Oct. 27 is a big day for TJ Atoms.
Not only does it mark the release of his newest single “Potato Chips,” but it also signals the end of Wu-Tang: An American Saga Season 2, in which he portrays Russell “Ason Unique” Jones, A.K.A. Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
“I’m excited to see the finale,” Atoms tells LA Confidential earlier in October. “I’m sad it’s ending so soon… we had a great season. It was amazing.”
Atoms has been praised by critics and Wu-Tang fans alike for his spot-on performance as ODB, bringing to life the man that The Guardian once called “one of the most flamboyant characters in hip-hop.”
While the first season of Wu-Tang captures the formation of the group, Season 2 chronicles their ascent further into the music industry, including the development and release of debut single “Protect Ya Neck” and signing with a label. Out of the 10-episode season, Atoms considers Episode 8, “Saturday Nite, his favorite. In it, Wu-Tang tells label executives they have a slot at a legendary hip hop venue on a night they aren’t even booked and manage to finagle their way into performing.
The day after Hulu released the episode, Atoms took to Instagram to reveal his inspiration for the performance scene and posted old footage of ODB.
“Actual footage from the fever of the moment that inspired my monologue on episode 8,” he captioned the post. “ODB was so raw and care free. We all miss his energy in the culture!! I am very honored to be playing the GOAT.”
For any seasoned actor, portraying someone of such legend would be a weighty task.
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For Atoms, it changed his whole life.
“I was speechless when I booked the role. I probably was just crying,” he recalls.
As seen in the Instagram post, Atoms did plenty of research to prepare. He spoke to ODB’s mom, one of his daughters and his brother and gathered dove into what he was like on camera. However, knowing ODB was a spontaneous person, Atoms didn’t want his approach to the role to be too structured.
“It’s more of a feeling when I’m playing a character,” he explains. “I try to go in just being super authentic to the role and not doing too much, but just delivering exactly what needs to be delivered in that moment instead of trying to go over the top.”
As of publication, Season 3 of Wu-Tang has yet to be confirmed even with strong support from fans. Still, Atoms is confident in the show's impact. Examining the rest of the vast television landscape, he sees Wu-Tang as a provoking, inspirational show that captures one of the most important stories in hip hop history.
“I feel like this is bigger than just a television show about rappers. It’s bigger than that. It’s really teaching about Black excellence, it’s really teaching about the culture,” Atoms says. “We deliver a lot of substance to the culture.”
Atoms’ organic acting style mirrors how he got started as an actor. Born and raised in North Philadelphia, the story goes that Atoms was hanging out in LOVE Park where he was cast on the spot in a music video for Pennsylvania metalcore band August Burns Red, in which he and a group of kids destroy a car.
“I was a kid from North Philly and I’ve never seen nothing like this before,” Atoms says of being on set for the first time. “I was like f*** what I’m doing. I want to do this. So I just stuck with it.”
In truth, Atoms has always had an artistic, entrepreneurial spirit. Reflecting on his youth, he described himself as “super creative” and a “hustler” and recalls jumping on the snapback hat trend in high school to turn a profit.
“I found a bunch of blank hats and made art on them and I sold them all at my school and I sold out,” Atoms says. “I just remember that being one of the key moments that really showed me that I could probably do anything I want in life.”
A true multi-hyphenate, Atoms is again diving into the world of fashion. He is gearing up to release his own fashion line called Parallel, which he describes as “high fashion streetwear” for everybody.
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“I always believed in parallel universes,” Atoms says about the brand name. “When I was a kid sitting in the trenches, I always knew I was [to be] who I was today and I just had to tap into that realm of existence to be who I am… I put the name ‘Parallel’ out there so it can be in the forefront, so it’s not just a clothing line, it’s something to help you reach your next goal.”
Despite successful forays into acting and fashion, Atoms first passion was music. What's more, the release of “Potato Chips” brings two of his artistic pursuits together. The single is the debut release for his album Freedom Dreamers, which is also the name of the movie he’ll be in next year.
Having been recorded a year ago, the song has been a long time coming. In part, “Potato Chips” is a reflection on Atoms’ path to success. The chorus, however, hits closer to home.
“Where I’m from we love eating potato chips,” he laughs. “So I just say, ‘I’m out in the hood probably eating potato chips…’I still be out with my friends in North Philly and we just like hanging out and doing regular s***.”
Even with the release of “Potato Chips” and the end of Wu-Tang: An American Saga Season 2, Atoms is only gearing up for an even busier 2022. You can catch him next in indie thriller Fels High alongside Omari Hardwick and he is in the middle of filming Iron Mike, a Hulu limited series about Mike Tyson that stars Trevante Rhodes.
“I feel like I have a little Midas Touch right now. If I’m on a television show, we going up. I’m a team player, so I just bring that energy where I go,” Atoms says.
“I’m living my dream.”
Photography by: Mark Elzey