Updated: Mar 4, 2021
Most millennials - and a good chunk of Gen Z - can split their childhoods into two different parts: Before and After ATLA. Even 15 years after its release, this television show continues to inspire hundreds of YouTube videos, sequels, prequels, comic books, and incredibly thorough analyses of the psychology of certain characters. To this day, I still think about some of the lessons the show taught me. And like every good geek, I have done my own share of research and obsessing over this completely imaginary land as if I were trying to get a visa. But a few months ago, a completely mundane fact captured my mind: how does Time work in the universe of Avatar?
I don't mean, do they use a boring 12-hour time system, 24-hour, or Unix time. But rather, what moments in their world are so significant they build their sense of present and past around them? How does time pass for Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, Azula, Iroh, and all the rest? Every generation has their unifying moment. For people in the real world, it might be Covid, 9/11, the Housing Crash, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Moon Landing, Woodstock, or any number of generation-defining moments. In the West, the moment that began time was the year 1, the line between BC and AD, a moment so significant that we still count years marching onward from that date.
In the world of Avatar, this moment is the Air Nomad genocide. The year 0 AG marked the beginning of the current world in ATLA, the year when the Fire Nation committed its genocide against the Air Nomads. Time is told the same way, every year AG branded as the time that has since passed, and every year BG branded as the time before the Air Nomad Genocide. That moment was so significant in the world of the Four Nations that is was eternally memorialized in how every character thinks of time; in how every moment in the world is experienced.
So how does this tie together? Well, think of the name of the last airbender: AANG. Although there are a number of explanations for his name, down to the Chinese characters used in the show to write Aang's name (seriously, if you can, watch that video - Xiran does some amazing analysis), there is an explanation I have not seen pop up anywhere else. The name "Aang" actually is an acronym for the words, "After the Air Nomad Genocide." Whether it's canon or not, Aang's name itself is a symbol of the rebirth of the Air Nation. He himself is the legacy of the Air Nation. He alone is what came after the death of his entire nation.
All his kindness and empathy, his heroism, and his selflessness define the time "after." And that is an amazing thing for him and for the four nations. The Legend of Korra goes into depth and shows that not everything is perfect, but there is incredible hope in that story nonetheless, Aang's impact carved into stone in the harbor outside of Republic City - although an unnecessarily deep look into an insignificant detail of that show belongs in a different article.
There is a beautiful simplicity to this, and if it wasn't intentional, then I hope Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino see this...even though they probably will not. It does make me wonder what the next "before times" and "after times" will be. I just hope it a good thing.