How Atlanta Became the New Cultural Capital of America

From Migos and Gucci Mane to Donald Glover’s ‘Atlanta’ and the Falcons, the ATL has risen, and is now dominating popular culture in a major way.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

“I’d like to thank the Migos—not for being on the show, but for making ‘Bad and Boujee.’”

Donald Glover thanking Migos for “Bad and Boujee” during his Golden Globe’s acceptance speech became a pop-cultural moment: a nod from one of the new standard-bearers to another. Glover was accepting the award for Best Television Series – Comedy or Musical for his hit FX show Atlanta. The TV showrunner and hip-hop group both represent the latest wave of Atlanta-based creatives who are reshaping American popular culture through their own unique lens.

And that lens is born of their hometown.

Glover’s Atlanta was the big winner at the Globes, and he took the opportunity after the awards show to continue showering praise on Offset, Takeoff, and Quavo.

“I think that they’re the Beatles of this generation and they don’t get a lot of respect, I think, outside of Atlanta,” Glover said backstage. “Not that they don’t get respect, but there’s a generation, sort of like the YouTube generation that I kind of came up with. There’s a generation of kids that are growing up on something that’s completely separate from a whole group of people.”

“Honestly, that song is just fly. There’s no better song to have sex to,” he added.

Migos, like Glover, fought their way up the mountaintop. The success of “Bad and Boujee” was a major accomplishment, but they worked themselves into that position.

“We took it one step at a time,” Quavo told FADER. “We had the buzz from our hood and Atlanta, then the state of Georgia and the states around us. We was trying to take over our state, and trying to take over the United States. New York started fucking with us real heavy. It got to the fact that research said New York was on us more than Georgia and more than the South even. But we never got discouraged about any of the projects we put out because it was all a warm up. It was all leading to this.”

The unexpected Migos shout-out at the Golden Globes came at an amazing time for all things Atlanta. As Donald Glover was winning his award for his TV show, “Bad and Boujee” was racing to the No. 1 spot in the country (supplanting another Atlanta artist, Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles”) and two weeks later, the Atlanta Falcons defeated the Green Bay Packers to head to Super Bowl LI.

It’s a good time to be an ATLien.

But this isn’t new for The A.

Atlanta’s been a hub for all things cool for a while now—even if it typically has to toot its own horn. Hell, Atlanta has been giving us dope shit since the ‘90s—particularly in music, with luminaries such as OutKast, TLC, Usher, Toni Braxton, Ludacris, CeeLo Green, and T.I. all topping the charts, and labels like LaFace, So So Def, and Grand Hustle all operating with ATL as their home base. The current dominance of artists like Young Thug, Future, Metro Boomin, 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane, Rae Sremmurd, Lil Yachty, and Migos is part of that direct lineage, but Atlanta’s current swing isn’t just music-centric.

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Over the past decade, more and more film productions have taken place in Atlanta. Everything from The Blind Side to The Hunger Games to Captain America: Civil War and Hidden Figures filmed in the city, while TV shows like Vampire Diaries, The Walking Dead and Greenleaf all shoot in Atlanta. There’s still a horde of transplants moving to the Atlanta metro area, with the city of Atlanta projected to double its population over the next two decades. It’s been gratifying watching Atlanta continuously reinvent itself, even since it’s surge. It’s a city that was always a lot harder to define than outsiders seemed willing to admit; a southern city with East and West coast transplants influencing the culture, but with its own idiosyncrasies born of its specific history. Even the rise of Migos came with its own set of uniquely-Atlantan challenges for the trio. Where they are based, Lawrenceville, Georgia, is a distant suburb of the city of Atlanta, about 25 minutes up I-85, and not exactly a part of Atlanta that’s birthed a ton of rap stars.

“The Nawf, that’s the Northside. It’s outskirts, it’s secluded,” Quavo explained to FADER. “If we came out of there, we wanted to make sure we screamed that to the fullest and put it on the map. It’s not like a part of Atlanta, but we made it a part of Atlanta.”

The fact that Atlanta’s hip-hop stars aren’t just coming from SWATS and Decatur anymore speaks volumes about the surfeit of talent and opportunities. And, as tends to be the case with so much in The A, that current boom has one foot in the city’s grassroots culture and another in its cosmopolitan aspirations.

Atlanta has always been an ambitious town—sometimes to its own detriment. Atlanta culture writer Rodney Carmichael brilliantly examined this duality. “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,” he wrote in 2016. “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.”

Nothing illustrates this better than the ascendance of Glover. As Childish Gambino, he carved out a strange and fascinating musical niche that somehow continuously changed, from nerd-rap outsider to neo-funk critical darling. His acclaimed FX series served as both a loving ode to The A and an oft-surreal rumination on contemporary Black life. He’s turned Atlanta into an allegory for so many peoples’ experience—highlighting the city’s culture and atmosphere as a window to something more universal. He’s drawn a ton of mainstream praise by presenting his own specifically Black perspective during a time when Black culture is once again both fashionable and feared.

Atlanta has been the best example of America’s conflicted relationship with Black culture for a while now. Trap music emerged from street tales about drug dealing to survive; now it’s the foundation for everything from dance music to country songs. Migos makes music that springs from first wave trap’s influence, but they connect well beyond that culture’s audience—something that surprised them.

“’Bad and Boujee’ connects with everybody,” said Offset in the FADER interview. “It struck so fast. And it meant so much to me, because I recorded that song myself at home, in my basement. I was home alone and I recorded it myself.”

The Atlanta Falcons are headed to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998. A show about a slacker from Decatur, Georgia, just won Best Television Series at the Golden Globes, and three guys from Lawrenceville just hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. I left Atlanta in 2012 after living there for 10 years, and having lived in Georgia my entire life. It feels good every time The A gets a win—and right now, The A is winning. But as has been the case ever since the 1995 Atlanta Braves, the 1996 Olympics, The Dirty Bird, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and every major moment in the last 25 years, I hope that Atlanta doesn’t lose itself in the successes. Because Atlanta—the Atlanta of Hosea Williams and Edgewood and The Blue Flame and Apache Café and Kilo Ali and LaFace Records and Ghetto Mafia—that Atlanta is an awesome place. I hope it never forgets that.