Atlanta nostalgia: It’s the new style

The latest trend in local tees and streetwear is a real cultural throwback

Making a fashion statement was the last thing on Clay Bolton’s mind when he heard the Atlanta Braves were moving to Cobb County. At first, he was just pissed.

“I would sit at a bar with friends and just go over the whole thing,” Bolton says, “and by the end of the 45-minute conversation I’d just be like, ‘Man, fuck Cobb County.’”

So he put it on a T-shirt.

The resulting “Fuck Cobb County” tee, with the phrase screen-printed in script above a tomahawk, has become an underground hit. After initially printing up 40, Bolton and his business partner Bill Pratt have sold more than 400 at $20 a pop since mid-March. The tee practically sells itself, says Bolton, who sometimes ventures out at night with a backpack of tees serving as his own billboard. “When you have that shirt on, people walk up to you.”

While it’s not the first expletive-laced design to launch a T-shirt line, Bolton’s brand of frustration is directed at the erosion of Atlanta’s authenticity. It’s evident in everything from the Braves’ annexation to the takeover of college radio station WRAS (88.5-FM).

Like a rallying cry for the home team, FCC and similarly themed tees and streetwear brands are signs of the new culture war gripping Atlanta. Oddly enough, it’s a war in which those who consider themselves cultural progressives are increasingly falling victim to an insidious kind of progress. More driven by sentimentality than style, this new breed of designers is fashioning a sense of pride for an Atlanta ironically fading out of fashion.

Growing up in northwest Atlanta, Bolton recalls a city in which he celebrated birthdays at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and caught WCW wrestling at the Omni. Then a city with relatively young sports teams, Atlanta’s civic pride was still rooted in its historical ties to the Civil Rights Movement as the self-proclaimed gateway to the New South. While the economic boom that followed in the late ’80s/early ’90s attracted the first wave of transplants, it also gave way to a new cultural identity largely defined by the city’s pioneering hip-hop sound.

“It might sound cliché, but OutKast just put us on the map.” As a result, Bolton says, “we might be the first generation of people that are truly proud to be from Atlanta.” One of ATL Tees’ recent additions, a shirt with the scripted phrase “The South Got Something to Say,” immortalizes Andre 3000’s legendary Source Awards acceptance speech.

Today, classic landmarks live on as mournful T-shirt logos for the ATL Tees brand Bolton and Pratt quickly formed following the surprise success of the original FCC tee. If it seems weird for a young man of 30 to be behind a brand steeped in the kind of nostalgia typically reserved for bitter old men, well, welcome to Atlanta.

“The thing is Atlanta tears stuff down so fast that you’ve gotta be nostalgic real fast,” Bolton says. “It’s a place that’s more than willing to forget its history to move forward.”

There’s probably been no better symbol of Atlanta pride in recent years than the A-Town Down foam finger. Designed by apparel and design outfit Esperanza, it turned the popular inverted peace sign representing Atlanta into a foam hand that became ubiquitous at sporting events and local hip-hop shows.

“It was just kind of a natural, free association thing,” says Esperanza’s Bart Sasso, who likens the foam finger to Pittsburgh’s Terrible Towel. “For as long as we remember, we saw these hand signals. It’s just something you always saw in photos and when you’d go to shows.”

When Esperanza started in 2005, it was largely in reaction to what Sasso and his partners, ATL natives Daniel Barbalho and Eric Kelly, saw as an influx of streetwear brands fashioned outside the city. “We were seeing people in the local scene wearing all these lines from New York and L.A., whether it was Supreme or the Hundreds. So we kinda took it personally,” says Sasso, who grew up in the Poncey-Highland area after moving from Connecticut as a child. “I really assimilated into the culture and style and really fell in love with it and it became my identity,” he says. “We just felt like we were being encroached upon and there was a need for someone to give this city a voice and aesthetic.”

Their first incarnation of the hand sign came in the form of a graphic design on a T-shirt. After it took off in popularity, people started suggesting they make a foam hand. In the beginning, they kept it exclusive in an attempt to uphold the “cool” factor.

“As we got a little bit older we realized the hand is for everyone and for everywhere in the city,” Sasso says. “It transcends trying to put it in the right place. We just want it everywhere.”

The city center was once an untamed playground for Hank Samuels, a Decatur native who spent his youth skateboarding around town. At the ripe young age of 24, he views the new Atlanta with wistfulness.

“It used to be this gritty, almost Wild West, new frontier kind of place,” says Samuels, co-founder of Broken Window Theory Clothing. “It was just such a more wild city when we were young — not that there’s not life in Atlanta today. There is but it’s more controlled; it’s less unbridled.”

That sentiment is symbolized by BWT’s most popular tee: “the ATLasaurus.” It bears the graphic design of a dinosaur wearing an old-school Braves “A” hat with the caption, “the ATLasaurus once roamed the streets of present-day Atlanta,” but “is now extinct.”

BWT is an attempt to “preserve what Atlanta was” by embracing its graffiti and street art subculture, says Samuels, who, along with his partner David Bardis, seeks inspiration for their line in abandoned warehouses. “It’s a lot like stepping into an art gallery, but there’s always rusty nails and broken bottles and maybe a homeless person.”

They incorporate that rawness into their design aesthetic.

“The way Atlanta has tried to whitewash and cover up and destroy all the raw things that made the city the city is just kind of sad,” Samuels says. “All our graphics are kind of weathered and look like they’re chipping away and look like they’ve been through a lot.”

Of course, you can’t talk about the cultural shift in Atlanta without talking about the interplay between ITP and OTP, or that other dirty word: gentrification. But the increased suburbanization of intown is much more nuanced than the dichotomies of race and class tend to suggest.

“Atlanta has problems that the Beltline and Ponce City Market aren’t really going to change,” Bolton says of a recent study that showed ATL was the nation’s hotbed of income inequality.

But he remains hopeful that his hometown won’t forsake its identity.

“There are a lot of problems but there’s a lot of pride as well,” he says. “We’re the first generation that’s really into the city of Atlanta versus the metro area. The older we get we see the bigger picture now. And it’s less about being cool and more about being proud of where you’re from — and I think that is cool.”