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Our Year in Atlanta

ATL has been a rap factory for more than two decades, but the debut of a groundbreaking TV show and the reemergence of a trap legend cemented the city as the undeniable hip-hop capital in 2016

(Brian Taylor illustration)
(Brian Taylor illustration)

“It’s just a really, really, really black city,” says Kevin Lee, better known as Coach K, of his adopted hometown. Since Coach K first moved from Indiana to Atlanta 20 years ago, he’s been instrumental in developing ATL hip-hop heavyweights Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy, and now Lil Yachty and Migos. “You have these historically black colleges here,” he continues, “Morehouse, Spelman, Clark. They’re big universities. So these kids come from all over the country, and they set up shop in Atlanta. Once they’re here, they stay.

“You go to the mall and you see these rappers and celebrities just driving around. And every night — whether it’s an NBA superstar or an NFL superstar — there’s somebody in those clubs. They’re at a hand’s reach,” he says. “With a lot of other cities, it’s not like that. It’s segregated. But Atlanta is wide open.”

In November, The Fader published a cover story about 21 Savage. In the profile, the 24-year-old Atlanta rapper says his breakout success means he can hope to avoid the “chitlin circuit,” referring to the Deep South belt of colleges and nightclubs that reliably book popular rappers to play shows, from up-and-comers to has-beens. As a measure of arrogance, 21 Savage’s distaste for the chitlin circuit is a sign that the style of rap music we’re talking about here — Atlanta trap — has long outgrown strip clubs and mixtapes. Those booms and high hats are the indispensable sounds of American pop music in 2016, from Atlanta’s digital underground to the very top of the Hot 100. “I can go in the building, shake white people’s hands,” 21 Savage says, “and get ’em to give me millions of dollars.” For Atlanta rappers of all stripes and styles, 2016 is a renaissance.

At street level, Atlanta hip-hop’s bass-heavy sound and nouveau-riche raps define contemporary hip-hop. You’ve heard the city’s influence in Chicago’s drill scene, and now — despite years of regional resistance — you’ll hear the trap drums ringing in New York and even farther away, in Beijing and Seoul. Atlanta is the genre’s undisputed capital and has been since the turn of the century, around the time Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” seized control of FM radio and MTV.

Gucci Mane (Getty Images)
Gucci Mane (Getty Images)

I don’t mean to discount the individual career peaks achieved by New York artists such as Jay Z, Ja Rule, G-Unit, and Dipset in the ’00s; and I’d be remiss to discount all that Juvenile, Mannie Fresh, and Lil Wayne did for New Orleans. But through the shifts in subgenre dominance among Memphis, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Houston, Atlanta built an enduring center of power. The Deep South hip-hop coup that Outkast launched at the 1995 Source Awards became a full-force blitz through the mid-’00s rise of trap rappers T.I., Gucci, and Jeezy. And the concurrent crunk and snap movements — led by Lil Jon and Soulja Boy, respectively — tightened hip-hop’s grip on pop music. Also: Ludacris. Now that the mixtape floodgates have blown wide open for indie artists, Atlanta has spawned an inexhaustible succession of young talent.

The course of ATL’s musical dominance has been a long and winding road. Ironically, it took a TV show to put the journey in perspective: Atlanta, which FX premiered in September, is a strange and exciting illustration of the city as a music scene and a purgatory for ambitious characters. Atlanta is a show about “the hustle” in the most cosmic sense: the hustle of art, the hustle of adulthood, and the general hustle of subsistence in an unlucky universe.

The city of Atlanta hustled 2016 for all it was worth. In May, Gucci Mane’s early release from prison brought Atlanta’s pop preminence into sharp and sudden relief as Drake and Kanye West rallied to celebrate the prodigal trap god’s liberation. Gucci is not only the unlikely toast of his genre, but also the totem for ATL protégés Future and Young Thug and an entire generation of rap fans who have largely moved on from Lil Wayne. Meanwhile, ATL veterans Jeezy, T.I., and 2 Chainz all released new music in 2016, remaining more viable and relevant than their senior hip-hop peers from NYC and elsewhere. The street fatalist 21 Savage and the human cartoon Lil Yachty offered dueling impressions of Atlanta rap’s future. Glover became the city’s most lauded spokesperson. Atlanta has the juice, and it doesn’t appear to be relinquishing it anytime soon.

One of the year’s most critically acclaimed TV series is an idiosyncratic drama about the husky, blunted rapper Paper Boi and his underachieving manager, Earn. The series, Atlanta, was created by its star, the Stone Mountain native Glover, who plays Earn and otherwise moonlights as rapper-singer Childish Gambino. Glover was born in California. He attended college in New York. But his childhood perspective on Atlanta’s suburbs, coupled with his contemporary perspective on the city’s great hip-hop ecosystem, informs the verisimilitude of Atlanta — a series that, so far, dedicates as many episodes to surreal tangents as it does to straightforward plot development. The show is weird partially because magical realism is exactly what Glover and his codirector, Hiro Murai, are going for, but also because the city itself is strange. Atlanta, a metropolitan sprawl of 5.7 million people, has heretofore been underdeveloped (if not uncharted) territory in America’s popular imagination.

‘Atlanta’ cast (Getty Images)
‘Atlanta’ cast (Getty Images)

Atlanta is the definitive presentation of what hip-hop has become in this century, after decades of being chronicled in New York and L.A. Unlike Fox’s flagging hip-hop series, Empire — a music biz drama about family succession and corporate intrigue at a rap label’s New York headquarters — Atlanta is as unglamorous as the music industry gets. It resets the popular aesthetic conception of hip-hop to a much slower life of backwoods and highways. With an all-black writing staff and principal cast, Glover dared to imagine not just the musical components of life as a rapper, but also the wonderful, mundane struggles that animate creativity in a great American city. Atlanta isn’t totally contemporary; its music and fashion stylings evoke different bits of the past decade, such as Paper Boi’s old-school affinity for Polo, and his brassy, fictional hit single, which sounds more like vintage Shawty Redd than new Metro Boomin. As a broad genre pastiche, though, Atlanta is a largely undated celebration of the city’s very nature. It seems destined to prove timeless in its preservation of Atlanta’s essence during this, its creative heyday.

At the heart of Atlanta hip-hop’s recent history stands Gucci Mane, who experienced a public, combative, drug-fueled meltdown in 2013 and then quickly shipped off to an Indiana prison on federal firearms charges. For three years, Gucci stalled behind bars even as his record label, 1017 Brick Squad Records, packaged and released records on his behalf. Local aspirants Future and Young Thug struck up stardom in his absence.

Gucci Mane’s release from prison was an interesting time-lapse image of Atlanta’s pop esteem. Before Gucci went to prison, he was a critical and commercial underdog who had tons of hardcore regional fans, sure — but he certainly wasn’t gracing the pages of Vogue, much less premiering new music videos with the fashion magazine. Of course, it helped that Gucci left prison sober and 75 pounds lighter; and he reportedly spent $20,000 to replace his old, rotted teeth with pearly whites. Overnight, Gucci Mane became perfectly telegenic and meme-friendly, broadcasting live from house arrest at his Marietta mansion via Snapchat, proposing to his girlfriend (now fiancée) Keyshia Ka’oir courtside at a Hawks game, and releasing the most anticipated music of his career. His base widened: Gucci greeted a newsroom full of fans gathered at NPR headquarters, where the rapper was set to perform an as-yet unreleased Tiny Desk concert. Elsewhere in the year of Gucci’s reemergence, Future scored his first GQ cover and Killer Mike was a presidential campaign surrogateThis broad and rather sudden confirmation of Atlanta hip-hop’s influence in so many corners of American life is nothing short of a pop culture transformation. And everybody’s looking.

Sure enough, a few of Gucci Mane’s descendants have come up through his former manager, Coach K. An A&R who co-owns the independent hip-hop record label Quality Control (est. 2013), Coach K managed Gucci as well as his local rival Jeezy early in their respective careers, and now he’s developing a full roster of millennial rappers based in the city. Quality Control is home to Lil Yachty and Migos, two very different hip-hop acts who nonetheless both work in Gucci Mane’s shadow. “All these kids grew up on Gucci,” Coach K says. “He fathered them. Just like how Outkast had their run, and then all the Dungeon Family kids came up from under them.” In Gucci’s case, “descendants” is a loose term; there are rappers like Future and Thugger, who came up through working with him, and then there’s the broader fan base of aspiring rappers who’ve followed his example from afar. “Hipster kids,” says Coach K. “Trap kids. Transplants. It’s a really big indie hip-hop scene down here.”

In 2016, the city’s biggest breakout star was Yachty, a spiritual offspring of Soulja Boy and a rapper who infuses his music with kiddie, improvisational flavor. With a quick succession of hits (“Minnesota,” “1 Night,” plus a guest verse on Virginia rapper D.R.A.M.’s Top 10 hit “Broccoli”), Yachty cut straight to the front of the zeitgeist. In October, he starred in a Sprite commercial with LeBron James. Last month, he became the new face of Nautica. Even more so than 21 Savage, Lil Yachty could say he’s preempted the chitlin circuit altogether.

And Glover? With Atlanta, and with his latest album, Awaken, My Love!, he’s opened his hometown to a namesake, prestige TV series and a grand Funkadelic resurgence. This year Glover came up; Gucci Mane came home, and his sauce overfloweth.