Looking around the city, it is sometimes easy to forget that Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, with little tangible evidence of the event left standing. And if you listen to local radio, you won’t hear much from the rap group that singlehandedly put Southern hip-hop and Atlanta on the map two decades ago.
But this weekend, Atlanta will salute two men who are as responsible for the transformation here as any of the city fathers: Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton, together known as Outkast. Two years before the Summer Olympics would put Atlanta on the world stage, Outkast exploded onto the national scene with their debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.
This 20th anniversary year of that release already has been fraught with nostalgia for the duo. They performed at music festivals around the country in celebration of their milestone. Some Atlantans attended those concerts, but many of us held out. We aren’t concert people; we’re Outkast people.
It will. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, ATLiens—the true believers—will gather downtown for a hometown homage at Centennial Olympic Park, one of the few remnants of the Games. The performers and location, both seemingly forgotten at times, coming together is symbolic: A representation of the acceptance of Outkast’s meaning to Atlanta and a recognition of the group’s parallel trajectory to that of the city.
After months—nay, years—of sharing Outkast with everyone else, this time, it is finally everyone else’s turn to share Benjamin and Patton with us, to be our guests. The disparate groups of fans who are returning to Atlanta for the weekend or bought tickets as show after show sold out, are not unlike two circles of friends: In the group you have had from childhood, are those who know you intimately and with whom you share countless memories, inside jokes, even your own language. In the other, are friends you make as adults, who don’t know your middle name, or what you were like in high school, or what you wanted to be when you grew up.
And so, while all of those friends will come together this weekend, for natives, there has been no performance more anticipated—indeed, prayed for—than this weekend’s homecoming. For us, it is nothing short of a three-day family reunion. Our sense of ownership is more than a notion. When you think of Outkast to the ATL, you need to think Jay-Z to Brooklyn. The Beatles to Liverpool.
Make no mistake: This will be a spiritual experience, especially for those of us who can remember exactly what we were doing in the spring and summer of 1994, when Southernplayalistic was all anyone in Atlanta was listening to.
I was 16 years old, a junior in high school, and from the Southside. I knew immediately that Outkast was talking to me. We were all wrestling with drugs, sex, and violence (themes that pulse throughout all American music, by the way) but in their music, too, were struggles over apathy and being broke, cautionary tales, and the wisdom gained from growing up too fast. In their videos were pine trees and red clay (!!!) and streets we knew the names of.
Outkast’s beats and lyrics embodied everything associated with the South. It felt good, and like your grandmama, it could charm you one minute and cuss you out the next. And unlike East Coast or West Coast hip-hop, it seldom picked a fight, but instead welcomed everybody to sit on the porch and listen. Because, as Andre so boldly declared the year after the album’s debut, “the South’s got something to say.”
It remains the soundtrack of a generation. Mention any of the album’s main tracks—“Ain’t No Thang,” “Git Up, Git Out,” “Funky Ride,” “Crumblin Erb,” “Hootie Hoo,” or the iconic “Player’s Ball”—to Atlanta contemporaries of Outkast and watch as their eyes close, blissful smiles come over their faces, and they lean back, transported to the city of their youth, where every guy was a player and every girl was a Georgia Peach.
We get to remember the first time being from the South was cool, when you didn’t have to tell outsiders you were “from Atlanta,” because you could proudly proclaim you were from East Point, College Park, Decatur, or even “the SWATS,” and see recognition flashing across someone’s face.
The moment when everybody wanted a fur Kangol or a ballcap with the Atlanta “A” on it, and you didn’t need to be a fan to wear a Braves jersey.
When people stopped laughing at your Southern accent and started trying to imitate it.
When driving an old Cadillac was cooler than riding in a limousine.
When our skyline—not New York City’s—was featured in the background of music videos.
And maybe that’s why so many of us have longed for one more album, for the return of the prodigal pimps. It has been a decade since their last album—okay, their last good one—and frankly, a lot of us felt like they owed us. Even the title for this concert weekend, ATLast, is an acknowledgement of this weekend as a reckoning of sorts.
But it’s also the closing of a chapter that may finally allow us—and them—to move on. For many of us, this concert makes up for all the years we speculated and hoped for an Outkast reunion. This will give us closure on a personal and emotional level. Whatever they do from here, they owe us nothing more. They have done enough. They will have given us one more moment to remember, just like they did 20 years ago.
And so we’re coming home to remember a good thing, and to say thank you.
Southernplayalistic marks the anniversary of many things, and represents a moment in the city’s history that will never return. It is our Gone With the Wind. Outkast has evolved, and so has Atlanta. Dre and Big have grown up, and so have their city and their fans.
Our popularity has meant we had to make room for newcomers, who now outnumber the natives. Our business growth made our airport the world’s busiest. The Braves, supported by African-Americans in swag, if not in ticket sales, are headed north of the city. The future of their stadium—another relic of the Olympics—is still unknown.
This week’s concert is sharing billing with the debut of Jimi: All Is By My Side, the biopic with Benjamin channeling rock legend Jimi Hendrix. Andre and Antwan have families, and are staring down mid-life with the rest of us—no matter how well some of us appear to be aging.
But for one weekend, we get to remember what life was like before we had kids, degrees, a job, a mortgage, responsibilities. We get to celebrate how we got here, to recognize the one year that changed everything. And now, as it was then, we will remember 1994, when Outkast gave us that.
Errin Haines Whack is an award-winning journalist who covered Georgia politics and urban affairs in Atlanta for more than a decade. She is a native of Fairburn, Georgia, and tweets at emarvelous.