In the last couple of years, T.I. has sold millions of records. The rapper sports jaw-droppingly expensive jewelry and, if his lyrics are to be believed, thinks nothing of renting pricey hotel suites for weeks and taking women on lavish shopping sprees.
At the moment, though, he's lurking in a run-down Atlanta strip mall wearing a cleaning uniform for his role as Rashad, a high school senior juggling work, school, and roller skating in the film ATL. Despite the change in station, the handsome 25-year-old seems at home on dingy Metropolitan Parkway, having grown up just minutes away in, as he calls it, ''the Trap.''
''The Trap is where you can go get TVs for half price,'' explains T.I., who, during the shoot, doubled as a ghetto tour guide for his 17-year-old costar Evan Ross. It's ''where you can buy liquor on Sundays, bet on the Super Bowl, get a bag of weed.'' As the son of pop royal Diana Ross, Evan was wary of T.I.'s day trips through the hood. ''I was nervous,'' says Ross. ''He was like, 'If I go in there with you, we're coming out together.'''
ATL follows a close-knit group of high school knuckleheads who go roller skating every Sunday, play at love, discover their identities, and make decisions about the future. For T.I., who as recently as 2004 was in prison for violating parole from a drug sentence, playing the well-intentioned, lovestruck Rashad was the very definition of acting. ''I'm in this movie,'' he says. ''This movie's not about me.''
Actually, Rashad is loosely based on Dallas Austin, the soft-spoken Atlanta record mogul who conceived the story. ''I used to come over to this Value Village that we're shooting in a long time ago,'' says Austin, in his trailer across the street from the set. ''We used to buy fake alligator shirts.''
In the '90s, Austin produced hits for such R&B stars as Boyz II Men, TLC, and Monica, eventually building his own successful studio in Atlanta. He officially got into the movie business as an executive producer, spinning his marching-band experiences into 2002's Drumline, also shot there. While running around Los Angeles struggling to get his second film made, Austin got some sage advice from his mentor Quincy Jones, who'd invested heavily in Atlanta television stations in the mid-'90s. ''He said, 'L.A. ain't for you,''' recalls Austin. '''Go back home. What you did in Atlanta with music, do it with film.''' Austin soon joined the Georgia Film, Video & Music Advisory Commission and, in 2004, testified before a Senate committee to create tax incentives for area film projects. ATL and Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion are two of the first to take advantage of those tax breaks.
When word got around town that Austin was producing another local movie, T.I., who had auditioned for Nick Cannon's part in Drumline, jumped at a second chance. ''[ATL] is the most accurate portrayal of my city that's ever been on screen,'' he insists. ''I felt obligated to be involved.''
Still, as a first-time actor working with a first-time feature director (music-video helmer Chris Robinson), T.I. often felt overwhelmed. Fortunately, Will Smith is one of the producers on the film and T.I. was able to consult personally with the world's foremost rapper-turned-actor.