With Booming Tech, Culture and Creativity, Here’s Why All Eyes Are on Atlanta

Civic and business leaders explain its renaissance

Atlanta is seemingly everywhere these days—on big and small screens as the backdrop of major productions, on the hottest hip-hop playlists, in the Super Bowl, and in headlines about major corporate expansions.

So what’s in the water? What factors have made Atlanta a success on so many fronts? And what can other cities learn from it?

To find out, Adweek gathered together a roundtable of civic, industry and cultural leaders who represent a cross-section of Atlanta’s most thriving areas:

• Kwanza Hall: Atlanta City Councilman and mayoral candidate
• Frank Patterson: President of Pinewood Atlanta Studios, one of the largest film and TV production facilities in the U.S.
• Jen Hidinger: Co-founder of nonprofit The Giving Kitchen and its for-profit extension, Staplehouse Restaurant
• Miya Bailey: Painter, curator and tattoo artist
• Derek Fridman: Global executive experience director for agency Huge (which also hosted the roundtable and provided audio and video recording support)

Adweek: Let’s talk about how Atlanta has changed in the last five to 10 years. It seems everyone agrees that this city is going through a real cultural and business renaissance. In broad strokes, what’s changed?

Kwanza Hall, Atlanta City Councilman: We have been doubling down on the build environment in the core of the city and attracting innovation—making our city a place around innovation, culture, arts, creative energy and industries. And when you make it desirable, people come from all over the world to be in that environment where their creativity can flourish.

I think that’s been our focus in the last five to 10 years. But also add in the technology undergirding has really helped us, coupled with our universities at Georgia State, Georgia Tech and the Atlanta University Center.

Adweek: Technology is obviously a big part of it; infrastructure’s part of it. But how important is culture to helping this scene flourish?

Hall: Oh, it’s critical—mission critical. So, that’s really what’s driving everything. If we didn’t have the culture, Atlanta would be this truly boring place. But the culture of our nightclub scene, the music industry, the movie industry .. you know, creative energy tends to kind of need a rejuvenation at 2, 3 or 4 in the morning. So we have restaurants that are open, the chefs hang out. And there’s a lot of energy around food and wine and beverage in our city that I don’t think you’d find in as many cities of our size.

Frank Patterson, president, Pinewood Studios: With culture, as a person who looks for talent—in our industry, like all these other industries—talent is key. There’s a war on for talent. So, young people, bright minds that are making a difference in all these industries and spaces, why would they come here? The culture, right? I mean, they’ve got to dig it, they’ve got to feel it, they’ve got to love it.

Derek Fridman, global executive experience director, Huge: Before, Atlanta would create great creative talent, design talent, but it felt like you had to leave the city to go work on good stuff. And I think with a lot of the things we’re mentioning and the things that are happening, we’re finding that folks can design here, build here, create here and actually have a career here—and grow.

Adweek: How have you noticed Atlanta’s art scene evolving?

Miya Bailey, artist: I moved here in ’94, and I mostly moved here because of Outkast, the rap group. It was sparking something. I was going to the Art Institute at the time, So, they would come over and pick my friends to do the outpost for TLC, and all these rap groups getting designers for their album covers. We were so competitive with each other, it kind of started the art scene.

A lot of artists were struggling, so I stepped in. I was always good at business, and I try to mix the two together. It was like, how can I create jobs for artists in Atlanta? We started in ’94 and now we’ve got 60-something employees, giving artists jobs every day. They don’t have to leave the city to L.A. or New York. They can make a really good living right here in the city.

Fridman: Prior to the Outkast moment, I think Atlanta used to make things for other people. We wanted to copy music what was happening on the West Coast or up north. I think, stylistically, we were afraid to share our identity and our perception a little bit.

At that moment (after Outkast), it was like Atlanta needed to stop creating things for other people and we just needed to make stuff for ourselves. Atlanta has something to say, literally, and we now have an environment where we’re making things for ourselves versus trying to appease other people.

Bailey: And we’re becoming influencers of the country. Everybody comes to Atlanta for the music, the fashion, the art. When I go to other cities, I feel Atlanta’s presence everywhere. And if Atlanta’s inspiring the country, it’s inspiring the world.

Jen Hidinger, co-founder of The Giving Kitchen and Staplehouse Restaurant: And for the first time, Atlanta has become this food destination. We’re cultivating this really amazing group of extremely talented entrepreneurs, chefs and service members who really know what hospitality and service look like. For the first time ever, Atlanta is now a destination dining scene. It’s amazing.

Hall: When I travel around the world to cities—Warsaw, Athens, the Middle East, South America—the first thing I do late at night is go to a club. And every time I go, Atlanta music is playing. And then if I have a conversation, it’s like, “Walking Dead! Hunger Games! Fast 7!” People see us in so many different ways, and I think that food thing is also starting to travel globally.

The new film industry and the music industry just keep multiplying exponentially. And then the food and tech scene, creative scene, the artists—all of it comes together. And I think one of the responsibilities of the city leadership is to say, “How do we take this, and nourish it, protect it, allow it to remain honest and authentic, and not mess with it?”

Adweek: Authenticity is an interesting topic, because one thing that keeps coming up when I talk to people is that practically no one here is from here. How do you maintain Atlanta’s culture? Or is the culture somewhat defined by the melting pot of the people who come here?

Hall: We’re a young city. I was born and raised in Atlanta, and I grew up with all the artists from the LaFace (Records) group—Outkast, Goodie Mob and TLC, and many of the producers. But I think we really are like the next generation of a melting pot like New York was years ago, at the turn of the century

So, we’re actually growing because of the new people transplanting. So, if you’ve been here five years, you’re almost a native. In 10 years, you’re definitely born here. (Laughter.) And if you’ve been here 15 years, you’re definitely an ATLian. So, there’s some authenticity that people earn—they earn their stripes very quickly here, because we’re expecting our guests to come and become basically owners of the future of Atlanta.

Adweek: The welcoming nature of the city is also a big component, it seems, to brands wanting to come here.

Hall: Some of the most creative and cultured people come from outside of the country. And having a platform based on being a welcoming city, we have intentionally said, “We’re going to welcome everyone and not follow those guidelines of prosecuting people.” Because some of the greatest companies, some of the most talented artists come from other countries, and they should be able to root down in a place like Atlanta and make it home, but also create jobs here.

Fridman: But it’s small things, too. You go to New York, you walk around, you say “hi” to somebody, and they’re like “Whoah! I’m in commuter mode!” We have offices in Brooklyn and all over, and people come down here, and they’re like, “Everybody’s so nice!”

When you arrive here, you can let your guard down a little bit. You don’t have to act tough. There’s no agendas here. We’re just trying to do good stuff. I think the city has a soul, right?

Hidinger: It absolutely does. We talk a lot about connection, and I think that’s the ultimate goal for what we want to create from the restaurant perspective. It’s more than just food and beverage and hospitality. It is a connection. They may not remember those dishes or that one new glass of wine they had. But they’re going to remember exactly how they felt. And I think that’s what Atlanta as a whole wants to do, too.

When my late husband passed away, I had already been here … he and I moved here in late ’04. He passed away in early 2014, and someone asked me, “Will you go back home to Indiana?” And I remember going, “What?” Indiana’s also home—I have family, I have dear friends who are still there. But Atlanta is my home. This is my place. This is the city that supported me through such devastation. These are now my roots. And I found that to be such a unique perspective and question. I came out of that thinking: “Nope. This is it. Atlanta’s my home.”

Bailey: I feel the same way about support. I’m originally from Asheville, North Carolina. And I moved here from the mountains in ’94, and I moved here because of the support. It was a place for an African-American young male to come and make a living for his family, without the prosecution of anything else going on in the country. It just felt like I was free here, to be myself and to open up doors for other people. It was support. The city backed it. There’s no talk, none of that Hollywood talk. They just support and support and support.

Hall: And it’s still small enough to be real. We’re only 500,000 people, technically, within the city proper. Six million in the metro area. So, we sometimes confuse ourselves thinking we’re as big as some other cities. But the actual city is smaller. So, it’s a big town, but we project like a nice-sized city. So you get the best of both worlds.

Adweek: There’s definitely this sense of giving back in this community. The brands that are based here are very involved in this community. Jen, on a personal level, the nonprofit you’re running really came about through this generosity of spirit.

Hidinger: Staplehouse restaurant was in its origin stages as a supper club that we started out of the home of my late husband and myself. He was a chef, and I took care of hosting our guests and serving. Four years down the road of countless efforts and many brick walls, he was diagnosed with late-stage cancer.

This city—there was a massive population of people who came to our aid. And that was outside of our dear friends and family members. This was an entire industry of people who said: “Let us help you. We want to support you. We want to lift you up.” And it was really based off of that friendship and support that we cultivated this idea that there was something more meaningful for us to do.

So, with our founding board members and a team of people, we co-founded a nonprofit called The Giving Kitchen, which aids in emergency assistance grants to restaurant workers, specifically in metro Atlanta, who are affected by a hardship or crisis. Natural disaster, death of a family member, sickness, injury—we’re able to offer assistance grants to help pay for basic living expenses, mortgages, etc., to help keep people in their homes and able to heal.

Staplehouse Restaurant is a for-profit subsidiary of the kitchen, and we donate our after-tax profits back to The Giving Kitchen.

When that happened to my husband and I, when he was diagnosed, given six months to live, that overwhelming abundance of “Let us help you, we want to be there to support you” quite literally changed our lives. There was a fundraiser that was put on to help us, and it raised $275,000. And then that lightbulb moment came to us. We said: “There’s nothing that’s available to help these people in our community who are affected by the same thing. So we have to do something more.”

We just had our fifth annual fundraiser, and it blew our hopes and goals out of the water. We raised $575,000 for The Giving Kitchen. And these are direct, financial pieces of help that are changing people’s lives. It’s remarkable.

Adweek: I did want to talk about the way Atlanta is perceived on the outside. We’ve talked a lot about the reality of Atlanta and the insider perspective. But I do think there’s a lack of awareness about what’s happening here. Did the Super Bowl help put Atlanta in the spotlight?

Hall: I think, yes. I don’t know if we took advantage of it. We could have done some real cool storytelling in a video ad or something online about all of our restaurants and in-town places to where we go and hang out in the studio. We didn’t do that. One of my friends really chastised me about this. He’s got a restaurant, and he said, “Why didn’t y’all take advantage of that moment to put Atlanta way out there—the real-deal Atlanta?”

That’s the part we could have probably owned. We still have a chance. We’ll use it as a start. You have to take a risk in this kind of thing, be authentic to yourself.

Bailey: I wouldn’t call it a risk. Just go straight for the youth. Younger people have the best ideas on how to run anything. The older we get, the more tainted we get by society, the more tainted we get about what ideas look good.

My business is 10 years old tomorrow, and it’s because I kept young people around me that constantly keep me relevant—constantly keeping the brand relevant, keeping it changing and evolving. People like Coca-Cola don’t have to change. Everybody’s classic. McDonald’s doesn’t have to change. They do change their commercials up, to the point of a certain demographic. But you know, the young people are going to give us the ideas for how to make Atlanta even better in another 10 years.

Fridman: I always say the word “underdog.” I’ve always felt like we’ve had something to prove. “You can’t possibly film movies, you can’t possibly start a business in Atlanta, you can’t possibly open a digital agency in Atlanta.” There’s always “you can’t, you can’t, you can’t.” And I feel like we’ve heard that so many times, that it’s like: “I’ll just show you. I don’t have to talk about it. I’ll just do what I do.”

Hall: It’s like the old idea of L.A. and New York. You can go to Atlanta and make it, in a way that’s probably easier than those cities. You can make it here.

Adweek: Let’s talk about the booming film industry. What has it done to the city?

Bailey: Netflix is using my gallery now to film something. I just know I use the money for good. I use the money to create more jobs and opportunity.

It’s making these locations popular. We were talking about (Donald Glover’s FX series) Atlanta. They’re showing you little monumental places that a lot of people don’t know outside Atlanta, and when you come to the city, you might want to visit these places. He dropped JR Crickets in one episode, talking about how good the wings are. How many people know about JR Crickets outside of Atlanta? Now everybody’s asking me, “I want some JR Crickets—with the lemon pepper!”

So that thing really does help. Walking Dead was right down the street from my shop. Every day somebody comes in and says, “Yo that’s the bridge from Walking Dead!” And that little thing helps small businesses a lot.

Patterson: What Donald Glover did was bring his unique look, his unique vision of his world, to the world. That’s an artist with voice. That happens to be the film industry, but think about all the different art. Obviously, I’m at a studio that does these big tentpole, big-budget features. We’re just as excited and interested in Donald Glover and who is the next artist. This is a mature enough marketplace that it has indigenous artists who can tap into what is now this robust industry that’s here.

Call it the movie business, but let’s just call it media. Media—let’s talk music, short-form, long-form. Media and technology make this, as an outsider looking in, unlike any marketplace I know.

We’re not Hollywood. Not at all. It’s actually very dissimilar to Hollywood. Even though it’s an incredible startup culture and innovation, with Georgia Tech and some of the other institutions, it’s not Silicon Valley. It’s not. My last business was there—it’s not. It is Atlanta.

 

 

Fridman: We have space. We have trees. If you want a mountain, you can find a mountain. You want a lake, you can find a lake. You want beach, you can go to the beach. We’ve got these people moving in, and they’re like, “You’ve got a garage you can park your car in?” You say, “I’ve got one you can park two cars in!”

Hall: And a driveway!

Fridman: There’s grass in the front of the house and grass in the back of the house!

Hall: A yard!

Fridman: You can have those things. You can have those things five minutes from work.

Adweek: What do you wish more people knew about Atlanta?

Hidinger: That we’re a place that’s full of culture and where you can make a life for yourself. There’s community here. There’s strong community here.

Bailey: I travel a lot, so I don’t like the stereotypes they think of Atlanta. A lot of people see this stuff on TV—not (FX’s) Atlanta, that’s the best show. (Laughter.) But outsider stuff like Love and Hip-Hop. They showcase Atlanta in a negative way.

Atlanta has a culture that I fell in love with. Every three or four years, it’s like a resurgence, a renaissance, and it just kind of changes and resurfaces. Atlanta reinvents itself every single time. The rest of the world doesn’t up with it. They might be seeing a vision of Atlanta from five years ago, and they might think it’s present now, relevant now. People need to know Atlanta constantly evolves, constantly sheds its skin and constantly reinvents itself.

Fridman: I think anything is possible in this city, if you’re hungry and you’re motivated to do something. If you want to open a store, open a restaurant, get with some artists—it’s all here, but you have to have that internal motivation. If you do, I feel like Atlanta’s probably the easiest place for you to jump into something and start getting your hands dirty.

Adweek: Councilman Hall, what do you wish more brands and corporations knew about Atlanta?

Hall: First and foremost, that the future really is happening here. And if you’re looking forward in terms of your bottom line, there’s no better place to make that investment to reposition your organization, to turn it inside-out culturally—if you’re willing to open yourself up to that growth.

That’s why I think so many companies have chosen to put their innovation platform teams here, because they can kind of feed off of that energy and apply it. It’s a city for starters, and most companies started out very small, or they spun out of a large company. You’re either growing or you’re shrinking. So, for these companies to grow, they need innovation to be at their core, or to embrace it and invest in innovation—and I think it’s happening here. It’s contagious.