City on Fire: Is the Crime Series Based on Real People?

Created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, Apple TV+’s crime drama series ‘City on Fire’ revolves around Samantha “Sam” Yeung, an NYU student who is found nearly dead by a budding writer named Mercer. It doesn’t take long for the authorities to treat the Black gay writer as a suspect, which turns around his life. Meanwhile, Sam’s best friend Charlie tries his best to deal with the misfortune that befalls the former. The series progresses through the exploration of the events that led to the startling murder attempt. Since the show is heavily rooted in post-9/11 New York City, the viewers must be intrigued to find out whether Sam’s saga has true connections. Well, let us share the answer!

City on Fire: Fictional Story Inspired by Real Events

No, ‘City on Fire’ is not based on a true story. The series is the television adaptation of Garth Risk Hallberg’s eponymous debut novel. However, Hallberg was inspired by the 9/11 attacks to write his book. At the age of 24, the author was visiting New York City, where “aftershocks” of the attacks were still present. “The attacks had opened up all these questions about community, safety, freedom, life, and death — about what really mattered in life, and how, exactly, to keep faith with that. I think those remain deep questions for everyone, whether living in cities or elsewhere,” Hallberg told The Clarion-Ledger about the foundation of his novel.

A Billy Joel song, titled ‘Miami 2017,’ he listened to at the same time further inspired Hallberg to write ‘City on Fire.’ “I was on a Greyhound bus, watching the altered skyline approach, listening to a Billy Joel song about the New York blackout of the ’70s — the sense of both chaos and possibility at that time — and it struck me that all the blazingly urgent questions of 2003 were also the blazingly urgent questions of 1977. Like, the city was still burning, just in a different way,” the author added. Hallberg combined the aftermath of both the New York City blackout of 1977 and the 9/11 attacks to conceive the foundation of his novel.

It didn’t take long for Hallberg to create an outline of the plot and characters of ‘City on Fire’ after the aforementioned integration. “And at that point, the whole book came to me, including plot, scenes, images, characters, tone, scope … I knew there was a shooting at the center of it, drawing everyone together. I knew it was going to be one of these sweeping Charles Dickens-type epics. And I knew that this was the book I had to write,” the novelist said in the same The Clarion-Ledger interview. With that outline in mind, Hallberg wrote a novel that’s over nine hundred pages long.

Hallberg’s inspiration wasn’t just the two real-life happenings. He sought the same in literature and television alike. “Dickens was an inspiration, as I’ve mentioned, and all those great, long 19th century novels you want to fall into and live inside. […] also the HBO shows my friends and I had, by 2003, begun binge-watching: ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Deadwood,’ ‘The Wire,’” he added in the same interview. Considering the author’s words, it isn’t a coincidence that the scene that revolves around the discovery of the nearly dead Sam and the arrest of Mercer reminds us of ‘The Wire.’

Hallberg’s protagonist Sam is someway connected to him personally. “Sam is an imaginative projection of what I would have been as a teenager if I just risked everything,” the author told Vogue. He went through the zines of his high school friends to conceive the ones Sam created in the novel. Although the book is set in the 1970s, creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage changed the setting to 2003 to conceive their version of Sam’s tale since they felt that the former period is a “well-trodden territory.”

“We [Schwartz and Savage] were really interested in that post-9/11, Occupy Wall Street [era] in New York. Obviously, the book culminates in the blackout of ’77. There was a massive blackout in 2003. So creatively, that storyline lined up,” Schwartz told Deadline about the change. “But also thematically, 1977 was a time when people weren’t sure that our city was going to survive. Post-9/11 New York, people had the same concerns, the same fears,” he added. The co-creators also made sure that the setting change didn’t affect the exploration of the punk scene in downtown New York, which is an integral part of the novel.

Although ‘City on Fire’ is a fictional work, its soul is about the aftermath of two real-life occurrences that changed the history of New York City. Through its fictional characters and storylines, the show succeeds in addressing the material and emotional aftermath of the 9/11 attacks as well.

Read More: Where is City on Fire Filmed?