Headland Drive: The start of something good

Los Angeles has Crenshaw Boulevard and Queens has Linden Boulevard. In Atlanta, OutKast put the intersection of Headland and Delowe on the musical map.

Headland Dr East Point

Photograph by Rita Harper

This story is part of Atlanta magazine’s Streets Issue—a block-by-block exploration of our city and the stories it tells. Find the entire package here.

It’s hard to be sure which MARTA bus André “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton rode from the corner of Headland and Delowe, or in what direction they were heading. Today, it would probably be the 93 or the 8, but André doesn’t tell us the route number in his rap verse on “Elevators (Me & You),” the lead single from OutKast’s sophomore album, ATLiens. What we do know, from the way André plainly tells us over the slow-burning, soul-stirring incantation of a Southern hip-hop song, is that this East Point intersection was the start of something good.

More than a quarter-century later, André’s audio pin drop still keeps the hilly Headland Drive corridor on the map, preserving the cultural importance of this street and its humble-yet-famous intersection. “If we didn’t know nothing else about Atlanta, we knew where Headland met Delowe,” says Dr. Regina Bradley, cohost of the hip-hop podcast Bottom of the Map and the author of Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South. “It was one of the earliest landmarks of Southern hip-hop lore and history.”

Back in the early ’90s, when New York and Los Angeles ruled hip-hop, Southerners wished we had streets whose names served as cultural code. LA has Crenshaw Boulevard, made famous by gangsta rap icons, while any serious hip-hop fan knows A Tribe Called Quest represents Queens’s Linden Boulevard. Even back then, the South, too, had something to say with its street signs. Headland and Delowe is where OutKast met after school to audition for Rico Wade, the brilliant Organized Noize music producer and the central figure in Atlanta’s legendary Dungeon Family music collective. Wade was born at Grady Hospital but moved with his family to an apartment complex on Delowe Drive when he was 12. He says there was a reason OutKast, Goodie Mob, and other Dungeon Family members always claimed East Point in their lyrics: “The whole concept of saying East Point was giving identity to someplace that didn’t have it. It was just a little city between the airport and Atlanta. Moving from Atlanta to there was trying to do better.”

Wade has fond memories of the shopping center at the crossroads, which he says contained a diverse selection of Black, Latinx, and Asian business. Today, it has several empty storefronts, but Wade hopes it will be a place of aspiration and entrepreneurship again. He plans to put a sports bar and grill there, with a studio in the rear—a new location for “the Dungeon,” the iconic studio where OutKast and Goodie Mob’s first songs were recorded.

“It’s so authentic, it’s so raw and so true,” says photographer Rita Harper, who grew up nearby. Harper speaks lovingly of Make More Beautiful, the Headland plaza’s beauty shop, as well as Headland Cleaners and its owner, Popat Patel, whom she’s photographed. “I would love for it to be able to stay the same, with more Black ownership. I’d love for those small mom-and-pop businesses to stay and thrive. But how gentrification is taking over East Point, I’m not sure.”

East Point
Bahiya Dorsey and Angela Range, two newly hired employees at Make More Beautiful

Photograph by Rita Harper

Driving east from Greenbriar Mall, where Headland begins, you can still feel deeply spiritual waves of old-school cool Atlanta. You’ll know you’ve crossed into East Point city limits when you see pines, oaks, and other steeple-tall trees lining the three-lane road as it turns into a gorgeous stretch of well-maintained midcentury ranch houses with colorful foliage all around. Just past the Headland and Delowe plaza is the East Point PATH, Sumner Park, and Dick Lane Velodrome, a popular slanted, one-fifth–mile bicycle track. After that, Headland Drive becomes Norman Berry Drive, which leads to Tri-Cities High School, where Wade, OutKast, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins of TLC, members of the R&B group Xscape, music executive KP the Great, and current Atlanta rap superstars Lil Baby and Young Thug were taught.

The fact that an East Point public high school of performing arts educated some of the world’s biggest musical superstars should make not just Tri-Cities but Headland Drive a national landmark. Instead, many parents spend time and money sending their children to schools in other parts of metro Atlanta. Having attended the mostly Black high school in walking distance of my childhood home in Huntsville, Alabama, I know that the perception of low standards is not reality. It is possible to start something good from a place considered disadvantaged, and to be able to see the world from a MARTA bus stop, even if you had to walk a dirt path to find that hookup.

André and Antwan didn’t ride the MARTA through the hood for East Point residents to give up on its community. Dré didn’t even grow up in East Point—he caught the 86 Lithonia headed to Decatur because that was where he lived. He navigated a loose network of buses to meet Big Boi, and Rico Wade, at Headland and Delowe, because they were all trying to find their “spot off in that light,” and they did. But, as evidenced by André’s memory of that MARTA moment, even in the early days they knew there was something interstellar about their journey. They weren’t just two dope boys in a Cadillac; they were two ATLiens on their way to global superstardom.

This article appears in our August 2022 issue.