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.


Atlanta provided the supply of talent and the demand for it, too. The historically black colleges and other universities swell the ranks of young people in the city, creating a huge audience for hip-hop and spring break events like this year’s highly controversial ”Freaknik,” Miller said.

Hip-hop also found what he calls ”inspiration and incubation” in Atlanta’s strip clubs, which mushroomed as the city drew more businesses and conventions. Lots of songs are set in clubs, like D4L’s ”Laffy Taffy” or the Ying Yang Twins’ ”Whistle While You Twurk.” Because of the dancing at the clubs, around a pole or otherwise, they were also places where hip-hop artists could try out new songs, Miller said.

Atlanta has the largest concentration of black millionaires in the country, and many of them are entertainers, according to a 2010 Clark Atlanta University report on ”The State of Black Atlanta.” Performers and athletes such as Usher, Tyler Perry, Evander Holyfield and Jermaine Dupri are seen as symbols of black Atlanta wealth. Yet Forbes’ May 2009 inaugural list of ”The 20 Wealthiest Black Americans,” included only one Atlantan: real estate developer Herman Russell, who has a net worth of $200 million and ranked 13th on the list. In fact, for all its hip-hop and black celebrity glam, lots of black Atlantans still remain on the edges of prosperity. Despite its concentration of wealthy blacks, in 2008 the median black income for black Atlanta households was $29,033, compared with $86,156 among whites, according to the Clark Atlanta report. And, in contrast to Russell’s wealth, Forbes 2009 list of the 400 wealthiest Americans included five white Atlantans, all with net worths at least five times more than Russell’s. (The sole black on the list? Oprah Winfrey, who tied with 22 others worth $2.5 billion for 165th place.)

”There is a myth out there that Atlanta is flowing with milk and honey,” said Edward Irons, distinguished professor of finance at Clark Atlanta University and the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in finance at Harvard University. ”Yes, you have some high-end communities and individuals out there and that has created a myth out there that is not true.”

Even if the streets aren’t paved with gold, Atlanta, to much of world, is known as home to an ever-increasing number of Fortune 500 companies, and some African-American entrepreneurs are finding ways to tap that community. A few giants, like Coca-Cola, were here from the start. Others moved here over time, and Atlanta’s corporate citizens include every expression of capitalism from Home Depot to Chik-fil-A to Sun Trust Banks.

Tyler Perry Studios, Bronner Bros. and Herman Russell’s H.J. Russell & Co. are probably the best known of black-owned businesses in Atlanta. The other success stories are tucked into the business pages, in fields like high-tech, marketing, even cleaning services and ”vehicle wraps” tied to the convention trade.