unbroken-shot swoop through a roller-rink, and woozily sunny swimming-pool scene. Later in the movie, he scores a drug-corner jacking to the old soul song "Motherless Child," and it's really effective. Oddly enough, I can't remember Robinson ever making a really good video; he's been holding out on us.

• T.I.'s stuntman can skate!

• Lauren London, who plays the love interest, is really good and totally beautifully. Somehow, this movie is the first thing she's done other than an episode of Everyone Hates Chris.

• The guy who plays the rich man who's forgotten his roots is Keith David, who has the coolest voice in the world; he played Goliath on Gargoyles and Spawn on the Spawn animated series. T.I. should get him to spit a 16 on the next album.

• Apparently, DJ Drama does house parties.

• It's ironic; Andre 3000 basically breaks up OutKast so that he can have an acting career, and then Big Boi goes and gets a better role in a better movie than anything Andre's done yet. Big Boi's villainous drug-dealer character is a little over-the-top, and he does about fifteen things that a real drug-dealer would never do (thing I learned watching The Wire: drug dealers don't explicitly announce their plans to kill someone over the phone), but he has a blast playing the character, and it shows.

• This is going to look ridiculous, since I just commended T.I. for playing an admirably level-headed character, but I wish they would've let him get mad more. There's one scene where he's going nuts on his brother for getting arrested where he just totally sparks to life; it's startling.

• If I ever go to Atlanta, I am so going to Abdullah the Butcher's House of Ribs.

Voice review: Pete L'Official on ATL

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