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Writer’s Fable for Atlanta Dreamers

Times Staff Writer

The first time he saw Atlanta, Tyler Perry was dazzled. On a weekend visit, he took in the spectacle of affluent black suburbs: the homes styled after Mediterranean villas, the columns of gleaming automobiles, the aura of striving and success and possibility.

He was so impressed that he decided that weekend to move to Atlanta. Almost 15 years later, the city is the setting of the film Perry wrote and stars in, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” whose box-office success has taken industry insiders by surprise. Perry’s film is a hymn to his adopted city, which has attracted waves of young African Americans with the promise of upward mobility.

But it is also a warning. The film follows Helen, the cosseted wife of a social-climbing lawyer, as she leaves her suburban mansion to find serenity on the city streets where she grew up. It reflects the experience of an older Perry -- one who has joined the black bourgeoisie and begun to see spots of tarnish. In the end, his film delivers a simple admonition against materialism.

“It is a very powerful message that needs to fall on some good ground to grow in Atlanta,” Perry said. “Because a lot of people -- especially a lot of African American people -- are caught up in the grind of more, more, more.”

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The film, which opened Feb. 25 to lackluster reviews, focuses on a wrenching spring in the life of Helen McCarter (played by Kimberly Elise). Helen opens the door on her wedding anniversary to discover that her ambitious husband has brought his mistress home. Years of social climbing have distanced Helen from her family, and she stands by primly, in a sundress, as her relatives dance the electric slide at a backyard barbecue. After touching on drug addiction, emotional abuse and vengeance, Helen’s journey ends in redemption and a cathartic explosion of gospel music.

Black audiences in Atlanta -- familiar with Perry’s gospel-themed plays -- have gone crazy for the film. After a recent screening, Duwan Lee, 39, stood in the lobby with tears running down her face; she was already planning to see the film again with her girlfriends. And Alisa White, 37, said she couldn’t wait another day to see the movie -- her co-workers at Grady Hospital had repeated so many of the punch lines that she could practically recite the script.

Perry’s cast of characters -- high-achieving professionals, entertainment figures, drug lords and charismatic preachers -- are clustered in a way that is peculiarly Atlanta. By the end of the 1990s, Atlanta’s suburbs were 25% African American, compared with 9% in the rest of the country. Income growth for blacks in Atlanta’s suburbs was at 22.5% during the late 1990s, compared with 13.4% growth for blacks nationally, according to William Frey of the Brookings Institution.

Toya Davidson, co-owner of Slim and Tone, a women’s gym in the suburb of Lithonia, said Perry captured a malaise she occasionally had sensed in clients.

Stay-at-home moms -- often the first women in their families to have that option -- sometimes feel isolated in the “sterile bubble” of their homes; there’s cliquishness, and a focus on “who you know and where you live and where your kids go to school.” Divorce has become more common, and traditions like Sunday dinner have fallen away, said Davidson, 37, who once worked as an assistant to Perry.

“The bottom line is, the value system we had with our families is lost,” she said. “It goes back to the simple things.”

Clark White, a sociologist at Morehouse College, said the glamour of Atlanta’s black suburbs hid darker realities. A growing gulf separates the suburbanites from the city, where many blacks live in poverty, he said. Meanwhile, suburbanites tend to live beyond their means, leading to a high foreclosure rate.

“Most of what we see is extended credit and credit card debt,” he said. “We have a considerable amount of data that Atlanta is not the promised land.”

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But it looked that way to Perry. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood in New Orleans that had “a sense of heaviness, a sense of voodoo hanging over you,” he said. Leaving New Orleans for Atlanta, he said, was like “coming out of Egypt.”

While he tried to sell his writing, Perry worked a series of short-term jobs -- car salesman, collections agent -- and lived out of his car, dodging repo men, when he couldn’t afford rent. Even then, the city gave him a sense of buoyant optimism. In his first Atlanta apartment, he took a daily walk with 30 to 40 other tenants to catch a 5 a.m. train downtown; the same group would walk home together.

“The lowest side of Atlanta was nowhere near as low as the lowest side of New Orleans,” he said. “You felt the sense of ‘We’re all going to make it someday.’ ”

After scraping by for six years, Perry joined the ranks of the bourgeoisie himself. He found success with “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” a gospel musical about adult survivors of child abuse, and collaborated with Texas evangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes on “Woman, Thou Art Loosed,” a play about child abuse. Last year, Perry told Ebony magazine he had earned more than $50 million.

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Few things embody Perry’s Atlanta story like his 26-room mansion, which is set on 12 acres southeast of the city, not far from the home of boxer Evander Holyfield. Its forbidding stone facade is reminiscent of a 19th century British orphanage; its interior gleams like an Armani showroom. He calls it Avec Chateau -- French for “with home” -- a name he chose because it denotes the opposite of homeless.

The house will be familiar to those who have seen the movie -- it’s where his heroine, Helen McCarter, is trapped in a sterile, loveless life of luxury. And in a way, Perry said, he can relate. He’s single, and finds the dating scene in Atlanta a “complete nightmare,” populated with gold-diggers and opportunists. Even among his family, he says, there are “a lot of people I’ve had to cut off because to them, I’ve become Tyler Perry the bank.”

When Perry did try to bring relatives with him into his new lifestyle, they didn’t necessarily want to follow. His parents still live in their modest New Orleans house in a neighborhood where he said shootings regularly occurred. He built his parents a grand home, but he said they refused to leave their old house except for weekends.

“My sister said something really profound to me,” he said. “She said, ‘Just like you have your dream, this was their dream that they paid $116 a month for.’ ”

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Twenty-six rooms may seem like a lot of space for a bachelor playwright. Perry admits that his life is sometimes lonely. But he’s not complaining -- his life behind the iron gates, he says, is one of “total serenity.”

It’s taken him years, he said, to accept that he deserves the wealth and good fortune that have come his way. The outrageous grandness of his house serves a purpose, he has said, by proving that God rewards the faithful, and inspiring the next round of Atlanta dreamers.

Times staff researcher Jenny Jarvie contributed to this report.


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