There's more to this city than just corporate headquarters. Lauren David Peden provides a star-gazers' guide.
Pssst! Check out that table over there ? Elton John is having dinner with Janet Jackson, her rapper?producer boyfriend, Jermaine Dupri, and Collective Soul lead singer Ed Roland. And isn't that Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown sitting two booths away, munching on roast chicken and truffle-mashed potatoes? Oh, don't look now, but music and fashion über-mogul P. Diddy just rolled in with 30 of his closest friends.
If you think this scene is taking place in New York or Los Angeles, then think again. This is an average night in Atlanta ? affectionately referred to as "the ATL" ? where celebrity sightings have become as common as dogwood blossoms and streets named Peachtree (there are more than 100 of these).
In the past decade or so, Atlanta has become home to a surprising number of high-profile names. As well as the aforementioned celebs, other well-known residents include Jimmy Carter, R&B singers Usher, Faith Evans and Toni Braxton, actress Jane Fonda, media boss Ted Turner, boxer Evander Holyfield, country great Kenny Rogers, American music moguls Antonio "LA" Reid and Kenny "babyface" Edmonds, and all manner of athletes, including basketball star Shaquille O'Neal and PGA golf pro Jeanne Dooley. (The city is home to five professional sports teams: the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Silverbacks and Thrashers.)
Of these, Reid and Edmonds are largely responsible for Atlanta's current celebrity boom. In 1989, they started LaFace Records in partnership with Arista. LaFace defined the urban sound of the 90s with chart-topping releases by Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, TLC, Usher, OutKast and Pink ? not to mention Babyface's own hit records and solo songwriting and production work with the likes of Madonna, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin and Celine Dion ? all of which landed Atlanta squarely on the showbiz map.
LaFace relocated to Los Angeles in 2000, but not before alumni Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin founded their own successful offshoots (SoSoDef and Rowdy Records), which have kept the local music industry hopping. This has attracted an ever-growing mix of celebrities, and Atlanta now has a thriving cultural scene.
"Atlanta used to be a quiet little town, but now the nightlife is great," says David Abes, director of operations at Twist, one of the city's hottest restaurants. "I think people see what is going on in New York and Miami and say, ?Hey, we can do that in Atlanta too.'"
In the past few years the city has witnessed the opening of countless new restaurants, shops and megaclubs catering to the young, hip, moneyed crowd in the Buckhead and Midtown neighbourhoods. And there are still plenty of arty eateries, bars and indie rock venues in East Atlanta, Virginia-Highlands and Little Five Points (aka "L5P") to keep Atlanta's edgier types happy.
"People like Atlanta because it's such a diverse city," says Michael Johnson, vice president of marketing at Club Vision, a favourite hangout of P. Diddy and co. "They might go to the most expensive spot for prime rib or to Houston's for a quick bite. It depends on the celebrity. There is an extreme amount of variety in this city."
Despite all the growth and variety, the cost of living is still reasonable ? something even wealthy celebrities take into consideration (that is, after all, how the rich get richer).
"You can purchase a 20,000-square-foot home on three or four acres in Atlanta for less than $3 or $4 million," says Kevin Brown, general manager of Bluepointe restaurant. That sounds like a lot until you consider that the New York Times reported in April that the average cost of a Manhattan apartment ? which is typically 2,000 square feet or smaller ? is $1 million.
Music and film producer Anthony "Cheapo" Kirkland, founder of Kirkland Media Co., moved back to Atlanta from Boston for this very reason. "My house in Massachusetts was $2,500 a month, and my rent here is $800 a month," Kirkland says. "And I was in a middle-class area of Boston; in Atlanta, I live in Buckhead, a very upscale neighbourhood."
Kirkland is now building a $30 million recording studio, sound stage and distribution facility in DeKalb County, Georgia, which will undoubtedly draw even more MTV and Hollywood types to the area. As it stands, Georgia's music industry alone ? most of it based in Atlanta ? generates $989.5 million annually, according to a 2003 Georgia State University study.
Basketball star Al Harrington was traded from the Indiana Pacers to the Atlanta Hawks this season, and he couldn't be more pleased. "I'm so happy to be here," Harrington says.
"I have family here, and this is a place I could definitely make my home."
One of the things locals, famous or not, like about Atlanta is its decided lack of pretension.
"We're a little more laid-back here," says Kim Lichtenstein, owner of PR firm Kimistry101. "In [places] like New York and LA it's very competitive just to get in the door. Here, there are so many different cultures that when we come together there's a different feeling. The citizens are just as much a part of the environment as the celebrities, and everybody becomes part of the party."
Indeed, recent visitors Madonna, and basketball stars Allen Iverson and Dennis Rodman have all hosted parties that drew a mix of celebs and regular folk, and Lil' Kim celebrated her birthday with a bash at the ATL's Club Vision.
Atlanta Falcons football player Warrick Dunn relocated here from Tampa three years ago . "I like the [mix] of different people, and there's a lot to do," he says. "It's become the new music mecca, and I'm into music. It's like a little New York or LA, but it's not as expensive and the people are friendly. It's definitely the place to be."
Add in the area's natural beauty (Atlanta has a mild climate and plenty of space to enjoy it, with 54 public parks), an array of upscale cultural offerings (from ballet, classical, jazz, opera and theatre performances to first-rate museums, galleries and arts festivals), and plenty of family attractions (Stone Mountain Park, Georgia Aquarium, Six Flags Over Georgia), and it would seem there's something for everyone.
Sports fans will also find much to love in Atlanta. The city hosts several world-class golf tournaments, as well as the annual Peachtree Road Race, which, with more than 55,000 runners, is the largest 10-kilometre race in the world. Both the Atlanta Hawks (basketball) and the Thrashers (ice-hockey) play at Philips Arena, and the Atlanta Motor Speedway boasts a slew of NASCAR and Indy-car events. Meanwhile, football enthusiasts can take in a Silverbacks game at DeKalb Memorial Stadium. The Atlanta Falcons help to make football family-friendly with affordable ticket packages to their games at the Georgia Dome, while fans of Arena Football can catch the Georgia Force at the brand-new Gwinnett Center.
With all these attractions, it's no wonder this 6,126-square-mile metropolis ? with a population of 4 million and growing ? was rated "Best place to expand and relocate your Business" by US magazine Site Selection. It's also the number one travel destination and the favourite relocation spot in the US for African-Americans, according to the Travel Industry Association of America and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, respectively.
"I've heard many black people say they feel comfortable here because there are so many other black people here," says Andisheh Nouraee, entertainment columnist at Creative Loafing, Atlanta's largest alternative weekly. "There aren't a lot of rich, predominantly black suburbs in this country. I think that's the biggest draw."
"I think the attraction is the respect people give you in Atlanta," says producer Dallas Austin. "There are no big egos and no big attitudes. The housing options are great. The total lifestyle package is perfect for celebrities."
Also perfect for celebrities is the convenience of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the nation's busiest, with 79 million passengers travelling through its corridors in 2003. It was ranked "First airport for non-stop service to United States destinations" in the same year by OAG and by research and consulting firm Back Aviation Solutions.
These are all good things when you've got to jet off to a concert in Cape Town or a meeting in Miami (47 international cities are reachable via non-stop services from Atlanta, as are 143 American cities). And for celebrities with their own private planes, there are two smaller Atlanta airports at their disposal.
Another draw is the city's long-standing liberal leanings. "Atlanta is a cool place," says Gary Torre, director of the Georgia Film, Video & Music Office. "If you look at our history, it's really progressive and tolerant, with the civil rights era, Martin Luther King ? and there's a large gay population here. It's a great mix."
Many celebs ? including Elton John and American all-girl band the Indigo Girls ? have cited Atlanta's all-inclusive politics as one reason they have chosen to live here. "I've lived here for 30 years," says Indigo Girl Emily Saliers. "Atlanta is friendly, with great neighbourhoods and progressive politics. It's got a thriving music scene, access to politicians and the ability to effect change."
And that access seems to apply across the board ? whether you're Joe Public or an up-and-coming entrepreneur trying to make your mark. "For all the stuff that used to go on in the South, we've made a lot of strides," says Anthony Kirkland. "This morning, I went to a developmental meeting for DeKalb County, and I'm sitting there with the ex-governor of the state. There may be differences of opinion on issues, but there's really not any separation. It's more like, let's see what we can do collectively to make this situation better for everybody."
Politics aside, it's also the city's natural and cultural charms that prompt celebrities to want to call it home. "Atlanta's beautiful," says singer Bobby Brown, who moved here in
1989. "It has the weather of Florida and the fast-paced life of New York. On top of that, it can be a very peaceful place. What more could you ask for?"
Who, and Where?
On Peachtree Road in Buckhead ? aka "the Beverly Hills of the East" ? you'll find Park Place, a luxury high-rise that is home to Janet Jackson, human rights activist Coretta Scott King, and Elton John.
Since moving to Atlanta more than a decade ago, the bespectacled singer has combined several penthouse apartments into one sweeping 18,000-square-foot duplex (units generally go for $300,000 to $2 million). So besotted is Sir Elton with his adopted hometown that he even named his upcoming CDPeachtree Road.
Buckheadis also home to verdant streets lined with tasteful estates and over-the-top mansions, as well as upscale clubs, restaurants, Lenox Mall (Neiman Marcus, Louis Vuitton) and Phipps Plaza (Jeffrey, Gucci). Other neighbourhood residents include Ted Turner, Jane Fonda (he in a mansion, she in a high-rise), singer John Mayer and members of Collective Soul.
Midtown(aka "Atlanta's SoHo") is where you'll find Piedmont Park, Fox Theater, the High Museum of Art and the Woodruff Arts Center.
It's also home to Shaquille O'Neal, who resides at The Mayfair, an English-style condo with a croquet lawn and full-time concierge (units range from $280,000 to several million).
Downtownis bustling by day but fairly dead at night, despite the presence of Centennial Olympic Park, Philips Arena and CNN Center. Open living spaces ? especially those in the former Muses department store, and the William Oliver and the Metropolitan (both prestigious office buildings that have been converted into lofts) ? attract arty types like Sister Hazel guitarist Ryan Newell and his wife, Jennifer Hobby, a local radio host.
Little Five Pointsand East Atlanta are adjacent hipster 'hoods where you'll find pop stars like Puddle of Mudd and Butch Walker. Live-music joints, funky boutiques and inexpensive eateries make it a magnet for students, while Little Five Points is where you'll score the latest indie albums and pink hair dye.
Stone Mountainlies further east and is home to the 3,200-acre Stone Mountain Park, as well as OutKast's Big Boi, TLC's Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas ? who also has a house in nearby College Park.
Sandy Springs,a north Atlanta suburb, boasts Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri and OutKast's Andre 3000 as residents. "I live in Sandy Springs, and I like the community as a whole," says Austin. "I feel comfortable interacting with anyone in my neighbourhood, and I think that's because of the diversity that it represents. It's one of the wealthiest in the US, but the people are very laid-back."
Equally upscaleDunwoody is home to the sprawling estates of P. Diddy, L. A. Reid and TLC's Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, while Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, Usher, Toni Braxton, and Faith Evans all call Alpharetta (30 minutes north of downtown Atlanta) home. Houses here go for anywhere from $500,000 to $5 million. "We like the area because it's outside of the city but close enough to go back when we feel like it," says Brown. Evander Holyfield, meanwhile, lives in nearby Fairburnon the appropriately named Evander Holyfield Highway.
For a low-down on hotels in Atlanta go to page 73 of the October edition of Business Traveller magazine.