Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A transplant to Atlanta from Pakistan (via London) has mapped the story of Atlanta as told through the songs of some of the city’s most famous rappers.
The story behind Donald Glover’s praiseworthy television series “Atlanta” is told in landscapes. While the show bears the name of the city, there’s perhaps more to learn about the city from the show’s background settings than from its disjointed plot lines or its characters. In each episode the viewer is transported from Atlanta’s forested, working-class ranch-house neighborhoods into the ominous woods mulched around the city; from the secluded mansions of celebrities and agoraphobic elites in Atlanta’s outer-ring suburbs, to the hollowed-out and foreclosed mini-mansions of its inner-ring subdivisions; and, from its strip malls packed with numerous barbershops and nail salons to its ethereal strip clubs— arguably Atlanta’s truest “third places.”
This panoply of residential and recreational spaces gives the unacquainted a vivid idea of what exactly Atlanta is, in the cultural and geographical senses. Place, of course, defines a city as much as its people do, which is why rappers pack so many references to place in their rhymes. When it comes to Atlanta, these references are common currency within the city’s unique brand of Hip Hop. So much so that a young undergrad student from Pakistan studying at Middlesex University in London could learn a lot about Atlanta, and America by extension, by listening to the legendary Atlanta rap group Outkast.
“Outkast helped me understand that there was more to America than the movies and TV shows,” says that student, Adnan Rasool. “There was a whole side that I didn't know and the music and videos helped explain that. For me, Atlanta was this place where you could make it no matter who you were.”
Today, Rasool is living in Atlanta, as a Ph.D. candidate in Georgia State University’s political science department, working on a mapping project that uses the lyrics of artists such as Outkast, Childish Gambino, and Ludacris to tell the story of the city. He’s doing this through the ATL Maps project, a partnership between GSU’s Student Innovation Fellowship program and Emory University’s Center for Digital Scholarship, using city maps that date as far back as the 1920s to show how the metropolis has developed over time. For the “Rap Maps,” scroll over the pinned markers and each one will pop up a window filled with information on what song and album references that location, and also the lyric that mentions it.
For the Childish Gambino map, viewers can see that Glover (Childish Gambino is Glover’s rap name) has been talking about his home city long before he developed a TV show around it:
The user can select from several base layers, or map faces, one of which is a map from the 1960s redlining era showing areas grouped by where “Negroes” lived, where “Negro” populations were expanding, and what areas were transitioning into a “Negro” neighborhood. Rasool found from layering current rap lyric references over the older maps, that most Hip Hop music is coming from the same areas designated for black settlement decades ago.
“Those are the areas that are the least developed,” says Rasool. “Those are the areas that have been ignored over time, even though the city has gone through massive improvements since the Olympics. We wanted to give people an idea and the optics of how a city is changing, but the basis of that city, where all the music is coming from, is roughly the same. Nothing has changed for them and that’s why the music still sounds very authentic when it’s coming from there.”
One can’t help but notice from the maps that the “there” that Rasool is referring to happens to be a bunch of places located in the southern hemisphere of metro Atlanta. No matter which rapper’s map you’re looking at, the bulk of the lyrical references point to this southern region—even for Childish Gambino, despite the fact that Glover grew up in Stone Mountain, which sits near the northeastern quadrant of metro Atlanta. These clusters illustrate “the city’s well-documented economic, political, and racial North–South divide,” writes Rasool in a blog for Atlanta Studies—a segregating line that extends across the metro not just in terms of living circumstances, but also in the distribution and quality of financial institutions, parks, health care facilities, and retail. In fact, there is a shopping center, the Greenbriar Mall, referenced multiple times by all of the rappers, that serves as the headquarters for many of Atlanta’s Hip Hop success stories.
“Jermaine Dupri [founder of So So Def Records] picked out artists who were performing there [at Greenbriar Mall] and signed them to contracts,” says Rasool. “So there is a history of music and classic record companies that come out of south Atlanta and all of them are headquartered in parts of the city that, honest to God, look exactly the same as they did 25 years ago.”
Along with similar rap lyric-mapping projects conducted in other cities such as New Orleans and Los Angeles, these exercises are creating a Hip Hop-based urban anthropology that presents different realities than those found in textbooks. For Rasool, his involvement in this has nothing to do with his poly-sci Ph.D. studies. This is his passion project. It’s his calling to Atlanta, via Outkast. His current project, expected to be completed by the end of this summer: Mapping 2 Chainz.
To see maps created using lyrics from Ludacris and Outkast songs, visit Rasool’s blog post at Atlanta Studies.