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


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.

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.

While the sheer volume and variety of businesses in the Atlanta area make it a prime spot for any entrepreneurs to try their luck, the large African-American community makes it an especially fertile place for black-owned start-ups. Laron Walker, 32, grew up in the southwest Atlanta neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He left the city for about 10 years, getting his bachelor's at Tennessee State and his master's at Purdue, in electrical and computer engineering. He started his software and web design firm, Sciberus, in graduate school in Indiana, but eventually found the market there too small.


Four years ago, he moved back home to Atlanta. He found lots of companies that complement Sciberus, and there's an ocean of potential clients to explore. His firm has 20 employees and clients that are mostly state and federal agencies. But among the advantages here has been the network of black businesspeople Walker has entered through the Atlanta Business League, one of several African-American commercial networks.

''I had mentors before, but not people who look like me and can tell me about starting a business from scratch,'' Walker said. ''They're not potential customers, but people who'll give you candid advice and who can introduce you to others.''


That kind of network, the kind that whites have had for generations, may be the step up black Atlantans need to start closing the wealth gap that still persists in Hotlanta.

Neela Banerjee is a writer who lives in Washington, D.C.

Janita Poe contributed reporting from Atlanta.