I’ve seen every movie that has skating in it, but ATL, released 10 years ago today is by far my favorite.
Growing up fascinated by the roller skating environment, culture and idiosyncrasies, and having spent many a fun night laughing with my friends as the pulsating music pushed us around the rink, those sights and sounds of my childhood, adolescence and young adult years remain some of my most cherished memories.
If I have any regrets, it would be that I never learned to skate backwards. Its probably among the easiest of all the tricks in the roller rink, but I can't even move a few feet trying it. I went to all the rinks as a kid growing up in Washington, D.C.
The two most popular were Kalorama in Northwest Washington, D.C. and Crystal Skate in PG County, where before they let us get loose on our skates, there was a 9’x 9' dance floor where we packed ourselves in and danced to go-go music until we sweated our hairdos out. Then we’d finish off the night skating.
My older sister encouraged me to join a skate team as a kid, but I was too scared of the competition. I still go skating today, and have the same, wide-eyed childhood fascination when watching the lines of men snaking around the rink like a train, dancing in unison and the skate crews and their competitions.
The movie ATL is many things: a teenage love story, with dramatic and comedic elements, tales of hood angst and Ivy League ambitions, struggling with one's inner identity and outer perception, responsibility, peer pressure, flirting with danger for the sake of a few dollars for the sake of being accepted as cool, among others, all in the backdrop of Sunday night escapes and escapades at the Cascade skating rink.
The story is loosely based on the childhood stories of R&B hitmaker Dallas Austin and Tionne T-Boz Watkins, and the time they spent at the rink Jellybeans in Atlanta. It was such a cultural phenomenon that, legend has it, there would be no R&B group TLC if skating madness didn’t exist because that's where the members met. This popular roller rink and cultural landmark on Stone Road in Ben Hill, a predominantly black area in Southwest Atlanta was where some of the best skaters perfected their craft.
Among them were celebrities like Austin and T-Boz, Jermaine Dupri, choreographer DeVyne Stephens, and members of Outkast, Goodie Mob and others.
The hip hop production company Organized Noize tried, but failed, to buy Jellybeans after the rink had closed.They wanted to use it for studio space because they wanted to be in a space “where all the stars” went. Folklore has it that Austin was a premiere skater and he met TLC member, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas there.
The roller skating rink, in black circles, has always been a precursor to the club scene for teens not old enough to actually attend a nightclub. The strobe lights, the slow jams, funk, and classic R&B and dance music pouring from the deejay booth, matching outfits and skates with pom poms, whistles blowing and glowing, splits, high leg kicks, spins, and smooth dancing on skates all lent itself to a club atmosphere. In the '70s and '80s, every major city with a large black population had a go-to spot for roller skating.
Like basketball and double-dutch, it was a rite of passage. Style skating, a mash-up of roller skating and dancing was born at segregation-era skate nights in black communities throughout the country in the 1950's and '60s. This was a time when records were becoming widely available and the deejay, rather than live musicians, was the most important part of an entertainment venue.
“I used to dance at a roller rink called Jellybeans where Dallas also hung out,” T-Boz told music journalist Michael Gonzales in 2004, “We had known each other since we were teenagers. I suggested to L.A. (Reid) that he meet with Dallas. Chilli and Dallas, those two liked each other from the first day they met.”
T-Boz and Austin spent so much time there that they came up with a concept for a movie based on their experience as high school kids going to the rink on Sunday nights. By then, Jellybeans had shut down, but Cascade Family Skate rink in Adamsville was still open.
They shot the movie (originally titled Jellybean), directed by music video director Chris Robinson, at Cascade starring a group of first-timers to the screen. Not only was this rapper T.I.’s acting debut in a feature film as the lead character Rashad, but he wasn’t a great skater and had to learn to skate on the job (they had two practice sessions per day for the whole cast to become better skaters).
Other first time actors included Evan Ross, Diana Ross’s son as Ant, Lauren London as New New, who, at the time was best known for her cameo in Pharrell’s video “Frontin,’” and Big Boi from Outkast, who played the villain Marcus with thug authenticity. New New and Rashad could have easily won an award for the cutest on-screen couple.
There were cameos by Atlanta’s finest: Killer Mike, Rico Wade, Big Gipp and Monica, among others. The screenplay was written by Tina Gordon Chism from an original story by Antwone Fisher. Austin coordinated the music for the film, which was produced by Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment. It took only 45 days to shoot in the summer of 2005 and was released 10 years ago today on March 31, 2006.
But it wasn’t all bounce, rocking, rolling and skating, the movie tackled real issues: New New’s embarrassment about her father’s wealth and her sheltered lifestyle along with Esquire’s desire to get out of the hood with an Ivy League education. New New’s father, played by Keith David, also had his issues with his desperation to forget his hood past, which brought up class distinctions in the black community. Rashad, played with an endearing sincerity by the talented T.I., struggles to fulfill his artistic ambitions, which take a backseat to keeping his family together and his younger brother from the lures of street life.
Visually, the best scenes were when the skate crews rolled onto the smooth hardwood floor and did their thing to a thumping beat from the deejay. New New didn’t lie when she threw Teddy shade, telling him with sexual innuendo: “I’ve seen you skate, that tells me everything I need to know about a man.”
Ten years after the movie was released, not much has changed in skating culture. If you can spin, drop or dip with one leg out on roller skates, chances are you will be guaranteed a partner during couples skate.