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When Blank and partner Bernie Marcus opened their first Home Depot store in the northern suburbs in 1979, Marcus’s three children handed out dollar bills to attract customers. These days, after two decades spent building their home-improvement warehouse concept into the second-largest retail chain in the country, Blank is again handing out money as one of Atlanta’s most prominent philanthropists and civic boosters.
Whether you flock to Fandango to purchase advance tickets for the latest Madea movie or chortled along with last year’s lacerating parody on Adult Swim’s The Boondocks, one thing is certain: Atlanta filmmaker Perry is the only major Hollywood player dedicated to cranking out hits from his adopted hometown. Only five years after shooting his first film (for one scene, he took a chain saw to a couch inside his own house), he was directing Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg and Grammy winner Janet Jackson in last year’s film adaptation of playwright Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf—partially shot at his sprawling thirty-acre Tyler Perry Studios in southwest Atlanta. At the TPS grand-opening party in 2008, Perry surprised mentors Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Cicely Tyson by dedicating soundstages in their honor as Will Smith beamed and Oprah Winfrey cried her eyelashes off. An awed Tyson said, “I never dreamed I would witness this in my lifetime. What I’ve achieved in my career is minuscule in comparison to this.”
When Patton took over as president of Georgia State University nineteen years ago, the campus was blighted with boarded buildings and classrooms full of students commuting into town for the day. Through his vision—and his ability to raise more than $1.5 billion for campus expansion, including a science center, a 2,000-bed University Commons dorm, fraternities, and sororities—he transformed Georgia State from a place where students went out of necessity into a genuine draw for the state’s best scholars. The Carnegie Foundation gave the school the prestigious ranking of research university. With three years left in his reign, Patton endorsed something he never thought would happen in his lifetime: fielding a football team.
When Karatassos opened Pano’s and Paul’s in 1979, his perfectionism and charisma won over West Paces Ferry elites and redefined the city’s view of upscale dining. Today his company, Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, operates thirteen venues (two in Boca Raton, the rest in Atlanta). He opens restaurants that reflect the times—the shiny frisson of Buckhead Diner and Pricci in the eighties, the east-west glamour of BluePointe in the late nineties—and then builds such loyal clienteles that his time capsules transcend trendiness. The Atlanta affiliate for Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation, of which Karatassos is chairman, raises more at its annual event than any other chapter: Last year it pulled in $695,000 to help feed hungry children.
Outkast put Atlanta on the hip-hop map. Classmates from Tri-Cities High School, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and André “André 3000” Benjamin got their big break in the unlikeliest of places. “We performed outside a beauty supply store,” says Big Boi, “rhyming over A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Scenario’ remix. [Organized Noize’s] Rico Wade loved it and sent us to [bare-bones production studio] the Dungeon, where it all started.” One minute they were sixteen, rapping in a basement, and the next they were signing a record deal with L.A. Reid and LaFace records. Since 1992 Outkast has won six Grammys, along the way fusing rap, funk, and rock into a transcendent sound. Benjamin has been acting—his last film was 2008’s Semi-Pro—while Big Boi continues to make music and run Purple Ribbon Records. (He’s halfway through his second solo album, tentatively titled Daddy Fat Sax: Soul Funk Crusader.) He’s also working on a ballet, following up on 2008’s Big with the Atlanta Ballet. And there’s Outkast clothing, a Big Boi shoe, his Big Kidz Foundation, and of course, the next Outkast album, rumored to be imminent. “It just has to be jamming, man. I’m never moving away from Atlanta. The creative energy here is just incredible.”
Atlanta was hardly a destination for recording artists until radio DJ Lowery laid the grooves for the hot-wax scene with his Lowery Music Company publishing house and his Southern Tracks recording studio. The native Louisianan—who got his start in the city as a disc jockey and Georgia Tech football game announcer—began recording and promoting artists in the early fifties. His catalog’s hits over the years included “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” from artists such as Gene Vincent, Joe South, novelty songster Ray Stevens, and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. He was a two-time president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (which hands out the Grammys). In 1999, five years before his death, Lowery sold his 7,000-song catalog to Sony. Today his son, Butch, manages Bill Lowery Music and Southern Tracks studio, which in recent years has hosted recording sessions by Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, and Pearl Jam.
In Robert Joseph Cox’s Hall of Fame–worthy managerial career, spent almost entirely with the Braves, the sixty-nine-year-old earned 2,504 wins (fourth all-time), fifteen division titles (a record fourteen in a row), one World Series ring, and 158 ejections, the most in Major League Baseball history. “I’m not proud of that last record,” grumbles Cox. “There is no record. It’s a simple matter of longevity.” In retirement since the 2010 season, his immediate plans are “to relax.”
When Bolling volunteered for Vietnam in the sixties, it was early evidence of a life spent in willing service of others. Settling in Midtown after college, he joined the staff of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, taking over its soup kitchen. His success at collecting donated groceries for the church pantry gave Bolling a vision for launching the Atlanta Community Food Bank, one of the first agencies of its kind in the Southeast. Since starting out with an old pickup truck in 1979, Bolling has built the organization into a pillar of the region’s social-service community, using 15,000 volunteers a year to help collect and distribute 20 million pounds of food to more than 700 nonprofits in Atlanta and thirty-eight counties across North Georgia. Along the way, Bolling has ceaselessly looked for other ways to help the less fortunate, cofounding the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless and starting the Atlanta Prosperity Campaign, which provides financial counseling to working families. Combining the dedication of a small-town parson with a CEO’s business acumen—he’s studied nonprofit management at Harvard—Bolling has been uniquely effective at bridging the gap between Atlanta’s corporate and faith communities. “What I discovered about myself is that I probably could’ve been a very successful entrepreneur,” he says. “But I wanted to serve others.”
Correll, former head of Georgia-Pacific, was an old-school CEO. He worked harder than anyone else (regularly clocking seventy-hour weeks), earned lots of money for his shareholders (the stock price jumped well over 35 percent when private Koch Industries bought out GP in 2005), and has served on countless nonprofit boards. He can make things happen with a single phone call. For example, when he heard that Ebenezer Baptist’s renovation had stalled for lack of funding, he got ten companies to donate $100,000 each—in one afternoon. Though outgoing Grady Health System CEO Michael Young has gotten much of the glory for the beleaguered hospital’s turnaround, it was board chair Correll who asked the Woodruff Foundation for $200 million over lunch. The funds helped finance Grady’s renovations and convince Young to take the job.