A dystopian meditation on Atlanta's disappearing Afrofuture

Photo credit:


“Me and you,
Yo momma and yo cousin, too ….”
— “Elevators (Me & You)”

A supernatural happening occurred last month. On a warm day in late September, Atlanta honored two of its native sons — one with a morning christening, the other with a mournful candlelight vigil. Bookending opposite ends of Bankhead, the former symbolized bold new opportunity for the storied Westside neighborhood while the latter solidified the passage of an era.Killer Mike looked delighted in photos taken at the Bellwood Quarry that day. He wore a Braves fitted and a smile as wide as the brim. Behind him stood a massive 400-foot drill with a rotating diamond head 12 feet in diameter. Mayor Kasim Reed was present, along with Atlanta Watershed Commissioner Kishia L. Powell, city councilmembers, and a throng of local and national press. They’d all come to watch the city dedicate the massive tunnel-boring machine with the name “Driller Mike,” after the pun won by landslide over cliché runners-up “Peach Beast” and “Scarlett” in a public poll. The $11.6 million drill will eventually cut a five-mile hole from the former quarry to the Chattahoochee River, creating a city reservoir for 2.4 billion gallons of drinking water in a new greenspace twice the size of Piedmont Park.No value assignedEasily the most politically outspoken rapper active today, Michael “Killer Mike” Render, 41, occupies a rare space in pop culture. But none of his regular appearances on CNN or speeches endorsing former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders or performances on festival stages around the world could have prepared him for the surprising news of this hometown tribute.“It was the funniest thing in the world to me,” he told the Associated Press when asked for his reaction. “I didn’t take it seriously, because I’m a rapper. Cities don’t associate themselves with rappers.”Ain’t it the truth.Several hours later down Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, a much larger crowd gathered outside the studio owned by Shawty Lo. Unlike the event held earlier that day, this one had not been scheduled in advance. Neither had the tragic death of the King of Bankhead. The street legend and record label owner Carlos “Shawty Lo” Walker, 40, who founded the rap group D4L, had been killed in the early morning hours after losing control of his vehicle near an interstate exit. No official city dignitaries showed up to speak at this vigil. There were more police cars than members of the mainstream press. But that didn’t stop hundreds from crowding the street outside the studio as cars cruised by bumping his hits “Dey Know,” “Dunn Dunn,” and “I’m Da Man.”I tried driving through Bankhead that night. Not because I personally knew Shawty Lo or grew up in the neighborhood. But because the news of his unexpected passing felt momentous. The timing of the vigil and the christening, as coincidental as they were, felt consequential on a larger scale. I wanted to make sense of it for myself. But by the time I got halfway up Hollowell that night, police had already blocked off the road.In recorded footage, the vibe resembled a homecoming more than a homegoing. Old friends hugged it out. Folks reminisced about what Lo meant to the neighborhood. Everybody put their L’s in the air following a moment of silence. But Lo’s loss wasn’t the only thing being mourned. This was a funeral both for the life they knew growing up in Bankhead and the demolished Bowen Homes housing project where Shawty Lo was raised.No value assignedIn a landscape already bulldozed by displacement, it’s impossible to discount the role an $11.6 million drill will play as a tool of gentrification. The hole in its wake will no doubt ripen the surrounding area for revitalization — a word that always sounds like it’s being used to throw shade on the vitality contributed by communities like Bankhead that shape this city’s identity.There are plenty of things I love about Atlanta. This new air of economic exclusivity is not one of them. We’ve got some real class problems here. Which means we’ve got some real race problems. And nobody wants to acknowledge that in the town long portrayed as the black promised land. But numbers don’t lie; people do. And anybody who tells you affordable housing is not a problem in the income inequality capital of America is lying. Plus, who decided it was all right to have all white people on architectural renderings for new intown condos? How should that be interpreted — innocent coincidence or target marketing?For two decades Atlanta’s been mired in an overblown identity crisis, while constantly chipping away at the very qualities, and subcultures, that have given this city definition. It puts a whole new spin on the notion of ATLiens. For Atlanta, OutKast’s 1996 sophomore album has always been bigger than rap. But now it carries a special burden. To be an ATLien in 2016 means being simultaneously fetishized and stigmatized in much the same way America outwardly loves black culture but inwardly loathes black life.I’ve developed a sort of neurosis about the future of Black Atlanta over the past decade, the kind that can only come from living in a predominantly black city while working on a predominantly white newspaper staff. It’s produced in me an acute awareness of the cultural shift afoot but also an ability to discern the bullshit those in power are reluctant to admit. As the city of Atlanta switches from mythological black mecca to post-millennial Beltlandia — with luxury Krogers located where the inner city used to be — ATLiens are beginning to resemble an endangered species. And I can’t help but wonder if Atlanta realizes how much it’s going to miss us when we’re gone.No value assigned''

“African-Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is all too often brought to bear on black bodies (branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, and tasers come readily to mind) ….”
— Mark Dery, “Black to the Future” (1993)
They alienate us cause we different
Keep yo hands to the sky
Like Sounds of Blackness when I practice
What I preach ain’t no lie.— Andre, “ATLiens”
When ATLiens landed in 1996, the term Afrofuturism had only been coined three years earlier by writer and cultural critic Mark Dery. A reimagining of the future through a decidedly black lens, Afrofuturism often combines bits of Afrocentric cosmology with science fiction, magic realism, and a political worldview that counters popular sci-fi narratives in which black people rarely exist past the opening credits. Brand spanking new to the academy, the term was older than Methuselah in actual practice. It’s rooted in such traditions as the Dogon tribe of West Africa, whose ancient astronomical knowledge was attributed to extraterrestrial intelligence when first uncovered by Western anthropologists in the mid-20th century. Today Afrofuturism encompasses everything from the spaced-out sounds of Sun Ra and George Clinton’s P-Funk dynasty to the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler. The sci-fi author’s 1998 book Parable of the Talents even predicted the rise of a xenophobic Donald Trump-like figure elected president on the strength of a familiar slogan: “Make America Great Again.”Prophetic, ain’t it? While much of Afrofuturism casts escapist visions of a utopia where black bodies are finally free and sovereign, it’s not above spinning dystopian threads, as with the alienation explored on ATLiens.In 1996, Big and Dre existed outside hip-hop’s cradle but also outside of Atlanta’s respectable black middle class. It’s this outsider perspective that gives the album its depth. The genius of ATLiens is how it picks up where the debut album left off — they’re “just two dope boys in a Cadillac” — before going left and totally deconstructing the player persona they spent all of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik establishing. Even the production, split between Organized Noize and Earthtone III (Dre, Big, and Mr. DJ), switches from trunk-rattling bass to dank minimalism halfway through. Ambient droning takes over as the album climaxes on “E.T. (Extraterrestrial).” The stripped-down approach ends in an unmasking of sorts on “13th Floor / Growing Old,” where Big Rube’s opening spoken-word salvo holds up a mirror to the pretentious player’s folly of trying to be something one’s not: “What are we doing?” he asks. “Fooling ourselves, clowning ourselves, playing ourselves. But not being ourselves.”No value assignedFunny how much all of the above applies to Atlanta today. The same inner struggles OutKast mapped out on that album are personified in the city. Atlanta’s still in denial.From being outcasts to forecasting the mainstream, we’ve come a long way, baby. Like them slim-ass cigarettes from Virginia. There’s no denying Atlanta’s legacy as the epicenter of black cultural production. And it’s not just past tense. Every year gives birth to a new crop of mainstream artists who, whether championed or misunderstood, continue to move the needle and set global trends — from the likes of Young Thug and Lil Yachty to Raury and Daye Jack. But it’s bigger than rap. Atlanta increasingly influences everything. Look no further than the cultural cachet of the Dab and the young Atlanta-based dance crews and choreographers whose viral videos lent free swag to corporate behemoths. And that’s a totally different scene than the straight-up renaissance afoot among the arts scene brimming with black creatives, painters, filmmakers, and gallery owners.But in shaping Atlanta’s post-millennial identity, we’ve found ourselves marginalized by the emerging narrative within the city. It’s a staged reality where proximity to Beltline determines self-worth and suburban values trump everything urban. It’s visible in the homogenized ads for new live/work/play developments and civic marketing campaigns that push people of color to the literal margins. When Atlanta seeks to sell itself or attract new business and talent, we’re rarely part of the living story it tells. We’re the stepchild, the historical footnote, tolerated for the time being but designated for permanent erasure. It’s this cultural erosion in the age of #BlackLivesMatter that is the by-product or final wave of gentrification. And it reveals how insidious the market forces behind Atlanta’s whitening have been from the beginning.To debunk the myth that Atlanta has no identity, you have to go back to 1996. A couple of months before the release of ATLiens, another alien-like creation made its debut at the Olympic Games. Izzy was easily the oddest, most indefinable Olympic mascot ever. And in many ways it characterized the folly and tragedy of the Atlanta Olympics. A marketing mismanagement fiasco. A street vending program later targeted for corruption. A bomb in Centennial Olympic Park and the resulting media frenzy that blamed an innocent man for it.Serious stuff. Yet it was Izzy, this colorful confusing character called “a sperm in sneakers” by Time magazine that helped perpetuate the idea that Atlanta had no cultural traditions worth touting. Like Izzy, that idea was total bullshit.No value assignedThat’s because Izzy was created by an alien. John Ryan, then a senior director at DESIGNefx, was new to the city when tasked with creating an Olympic mascot. In other words, he was “seeing things from the perspective of an alien who had just landed here,” as he told Atlanta magazine in an oral history of Izzy last summer. “I was a transplant to Atlanta,” he said.Ryan went out of his way to avoid the Southern clichés, but in the process he discounted the actual substance of Atlanta. No other city in America could claim our Civil Rights Movement legacy or Gateway to the New South pedigree. Instead, we got a mascot that was literally called Whatizit.While gripped in this supposed identity crisis, Atlanta was simultaneously becoming the New Motown. Beyond OutKast and the Dungeon Family, producers Jermaine Dupri (So So Def Records) and Dallas Austin (Rowdy Records) were mastering their own universes. All three revolved around LaFace Records and co-founder L.A. Reid, and together they fed an industry. Considering Atlanta’s penchant for self-promotion, it should’ve been a flag waved with more civic pride. And by most accounts then-Mayor Bill Campbell did embrace the music industry during his time in office. But beyond that the city’s failure to further capitalize on its cachet reflects a historic reluctance to recognize black culture’s mainstream impact.Big and Dre grappled with the angst of alienation following their acclaimed debut, and Atlanta’s story is much the same. It’s the young Southern city that found success by pushing back against the South’s suffocating heritage. Though the New South doctrine was steeped in its own racist ideology, it gave the illusion of progressiveness. Atlanta, always obsessed with self-mythology, bought into its own hype. Thus, the A came of age claiming a “too busy to hate” doctrine while positioned smack-dab in the middle of a state and region still beholden to its good ole segregationist traditions.That separatist streak made Atlanta a worthy corporate citizen and an inviting home to Fortune 500 companies galore. Opportunity brought transplants in droves. Reverse migration added to it in the ’80s, when African-Americans began a slow-trickle return to the South after abandoning the region for the North, Midwest, and West in prior generations. All these new arrivals constantly mixing with Atlanta’s newfangled image of itself made this a city in perpetual transition and rebirth. That, along with our rich history, is woven into our identity, which makes it easy to buy into the blank-slate image of a city that rose from the ashes. But even the mythical phoenix, Atlanta’s official symbol, has an ancient Greek and Egyptian lineage.Which, come to think of it, would’ve made for the perfect Olympic mascot, wouldn’t it?No value assigned“They had a movie of the future called Logan’s Run. Ain’t no niggas in it. I said, well white folks ain’t planning for us to be here.” — Richard Pryor, Bicentennial Nigger“Outta this world like E.T.Coming across yo TVExtra-terrestrialStraight from ATL” — Big Boi, “E.T. (Extraterrestrial)”Three months after its release, ATLiens had reached platinum sales. Beyond the Billboard charts, it was becoming the definitive stamp of young Atlanta. With that album title, OutKast essentially rebranded a generation of Atlantans as ATLiens.It set us apart. ’Kast made alienation cool. The ATL, by extension, became not just the black mecca but the cool mecca. And in a market-driven society, cool is capital.It would take a Gladwellian approach to truly quantify the value of Atlanta’s cool in economic terms over the last two decades. About six months after ATLiens dropped, the author and former New Yorker staffer wrote a piece about “coolhunters” for the magazine. Like Dery’s Afrofuturism, it was a term Gladwell coined after following a couple of sneaker industry marketers who sniffed out trends for major brands like Reebok and Nike by hounding cool kids and adolescent early adopters.Apply that same methodology to cities and Atlanta instantly becomes the coolest kid in school.“If Atlanta’s the black mecca,” says self-branded creative cultural curator Bem Joiner, “we all know that black culture creates cool, and that cool then creates pop culture, and that American pop culture then permeates the rest of the world.”Joiner led a cultural exchange from Atlanta to Stockholm a few years ago. He was blown away by the fact that nearly every Swede he encountered was thirsty for Atlanta hip-hop and pop culture. He and business partner Ian Ford created a T-shirt this year to drive home the reach of Atlanta’s global influence: “Atlanta Influences Everybody,” it reads.But being in the “Mainstream,” as Khujo Goodie raps on ATLiens, “ain’t all peaches and cream.”Today, Georgia’s overall music industry boasts an annual economic impact of $3.7 billion. Rap music likely accounts for the bulk of that, according to a recent Atlanta Business Chronicle story, but it still doesn’t benefit from the kind of dedicated state tax credit the film and TV industries get in Georgia.In the Atlanta Business Chronicle article, reporter Phil W. Hudson calls hip-hop “Georgia’s invisible giant” and explores why the genre gets so “little love from the business community,” despite hip-hop arguably being the state’s biggest global export. In his interviews with Jermaine Dupri and A3C’s Brian Knott, both talked about the lack of support from the two corporations most closely associated with Atlanta: Coca-Cola and Delta. “About half of our revenue stream is built on corporate partnerships and the vast majority of our corporate partnerships are from outside of Atlanta,” Knott told the Chronicle.Joiner calls it a case of “Atlanta vs. Itself.” It’s a point of frustration he’s been voicing for years. He uses the ratings success of Donald Glover’s unapologetically black “Atlanta” show on the FX network as an example. The premiere scored the best numbers of any basic cable comedy in three years.“The world is telling you that’s your thing,” Joiner says. “Now you don’t have to make that your only thing. You can say, ‘Yeah, that’s our thing and we’ve got Delta working with that thing in the same city.’ But to ignore that thing, you’re going against yourself. You’re not doing anything but hurting yourself. And the domino effect of that is you’re hurting black people and black culture, cause we could really eat off this, business-wise. We can’t get out of our own way and it’s very clear.”Outsiders also tend to associate Atlanta with reality TV, trap music, and strip clubs. While those things have inherent commercial value, it’s easy to understand why those elements may not be easy for local civic or business communities to endorse. But their failure to see beyond such flash points also highlights the tendency of those outside the culture to conflate trap rap, for instance, with all of hip-hop and hip-hop with all of blackness, as if there is no nuance or gradation to our artforms, our selves. Reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes, we’re deemed dismissible, even impermissible. When the truth is being the hub of black cultural production means our color palette is wide-ranging.Another source Joiner loves to quote is The Tanning of America. The 2011 book, subtitled How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy, is a marketing savvy memoir by Steve Stoute. Besides being Nas’ former manager, he’s best known for getting cracked over the head with a champagne bottle by Puff Daddy and, later in his career, brokering a major deal between Jay-Z and Reebok that made the S. Carter the fastest selling sneaker in company history at the time.As the title suggests, the book is really about how black culture came to dictate consumerism of every shade in America. But if Atlanta’s willing to sleep on its hip-hop cachet, it hasn’t stopped major brands outside the city from coming in to capitalize — like post-Civil War carpetbaggers.No value assignedI still remember driving down Moreland Avenue toward I-20 in 2013 when I spotted it for the first time. ATLIENS! the McDonald’s billboard read in bold caps, with a Dr. Pepper fountain drink in place of the “I” and supersized fries as the exclamation point. The smaller copy below read: DINE AFTER DARK. My chest instantly ballooned with pride because — duhhh — OutKast, shawty. But it quickly deflated as I considered what it meant that Ronald McDonald’s clown ass was jacking Atlanta’s swag to sell Big Macs. The band was cooler than the brand in my mind. And the identity was ours, not something to be appropriated, repackaged by outsiders, and sold back to us.Though I had no clue at the time, the blog post I ended up rattling off about how “corporations just love co-opting our cool” resulted in McDonald’s removing the billboard soon after. That happened three years ago. I just got wind of the outcome three weeks ago.“We came up with the billboard out of respect and out of love for the music,” freelance creative director and producer Keanon Pearson told me when we spoke over the phone. He was employed by the Dallas-based Moroch Partners when he created the Atlanta ad for McDonald’s late-night menu. I’d tracked him down because, short of having actual stats to quantify Atlanta’s cool, that billboard was the best anecdotal proof of how powerful and enduring ATLiens is as a cultural brand.Pearson was already hip. A native of Milwaukee, he was a freshman at Morehouse College when Southernplayalistic dropped. “It changed the whole scene in Atlanta,” he recalls. “That group kind of defined our damn matriculation through school, if you will.” When he came up with the headline for the billboard, he figured it’d never make it past Moroch’s legal department. Then he had to sell it internally. It helped that the art director he was working with was also a big hip-hop fan.The last thing he was worried about was whether Atlanta would get it. “ATLiens is timeless,” Pearson says. “The name of the album had kind of grown to the point where people in Atlanta considered themselves ATLiens.”And this is where things get sticky. Because it makes me question whether this was a case of cultural appropriation or cultural proliferation. And not just because Pearson is cool and of the culture. (He is.) And not just because I hated hearing that my critique got his ingenious creative nixed. (I did.) But because this seems like that rare instance where a billboard could’ve been one small ad for the golden arches and one giant confirmation of the city’s overarching identity. At least Ronald McDonald was willing to embrace the culture when so many Atlanta-based behemoths aren't.No value assigned“Can a community whose past has been rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures? Furthermore, isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers — white to a man — who have engineered our collective fantasies?” — Mark Dery, “Black to the Future”“I heard it’s not where you from But where you pay rentThen I heard it’s not what you makeBut how much you spent.” — Big Boi, “ATLiens”There’s a scene in OutKast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad” video from the year 2000 that’s always felt like a foreshadowing of the direction Atlanta hip-hop took over the next decade. A shirtless Andre 3000 runs through Technicolor fields of lavender grass in Bowen Homes while kids from the project chase behind him. A Pied Piper metaphor, it ended up becoming more fact than fiction over the next 10 years as rap acts emerged straight outta Bowen Homes and the surrounding Bankhead area.Today those fields are empty fenced-in lots. When Bowen Homes was demolished in 2009, it was one of Atlanta’s last large-scale housing projects to meet that fate. The city of Atlanta was the first in the nation to tear down all of its public housing, scattering folk to and fro throughout the metro. It seemed well intentioned from a distance, but before the last brick fell the prognosis was clear: Gentrification is a mutha for ya. Today Atlanta suffers from the highest income inequality in the nation, yet affordable housing continues to be a major issue. Even the Atlanta Beltline, recently characterized by the New York Times as the transformative project that could solve the city’s history of segregated neighborhoods, lost visionary Ryan Gravel two weeks ago when he quit the board due to its lack of focus on equity and affordable housing.What’s happened instead has been a seemingly concerted effort to exclude certain neighborhoods and hues from Atlanta’s rebranding efforts. Ever watched the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau’s video profile of the Eastside? This is “where tattooed locals, funky street art, and community food halls come together. It’s an eclectic mix,” the stiff voiceover narrates. But you can’t tell that from the visuals of mostly vanilla millennials hanging in bars, frolicking on street corners, and walking the Beltline lantern parade. So what’s missing? East Atlanta, Zone 6, home of Gucci Mane. In fact, the blackest parts of the video are the shots of the historic King Center and the civil rights leader’s sculpture at Freedom Parkway.No value assignedIt’s this kind of absurdity that motivated local urbanist Matthew Garbett to create a sarcastic Tumblr this year highlighting how often people of color are omitted from renderings and images used to advertise new intown developments and events. He calls it, what else, “All White Atlanta.” And for the record, Garbett is white. “You can’t help but notice, I don’t think, eventually, that all these renderings feature almost exclusively white people enjoying the bars or the dining,” he told WABE last February. “I thought that it was time that somebody call attention to that.”It’s as if we’ve become a city obsessed with hiding — or hiding from — certain classes and races. The irony is the Eastside/Westside divide was first popularized in Atlanta by a rapper named Baby D whose late-’90s song “Eastside vs. Westside” was a local hit. His video, as you might imagine, looks nothing like the ACVB’s version. “So what y’all really know about the Westside?/From Bankhead to Simpson Road to 559,” fellow Big Oomp Camp rapper Lil C spits on the song’s opposing verse. When Atlanta’s business community talks about the up-and-coming Westside today, Bankhead is rarely included on that redrawn map. At least, not yet.It brings to mind that classic Shawty Lo line from <a href="https://