Is 'City on Fire' based on a true story? What to know before diving into the new Apple TV+ series

'The suspense paired with the setting is an unbelievable kind of combination,' says 'City on Fire' star Chase Sui Wonders

Is City on Fire based on a true story? Pictured: Chase Sui Wonders as Sam Yeung in City on Fire on Apple TV+ she's taking photos at a concert
(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Is City on Fire based on a true story, or is the Chase Sui Wonders-led series entirely fabricated? 

We're having a hard time separating fact from fiction when it comes to May's mystery releases. Just a few weeks ago, we were asking, "Is Saint X based on a true story?" Now we've shifted our focus to the new TV adaptation of Garth Risk Hallberg's bestseller. 

The Apple TV+ series centers on a group of New Yorkers from an array of different backgrounds, yet they are all connected to a July 4th murder in Central Park. (Guess the Big Apple isn't terribly big after all.) Before you dive into the new binge-worthy story, which premiered on Friday, May 12, allow us to provide some IRL context. 

Is 'City on Fire' based on a true story?

Although City on Fire is fictional, there are nods to real-deal moments in New York history—plus a few changes worth noting. 

A must for fans of true crime documentaries and coming-of-age stories alike—City on Fire hails from the creators of The O.C. and Gossip Girl, a.k.a. our favorite nostalgic TV shows—the plot unravels when NYU student Sam Yeung (played by Chase Sui Wonders) is shot in Central Park on July 4, 2003. 

She had been watching her favorite band at a club downtown, took a breather to meet up with someone and ultimately never returns to the gig, leaving her best friend Charlie (Wyatt Oleff) to put the pieces together. What's as mysterious as Sam's untimely death is her connection to several fires across New York, to the city's music scene and to a wealthy family involved in real estate. 

"I feel like the suspense paired with the setting is an unbelievable kind of combination," Wonders told ScreenRant. "I think the fact that the tension is so raw and visceral and the setting is these rock and roll, underground environments and these super elite wealthy worlds and how they clashed together—it's impossible not to be gripped." 

'City on Fire' book vs. screen: what are the differences?

The series takes a few liberties from Hallberg's original story, as it speeds up to post-9/11 New York City. It also centers around New York's famous blackout of 2003, what Gothamist coined as a "moment of urban solidarity." 

In the novel, Hallberg story was set in 1970s New York City with a heavy focus on the punk scene, and the infamous 1977 blackout. However, this 25-hour power outage ultimately led to looting and crime. 

"We felt like, while a fascinating period, [that era is] well trodden territory. We were really interested in that post-9/11, Occupy Wall Street [era] in New York," creator Josh Schwartz told Deadline. "There was a massive blackout in 2003. So creatively, that storyline lined up. 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."

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
<a href="" data-link-merchant="Amazon US"" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">$17.80 | Amazon

A mystery novel surrounding a death in Central Park and how a diverse group of New Yorkers from the '70s are connected to it.

Watch the 'City on Fire' trailer:

Who's starring in the 'City on Fire' cast?

Wondering who you can expect to see in the new Apple TV+ series? There are plenty of familiar faces, including Melissa from Conversations with Friends, a member of the Lucky 7 from Stephen King's IT and, yes, Pete Davidson's current girlfriend. Here's who's who: 

  • Chase Sui Wonders as Samantha Yeung
  • Jemima Kirke as Regan Hamilton 
  • Wyatt Oleff as Charlie 
  • Nico Tortorella as William Hamilton 
  • Ashley Zukerman as Keith 

The first three episodes of City on Fire are currently available on Apple TV+. New episodes drop on Fridays.  

Danielle Valente
Digital News Writer

Need a TV show recommendation? Maybe a few decor tips? Danielle, a digital news writer at Future, has you covered. Her work appears throughout the company’s lifestyle brands, including My Imperfect Life, Real Homes, and woman&home. Mainly, her time is spent at My Imperfect Life, where she’s attuned to the latest entertainment trends and dating advice for Gen Z.

Before her time at Future, Danielle was the editor of Time Out New York Kids, where she got to experience the best of the city from the point of view of its littlest residents. Before that, she was a news editor at Elite Daily. Her work has also appeared in Domino, Chowhound, and amNewYork, to name a few. 

When Danielle’s not writing, you can find her testing out a new recipe, reading a book (suggestions always welcome), or rearranging the furniture in her apartment…again.