Semiautobiographical in nature, the work begins with Atlantis: Model 1924, in which a young man, Sam, travels from North Carolina to New York in order to find his family. In the six months after his arrival, he has an encounter with a poetic stranger, in a complex and allusive narrative, as well as encountering historical figures such as Paul Robeson, Hart Crane, and Jean Toomer, and finally rejoins his older siblings.
In Erik, Gwen, and D. H. Lawrence’s Esthetic of Unrectified Feeling, a second Sam, an artistic young boy in the 1950’s, is taught both by his formalist art teacher and by a farmhand and gradually is awakened to his feelings about art as well as his own burgeoning sexuality. Sam muses on what art really is, how its definition has changed over the history, and its importance to both himself and the world.
In the final Citre et Trans, the third of the Sams, a twenty-something bisexual American writer in Greece in the 1960’s, confronts the impact of rape after his roommate brings home a pair of Greek sailors. The darkest of the three stories, including both a homosexual rape and a dog’s owner being forced to kill it, the story is still told with the finesse Delany brings to the entirety of his work.
All three of the novellas contained in Atlantis: Three Tales focus less on external action than on changes in the main character’s consciousness. The work itself is highly experimental, playing with typography, splitting the work into columns to convey concurrent narration, marginal notes, surrealism, and stream of consciousness, in order to juxtapose time, memory, and fact. While they trace the interdepency of memory, experience, and the self, the book met with mixed reviews, many critics feeling that the experimental nature of the text made it overly difficult to extract the story.