While Sonny and his brother are fictional characters, their struggle does reflect a common experience within the historical context of living in Harlem prior to the civil rights era.
James Baldwin himself was born in Harlem, so the struggles of this city after World War II reflect many of his own experiences. Sonny feels that he has a lack of opportunity in the city and is not free to follow his artistic dreams. The young men who grow up in Sonny's world face the low expectations of a society where drugs and violence are common strategies used to escape the "vivid, killing streets" of their childhood neighborhood.
Recognized as a talented writer even before graduating from high school, Baldwin understood well the struggle of earning a sustainable income from a creative form of employment. He eventually grew so disheartened with the constantly oppressive reality of living as a Black man in America that he fled Harlem's streets and moved to France. Baldwin wrote that living in Harlem "chewed up" Black people because "all of society has decided to transform [Black people] into nothing."
This sense of displacement and the struggle to live in a city fraught with drugs and violence reflect Sonny's battles. The setting of Sonny's conflict is very much a real place and is one that Baldwin himself felt that he must escape because it presented an "impossibility" for his own happiness.