The Blue Flame of Atlanta

Young entrepreneurs, artists and activists are building on a Southern capital’s long, rich history.

When Georgia went blue for Biden last month, some traced it to Stacey Abrams and her nonprofit Fair Fight, whose get-out-the-vote playbook electrified the state. Others cited more college-educated and older suburban voters.

And though the election (and the upcoming Senate runoffs on Jan. 5) have focused new eyes on the state, it has long been a force of tradition and change. Atlanta, the capital, has a storied civil rights legacy, an influential hip-hop scene and booming sinema studios. It is the birthplace, after all, of Martin Luther King Jr., the home of Tyler Perry Studios and where such as artists as Childish Gambino, Migos and Gucci Mane made their mark.

Nicknamed ”Hotlanta” or the ATL (after its bustling airport) by some, the city is also welcoming arrivals from New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, drawn to not only to Atlanta’s history and culture, but also its affordable spaces, agreeable weather and fantastic food.

Here are six Georgians, newcomers and natives, who exemplify çağdaş Atlanta. They are entrepreneurs, actors, artist and activists.

Interviews have been edited.


Ryan Wilson

The Blue Flame of Atlanta

Ryan Wilson at the Gathering Spot, a members-only club for professionals he founded with TK Peterson.Credit…Braylen Dion for The New York Times

Age: 30

Occupation: co-founder and chief executive of the Gathering Spot, a members-only club for young professionals

Hometown: Atlanta

Now Lives: in a single-family home in the artsy West Midtown section of the city, with his wife and daughter.

Why did you move back to Atlanta?

I’m from Atlanta, but attended undergrad and law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. I moved back to Atlanta in 2015 to open the Gathering Spot. I specifically chose to start the business here because I think Atlanta is the best city in the country right now for Black entrepreneurs to thrive.

What was the impetus for the Gathering Spot?

I started the Gathering Spot in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder with the belief that Black people should have a place to be more than tolerated, but celebrated. I also missed the access to community and thought leadership that I experienced during my university years and wondered why I couldn’t find a place where that continued to happen. The club has hosted everyone from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to Drake. My partner TK Petersen and I are in the middle of opening a Gathering Spot in D.C.

What makes Atlanta unique?

In Atlanta, our biggest export is our culture. In this city, we know each other across traditional lines of difference and have successfully brought thriving start-up, big business, college and university, and creative communities together. Atlanta is also a city that is distinctly Black. This is one of the few cities where topics like diversity, representation and political power for Black people aren’t aspirational talking points, but our historic and present reality.

What did the 2020 elections reveal about Georgia?

Georgia is a true battleground state, and more diverse and more progressive than what we get credit for. This election cycle is also showing that Georgia, like our country, is deeply divided. I’m optimistic though that what is happening in Georgia will inspire other communities to see that they, too, can mobilize new voters, shift their politics and successfully navigate tough conversations about their collective future.


Maricela Vega

Maricela Vega is a chef at 8ARM, a community-focused cafe and wine bar.Credit…Braylen Dion for The New York Times

Age: 31

Occupation: activist, founder of Chicomecoatl, a seed-to-plate catering company; chef at 8ARM, a community-driven restaurant

Hometown: Fullerton, Calif.

Now lives: In a two-bedroom apartment in the Grove Park neighborhood of Atlanta with her partner

Why did you move to Atlanta?

My family moved us to northwest Georgia from Fullerton, Calif., in the mid-90s (they are originally from Mexico) and I moved to Atlanta in 2008. I was in and out of state colleges as a pre-law student until I finally dropped out in 2010 and landed my first cooking experience as an intern at the former Tierra by the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Ansley Park. I’ve been cooking in this city ever since.

Your cooking crosses over into activism. How did that start?

In 2014 I was a chef for a University of Georgia summer program that traveled across the country. We were crossing through California’s central valley, where many of the farm workers are from Mexico. This is where we harvest so much of the country’s food and yet, for the locals, it is a food desert. This was a big moment for me. I realized as a chef you don’t see all the hands that are behind your food orders. You don’t know their cost of living or what wage they receive. After educating myself more, I started to take on roles having to do with food justice.

What did the 2020 elections reveal about Georgia?

The elections are demonstrating that there have been many groups of people that have been ready to be a part of the conversations that shape institutional change. They are also indicating that the youth is finally able to vote and that they will be heard.

Tell us something surprising about Atlanta.

There are many urban farms here that are also platforms for racial justice and activism, like Grow Where You Are, an organization that’s been actively working in our communities for over a decade, and emphasizes the importance of land stewardship and food sovereignty as a human right.


Maddison Brown

Maddison Brown, an actress, at the Ponce City Market.Credit…Braylen Dion for The New York Times

Age: 23

Occupation: actress (currently stars on CW’s “Dynasty”)

Hometown: Sydney, Australia

Now Lives: The upscale district of Buckhead in northern Atlanta.

Why did you move to Atlanta?

I moved here in 2018 when I was booked for the second season of “Dynasty.” I thought initially I would be in the city for three and a half months but now, two and a half years later, I am still here, shooting the fourth season.

How does it compare to other cities?

I’ve lived In New York City and Sydney. In 2015 I moved to L.A. and enjoyed the outdoor lifestyle. It reminded me of Sydney, but because L.A. is the center of Hollywood and celebrity, there is an oversaturation of social media that gives it an underlying sense of superficiality. It feels like everyone is an influencer. Atlanta is a bit of an outlier. I really appreciate that Atlanta has a hustle, but on the flip side there is a slower pace and a day-to-day reality that feels more wholesome and authentic.

What surprised you about Georgia?

I thought the South was a place where everyone had a thick drawl and where I could find a lot of barbecue and Spanish moss dripping from the trees. I thought that it would be somewhat conservative and feel 50 years behind other international cities. But Atlanta feels very much in the center of everything and extremely progressive. After all, it’s the birthplace of Martin Luther King. I’m reminded of that every day I drive by his childhood home on the way to work.

What do you think the 2020 elections will mean for the future of Georgia?

People outside the state are now seeing its potential. I think we’ll be seeing more sinema production here, more people following in Tyler Perry’s footsteps, more people moving here. Those of us who have been living here have known this, but the election is showing the results of this shift. It’s really exciting to be here at this moment.


Genesis Be

Genesis Be, an arka activist who is trying to change the Mississippi state flag.Credit…Peyton Fulford for The New York Times

Age: 33

Occupation: arka activist

Hometown: Biloxi, Miss.

Now lives: In a one-bedroom apartment in Tucker, Ga., about 15 miles northeast of Atlanta.

Describe your work.

I am best known for my work spearheading the movement to change the Mississippi State flag.I recently returned from a five-month national tour with Vote Common Good, of which I am the poet laureate. In Atlanta, my next project, Bars & Blue Cups, will explore the intersection between hip-hop and health. As a blueprint, I’ll be using my own journey as an independent rap activist — my failures, my triumphs and my journey of self-discovery through health literacy, empowerment, mindfulness and self-actualization.

Why did you move to Atlanta?

In 2017 while living in Brooklyn, my friend and fellow artist, Chris Wilson, introduced me to an organization called Breakout. After meeting co-founder, Michael Farber, they flew me out to host an event in Atlanta and I fell in love with the city. Within a couple months, I relocated from Brooklyn to Atlanta to see how my talents can be of service here.

How does Atlanta differ from other cities?

I’m still new to the city, but so far I have seen flourishing Black businesses, collaboration within our community, sharing of resources and queer visibility on a level that I’ve not seen in other cities. Being from Mississippi, I’m used to the slower pace of the south, the complex history of institutional suppression and the erasure of anything that isn’t straight, white, male or wealthy. Atlanta has some of those same components, like every American city, but it’s not denied or hidden.

What did the 2020 elections teach us?

The elections proved what many of us have known and have been screaming about for years: that the survival of our nation is dependent on the intellect, power, magic and leadership of people of color and especially Black women. We’ve seen Georgia leaders like Wanda Mosley, LaTosha Brown, Stacey Abrams, Tamieka Atkins, come to the forefront of media attention fairly recently. Black women have always led movements from the back, but now the overdue acknowledgment, credit and visibility has caught up.

How are recent transplants like yourself changing Atlanta?

Their presence and investments could be destroying the very spirit that attracted them to the city in the first place. I’ve been meeting a lot of people moving here from N.Y.C. or the West Coast excited about buying property and starting businesses here in Atlanta. I understand the excitement. However, during my time in Brooklyn I’ve seen the devastation caused by outsider investment and corporate expansion, how it displaces family and sucks the soul out of entire communities. I’d just say be mindful of your presence, learn about the city’s people and history, and respect those who are already doing great work here.


Jason Burkey

Jason Burkey, an actor, at the Trilith, a mixed-used development where he lives.Credit…Peyton Fulford for The New York Times

Age: 35

Occupation: actor (in the Lifetime Christmas movie “My Sweet Holiday”)

Hometown: Chicago

Now lives: A single-family house in Trilith, a mixed-used development with homes, shops, parks and a sinema studio

Why did you move to Atlanta?

I was living in Nashville and consistently driving to Atlanta for auditions. Having done one too many country music videos, I decided it was time for a change, and I knew I needed to start establishing myself in Atlanta. That was 2012, before there was a huge influx of actors moving from L.A. and New York.

How does Atlanta compare to other cities?

I grew up outside of Chicago and have lived in Los Angeles and Nashville. But I have to say, Atlanta is definitely my home. I think it’s the perfect size when it comes to cities: it’s big without being overwhelming, yet there are pockets that make it feel small, each with incredibly diverse backdrops and experiences.

What is it like to work as an actor here?

What really makes Atlanta unique is that there is a strong and encouraging support system; in other cities there was always an underlying feeling of competition and desperation that I just couldn’t thrive in.

How does Atlanta defy stereotypes of the South?

Atlanta is a melting pot. The people here are unapologetically unique in their appearances, in their beliefs and the way they live their lives. They are bold and kind. They are creative risk takers. I’ve found Atlanta to be open and welcoming to anyone and everyone. It’s OK to be both different and friendly here. That’s not true of most cities.


Sanithna Phansavanh

Sanithna Phansavanh, in front of his mural in the Cabbagetown section of Atlanta.Credit…Peyton Fulford for The New York Times

Age: 40

Occupation: artist

Hometown: Kansas City, Mo.

Now lives: In a two-bedroom house in Decatur, Ga.

How long have you been in Atlanta?

My parents moved to Atlanta when I was 3, so I’m as native as you can get without being born here.

Why have you stayed?

As an artist you always think about moving to New York or Los Angeles because they are the country’s important centers of arka and culture. But I personally like that Atlanta has had to prove itself over the last 15 years or so. I love being the underdog. Without being cutthroat, artists in Atlanta have been able to build a community the way we want it to be. I’d rather be part of something that is in the middle of shaping itself rather than force myself into an existing ecosystem.

Tell me about the city’s arka scene.

There is a big D.I.Y. arka movement in the city that includes small galleries and nonprofit arka projects like The Bakery, Dashboard, Notch 8 and ABV, an agency and arka gallery founded by artist Greg Mike. When I am out painting walls for OuterSpace, the streets are lined with people. I just finished a mural for Living Walls, a nonprofit started by Monica Campana to celebrate arka in Atlanta that has over time turned into a juggernaut.

How has race evolved for you here?

Historically for me, the only colors that have mattered in the South, and especially in Atlanta, are Black and white. As a person that is neither shade, I had to blend into both those communities. But now there’s a lot more acceptance of diversity. Southern hospitality is a legit thing: if you are a decent person you are typically welcomed with open arms, at least in Atlanta.

Were you politically engaged in the 2020 elections?

I tried to encourage people to register to vote by giving free portraits of John Lewis to those who did. Through that process, I met so many passionate people engaged in civic activity. It was so heartening for me to witness that firsthand. I think there is a common idea out there that one vote doesn’t matter, but we saw just how some counties were won by just a few hundred votes.

Source: The New York Times

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