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The water boy’s hustle

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The water boy’s hustle Atlanta

This story was produced by Canopy Atlanta, a community-led journalism project, and supported in part by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. More than 50 West End community members helped choose this story’s topic this past summer. 

• • •

Baby D is getting ready to start his shift. Few cars are pulling off Interstate 20 at the Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard exit, but churches across Atlanta are letting out, so he knows traffic will pick up soon. He runs for a blue cooler hidden in the woods, which contains a few stray bottles from the day before. After rinsing the cooler with the leftover liquid, he walks a couple blocks to Family Dollar for a 24-pack of water bottles, followed by a stop at Chevron for a 10-pound bag of ice. He dumps it all into the container, pulls up his face mask, and heads up the ramp toward the expressway.

It’s a sweltering Sunday morning at the tail end of August, and the short 16-year-old is wearing a white long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans, tube socks with marijuana leaves on them, and Adidas slides. A line of roughly 15 cars forms at the stop sign. Baby D scans the vehicles to see which ones might roll down their windows with a few bills in hand. Moments later, an older Black man rolls down his car window. Baby D charges $1 for a bottle of water, but the man gives $10 and tells him to keep the change. It’s the first sale of the day.

Born and raised in West End, Baby D has regularly sold water for the last year at the eastbound exit near Morehouse College. Like a lot of teens with summer jobs, his goal is to save enough money for a car. Nothing fancy. He’s seen enough to know he wants something reliable. Maybe a Toyota or, if he’s lucky, a new Nissan. The chance to cruise throughout the city is a freedom that once seemed out of reach, particularly last year, when he spent some time in jail. If he can sell water for just a little longer, he might just be able to turn those car-owning dreams into reality—which, he hopes, might earn him enough social currency to impress girls.

The water boy’s hustle AtlantaBut not everyone is interested. Ten rejections follow. Out-of-towners with South Carolina and Alabama plates look ahead to the stop sign to avoid eye contact. Elderly couples in their Sunday best smile and nod, but don’t dare roll their windows down. Others flash their beverages, hoping to save Baby D a few steps. He passes quieter moments by rapping along to his favorite Lil Baby songs playing on his phone. He mouths words to the track, “Freestyle,” out loud to himself.

They just know I’m gettin’ bigger
They just know a n**** busy
I been runnin’ up them digits

True to the lyrics, Baby D makes $100 in the first hour of his shift. That’s more than he’d make in a day’s work stocking shelves or mowing lawns. Plus, there’s no supervisor to tell him when to clock out. “I can do what I want,” he says. “I got more freedom.”

At that moment, he spots an Atlanta Police Department SUV coming down the ramp. Baby D, now joined by two friends, freezes. He knows the biggest threat to his dreams of cruising down Lowery in a new car is the wrong kind of run-in with the police. That freedom could vanish with the flash of blue lights.

• • •

The recent controversy over Atlanta’s “water boys”—Black teenagers who sell ice-cold drinks to motorists—had quietly bubbled under the surface for months. Last December, a passing driver near Atlantic Station called police about a suspicious person at a well-known water selling spot, possibly selling drugs: a teenager one year older than Baby D standing on a median. When an officer—skeptical the youth would indeed be selling drugs in broad daylight—approached, the teenager ran, climbed a fence, and fell almost 30 feet to the highway below, shattering his legs. The officer never found drugs but noted in a report that two water bottles dropped out of his jacket as he fled.

Months later, even as the pandemic, police violence protests, and a presidential race consumed America’s attention, the water boys broke through the headlines. Shortly after the death of Rayshard Brooks, a young man shot and killed 18-year-old Jalanni Pless in Midtown, allegedly over competition for $10. Around the same time, police arrested a 14-year-old teenager for allegedly threatening people with a gun while selling water in Buckhead. One highway stop over from where Baby D sells water, a water boy twice shot a driver during a dispute.

Between January and July, Atlanta Police received nearly 700 calls related to youth selling water, according to APD data. Whereas some residents criticized the water boys for breaking the law, endangering themselves, and creating public health risks by approaching people’s cars at times without masks, others saw them as a key example of why the public should have fewer police encounters. Supporters argue that in a time when tensions between the Black community and law enforcement are high, and when many youth opportunities are shut down due to the pandemic, kids should be free to make money without any police involvement. Faced with protests over subsequent alleged police brutality directed at the “water boys,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms formed an advisory council to suggest safer alternatives for teens like Baby D.

The water boy’s hustle AtlantaThe council—composed of Atlanta residents, nonprofits, entrepreneurs and municipal leaders, with input from the APD and teens selling water in different neighborhoods—has offered 13 recommendations that urged city officials to recognize the entrepreneurial energy of the youth, collect more data to understand the issue and develop authentic, credible youth outreach opportunities. One of the council co-chairs, Jay Bailey, president and CEO of the Russell Center for Innovation, says he was blown away by the teens’ resolve. Bailey jokes that he was a water boy before water bottles existed, having started his first business at age 12. He relates to their experience of being a young Black kid with summer hustles. Through their interviews with youth and APD, the council learned that the kids are sometimes the breadwinners of their families, and officers don’t want to arrest them. However, the water boys are breaking laws.

Indeed, the report notes that the youth selling water are violating city ordinances and state statutes, including vending without a license, obstructing traffic, pedestrians on or along the roadway. The council also found that hundreds of kids like Baby D selling water have no intention of stopping their sales, no matter what incentives or alternatives are offered. As someone who’s involved with youth programs associated with organizations like the Wren’s Nest, Bailey believes city officials are not going to be able to “program our way out of this problem” and must find alternatives that serve the needs of the entrepreneurial teens.

“We cannot depend on the police to solve our problems with our youth,” Bailey says. “This is a rallying cry for solutions that come from the community, for the community. This is not a one-program fix.”

• • •

The police SUV never flashes its lights. Once their worries subside—and they see that the officer is an attractive young Black woman—Baby D and the other timid teens turn into schoolboys with puppy-love crushes. Being teenagers, stares and catcalls follow, along with requests for her to follow Baby D’s crew on Instagram.

Baby D’s focus quickly shifts back to the ramp. As cars pass by, he’s hesitant to tell me stories about his upbringing or the origins of his nickname. One of the stories he doesn’t mind sharing is how he began selling water: He was in a detention center when he heard someone talk about the big business of being a water boy. “They were saying they made like $5,000 a year,” Baby D said. “So then I started doing it when I got out.”

Tattooed across his neck are the words, “Long Live DaDa,” an homage to the late grandfather who schooled him on how to make money. DaDa was from Louisiana, and a bit of that Bayou State drawl comes out in Baby D’s words. His parents are fine with his occupation, and he’s happy to not ask them for financial help. Selling water keeps him from “striking,” aka robbing and stealing, and beats the job alternatives he says have been offered by the city and others who have approached the boys. And he’s very good at what he does. He once made $400 in a day.

“They were trying to get us to work for Waffle House,” he says. “They are trying to pay us $9 an hour—hell nah! We make $50 an hour up here. We don’t make no $9!”

The money is easy, but Baby D says law enforcement can make it hard. He says he’s seen officers confiscate water, trash coolers, and dump ice. He says police also sometimes take products and supplies from the boys, then redistribute them to homeless men panhandling on the ramp. But in the rare case that a water boy is apprehended, police take them home to their parents.

APD spokesperson Chata Spikes says she was unaware of such practices but noted that the department was originally not in a position to store confiscated water in its property control unit—a policy that has since changed.

The teens see the reward as worth the risk. Baby D’s friend, who goes by Triplecross, is a taller kid dressed in all black who also lives in West End. He explains the rules of selling water. It’s essentially every man for himself on the ramp, but profit shares come in the form of the “bust down.” When a driver offers up bills of $20 or larger and wants no change in return, the water boy who secures the money is expected to split the cash with the people who chipped in for water and ice. That’s why two to three boys will approach a vehicle at a time—because if you’re the first to make physical contact with the money, you’re guaranteed a cut.

“It’s a business. We just ain’t got no store,” Triplecross explains.

“It’s a business. These folk just be scared,” Baby D interjects, referring to the more timid customers, who he says believe everything negative reported about the water boys in the local news.

The water boy’s hustle AtlantaRight then, two new kids emerge from the nearby Chevron. One of the boys, a shorter, louder kid with dreadlocks, is carrying a 32-pack of water. He’s wearing a utility pouch that’s carrying a pistol. It’s not to intimidate water competition. The newcomer mentions a crew of youth known as “Mayhem” who have been terrorizing other kids in West End and the metro area. He needs it for protection, but it’s obvious the presence of more sellers and firearms irks Baby D.

His concern proves valid. Three white cars—a Range Rover, Mustang and Corvette—all stop near the exit and roll down their windows. Baby D’s crew takes off sprinting in the direction of the vehicles, anticipating a flurry of bigger bills to be released. Their hardened hustler machismo gives way to giddiness, like schoolboys seeing an ice cream truck approach.

The pugnacious newcomer with a gun grabs a $50 bill from the Range Rover. Baby D and Triplecross surround him, anticipating a cut of the bust down. That doesn’t happen. Though Baby D felt that a shared exit ramp meant shared profits, this new duo brought their own water, and Baby D and Triplecross didn’t chip in for that.

Baby D grows frustrated at what he felt was a violation of the ramp’s unwritten rules. He grabs the duo’s water bottle pack and tries to throw it over the fence. Instead, it climbs halfway up toward its goal, crashing back to the earth. The bottles spill out onto the dirt.

• • •

Drivers passing by Baby D, Triplecross, and the other teens like to offer unsolicited advice. A woman who often drives by tells them to be safe. Another woman in a beige sedan creeps and barks: “You guys aren’t going to get anywhere doing this!” Next, a red pickup truck with the Batman logo on the side pulls up to the boys.

The driver, a middle-aged Black man named Bernard Todd Sr., offers words of wisdom. From the driver’s seat, he asks Baby D and Triplecross why they’re selling water and what they’re saving for. The former talks about the car he’s been dreaming of, while the latter says he’s just saving—no end goal in sight. Todd hands the boys his card and insists that they reach out to him when they want to start a business or simply just need help.

A southwest Atlanta resident, Todd has three of his own businesses and, as a youth, worked odd jobs from delivering groceries to mowing lawns. His sons were the subject of a documentary on YouTube about Atlanta “water boys”: The oldest used his water hustle to invest in a mobile gaming truck, which is now his main source of income. So, that’s why Todd Sr. offers mentorship on everything from how to dress, what to wear, when to approach a vehicle, and how to speak with customers. He’s even spoken up on behalf of “water boys” at Atlanta City Council meetings.

“All of these young boys ain’t trouble,” he says. “They just don’t have the right guide and nobody to show them, so they’re learning from each other.”

But West End residents like Vonda Henry have had enough. The former president of West End Neighborhood Development (WEND) is tired of the litter she attributes to the youth selling water, as well as their “aggressive” sales tactics. She doesn’t believe most of the boys selling water in West End actually live there and questions their motivations. Unsurprisingly, Henry has never purchased water from the boys.

“They don’t realize that they’re being allowed to be there,” she says. “If the neighborhood decides that they don’t want them there, they will not be there, because the law is not with them.”

The water boy’s hustle AtlantaFollowing the advisory council’s report, city and police officials are now considering which solutions to pursue. They found one successful model up in Baltimore, where, last year, officials launched the Squeegee Alternative Plan, designed to curb young men of color who were squeegeeing car windshields downtown. The program developed growth plans for the youth cleaning cars, assigned mentors, facilitated reengagement in school—all to get the kids off the corner. Within 10 months, the effort led to a decrease in 911 calls and an uptick in kids switching street hustles to full-time jobs. A few miles east of West End, officials in DeKalb County are considering a similar youth entrepreneurship program for those selling water. Instead of writing tickets or arresting teens, police would send them to a six-week training program that comes with a stipend.

In Atlanta, Bailey says local organizations such as Helping Empower Youth (HEY!) are also doing their part. Recently, the nonprofit adopted the corner of Ivan Allen and Joseph E. Boone boulevards, where adults help guide young boys in making water sales. There’s also the Corner Boys program from I’m A Father F1rst, which provides an entrepreneurship curriculum for what they called “bottle boys.” Like mentors in those programs, Todd listens patiently and doesn’t get discouraged when Baby D can’t imagine any other legal hustle that would make him stop selling water. Todd says he gets it. He sees himself in Baby D. Still, he reminds the teens that the goal should be to work their way off the exit ramp.

“Even if you’re making $30 an hour, it still doesn’t do anything to a person who doesn’t have guidance on what to do with it,” Todd says. “We can be of guidance to them.”

• • •

Since school started in early September, Baby D has juggled virtual classes and selling water, which he’ll keep doing until the weather cools. He just needs enough money to get him through to the spring. He doesn’t have a favorite subject because school is more about potential interactions with girls than what’s happening on Zoom, he says. As a young man making money independently, he’s confident in his game even if girls from class have seen him on the exit ramp and make jokes about it later.

Baby D looks down at Todd’s business card. Once the red truck drives away, the teen tosses it to the dirt ingrained with bottle caps and used condoms. He and Triplecross say folks like Todd, Bailey, and others are simply “trying to flex cuz they on camera”—in front of a reporter and photographer—and that ultimately they “want all the water boys incarcerated.”

A homeless man approaches carrying a 24-pack and a bag of ice over his shoulders. It’s Baby D’s re-up. The man drops the goods on the ground. Baby D hands over $3 and tells him, “Thank you, Unc,” short for Uncle. It’s a term of endearment given to anyone older than the boys. He’s making a killing today because, thanks to the cheap labor, he hasn’t needed to leave the spot yet.

Before he drove away, Baby D told Todd that he’ll most likely keep selling water. It’s easier and safer than some of his previous gigs. “I used to steal cars,” he admits. “If they stop this, then I’m going back to doing what I used to do.”

The water boy’s hustle AtlantaFor now, Baby D isn’t particularly concerned with news headlines, or how schoolmates, residents, and would-be mentors judge his means to make money. He doesn’t dwell on what the city’s plans to address water boys are, or if the police will continue to randomly crack down on him and friends. Like any other teenager, he just wants financial independence from his parents, and a chance to talk to crushes in person once again.

How Donald Albright became Atlanta’s podcast kingmaker

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It wasn’t Donald Albright’s best idea.

At a conference in Anaheim in 2017, Albright and his business partner, Payne Lindsey, were trying to drum up interest in their fledgling podcast company. Podcast Movement is hailed as one the largest and most important gatherings of podcast producers in the world, and the duo figured they’d have no problem fitting in. Riding a wave of success from his and Albright’s 2016 true-crime surprise megahit, Up and Vanished, Lindsey was scheduled to give a talk called “I Am Not a Podcaster,” about rejecting the industry norms for success.

Albright figured he’d bring his own brand of unorthodoxy to the event. A 20-year music veteran, he went, in his own words, “straight 2001 Miami street team.” This included hiring a promo crew of young, attractive women wearing T-shirts that read: “If I Vanish Call Payne Lindsey,” with the podcast’s tip line underneath. Then, there was the box truck outside the conference headquarters displaying the show’s video trailer on a massive screen and blasting the sound out of loudspeakers. Albright didn’t make a statement—he made a scene.

“We got some shit for it,” he admits.

The podcast industry of 2017 was at that point in the late-adolescent phase of its mainstream success (just three years past the cultural flashpoint that was Serial). And it was populated largely by people unaccustomed to such hip-hop marketing tactics—a crowd more NPR than NWA.

Even beyond the conference, there was backlash. Some Instagrammers groaned in reaction to photos of the T-shirts and other promotional swag posted to Up and Vanished‘s profile. “I was such a fan at the beginning,” wrote @kgraff2016. “The exploitation at this point is beyond sad. Please stop.” Another user, from Ocilla, Georgia, the setting of the unsolved murder the podcast investigates, added: “I wish you would just leave my hometown alone instead of thinking it’s a fun story that you can make a profit off of.”

Today, Albright looks back on that experience not with regret but with the knowledge that, for once, his marketing instincts failed him. He recounted the story earlier this year while reclining in a leather desk chair on the eighth floor of Ponce City Market. In the corner of the conference room, his publicist was silent, checking her phone. The room is the centerpiece of Industrious Atlanta, a coworking space that serves as the headquarters for Tenderfoot TV, the company Albright started with Lindsey in August 2016.

In Tenderfoot TV’s four years, the podcasting business has grown exponentially—a rare success story in a larger media landscape that’s rapidly contracting. At last count, in the U.S. alone, some 62 million people listen to podcasts weekly—up from 19 million in 2013. Major media players like Spotify, Sony, and Amazon are sinking hundreds of millions into podcast-related acquisitions, with Spotify alone dropping $500 million last year (though listenership and revenue, it should be noted, have slowed in the pandemic). Podcast advertising revenue was expected to surpass $1 billion for the first time in 2020, though the recent economic downturn will likely prevent that; regardless, the industry still will see substantial growth compared to its $479 million in revenue in 2018.

Keeping up with and often surpassing the industry’s rapid pace of growth, Tenderfoot TV has released a string of successful true-crime podcasts—Up and Vanished, the Monster series, To Live and Die in L.A.—that have amassed more than 500 million downloads and made the company highly profitable. (Albright is mum on specifics.)

Lindsey, who hosted Up and Vanished and Tenderfoot’s follow-up podcast Atlanta Monster, about presumed serial killer Wayne Williams and the infamous Atlanta Child Murders, is the more public face of Tenderfoot TV. But as president and cofounder, Albright is its behind-the-scenes mastermind, a marketing wiz who has leveraged the company’s success into partnerships with podcast giants such as HowStuffWorks, Audible, and iHeartRadio. He also brokered a television deal with Oxygen, a two-book deal with HarperCollins, and a podcast with HBO hosted by Insecure’s Issa Rae.

“It sounds crazy, but it really hasn’t set in—because I’m scared to act like we made it,” Albright says of Tenderfoot’s current success.

Five years ago, Albright was feeling burned out, struggling to find his place as an underappreciated player in Atlanta’s cutthroat hip-hop scene. As it turns out, the hustle he honed in the music business served him even better in the podcast one. He now runs a multimillion-dollar media company with a diverse portfolio and a lofty mission: Find compelling storytellers, unearth great and often overlooked narratives, and help establish Atlanta as a national podcast hub in the process.

When Albright visited Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic Games, he was an 18-year-old from the Bay Area who was wowed by the hip-hop scene, the HBCU experience, and the beautiful Black women he saw walking around the West End. A year later, he transferred from San Jose State University to Clark Atlanta, where he studied business management. At the time, Atlanta-based labels So So Def and LaFace Records were growing in influence, and the city’s hip-hop and R&B scene shimmered with platinum-certified stars like Xscape, Da Brat, TLC, and OutKast.

After a chance meeting with a LaFace employee at a party in 1997, Albright offered to work for the label for free. (They took him up on it.) A year later, Albright cofounded a music-promotion company, D-Day Entertainment, and LaFace paid for its services. Albright’s initial client list included OutKast and Goodie Mob; he’d accompany them to in-store and club appearances and run promotion for “all the little chitlin circuit tours,” he says. Eventually, Albright was hired full-time at LaFace to manage the label’s street teams. At the same time, D-Day Entertainment started doing similar promotional work for Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, where Albright’s responsibilities included driving rappers such as Beanie Siegel around Atlanta and other Southeastern cities in—you guessed it—trucks wrapped in promotional art and blasting loud music from speakers, to get potential fans hyped about a soon-to-drop album.

“I was the guy who was 20 years old, in the snow on Campbellton Road putting up posters,” Albright says. “I had to beat the So So Def team to get to that pole on MLK and Northside. I took that mentality with me into podcasting. We always wanted to beat everyone to the punch and do what no one else was doing.”

Albright’s marketing work through D-Day Entertainment later caught the eye of Henry “Noonie” Lee, manager of platinum producer Jazze Pha. As far as first impressions go, Lee wasn’t exactly wowed by Albright. “He had long hair in a bun, a durag on, and these ugly-ass pirate-looking hoop earrings,” Lee recalls. But Lee soon realized that the young upstart was legit; Albright was planning, organizing, and overseeing everything from video shoots to recording sessions to international tours.

It also dawned on Lee that Albright possessed a level of patience that was rare in hip-hop industry circles—and that Albright’s willingness to look past initial setbacks served him well. “There were times I may have wanted to give up on an artist or producer, but he had a long-term plan in mind,” Lee says. “He knew how it could work, and most of the time the shit did work.”

Albright and Lee formed a management company, which took on a Def Jam signee from New Orleans named August Alsina. It was while working with Alsina that Albright met the person who, strangely enough, would change the course of his career: a singer and occasional parody rapper named Payne Lindsey. The two loosely knew of each other; one of the artists Albright was working with had been featured on a song by Lindsey’s now-defunct (and, some might say, eternally embarrassing) hybrid rock-rap outfit, Right Side of the Tree. Albright jokes that if you want to give yourself a laugh, check out the bro-tastic frat anthems and corresponding videos of Lindsey’s past.

Lindsey, fortunately, had moved on from trying to be a musician to making music videos. “I’m sitting at Houston’s with Noonie, and I get an email, and it’s from Payne Lindsey saying he wants to do a music video for August Alsina,” Albright says. One of the guys sitting with them that day in 2012 pointed out that Lindsey was the singer of Right Side of the Tree. Albright saw past that, perhaps when few in his seat would, and recognized in Lindsey’s director reel a young filmmaker with no big-name clients but some real potential. He also saw a videographer he could actually afford.

Albright paid Lindsey $2,000 for his work on the video for the 2013 Alsina single “Downtown.” He wasn’t nervous about working with Lindsey, but Albright didn’t immediately embrace him, either. “At first, I was saying, I’m taking a chance on you as a video director,” he says of their first meetings. “This is how I want the video to be. I want you to shoot it like this. This is the concept.”

Albright was surprised at how easy it soon became to trust Lindsey and his vision: “I started to realize, after a couple of videos, that I should probably just listen to this guy. He knows what he’s doing, he’s getting it done for the right price, and his ideas are better than my ideas.”

With Albright serving as Alsina’s manager and Lindsey shooting videos and working as the artist’s documentarian—and with Alsina opening on world tours for Usher and Chris Brown—Albright and Lindsey were together often and bonded during the tour’s downtime in places like Dubai and London.

But as their working relationship grew stronger, their love for the music industry started to fade. Albright felt as though artists didn’t fully appreciate the work he did for them through D-Day Entertainment. “We were basically putting $100,000 down on these young kids’ careers, hoping that we would one day get it back” when they blew up, Albright says. That’s not what happened. “It’s like amnesia sets in when success sets in,” he says of the artists. “So, I was like, I can’t do this anymore.”

Then, in 2016, Lindsey reached out to him with an idea: Let’s make an audio documentary about a Georgia cold case. Albright had taken a chance on Lindsey years ago, and it paid off. Why not try again?

Neither of them knew exactly what they were getting into, but their respect for each other was enough for them to give it a shot. Asked why he reached out to Albright and not someone with prior podcast experience, Lindsey says: “I thought that he would trust me with something that he maybe wouldn’t understand yet—or that no one understood.”

Donald Albright Payne Lindsey
Albright and Tenderfoot TV cofounder Payne Lindsey at the 2018 National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas

Photograph by Getty Images

The success of 2016’s Up and Vanished was a surprise to the media, the podcast community, and, most of all, its creators. Some questioned how novice podcasters could achieve such a huge listenership—150 million downloads, which landed them at No. 18 on iTunes. (The first season of Serial—widely considered the most listened-to podcast in the world—garnered 300 million downloads.) The true-crime, 24-episode saga, hosted by Lindsey, investigated the disappearance a decade earlier of school teacher and beauty queen Tara Grinstead in the small town of Ocilla, Georgia.

Lindsey and Albright had no podcast or journalistic experience, which made Up and Vanished intriguing in some ways and amateurish in others. “Lindsey’s narrative authority feels neither rock solid nor entirely suspect,” Sarah Larson wrote in a 2018 New Yorker article. “He’s figuring it out, and you’re figuring him out, too.”

A large part of figuring it out, for both Lindsey and Albright, was embracing their flaws. “We got to make our mistakes in front of millions of listeners,” Albright says. Of course, they didn’t know they’d have quite so many listeners. Lindsey had been writing, recording, and editing the show “not knowing if one person or a thousand or a million people are going to listen to this,” Albright says.

After 10 episodes, more than 15 million people had tuned in.

That massive listenership raised the stakes for their next podcast. “You do things differently when you know you’ve got this huge platform,” Albright says. The balancing act, he says, is between “how to be as sensitive as possible” with controversial subject matter “and how to still take risks—because the risks, when they pay off, can pay off in a big way.”

Though he hadn’t listened to a podcast until he helped produce Up and Vanished, Albright quickly familiarized himself and his team with the industry’s power players. Once Tenderfoot proved itself with its first podcast, Albright was able to forge a collaboration with Stuff Media, whose HowStuffWorks podcasting arm was among the first to generate substantial revenue with a podcast. Stuff Media, which was acquired in 2018 for $55 million by iHeartMedia (the largest commercial podcast publisher in the world), has a slate of podcasts that generate 61 million downloads and streams per month.

It turns out Tenderfoot’s dubious debut at Podcast Movement in Anaheim hadn’t been a total bust: Albright’s stunts had caught the attention (how could they not?) of a few Apple reps in the crowd. Those reps helped plant the seed of the Stuff Media collaboration: They alerted Albright to the perhaps obvious fact that HowStuffWorks is located in the very same building as Tenderfoot.

Albright and Lindsey began to work with Jason Hoch, who at the time was chief content officer for Stuff Media’s podcast division. Hoch remembers when it felt like the only Atlanta-produced podcasts getting recognition outside of the city were Stuff Media’s utilitarian shows: Stuff You Should Know and Stuff You Missed in History Class.

“We really didn’t have a ton of data on where we sat in the world,” Hoch says. “About five years ago, we got real information, and we were actually one of the biggest players out there. So, we really had something that was becoming a business, that was starting to make money, that had real audiences.”

At the time Hoch met Lindsey and Albright, he specifically was looking to explore forms of audio storytelling that differed from Stuff Media’s more practically themed shows. Lindsey was also looking for his next case to dig into. It was Hoch who suggested Lindsey examine the already vastly explored story of Wayne Williams and the Atlanta Child Murders. Despite having grown up in Georgia, Lindsey, incredibly, was unfamiliar with the serial killings.

“We just went out there and wanted to tell a story that was bigger than Atlanta,” Hoch says. “To be able to excavate those stories and kind of bring them to the modern-day audience, I think, is just really important.”

The resulting podcast, Atlanta Monster, would be a 50/50 partnership between the two companies. Teaming up with Stuff Media gave Tenderfoot the credibility and resources they needed, Albright says. Taking what he’d learned while making Up and Vanished, Lindsey reinterviewed witnesses, experts, and law-enforcement officials involved in the case, as well as victims’ families and Wayne Williams himself. With Hoch’s guidance, Lindsey could focus on being creative while Albright zeroed in on business and future partnerships.

“He’s a marketing genius,” Hoch says of Albright. “I think his background in the music business has prepared him well for all the kinds of things he wants to do in the podcast space.”

Hoch later left HowStuffWorks to take over the newly formed podcast division of Santa Monica–based Imperative Entertainment, the movie studio behind films like The Mule, All the Money in the World, and the forthcoming Scorsese/DiCaprio collaboration, Killers of the Flower Moon. “When people talk about podcasts, the first thing out of their mouth is probably going to be New York or L.A., and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Hoch, who still lives in Atlanta. “But we’ve actually got some substantial talent and shows and audience right here.”

As with Up and Vanished, what made Atlanta Monster resonate was the real-time element of the podcast, including Lindsey issuing calls for members of the Atlanta community to speak up, especially those who felt that their experiences related to the Atlanta Child Murders hadn’t been heard. A notorious, four-decades-old case felt brand new with Lindsey helming the narrative—probably because, to Lindsey, the case was brand new.

Hoch was immediately impressed with his coproducers’ gutsiness in telling the story—including Lindsey throwing a dummy body into the Chattahoochee River to recreate the series of events leading to Williams’s arrest. “It’s their I don’t care if this is comfortable or uncomfortable—I’m going to knock on whoever’s door, and I’m going to confront them for the truth–type of attitude,” Hoch says. “I appreciate Donald and Payne being fearless about the approach to storytelling and not playing it safe all the time.”

If not for Albright, Lindsey says, it would have been hard to keep going on this particular story. Albright isn’t just the executive producer; he’s Lindsey’s voice of reason. “Having someone like that close to me, defending me at times, strengthened me,” Lindsey says, “and strengthened what we can do together.”

After its 2018 launch, Atlanta Monster amassed more than 70 million downloads, held the top spot on iTunes for most of its 10-week run, and made Tenderfoot TV a household name. It also drew criticism. Slate called Lindsey “a credulous, self-important bro wandering around [the] city and opening old wounds” and panned Atlanta Monster: “It’s frustrating to listen to a podcast reap reflexive accolades from critics and on social media for repeating observations that have been part of the conversation about the crimes from the very beginning. Simply stating that racism, direct and structural, affected how the Atlanta child murders were investigated and covered is not enough. The Atlantans terrorized and bereaved by the child murders of 1979–1981 deserve a real investigation.”

A year after the last episode was released, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that the Atlanta Police Department would reexamine evidence tied to the murders. Whether Atlanta Monster had any effect on the mayor’s decision is debatable. Albright bristles at the implication that other, then-upcoming projects focusing on the case—such as the second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter and HBO’s docuseries Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children—might have persuaded the mayor.

“What I do know is that after listening to our podcast, [APD] granted us access to all those 60,000 files before anyone else,” he says. “Before any of these documentaries, before the press conference that Mayor Bottoms and the chief of police had, we looked at those files.”

Emmy Award–winning television journalist Tony Harris has a career that spans 40 years, including six with CNN and three with Al Jazeera America. After the latter shut down in 2016, Harris was looking for a new challenge. A few years later, when iHeartMedia approached his team about hosting the new season of Tenderfoot’s Monster podcast, he knew it was just the opportunity he was looking for.

Albright wanted a seasoned journalist to take an investigative journey into the 2002 sniper shootings in the Washington D.C. area—and Harris, who’d been a news anchor in Baltimore at the time of the shootings, was looking for a story on which he could spend ample time. He’d grown weary of the quick-hit coverage dictated by the Trump-dominated 2019 news cycle.

“So much of cable news is tied up in ‘panel television’ right now,” Harris says. “How many people can sit around a desk to discuss the reporting that the New York Times is doing? There are so many stories that are being left on the sidelines because cable news is obsessed with Trump.”

To Harris, the ideal counterpoint to that vicious news cycle was to use a new medium like podcasting to bridge generational gaps in journalism. “To have a platform where old-head journalists like me and young people who are coming out of journalism schools get an opportunity to learn how to produce deep-dive storytelling is exciting,” he says.

The 15-episode podcast Monster: DC Sniper, which debuted in January and ran through early April, was among the most sophisticated of the nine podcasts Tenderfoot has produced. That it failed to garner as many downloads as Up and Vanished, Atlanta Monster, To Live and Die in L.A., and, narrowly, 2019’s Monster: The Zodiac Killer speaks not to its quality but to the increasing saturation of the podcast market. (There were 27 percent more podcast episodes released in 2019 than 2018.) Monster: D.C. Sniper also was the last podcast Tenderfoot released before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of which on the podcast industry remain to be seen. But it still allowed Tenderfoot to break new ground.

With Monster: D.C. Sniper, Harris brought his journalistic pedigree to the table, and Albright was able to impart his knowledge of podcasting to help the self-proclaimed “old dog” learn new tricks. One example: Albright coached Harris on toning down his anchorman voice and finding a more relatable and subtle approach. But he still wanted Harris to feel like he had control. “I try to give every host the same creative freedom that Payne had, because it’s going to be their voice, their investigation, their case—and I want them to feel confident and comfortable both in how they’re reading their ads and how they talk about these victims,” Albright says.

Albright was able “to say to me in a very encouraging way, Look, you got the chops to do it. So, let’s show you how to maximize your chops in this space, and in intimate storytelling,” Harris says. “Not many people are willing to step up and give you that kind of instruction and work with you to that extent.”

That willingness, Harris says, will ultimately reap even greater rewards. “I think it’s just the beginning for them,” he says of Tenderfoot. “I will also say this: They’re one of the teams that’s going to make Atlanta a real hub for podcasting.”

Back in the conference room at Industrious, Albright’s phone was buzzing. He was in the midst of talks about potential projects with This Is Us star Milo Ventimiglia, Insecure‘s Rae (that one later got green-lit), and hip-hop journalist and radio vet Sway. Albright says he’s also had very loose discussions with André 3000’s manager about doing something.

Creatively, Albright is in a groove. The Up and Vanished docuseries on Oxygen, hosted by Lindsey, premiered in February, with each episode featuring a different missing-person case. In June, Albright and Lindsey launched new episodes of their 2019 fact-fiction hybrid show, Radio Rental, a collaboration with Rainn Wilson in which real-life horror stories are narrated by a made-up video-store clerk. Tenderfoot TV is working on new podcasts with iHeartRadio, including one that digs through mountains of archival material on the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and is launching a content partnership with Amazon’s Audible.

Albright says there have been offers to buy Tenderfoot TV, but they’re not actively trying to sell. “The end game is ownership and control—either having complete control or joint control but never to be working for anyone,” he says. “If we’re a partner with an individual or if it’s a $100-million company, I want to be looked at as an equal, not as an employee.”

Of course, many of Tenderfoot’s grand plans have been somewhat tempered by the pandemic. Field production has been cut back, and advertisers are tabling buys until later in the year and into 2021. As far as audience, Albright suspects there’s less of an appetite for stories about murder and mayhem when it feels like the world is approaching an episode of The Walking Dead. As of June, it seemed there was limited appetite for anything unrelated to COVID-19, racial justice, and the presidential election. “We’re competing, not just with the general podcast market,” Albright says, “but with very topical, news-related podcasts.”

Still, Tenderfoot’s nine-person staff remains intact; Albright says he doesn’t foresee any layoffs or furloughs. They’re having discussions about finding a new workspace—outside of a coworking environment—when the time comes to return to an office, because they need more space. On a personal level, working from home has been tough on Albright, a father of two, who has a daughter with autism spectrum disorder.

Beyond his work with Tenderfoot, Albright is contributing as much as he can to the larger podcast community. He was deeply engaged in the formation of the Podcast Academy, a national organization devoted to recognizing excellence, establishing best practices, and offering networking opportunities for podcasters. As a founding board member and vice-chairperson, Albright has been crucial in bringing together aspiring minds and podcast leaders in an effort to create more opportunities for those with an interest in the craft.

His involvement in the organization, whose board of governors includes Apple’s global head of podcasts and Spotify’s head of studios and video, also gives him another opportunity to hype his hometown on the national stage. “Atlanta has the stories and the people here,” he says. “This is the creative hub. It’s not just music, not just film, but podcasting as well.”

Albright’s music-scene mentor, Lee, has watched his swift ascension in the podcast realm—and marveled at the fact that Albright is now a mentor himself.

“I call him the Black Podfather,” Lee says. “It’s interesting to hear him talk about the podcast world, because he knew nothing about it in 2016—and now, he’s helping shape it.”

This article appears in our August 2020 issue.

That time I ran into John Lewis: Atlantans share their favorite memories

He collected chicken figurines. He was a baby whisperer. He looked forward to riding in a 1963 Ford Falcon for the Inman Park Festival Parade. He, too, was giddy about seeing the solar eclipse of 2018. Our Congressman had an uncanny ability to make total strangers and coworkers feel at ease, whether he was lingering at a three-year-old’s birthday party, signing books at the Barnes & Noble on Moreland Avenue, or shaking hands and giving hugs along the Pride Parade route.

Yes, John Lewis was an icon, but he was also one of us. In his more than three decades of representing Georgia’s 5th District, it seems that almost every local has a story of crossing paths with the Congressman. For his 80th birthday in February and, again, as we celebrated his life in July, the magazine asked readers to share their memories of the late and beloved John Lewis.

Zöe Cato, 26, graphic designer
For many years, my mom drove John Lewis in the Inman Park Parade. It was her favorite day of the year. She told me so many times how he drew such a positive energy from the crowd, way more than anyone else. Everyone wanted to shake his hand and thank him, causing big gaps in the parade. Karen Heim, the director, kept having to “scold” him to stay in the car. My mom would always be like, Congressman, please get back in the car. She said people would hand him their babies like he was the Pope.

Mom had a really cool car. It was a ’63 Ford Falcon. For the parade, you would just sign up with your car and then they would assign you someone on lineup day. One year, a couple of days before the parade, my mom saw John Lewis. She was getting her nails done at a salon, and he was getting a pedicure. She went up to him and shook his hand and was like, I’m driving in the parade. I would be honored if I could have you in my car. And he was like, Oh, that’d be great. But I already have a car that I’m supposed to be in. And then, when everyone was lining up, and the car that John Lewis was supposed to be in was not an American-made car, he was like, Oh, I’m sorry. I need to be in an American-made car. And my mom overheard that and just kind of ran over and was like, Hi, I have a Ford. She ended up driving him that year and just kept driving him ever since then.

Last year, I was planning on driving him with her, but my mom passed away two months before the parade. My brother and I took over to drive. She was right. The whole time, people were just screaming at us and shaking his hand and coming up and thanking him. I guess Karen—whom he always called the “Parade Lady”—had informed the Congressman about our mom’s passing, because when he came to the car, he shook our hands and said, Sorry for your loss. It was always very nice riding with your mom.

Ricardo Horne, 32, college administrator
It was August 2018, and I knew that Zora Neale Hurston’s book, Barracoon, had come out. I live in Old Fourth Ward, and I had to pass by the Edgewood Barnes & Noble to get home. As I walked over to where the book was, I noticed that there were about five people lined up and there was a guy wearing a suit, sort of looking like security. Everyone was facing toward this other man at the end of the table.

I asked a Barnes & Noble employee, Oh, who’s here? Is someone signing the book? And he told me it was John Lewis. I don’t know why he was signing the books or if it was an official event. I asked a stupid question—Do you think he would sign my book? And the guy was like, Yep, that’s what he’s been doing since he’s been here. I rehearsed what I was going to say. But once it was my turn, I was just stuck. I stumbled through it and thanked him for all that he’d done. He was so gracious.

I had my phone out, so he was like, Did you want a picture? Just give it to my guy here. He’s taking photos. And the guy that I thought was security apparently was doubling as a photographer. Rep. John Lewis shook my hand, and then the guy snapped a photo. And that was the end of the magic. I got in my car and immediately felt afraid that something was going to happen to the picture. So, I texted it to everyone I knew. Months later, when I voted for him in the midterms, I kept the sticker and placed it below his signature. It’s just that Georgia peach sticker, but, to me, it meant something.

John Lewis
In 1962, a young John Lewis demonstrates at a Cairo, Illinois, pool which was not open to Blacks.

Photograph by Danny Lyon

Amanda Civins, 39, attorney
It was June 2008, and the Young Dems of Atlanta were having a Get Out the Vote kickoff event. I think that if you donated money to the Young Dems, you got to go to see the civil rights exhibit Road to Freedom at the High Museum for free.

It wasn’t advertised that John Lewis was going to be there. I’m not sure if it was planned or if it was just an impromptu visit. We were in the exhibit hall walking around, and it got really quiet. He walked in with some of his staff and someone had a video camera and was recording him.

The photography exhibit included images of the Freedom Riders and the sit-ins at the lunch counters. He was walking around with some of his staff and this video crew, and he was explaining what each photo was and his involvement in the photos. Slowly, everyone who was in the exhibit hall just gathered around him and followed him from photo to photo. It was totally silent. We were just mesmerized. Only he could tell the story as someone who was actually there. At the end, the exhibit hall just erupted into applause.

Heather Luyk, 31, nonprofit professional
I was at an eclipse-viewing event organized by Central Atlanta Progress. It was a hot day, and there were crowds of people in Woodruff Park. Congressman Lewis was just casually walking around in a suit with a nametag.

He wasn’t wearing protective glasses when I saw him, but he had some with him. I asked to take a picture. I went to take it, and then I turned and said, Actually, can you put those glasses on? It felt funny to ask him to do that. He just kind of chuckled and said, Of course. And so we both put them on. A lot of people have photos with John Lewis, but, you know, not many people have photos with him during a solar eclipse wearing glasses. So, I feel pretty lucky. He is an icon and a civil rights hero with so many accomplishments, and yet he was still down to have fun and take a silly picture!

Manuel Portillo, 23, recent college grad
I had just turned 18 and was a senior at North Atlanta High School working for VOX ATL. I had no idea who Mr. Lewis was at the time. I was chosen with a couple of other students in the district to accompany him for a tour on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. We toured throughout Alabama with the rest of the delegation.

I was brought to tears on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol when Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of former Alabama governor George Wallace, asked Mr. Lewis for redemption for her father’s racist remarks: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

I ended up interning for him in Atlanta, and he’d always keep his door wide open. From down the hallway, you could see how many awards and trophies he had. He had them lined up on the windowsill. He had a cabinet full of them. He was overrun by them. They were on the floor. They even spewed out into the hallway outside of his door. There was just so much. It overran his office. Souvenirs overran his home, too, because Mr. Lewis also collects chicken figurines. He loves antiquing.

Of course, he wasn’t able to be there all the time, and constituents would come in to talk to one of the staffers about a need or desire. But if he was in office, most of the staff knew that, basically, they didn’t have to talk to any constituents because he wanted to talk to them. If there was a constituent that had something planned with his staff, Mr. Lewis would step in. He was like, I’ll talk to them directly. He loved talking to constituents. He almost always wanted somebody to run against him for reelection, just so he could go out and canvass. He was about the action.

John Lewis
Lewis and his wife, Lillian, celebrate victory in Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, 1986.

Photograph by AP Photo/Linda Schaeffer

Maurice Baker, 50, communications executive
I’ve met John Lewis many times over the past 25 years and collaborated on workforce initiatives with his office through my role at Georgia Natural Gas. But my favorite story is that, one day, I was driving along Fifth Street by Georgia Tech and saw him walking by. I rolled down my window and yelled, We love you, John Lewis! Without missing a beat, he put his arm up and replied in his deep voice, John Lewis loves you! That made my day. I’ve lived in other states and districts, where you’d never meet your Representative. But here he is, a national figure, and everybody feels like they know him.

Michael German, 69, former GA HUD director
We knew each other over the years because he is from Troy, Alabama, and I’m from Montgomery. I got to know him when he was with the Voter Education Project. In the early ’80s, I was in Atlanta working with FEMA. They offered me the job as the division director in Seattle, and I said yes. I came home and told my wife, We’re moving to Seattle!

[About that time,] I had to be at City Hall for some reason. I probably went to pay something, and I ran into John. I was really ecstatic, I said, We’re moving to Seattle! And he said, I wouldn’t do that if I was you . . . I’m going to run for Congress. I listened to the way he said it to me, and I went home and told my wife, I’m not going to take the job because John’s going to run for Congress. He won and I became his district manager.

Our relationship was always personal. John came to my house for my daughter’s third birthday party. We’re talking about babies, a lot of folks, and John was there in the middle of it all. He stayed till the end, he had fun, he partied. And when I say “party,” he wasn’t drinking or anything—he doesn’t drink—but he stayed there till the end, just one of the folks. And wherever he was, he could make himself feel at home. You felt like he was at home.

Dustin Baker, 33, IT professional
In 2016, I was a delegate for Georgia at the DNC. We had a breakfast with all the Georgia delegates, and Lewis was there with some of the other people that had worked on the March comic books [an autobiographical graphic novel trilogy, which Lewis created with writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell]. Afterward, he had his comic books out, and you could buy a set and stand in line and he would sign them. I told him that looking back on my experiences, growing up gay in Northeast Georgia, and hearing about the way that he had been treated growing up, I felt very inspired. Things were changing in my hometown of Blairsville. I told him it was really hard growing up and people weren’t always nice. They would call you names, they would bully you. But looking back on the experiences that Congressman Lewis had growing up fighting for civil rights was very inspiring to me. He got up and came around the table, and he hugged me, told me he was sorry that happened. He called me “young brother,” which really just hit a nerve with me, because you think back to the ’60s and that’s what the civil rights leaders would have called each other. And it just made me feel like we were all part of a common struggle fighting for equality—whether it’s racial equality or LGBT equality or immigration rights. It touched me.

If you go back to the Defense of Marriage Act, I knew he was an ally. It was never a question. If you go back to DOMA in ’96 and you listen to his House floor speech, he went way far out for the LGBT community at a time when it was not even popular in Democratic circles. I really want to make sure that he gets remembered for his contributions, from sticking his neck out in ’96 to coming out in the baking sun of Atlanta well into his ’70s, running up and down the Pride Parade hugging people. I just want to make sure people don’t forget that.

Amy Dodgen, 44, pilot
It was October 2018, and there was going to be a rally for Stacey Abrams at Ebrik Coffee Room in Decatur, and John Lewis was going to be speaking. I really wanted my three daughters (then ages five, seven, and five months) to hear him speak.

It was crowded, and my baby started crying really hard, so we had to take her out. As we were leaving through the rear exit, he was just coming in. He didn’t really have a big entourage. I knew he was on his way to do something important, but we stopped and introduced ourselves. He took the time to talk to us, talk to my daughters.

He held my baby to take a picture. He was concerned. He wanted to hold the baby right. He’s like, We can’t drop the baby! She didn’t cry when he was holding her. He had a great way with her. I remember he was immaculately turned out and had a really nice suit on, and I was thinking, Oh, I hope the baby doesn’t mess up his suit. But she didn’t—thank goodness. He didn’t know who we were, and he just had all the time in the world for us.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

This article appears in our September 2020 issue.

News, memes, and activism: how Butter.ATL strives to tell authentic Atlanta stories

Butter.ATLBrandon Butler’s request was simple: “Give me $1,000 and 30 days, and leave me the hell alone.”

At the time, the then-director of project management at Dagger, an Old Fourth Ward-based advertising agency, was speaking to the company’s CEO, Mike Popowski. A team had been assembled to launch the Dagger’s own in-house media company. There were lofty goals to turn the idea into a go-to destination for all things Atlanta culture, but it hadn’t really taken off.

ButterATL Brandon Butler
Brandon Butler

Photograph courtesy of Butter.ATL

“I said, ‘Look man, if you want it to work, just let me run it,” Butler recalls. “I told him, ‘I’m from Atlanta. I’ve been here my whole life. I know more than anybody else that Atlanta needs an authentic, modern voice.’”

That “modern voice” is Butter.ATL, an online social, entertainment, and marketing platform produced by Butler, the executive director; lead designer India Nabarro; managing editor Mobs Robertson; project manager Jamal Harris; and video production Ralph Hernandez.

Starting on Instagram, Butter went through a beta period in 2018 before officially launching the following year. At the onset, the channel’s content mostly centered on deeper dives into Atlanta-centric topics from Waffle House and Atlanta United to the Trap Museum. With newsrooms fading across the country, readers missing their favorite alternative weeklies, and the proliferation of hot takes galore, Butter wanted to help fill a void in the city’s information loop. That paid off as a worthy investment.

“I was actually able to bring in close to six figures in revenue in brand deals,” Butler says. “There was no vision or belief that Butter would even make any money. All of a sudden, within two months of me taking over, we’ve got six figure checks coming in.”

Soon, Butler and team quickly realized that while their efforts to create a well thought-series were appreciated, the Internet’s collective attention span called for quicker hits. This meant more memes, quizzes, and interactive campaigns—all tied to Atlanta’s past, present, and future.

“What I realized was, while it’s great that we’re doing these really in-depth pieces, in the world of content, you’ve got to feed the beast,” he says. “How do we make sure that on a day-to-day basis we’re cranking out non-stop stuff that’s relevant to Atlanta?”

Like any company wanting to tell and sell stories, there was a need to strike a balance between quick-turn-around content and more longform approaches. Butter’s staff was still cranking out daily posts, but were also thinking of potential franchises. The end result is popular video series like the Atlannapedia, and Whip’d. The former is arguably Butter’s most well-known series, featuring prominent locals explaining different Atlanta topics from A-Z.

 

With over 60,000-plus followers on Instagram alone, Butter averages over 1.5 million monthly impressions online. More than half of their audience comes from the metro area. Their growing influence was only magnified when they partnered with ChooseATL and Atlanta Influences Everything to help the tech community celebrate 404 Day this past April 4. Even though pandemic and shelter-in-place orders altered the original in-person event, the event was held virtually and hosted by Jermaine Dupri.

But things changed for Butler and his staff toward the end of May. In light of protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, there seemed to be less of a need for ATL-themed quarantine games and more of an opportunity to use the platform for community dialogue.

“I knew for a fact that there were going to be a lot of ‘conversations’ that, to be totally honest, weren’t going to really lead to anything,” Butler says. “They were just going to be celebrities and people with lots of followers talking about big issues.”

So, Butler went live on Butter’s Instagram account, sharing his own experiences and urging their audience to join and speak up.

“I said, ‘Everybody who follows Butter, instead of me coming on here and saying, ‘We need to have a conversation about police brutality and Black Lives Matter, if you have simply just experienced something and you want to be heard, my channel is open. And I probably just had 20 brothers come online and just tell stories.”

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Text NOWATLANTA to (404) 724-5029. We’re also sharing resources in our stories. #NOWATLANTA #BlackLivesMatter #ATLForUs

A post shared by Butter.ATL (@butter.atl) on

What followed was an official post on June 1, announcing Butter’s new text line, called Now Atlanta (404-724-5029). Citing the need to keep residents “safe, informed, and engaged,” in the fight against racism, the line mirrors Butter’s original mission—keep Atlantans in the loop about their city. Sure, Butter is in talks for more branded partnerships and merch collaborations in the future, and business is going well. However, with yet another death of a Black man at the hands of police, business can wait, Butler says. In recent weeks, the Instagram account has shared posts about voter suppression, explainers on the calls to defund police departments, lists of Black-owned businesses, and information about protests.

Butler, self-described as a kid from Stone Mountain who grew up watching Monica Pearson (when she was Kaufman), reading Creative Loafing’s blotter, and listening to V-103’s Mike Roberts for city intel, says you can’t tell authentic Atlanta stories without incorporating the characters and settings of the moment—both the bad and good.

“We cannot be business as usual when all of this is going on,” Butler says. “So we’re going to stop our existing content calendar. We just felt like Atlanta needed that at that moment. And to be totally honest, I was like, ‘If we don’t do it, who else will?’”

The rise of Southwest Atlanta’s food scene

Rise of Southwest Atlanta food
Pinky Cole, founder of Slutty Vegan

Photograph by Darnell Wilburn

It’s a Tuesday evening in Westview, and inside Greens & Gravy, Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker” is blasting. In the tight space, the walls are hung with art celebrating black culture, including a painting of the Broadway Playbill for Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God, and the crowd is nearing the room’s 33-person capacity. At one table, a group of 40-somethings who brought their own airline bottles of vodka are mixing drinks.

Holding a large pitcher of grape Kool-Aid, our waitress tells us her name is “Sarrrrrrrita,” and “if you can’t pronounce it, just yell, ‘Puerto Rico!’”

I tell her I want the Brussels sprouts.

“Do you want that with or without bacon?”

Definitely the former.

“Good,” she fires back. “I hate when people say ‘without bacon.’”

Rise of Southwest Atlanta food
Greens & Gravy’s collard greens, shrimp and grits, and mac and cheese.

Photograph by Darnell Wilburn

The brainchild of cookbook author and food star Darius Williams, whose Instagram and YouTube followers collectively top 381,000, Greens & Gravy is part of a restaurant and brewery boom southwest of downtown, centered along Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard and the BeltLine’s Westside Trail. When it opened in June 2017, Greens & Gravy joined a small handful of neighborhood staples including the cozy breakfast and lunch spot D Cafe. Since then, My Potato Factory across the street and Slutty Vegan next door have followed. Lean Draft House opened the same weekend as Greens & Gravy, about a half mile south in the West End and right on the BeltLine. A mile farther down the BeltLine, at the sprawling Lee + White development, the roster of businesses includes Honeysuckle Gelato, Doux South Pickles, Golda Kombucha, and Monday Night Brewing’s Garage. There are at least seven other notable concepts in the works nearby, including a barbecue spot from James Beard–nominated chef Todd Richards, who ran the wildly popular and now-defunct Rolling Bones BBQ on Edgewood Avenue and now operates Richards’ Southern Fried in Krog Street Market.

Rise of Southwest Atlanta food
The dinner rush at Greens & Gravy

Photograph by Darnell Wilburn

Williams says his goal with Greens & Gravy was to fill a void in the neighborhood by providing a “little swanky joint that served good fried chicken, good collard greens, and a little something different.” But he ended up being part of a larger resurgence of black-owned businesses. And while those businesses were built to cater to the community, they have even broader appeal.

“We all have our own unique followings,” Williams says of his fellow business owners, “so, what ends up happening is you bring in more people from outside the community into the community. People come from other parts of the city and the suburbs, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know this was here.’”

When it set out to transform a site of largely abandoned warehouses and loading docks in the historically black neighborhood, the team behind Lee + White wanted to cultivate a different vibe than other mixed-use developments in town. Most of its tenants have deep Atlanta or Georgia roots. And, unlike at Ponce City Market along the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, you won’t find a $20 hot dog or a $10 elevator ride to the roof. “What we wanted was to create something that we all—who live here 365—would want to use consistently,” says Lee + White co–managing partner Ben Hautt. “If we built a Williams-Sonoma, you and I would not go to it.”

Hautt says Lee + White worked with the nearby community, and many of its tenants hired locally. He and his partners attended NPU meetings and made decisions based on the input of local businesses and residents.

As to whether Lee + White is a gentrification catalyst in the fast-growing and fast-appreciating neighborhood, Hautt says community members “would tell you that we’re doing something they like and everyone can appreciate.”

“We’re here to make a statement that we can do this anywhere. We can make it safe, too.”

Jason Hudgins, president of the Westview Community Organization, moved to the area three years ago from East Atlanta Village and, along with Westview Retail Association president Kiyomi Rollins, has helped steer the commercial corridor’s comeback. He says that, on the other side of town, growth along the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail has been “more transactional,” centered on mixed-use and live-work destinations where out-of-town developers are looking to cash in on transplant incomes. Along the Westside Trail, on the other hand, development is more “relational,” with new businesses arising out of requests and input from the locals. “It’s all based on the needs of the neighborhood,” Hudgins says.

Chef Tonya Morris’s My Potato Factory was one of the first local businesses to take the burglar bars off the windows. Known to customers and locals as “Cheffy,” Morris lived off Lawton Street near West End Park for two years, right up until she opened her restaurant (she since moved to Douglasville but intends to return to the area). She started the build in January 2018 on her Subway/Chipotle-style baked potato shop, opening its doors that September. Morris remembers back in the day when that strip of Ralph David Abernathy was more or less left for dead. “Every black neighborhood doesn’t have to have all the bars and all the security,” she says. “We’re here to [make] a statement that we can do this anywhere. We can make it safe, too.”

Rise of Southwest Atlanta food
Kicking back at Monday Night Brewing’s Garage

Photograph by Darnell Wilburn

Part of Morris’s mission with My Potato Factory is to provide the community with healthier options. She believes the 500 to 600 orders she serves per week are proof that residents are hungry for local options other than fast food.

Pinky Cole, who graduated from nearby Clark Atlanta University, saw the same local need for more health-conscious food. So, she decided to bring her plant-based food truck Slutty Vegan—and its 148,000 Instagram followers—to a Westview brick-and-mortar. Slutty Vegan opened its doors earlier this year, and Cole says the staff served more than 1,200 customers on the first day alone. More than a month after opening day, the line for her food still stretched well up the block.

Cole says the Slutty Vegan name has been met with both positive and negative feedback from residents, but she knew this particular side of town would be more receptive to an irreverently named business like hers. “This is a progressive neighborhood, and I knew that coming in,” she says. “We hope that this restaurant really creates a sense of history and legacy in the neighborhood, that when people come from all over the world, the first place they want to come to is Westview.”

This article appears in our April 2019 issue.

The legacy of Walter’s Clothing

 

Walter's Clothing AtlantaNick Love has never forgotten the first trip he made to Walter’s Clothing. It was 1992, and the Decatur native was in elementary school and in need of shoes to start the new year. In the past, his parents had taken their son to the Payless at South DeKalb Mall, or, if finances allowed, they’d go to Foot Locker. Then Love’s folks, who both worked downtown and shared a car, had the idea to visit to the little sneaker shop nestled next to Georgia State University.

What Love remembers the most is how the store’s makeup threw him into a rush of confusion and excitement as soon as he opened the door. “The employees didn’t have uniforms,” says Love, an entrepreneur and self-proclaimed Atlanta ambassador. “So you didn’t know who was a customer and who was an employee. I always found that to be super odd. But one thing I do remember about Walter’s is they had everything.

The young Love stood in the cramped space staring in awe at the plethora of options for everything from Reebook Classics and Nike Cortez sneakers to socks, white T-shirts, and ball caps. He was hooked, and continued to shop there throughout grade school and later as a student at Georgia State. “I dropped off a number of student loan checks and book stipends from the HOPE [scholarship] over at Walter’s,” he says jokingly.

Love’s story is one shared by countless Atlantans, GSU students, and out-of-town visitors who’ve made the pilgrimage to the little local shop at the corner of Decatur Street and Central Avenue. The red-and-white awning that boasts “WALTERS” in large, blue block letters has stood out like a beacon of ATL pride since 1956 when the shop’s founder, Walter Strauss, first opened its doors. Strauss died on July 25 at the age of 94.

Since Strauss’s death, the shop and social media have been filled with condolences, dedications, and stories that speak to the legacy of Walter’s, its owner, and the business’s influence on sneaker retail in Atlanta and beyond. Whether it was former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed reminiscing on trips to Walter’s in his youth, or Atlanta music legend DJ Greg Street paying his respects, it’s clear the building and its namesake inspired many.

In fact, the phrase “sneaker boutique” wasn’t common in Atlanta until Walter’s emerged, according to Gerard “G-Roc” Smith, who founded the popular sneaker news site, The Shoe Game in 2006. After news of Strauss’ death broke, Smith tweeted, “RIP to the founder of legendary Atlanta sneaker store Walter’s. The sneaker community lost a legend today, Walter Strauss. Walt [had] been in business 60+ years and paved the way for a lot of shops [and] boutiques. You will be missed, Walt.”

Like Love, Smith, an Atlanta native, has been a customer of Walter’s since his school days and over time developed a relationship with the shop’s staff and current owner, Jeff Steinbook.

“Before there were any boutiques or before the term ‘boutique’ even existed for sneakers, you had Walter’s,” Smith says, adding that Walter’s forged the path for boutiques such as Wish, Epitome, Rare Footage, Laced Up, Sol Monki, and the original location of Standard. “He’s the godfather of sneaker culture and retail in Atlanta.”

Before he became sneaker royalty, Strauss’s story was one of survival. To escape the horrors of Nazi Germany, Strauss’s Jewish parents sent him to the United States to live with a Jewish family in Bluefield, West Virginia. The family patriarch worked in shoe sales, something that stuck with Strauss, who later enlisted in the service during World War II, working as a German map interpreter.

When Strauss arrived in Atlanta, living with another Jewish family, he worked in shoe warehouses. His dream was to be able to make enough money for his parents, brother, and sister to join him in the States. In 1952, he purchased a space 50 yards from Walter’s current location, selling clothing, and later bought the remaining shoe inventory from another local shop owner for $2,500.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the country was in the throes of the civil rights movement, with Atlanta at its epicenter. Urban renewal was altering the city’s infrastructure and growth, and Georgia State was purchasing land downtown. While Strauss was moving shoes to Walter’s current location, construction workers actually tore the roof off of the old location with Strauss still inside.

Strauss opened the doors of the new Walter’s to the local community, with a staff and clientele consisting mostly of African Americans. Whereas other shops in the city wouldn’t allow nonwhites to try on clothes, let alone work in retail, Steinbook says Strauss made it a point to take a more progressive approach.

Steinbook, Strauss’s son-in-law who purchased the business in 1996 along with his then wife Sandra Steinbook and her sister Michelle Schwartz, says Strauss was “the guy that did the right thing in the tough time.” Evidence of Strauss’s commitment to customers and staff shows through the employees who have been working in the shop for decades, and in the older generations of black Atlantans who bring their children and grandchildren to buy that first pair of Air Jordans.

On top of that, with the exception of Steinbook and his two sons, the entire staff—about a dozen full-timers—is a product of the high school work program. Strauss and his wife Estelle hired high school seniors through work-based learning programs from City of Atlanta, Fulton, and DeKalb County Schools. Their hope was that by working at Walter’s, the students would go on to become hardworking adults. Steinbook notes one employee went on to start his own heating and air business in Atlanta, while another was a recent pre-med graduate.

Part of the Walter’s mystique is that, according to Smith and Love, you’ll find shoes in the shop you can’t find anywhere else in the city. In fact, when Nike released the Air Jordan 23 sneakers in 2008, only 23 shops in the country were selected for the limited run, Walter’s among them. Smith remembers one of the most popular posts on The Shoe Game was a video he recorded of customers lining up outside of Walter’s a day before the exclusive kicks were released. The highlight of the video is Smith interviewing a man who drove from New York City to Atlanta to secure his pair—and pay his respects to the institution. If nothing else, Walter’s proved to retailers and shoe die-hards that there was money to be made in sneakers if your store’s selection was on point and the pricing was reasonable—and done if done right, Smith says, your shop could outlast even the big-name stores.

Atlanta style and retail stalwart Sid Mashburn says it was Strauss’s vision as “the Sneaker King” that brought the shop universal respect. “I loved being in his shop and seeing sneaks that were nowhere else,” Mashburn says.

Beyond the shelves of sneakers in the store, Walter’s influence is also felt and seen throughout Atlanta’s pop culture exports. Since Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta,” tons of Atlanta-filmed music videos have included footage of Walter’s. Current and past customers include Outkast, Ludacris, DJ Khaled, Dave Chappelle, Dr. Cornel West, Congressman John Lewis, and the Baldwin family. Yes, those Baldwins.

But anyone who was close to Strauss will tell you that the hype and fanfare behind Walter’s was the last thing on his mind. Steinbook says even after he purchased the shop, Strauss continued to work there, without pay, until 2013. “Walter never intended for this to be anything other than an opportunity for him,” he says.

For Atlantans like Love, that opportunity changed lives. He recalls thinking that shop was black-owned, and, before meeting Strauss, assumed one of the older employees behind the register was the store’s namesake. Upon finding out that Walter was, in fact, a white Jewish man with no familial ties to the black community, Love wanted to frequent the store even more. Walter’s was a place where everyone was welcome, and now, at 38, Love says he still shops there with the childlike wonder of the school kid getting fresh for the first day.

Love says Walter’s is as synonymous with Atlanta as Chik-fil-A, Delta, and Waffle House.

“I think since the Olympics, for people who are born and raised here, there’s been a struggle to really establish what Atlanta’s identity truly is,” Love says. “A lot of us have really fought to maintain and preserve the identity of true Atlanta. Walter’s is one of those things that is uniquely ours.”

Meet Willie Watkins: Atlanta’s mortuary mogul

Willie Watkins

On a Saturday at noon last October, Carlos Walker received a burial worthy of rap royalty. For three hours, hundreds of mourners packed Jackson Memorial Baptist Church in far west Atlanta to bid farewell to Walker, who rose from public housing to rap stardom as Shawty Lo. A marching band drummed past his closed casket, which was carried by high-stepping pallbearers to a glass-sided carriage that was harnessed to two black Percheron horses.

The night before, Walker lay in an open casket, resplendent in sunglasses, a black suit, and a gold chain bearing “D4L”—the rap group he founded—arranged neatly around his neck. Afterward the hearse carrying his body stopped outside Club Crucial, where Shawty Lo once performed, and again halted for a brief candlelit service outside the Blue Flame Lounge, the last place the rapper was seen alive before dying in a car accident on I-285 10 days earlier. Keeping watch over the two-day homecoming celebration, as he often does, was Willie Watkins.

Dignitaries, war veterans, people who lost their way, and babies who never had a chance to find their own—it’s all in a day’s work for Watkins, the 67-year-old mortuary mogul who’s become the go-to undertaker for Atlanta’s black elite, rappers and entertainers, and thousands of other Atlantans. Nearly 40 years since Watkins turned a former Confederate general’s Victorian house in the West End into a funeral home, the Cascade resident has built a multimillion dollar empire—staffed by more than 85 people working at five locations—that lays to rest roughly 1,500 people each year. Watkins organized the funerals of Coretta Scott King, Lillian Miles Lewis (Congressman John Lewis’s wife of 50 years), and family members of Usher and Real Housewives of Atlanta star Phaedra Parks, who was Watkins’s former apprentice, earning him an appearance on the reality TV show.

At the bustling West End headquarters, dubbed the “mother ship,” staff hurry across marble floors beneath portraits of Watkins and his late mother Hattie, who used to answer calls until 10 p.m., and past photos of her son posing with the Obamas. They greet a never-ending stream of bereaved family members, limo salesmen, and staffers seeking answers. Watkins estimates this location alone helps send roughly 20 to 35 bodies into the afterlife on a weekly basis. “I want to bury everybody,” he says. “I want to be a friend to everyone. They’re all God’s children.”

Willie Watkins
Watkins’s fleet includes a vintage hearse with side-opening doors.

Photograph by Darnell Wilburn

Out back is the fleet of custom-designed limousines, hearses outfitted with speakers, and glistening towncars. Lincolns, Cadillacs—both new and vintage, punctuated by shark-fin lights and red felt window curtains—in black, white, and gray colorways all bear a silver “Willie A. Watkins” insignia, like the suit of the man himself. The 13 horses that pull the carriages, one of which dates from the 1700s and carried Coretta Scott King’s body to lie in state at the Georgia Capitol, are kept at family-owned stables in Douglasville.

Fifteen years ago Watkins clasped his hands together and asked God to lead him where no other funeral service director had gone before. Wanting to stand out from the competition, Watkins’s mind drifted to images of Victorian-era pall bearers in top hats and fine-dining servers in London wearing white gloves. He incorporated those features into the Watkins “signature package,” starting around $6,500.

Willie Watkins
Nearly 40 years ago, Watkins bought the former home of a Confederate general to launch his mortuary.

Photograph by Darnell Wilburn

There were hiccups. An animal rights group protested the use of doves, he says, until they learned Watkins actually uses homing pigeons that fly back to their trainer. But Watkins, with the help of four brothers and one nephew, persisted, solidifying a reputation for pomp and circumstance and turning funerals into productions of pizzazz. Some of his competitors have even copied his style, he claims. “Number one is often imitated, never duplicated,” Watkins says with a quiet rasp. “I’m not mad you didn’t call me. I just say you didn’t want the very best.”

Watkins prides himself on his services, including embalming, an art he started practicing as a young teenager. “Some people say [their loved ones] look better dead than they did alive,” he says. Watkins calls each grieving family and gives them a plaque at the funeral honoring the deceased. Before bodies are displayed, he ensures the deceased’s head is tilted at an angle, facing their loved ones.

“This is just a shell,” Watkins says while gazing upon a grandmother, who died of old age, lying in repose. “The spirit has already gone home to be with the Lord. You got your last chance to look at her. Now she’s just sleeping. They can be proud to look at her. She’s resting. She’s peaceful. She’s saying, ‘I got to victory.’”

As a child growing up in then rural Scottdale, Georgia, Watkins tagged along to funerals with his grandmother, Mother Guinn. After the family moved to Atlanta, he would take the bus alone to lay flowers for the Cox Brothers Funeral Home, where the staff allowed him to help. For Watkins, the fanfare and ritual of funerals was entrancing: men and women dressed well, fancy cars moving in a solemn caravan, extravagant floral arrangements—he adored it all. When his grandmother pointed out how good one of her deceased friends looked in the casket, Watkins’s mind was made up. At 14, he moved into Herschel Thornton Mortuary, a funeral home in Adamsville famous for its drive-thru viewing window, and was directing services at 16. While studying at Morehouse College, he took night classes at the Gupton Jones Mortuary College, then located on Peachtree Street. In 1978, using money earned from the sale of a commercial property, 29-year-old Watkins purchased the antebellum mansion on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard and launched a limousine service to build capital to launch the funeral home in 1982.

Watkins has already planned his own farewell tour: five wardrobe changes and stops at each of his business locations. Ideally, his final vessel will be a silver casket lined with black velvet. Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir’s “Never Alone” will play. He’s toyed with the idea of what will be inscribed on his tombstone, but one phrase in particular stands out.

“‘The Innovator of Funeral Services: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated,’” he says. “I did what I had to to let my name be known among the people.”

This article originally appeared in our October 2017 issue.

Mixtape mix-up: Why the RIAA is taking Spinrilla to court

Spinrilla

Here’s a modern music quiz: What’s the difference between an album and a mixtape? Confused? You’re not alone. In fact, it’s simpler to name how they’re alike. Both are collections of songs by an artist and, despite their analog-sounding names, are transmitted digitally. Where they differ comes down to the artist’s goals: Albums are intended to make money, and so are backed by the marketing muscle of a recording label. Mixtapes are meant to build buzz. They often lack the slick production values that come with an expensive recording session, and they’re usually free.

The DIY nature of mixtapes is crucial to understanding the success of Spinrilla, a mixtape website and app founded in 2013 by Dylan Copeland after he left Georgia State University. Spinrilla, a top 10 music app download, has been a breakout success. Users—the service doesn’t say how many—call up the app on their phones, where they can stream or download thousands of mixtapes uploaded by musicians registered with Spinrilla. The company makes its money by selling premium subscriptions and advertising. In these ways—except for maybe the subscriptions—Spinrilla isn’t much different from a terrestrial radio station.

Except radio stations aren’t being sued in federal court for potentially billions of dollars by five major record labels. On February 3 the Recording Industry Association of America filed a lawsuit against Spinrilla on behalf of labels Universal Music Group; Sony Music; Warner Bros. Records; Atlantic Records; and the defunct LaFace Records, whose catalog is now owned by Sony. It essentially accused the Atlanta-based upstart of hosting music by their artists without the labels’ permission. Spinrilla, according to the RIAA, is “ripping off music creators by offering thousands of unlicensed sound recordings for free.”

Flashbacks to 15 years ago, when file-sharing networks such as Napster and Kazaa helped cut the recording industry’s profits by half, are understandable. Major labels and the RIAA ended up suing those companies, too, effectively putting them out of business. From their ashes sprung streaming music services such as Spotify and Pandora, which strike complex licensing deals with big labels to avoid running afoul of copyright laws. Some record companies have even taken an ownership chunk of the services as revenue from legal streaming grows, reports say.

But the Spinrilla case raises different issues. The labels claim they never gave Spinrilla permission to host the music—or album covers—and never saw a dime in compensation. Why pay to download Kanye West’s Saint Pablo when users could get it for free on Spinrilla, as the complaint alleges? Meanwhile, the service was selling advertising and premium memberships to users who, according to app reviews cited in the complaint, raved that they could allegedly download “AS MUCH MUSIC AS I WANT!”

Copeland’s attorney David Lilenfeld—the CEO declined to be interviewed—says the lawsuit is a misunderstanding of the service’s business model. Spinrilla, he says, “is a forum, a venue for artists to promote their own work.” Unlike other sites, Spinrilla requires artists who want to upload music to apply and be approved. “They’re painting this as if it’s some Napster-like community where people share other people’s music, but it’s not that at all.”

Lilenfeld says Spinrilla uses a content recognition service—one the record labels recommended, according to the company’s response to the lawsuit—to catch copyrighted material before it appears on the site and app. When artists have added unauthorized songs and the labels complained, Spinrilla pulled down the content—more than 400 times, the lawsuit says. It also offered a third-party purchase option for some songs, he says, driving revenue for the record companies. What’s more, Lilenfeld claims that labels asked Spinrilla to promote and market their artists’ work—including Young Thug’s Slime Season 3, a mixtape cited in the lawsuit—before and after filing the complaint. “I would say the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” he says.

Such agreements between labels and streaming services are not unusual, says Orlando McGhee, a music consultant and former executive at Warner Bros. Records, who once managed Future. Before the Atlanta-based hip-hop star achieved mainstream success, he was the most downloaded artist for three years on LiveMixtapes, another mixtape service. McGhee says Future’s team often collaborated with LiveMixtapes to promote his work. But now that more streaming services are paying royalties and labels are releasing their own mixtapes, McGhee says, the perspective has changed. “There’s no upside for the label to put their arm around” streaming services if the record companies think they are violating copyright, he says.

Both Spinrilla and the RIAA want a jury to decide the case. The industry association also seeks damages that, at $150,000 per copyright infringement, could run in the billions—or whatever profits Copeland has allegedly reaped from the copyrighted works. In court documents, Spinrilla has indicated a settlement could be reached. Catherine Moore, who teaches music and technology at the University of Toronto, says Spinrilla could serve as a launchpad for new acts in exchange for leeway on licensing. Or, like Soundcloud, it could ink formal deals to license copyrighted songs. Or, McGhee says, the labels could simply purchase Spinrilla. It has a following, after all. “That’s where my daughter discovers all her music,” he says.

This article originally appeared in our June 2017 issue.

Atlanta comic Mark Kendall uses humor to address representation

Mark Kendall

Getting a cease and desist notice from Morgan Freeman may be one of the best things that’s happened to Mark Kendall. When the Atlanta native took his one-man sketch show—Morgan Freeman Presents: The Magic Negro and Other Blackness—on the road in 2015, it caught the wrong kind of celebrity attention. “It forced me to rethink the title and that led to rethinking other parts of the show,” says the 30-year-old actor behind the newly titled—and retooled—The Magic Negro and other Blackity Blackness, as told by an African-American Man who also happens to be Black.

In 2015 The Magic Negro, which tackles the depictions of black men in popular culture and the media, was one of three projects chosen for development during the Alliance Theatre’s second annual Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab. Originally created and produced by Dad’s Garage, the show is the first project from the lab to receive a full production on the Alliance’s Hertz Stage (March 24-April 15). Kendall recently spoke to us about what prompted him to write the play and how it has evolved.

Can you talk about the inspiration behind The Magic Negro?
Being a film student at Northwestern, which was not a diverse program, I was the only black male in class. We’d watch these monumental movies like Citizen Kane, clips of Birth of a Nation. The presence or the absence of black people says a lot about those times, but that was not something that was directly addressed in class. The show kind of addresses that experience, and what it means when people of color don’t have control over their own image in media.

The show’s new title is . . . long. Why the change?
On top of [the cease and desist], I wanted to elongate the title to make it super clear that it’s meant to be a comedy. I was in Canada this summer at the Edmonton Fringe Festival, and I was passing out flyers to people. They’d see the “the magical negro and other blackness” and ask me, “Are you a magician? Is this a drama?” When the audience knows it’s supposed to be funny, it’s less intimidating.

How else has the show evolved since you first brought the “magical negro” concept to audiences?
In the earlier version at 7 Stages, I was mainly doing other characters, only playing myself for a brief moment. In this new version, I’m a much larger part of the show. I’m making more of an effort to talk directly to the audience about my own individual experience. My hope in doing that is that they hear me. I just want to get through to them in that time that I have and leave them thinking.

This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.

The Atlanta baller’s guide to Super Bowl LI

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Two great Atlanta prophets once said, “All the players came from far and wide.” And while Andre 3000 and Big Boi weren’t referencing ATLiens descending upon Houston for Super Bowl LI back when they recorded “Player’s Ball” more than two decades ago, the song’s message resonates the same in 2017: Work hard, party harder, and do it big.

With that in mind, it’s Super Bowl weekend, your beloved Falcons have made it the big game. You’re following them to Texas in hopes of watching Roger Goodell hand the Lombardi Trophy to Matt Ryan. (Or, at the very least, you’ll get to see Lady Gaga IRL.) And you know one thing for sure: Money ain’t a thing.

Here’s how to experience the finest in Super Bowl madness like the baller you are (or aspire to be):

Getting there
The first rule of balling: Don’t fly commercial. Might we suggest a private jet? The Super Bowl is the biggest day of the year for the industry, and private jet service PrivateFly estimates that 1,500 flights totaling some $1.5 billion are already headed to Texas. Flexjet, Jet Linx, and the aforementioned PrivateFly all offer services ranging from $6,000 to $30,000, depending on the size of your entourage.

Hotel Zaza Houston
The courtesy car at Hotel Zaza

Photograph by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Staying there
The name alone should sell you: Hotel ZaZa. You won’t have a problem feeling like a boss in this Museum District hotel, which Houston’s local ABC affiliate referred to as one of the top places to spot a celebrity. You can count sheep in one of the luxe, themed “Magnificent Seven” suites, with names such as “For Your Eyes Only,” “Rock Star Suite,” “Tycoon,” and “It Happened One Night.” Oh, and check out that courtesy car.

Ludacris Atlanta Falcons
Ludacris performing at a Falcons game in 2012

Photograph by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Partying there
On Friday and Saturday, you’re going to party like it’s ’98-’99 all over again. Leave it to native sons and die-hard Falcons fans Big Boi and Ludacris to bring the A-Town to H-Town with their ATL Invasion Concert at Fun-Plex Amusement Park. $4,000 and some change buys you VIP entry for 10, eight bottles, and a view of the stage for the Friday night concert.

On Saturday, $750 gets you into the famed Maxim Party—if you can secure the Invitation Code. The invite-only affair dubbed “THE #1 Party” during Super Bowl weekend will be headlined by Houston rapper-producer Travis Scott and self-proclaimed “anthem King” and Snapchat aficionado DJ Khaled. Those lucky enough to score a ticket can surely expect close encounters with A-List celebs, VIPs, tastemakers, and athletes.

The big game
Travel website Orbitz claims that more Patriots fans are traveling to NRG Stadium than Falcons fans. You can easily avoid the #deflategate sympathizers by booking a suite. At last tally, the going rate for a 26-person suite in the über-bourgeoisie 800-level at NRG was over $265,000. There’s also the less posh, but still nice luxury suites in the 200 and 400 levels. But if you really want to host your own Super Bowl LI shindig at the stadium, the actual party suites in the 300-level are the way to go. How else are you and 45-150 of your closest friends going to shout “Rise Up” while doing a choreographed “Dirty Bird” flash dance when the Falcons finally win it all?

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