Hotlanta: Is the Dirty South Really the Land of Milk and Honey?

Since the mid-1800s, Atlanta's been a mecca for black folks seeking a better life. In the first of a three-part series on the city, The Root takes a look at who's really holding the purse strings in the ATL.


It’s ”The ATL” and ”Hotlanta” to the hip-hop crowd. The Big Peach and Gate City to the bourgeoisie.

No matter the label, it seems everyone wants to stake a claim here. And everyone has a fantasy of what will happen once they arrive.

Atlanta’s mecca image has deep roots. Antebellum ”free people of color” laid the foundation during the mid-1800s when they moved here for railroad jobs and education. Jim Crow-era blacks migrated for the city’s black colleges and nightlife on Sweet Auburn Avenue and Hunter Street

In the last few decades, particularly since the 1996 Olympic Games, there’s been a lot to feed the fantasy. Atlanta is home to celebrities like Tyler Perry, Usher and Whitney Houston. It’s a hub for hip-hop and black entrepreneurship. A large black middle- and upper-class stretches through the city and into the suburbs. The sense of possibility that marks Atlanta fuels outsized rumors of a Mercedes SL Class at every corner and ”baller” homes for all.

Atlanta has been nurturing black entrepreneurs and musicians for a couple of generations now. These days, though, the scale is vaster, and the rest of us outside Atlanta have taken note. The Bronner Bros. hair and skin care empire, for instance, began as cosmetology classes at a local Y in 1947. Now, it’s among the country’s largest beauty product suppliers. (It’s also host to a massive, over-the-top hair show each year, too, which was immortalized in Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair. Each year, 120,000 attend.) Atlanta has a 50-year-old soul food emporium in Paschal’s. And Herman Russell’s vast construction company has been around for more than 40 years.

Never as prominent on the music scene as Detroit, New York, Los Angeles or regional centers like New Orleans, Atlanta, nonetheless, produced bluesmen like Chick Willis and a stream of soul and funk acts in the 1960s and 1970s, from Gladys Knight to the bands Cameo, SOS Band and Brick.

Now, OutKast is here. Ludacris. Akon. Lil Jon. Gucci Mane. T.I. Young Jeezy. The soul and hip-hop scene here exploded in the 1990s, but the groundwork was laid about a decade earlier. At the grassroots, young African Americans from Atlanta got acquainted with rap in New York and the Miami Bass sound farther south, said Matt Miller, author of The Sound of Money: Atlanta, Crossroads of the Dirty South from Volume 2 of Hip Hop in America: a Regional Guide.

At the same time, Atlanta’s growing economy drew African Americans in a return migration, some of them bringing the musical influences they had heard elsewhere and others just bringing their talent. OutKast’s Big Boi (Antwan Patton) moved here from Savannah as a teenager and Chris ”Ludacris” Bridges came to College Park from Illinois, when he was 12, Miller said.

The biggest record labels and music-publishing firms had regional offices here. But local soul and hip-hop got a boost when Jack Gibson, who started the country’s first black-owned radio station here, began to hold his ”Jack the Rapper Family Affair” music conventions in Atlanta in 1977 ”to provide a networking opportunity for producers, distributors, and promoters of African-American popular music,” Miller said.

Then in the early 1990s, LaFace Records, a project started by the producers Antonio ”L.A.” Reid and Kenneth ”Babyface” Edmonds, moved to Atlanta. They signed acts like TLC, OutKast, Toni Braxton, Goodie Mob and Usher, said Joycelyn Wilson, a scholar of hip-hop studies at Morehouse College.