Don’t try to tease Atlanta with a good time. It is, after all, the city that birthed the phrase “turn up.” Whose residents bear the name of a genre-shifting rap album (ATLiens). Where the nightlife has long been the script of urban legends. Come Tuesday evening, the city will await the results of the most important non-Powerball sweepstakes in recent memory: the NBA draft lottery — or, as it’s otherwise known, the right to draft Zion Williamson.
Landing Williamson is a long shot. (The Atlanta Hawks have a 10.5 percent chance of acquiring the top pick, good for fifth behind New York, Phoenix, Cleveland and Chicago.) That hasn’t stopped ATLiens from wishing upon a lemon pepper wet wing, of course. But Williamson and Atlanta differ from, say, LeBron James and Cleveland because Atlanta doesn’t need Williamson to reroute the city’s future. Atlanta is the best cultural destination for Williamson because this majority-black metropolis is already the mecca for black excellence, a modern-day mashup of the Harlem Renaissance and Sweet Home Chicago.
“Cleveland had their moment with LeBron. New York’s always had [the hoopla]. But it’s Atlanta’s time. We’re welcoming of new, young and talented people,” said Larry Luk, a Hawks enthusiast and head of brand at Localeur, a crowd-sourced recommendation platform for travelers. “Zion Williamson fits that mold.”
Williamson’s pedigree is public knowledge. He was a high school cheat code whose mixtapes gave him a Lil Wayne-like aura. His one season at Duke University only added to the anticipation and debate surrounding his future. He was the talk of the town at this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend. He’s been compared to James in terms of hype and to Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin and Larry Johnson as far as body type and athleticism. By season’s end, Williamson became only the third freshman to win the John R. Wooden Award, given to the country’s best player, and the third freshman in the last 20 seasons, along with Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, to amass 500 points, 50 blocks and 50-plus steals. Williamson’s every step (and shoe explosion) is a modern-day Truman Show.
For decades, New York was the most important place for America’s black culture, the site of the Harlem Renaissance, home court to both Malcolm X and Dapper Dan and the birthplace of hip-hop. But from Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement to its rise to the apex of hip-hop’s leaderboard in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “The A” has reached a cultural zenith. LaFace Records, which introduced household names such as TLC, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Ciara, Outkast and others, helped craft the sounds of both rap and rhythm and blues not in New York or Los Angeles. Andre 3000’s proclamation, “The South got something to say!” at the 1995 Source Awards is widely accepted as the most prophetic statement in rap history. Freaknik, the Atlanta-based spring break phenomenon, became black America’s most fabled party.
“It’s funny answering [why Williamson fits culturally],” said longtime Hawks fan and Atlanta hip-hop historian Maurice Garland, “because Atlanta’s culture is already pretty solid.”
Tory Edwards is an Atlanta-based filmmaker whose credits include work on Selma, Being Mary Jane, the Raw Report street DVDs and the 2014 documentary ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. He’s also one-fourth of 404-derived civic and content collective Atlanta Influences Everything. He says bringing Williamson to Atlanta makes sense for one symbiotic reason: The city has always had one constant in its pursuit of cultural dominance — disruption.
“Just like Atlanta, who he is and what he represents is disruption,” Edwards said. Williamson is “something fresh and aggressive, and I believe Atlanta is going through its own renaissance.”
The city’s music scene reads like a list of high school superlatives: The aforementioned Ciara, Outkast, Dupri, Usher and TLC, plus Dungeon Family, Monica, T.I., Gucci Mane, Childish Gambino, Travis Porter, The-Dream, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, 21 Savage, Pastor Troy, Ludacris, Future, Young Jeezy, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Migos and countless others.
The film industry, in almost a reverse gold rush, has planted flags in Atlanta. ATL, which starred natives T.I. and Big Boi as well as Lauren London, was a 2006 coming-of-age-in-Atlanta film that used one of its storied landmarks, the Cascade Skating Rink, to establish its local legitimacy nationwide. In 2016, more feature films were shot in Georgia than in California — Time magazine dubbed Atlanta Hollywood’s “Southern campus.” More recently, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, in just two seasons, is already a generationally important series. Its nightlife scene, spearheaded by strip clubs such as Magic City and Blue Flame, has given the metropolis an independent identity.
But beyond that, and perhaps what Edwards sees as a natural fit for the Southern-born Williamson, is its youthful energy. From black painters such as Fahamu Pecou to Orchestra Noir (which held court at Cardi B’s baby shower), an active and aggressive arts scene not only lives in Atlanta, it’s thriving.
“I think Atlanta just continues to disrupt culture and influence the world,” Edwards said. “I think Zion is a perfect match.”
“From an art and fashion standpoint, we haven’t really had a guy in town that had a signature sneaker that anyone cared about wearing since [Deion Sanders’ Nike Air Diamond Turfs],” said Luk. “Zion’s signature shoe in Atlanta would be worn by everyone if he was a Hawk, including myself.”
With a 1,000-watt smile and a forthcoming sneaker deal that’s expected to shatter anything before it, Williamson is already his own economy. And if there’s one city that appreciates the black dollar, it’s Atlanta.
“What I’ve noticed is a lot of young black entrepreneurs budding in Atlanta,” said ATL-based blogger and Spelman alumna Jameelah Johnson. “There’s so many ideas and so many young people. It’s the colleges that are here, like Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta,” as well as Georgia State and Georgia Tech. “It’s just amazing how much talent and knowledge there is for young people.”
Rooting for Atlanta sports teams hasn’t been the easiest job in the world. The city is still haunted by the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss in 2017. (Seriously, don’t say, “28-3” in many places. It’s still too soon.) In the 1980s, Dominique Wilkins, “The Human Highlight Film,” was one of the most exciting players in the NBA. But the team hasn’t won an NBA title since 1958, when it was based in St. Louis. In the ’90s, Deion Sanders and Andre Rison made the Falcons the hottest ticket in town (although the team finally advanced to its first Super Bowl in 1999 with Jamal Anderson and Terance Mathis). The Braves had a majority-black infield and outfield in the ’90s that was hugely popular in Atlanta’s black community.
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The city has been brutally criticized for its sports apathy. But that narrative is being rewritten by the new MLS franchise with its attendance numbers north of 70,000, recruitment of fans of color and a commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity. Last year, Atlanta United FC captured the city’s first professional title since the Braves won the 1995 World Series.
Even the slim chance of the Hawks landing the top spot in June’s draft is building Hawks fervor. “This city is dying for a superstar,” said DJ X-Rated, who works at several spots, including Allure, Magic City and XS.
“If Zion were to come to the Hawks, that would probably be the biggest thing since Dominique as far as a real star is here. Not just a good player, but a person that has real star power,” Garland agreed. “To a degree, Trae Young is that right now. This is the most I’ve ever seen Hawks basketball talked about in a long time, and we didn’t even win a damn thing.”
The Hawks finished this season 29-53, a five-win improvement over last year’s campaign. Young, a Rookie of the Year finalist, and second-year forward John Collins are already one of the league’s more exciting tandems, with both averaging nearly 20 points per game for the season. Kevin Huerter, who also just completed his rookie season, shot 38 percent from 3-point range — and won the respect of the recently retired Dwyane Wade.
A different energy pumped through the veins of State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta this season. Part of it had to do with the commitment to providing a different experience, with restaurants such as the city’s famed J.R. Crickets, a courtside bar and even Killer Mike’s barbershop. At the base of the excitement, though, was the product on the court.
“It’s like, ‘Oh … we got [one of] the leading scorers from college last year on the team [in Young]. It was exciting things happening,” said Garland.
“When [the Hawks] started clicking at the end of the season, it got crazy. They would lose games, but it wasn’t like they were really losing. You could see what they were putting out there,” said Johnson. “You’re like, ‘Wow, this team could actually do something. And they’re still young.’ So to see something like that is just inspiring.”
In an Atlanta version of utopia, Young leads fast breaks for years to come with Huerter sprinting to the corner, Collins flanked on one wing and Williamson on the other. “How do you defend that?” Johnson said with a laugh. “No, seriously, where do you go?”
The answer to that last question for Atlanta fans is easy: to the game. Not since James in 2003 has there been a player with more intoxicating potential and every-household marketability. Williamson is the first high school megastar of the Instagram era to surpass the unrealistic level of expectations — at least so far. College basketball ratings were up 15 percent this season on ESPN and 30 percent for Duke, in large part because of Williamson. Jay-Z, James and former President Barack Obama were all seated courtside within a month of each other to see the show in person.
“He’s the first athlete to really grow up like that in the social media spotlight from a young’un. If you’re on Instagram, you were like, at one point, ‘Who’s this dude dunking on all these little white kids, man?!’ ” said Garland. “Even rappers that may not even be big sports fans, they know who dude is. This is the dude Drake was riding hard for.”
Even those just marginally attracted to the pageantry will be tuning in Tuesday night. It’s not a matter of getting too excited before an inevitable letdown. With potentially two top-10 picks this year, Atlanta is in perhaps the best win-win scenario in the lottery. But the ultimate prize is No. 1 — Williamson’s jersey number and the draft position. “If [Williamson] comes here, everybody is gonna come,” says Edwards. “The city’s coming up.”
Still, it’s not as if Atlanta needs Zion Williamson to establish itself. And it’s not as if the Hawks need Zion Williamson either. ATLiens acknowledge what he can do for them. But they also know what the city, the culture and the creativity here can do for Williamson.
“Atlanta is the perfect breeding place for young talent,” Johnson said. “You just have people here trying to start new things. It’s the perfect place for someone like [Williamson] to come and to start his career.”