Top Boy: Inside the World Of Gang Life

To quote Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, comparisons are offensive, but the UK series Top Boy has often been compared to shows such as Snowfall, The Wire, Blue Story, Adulthood and many more that immerse themselves into the world of drugs, poverty and inequality which seems to be a common thread in producing shows.

But to myself, the show Top Boy does more than immerse itself into that world; it makes real-life issues accessible to the screens across the UK, such as drug dealing, gang violence, immigration and more. Warning: the analysis includes spoilers! 

To Provide or to Survive?

A recurring theme throughout Top Boy Summerhouse and Top Boy is the need to provide for yourself and your loved ones, what you are willing to do to survive, and at what cost? Fundamentally, the show makes us question our morals. Top Boy investigates this by looking at how society treats marginalised groups, including the notion that engaging in illegal activity is the only way to avoid living hand to mouth; every character in the show has gone through some turmoil that reflects this. 

A common practice that many marginalised people use to provide for themselves to survive is drug dealing, and it often makes young people from working-class and poorer backgrounds more susceptible to this lifestyle as they become groomed by local gang members who live near them and offer a flashy lifestyle that the children admire.

In season one, Attica (played by Keiyon Cook) is a prime example of a young boy who would do anything to provide for his family. Like in real life, the show’s plot revolves around a gang member making friends with a young person. Attica and Jaq (played by Jasmine Jobson) meet while he’s playing basketball with his friend Stefan (played by Araloyin Oshunremi). 

Top Boy

The younglings amuse Jaq, but little does she know that the friendship duo is well aware of who she is (i.e. being a right-hand woman to Dushane Hill and Gerard “Sully” Sullivan, the leaders of the powerful Summerhouse gang). Following their interaction, the two decide to go home together.

There, they learn that his only parent, his mother, Amma, has lost her job due to immigration, which makes Attica recognise that even if he is still a child, he must take responsibility and realise that he must work with Jaq and the group that she is in to provide so that they can survive. As his boss, Jaq provides Attica with food and a new phone, and he can see himself at ease. Later, Attica gets robbed and misplaces a bag he was supposed to return to Jaq.

He is in trouble with the older ones now and must do something to repay the debt. The next day, as Ats is getting ready for school, his house gets broken into to intimidate and warn Attica that he cannot afford to make any mistakes. As we move onto Season 2, Amma is searching for her beloved son but is nowhere to be found until his small, lifeless body is found in a dumpster.

Despite my lengthy paragraph of his character arc, there is a core discussion to unpack with Attica’s storyline. The need to provide and the need to survive are symbiotic. When someone is faced with a morally ambiguous situation, the need to provide is overwhelming to the point where you would do what you need to do to survive.

In the case of Attica, he was just a school child who happened to have been groomed and manipulated at one of the lowest points of his life when his mother could no longer provide, making him highly vulnerable to gang life. Ultimately, it only hurt his mother, who did her best to look after him as she lost her only child.

The same can be said for Jamie (played by Michael Ward). As one of the main characters in Top Boy, his arc depicted him as a leader of a gang to provide for his two younger brothers so they would not turn to gang life as a way of providing for themselves and allowed that to be their way to survive life, after the death of his parents. It is a recurring cycle that happens continuously.

The Bane of Amma and Keiron: UK Immigration Services

A critical social issue that was presented in Top Boy was immigration services through the use of the characters Amma Ayittey (played by Jolade Obasola), whom the audience learns to love, and local bad-boy Keiron Palmer (played by Joshua Blisset).

After the murder of her only child, Attica, Amma has deportation and immigration services turn up at her door questioning the legal grounds for staying in the country despite her working for the years she has been working as a cleaner. This ultimately represents the unfair immigration laws against citizens of the United Kingdom who are entitled to live and work there.

Top Boy: Inside the World Of Gang Life | Rock & Art

Whilst visiting the immigration centre with a fellow friend, Shelley (played by Simbi Ajikawo aka Little Simz), notices and verbally expresses her concern that the majority of the people at the centre were people of colour who were being targeted and, as a response, she is faced with the microaggression of being aggressive, but Amma advises Shelley that it is okay because Amma has ultimately accepted that this is her fate – being deported.

Whilst with Kieron, police, immigration, and deportation workers also arrive at his door, much like Amma, demanding it to be opened, and as the scene progresses, things take a turn for the worse. Kieron is aggressively and violently ripped away from the home in which he grew up, intending for him to be deported back to Rwanda.

His neighbours notice the commotion and begin to (rightfully so) protest as he is being dragged into the back of a police bully van. The scene evokes so many emotions in us viewers as we watch someone who grew up in the vicinity be forcefully removed without notice or prior knowledge. 

In current politics, the UK has faced controversy for its stance on immigration and the right to be in the UK; many newspapers recorded during 2020 that a significant concern for the UK’s borders came from “the numbers of small boat crossings was starting to rise” according to the Channel crossings, migration and asylum – Report Summary (2018) under the tenure of Boris Johnson who faced an immense amount of pressure to take action from his Conservative Party peers.

This resulted in the Conservative Party taking inspiration from countries such as Australia, which would move asylum seekers far from Australian soil (which is frankly sadistic to turn away people who want a better life). Fast forward to 2022, the UK and Rwanda announced a partnership based on migration and economics but with one catch: the possibility of no return.

The characters Amma and Kieron face this, demonstrating the socio-political issues of UK politics in Top Boy. Quite honestly, the Rwanda-UK deal is borderline breaching Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which “prohibits torture and inhumane or degrading treatment”.

Top Boy is available on Netflix.