According to Touré's New York Times review of the book, Sag Harbor speaks to a new generation of wealthy young blacks. In the wake of the election of President Barack Obama and the success of other African Americans in the national spotlight, this story of a wealthy black teenager depicts a situation – "black boys with beach houses" – that was however paradoxical when it took place, in 1985. The novel is a fictional account of Whitehead's life at that time. The 2009 publication of Sag Harbor coincides with what Touré terms the post-black period, when blacks are less noticed for their color and more for their public achievements.
Colson Whitehead wanted to take up a different path in writing Sag Harbor, a novel named after the town in which he used to vacation with his family. In a January 2009 Wall Street Journal article, Whitehead said "Having written a string of books that were heavy on the ideas and social critique, I wanted to try something more modest and personal." His previous books The Intuitionist and John Henry Days thus are quite different from Sag Harbor in style and genre. Sag Harbor, on the other hand, is a very personal depiction of Whitehead's own life as a teenager, giving the novel a much more vibrant context, as Whitehead depicts, in fiction, his own experiences including young love, young hate, and even pop-culture events of 1985 such as New Coke.