double-edged sword

‘Atlanta’: When a city loses the authenticity that made it cool in the first place

Getty/Neilson Barnard

Walking into Vintage Barber Shop in downtown Atlanta is like stepping into history. The smell of blade oil and the buzzing of clippers mingles with news reports coming from a ceiling-mounted flat-screen TV. Black folks, ranging from high school boys to middle-aged businessmen, occupy barber chairs or sit on benches waiting their turn.

There’s an old-school feel to Vintage that goes beyond its name. It sits on the ground floor of the Healey Building, one of several imposing turn-of-the-century skyscrapers along Forsyth Street in Atlanta’s Fairlie-Poplar district. This historic area is filled with art deco and neoclassical architecture, which is out of place in a city seemingly committed to erecting sleek, modern high-rises in every available space.

A few streets over, yellow signs with black arrows directing crews to film sets are taped to traffic cones, and a parking lot nearby is filled with white equipment vans and trailers. By nightfall, the area will become a maze of thick black cables, cameras, and spotlights. Fairlie-Poplar’s architecture has made it attractive to film crews that transform the area into anywhere in the world at minimal cost. Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Fast 8 were all recently shot, here.

Hollywood has a love affair with Atlanta.

Hollywood has a love affair with Atlanta. Due its popularity for film productions and the popularity of locally produced television shows such as The Walking Dead, Being Mary Jane, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love & Hip Hop, and Donald Glover’s hit new show Atlanta, the city has become known as “ATLWood,” or “Hollywood South.” Tyler Perry is building a studio complex on the site of a former military base in Atlanta, while Pinewood Studios—home of the James Bond franchise—opened a production facility south of Atlanta.

Vintage’s owner, Herbert Williams, sports a full, neatly trimmed beard and has a relaxed but precise manner of speaking. When I asked for his thoughts on the filming in his neighborhood, Williams said he hasn’t had time to watch many of the movies shot locally, and added that he’s not a big fan of reality shows.

“I won’t say it’s buffoonery,” he told me with a deep laugh, “but I’m not crazy about them.”

Over at Atlanta City Hall, the love affair is mutual. Last year, Georgia’s film industry was the third largest in the United States. Passed in 2005 and amended in 2008, the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act sparked this filming boom; it offers tax credits of 20% to 30% to productions filmed in the state. According to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, Georgia-based film and TV productions generated more than $6 billion in fiscal year 2015.

Atlantans have become so used to movies being shot around town that they pass by film sets with little more than a glance, and barely look up when someone famous walks into a restaurant. The booming industry is generally seen as an interesting diversion, but for some locals like Williams, Hollywood glamor isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

“This is a 9-to-5 area with a lot of one-way streets, and when film crews shoot here, it affects us,” he said. “I’ve had film companies offer us as little as $300 a day to close, and sometimes the crews are rude to people.”

In Atlanta, clashes between commerce and communities of color have a long, troubled history. Ever since real estate developers became aware of the economic potential of such areas after the 1996 Olympics, low-income people have been gradually pushed out of the inner city. Atlanta has one of the highest gentrification rates in America, and locals who stay are wary of disruptions that could result in their permanent displacement.

“I’d rather they not film here.”

- Steve Young, manager of a local J.R. Crickets

“I’d rather they not film here,” said Steve Young, manager of a franchise of local restaurant chain J.R. Crickets, located on Forsyth Street several steps away from Vintage. “It’s not worth our time. Production companies pay the city for parking permits and tell us, ‘We’re not gonna interfere with your business.’ They had the director’s tent right in front of my door on the last movie they shot here.”

Forsyth Street is a narrow semi-pedestrian street, and the equipment and crew necessary for a feature film can easily occupy the entire space—at the cost of all other activity.

“I’m a storefront, so if you park big movie trucks on the street, you can’t see me,” Young added. “A lot of my business is foot traffic, and if there’s movie trucks in the way, they don’t come. Then you have customers in cars and if there’s no parking available, they go someplace else. So it’s lost revenue for me.”

Film industry professionals, however, see mostly positives in the local movie boom. “I think the industry is great for the city and the economy,” said Paula Martinez, former producer of the Atlanta Film Festival and current co-city producer of short-film competition the 48 Hour Film Project. “It provides jobs, and shows off the city and the state. The tax incentive brings in the big budget films, and it’s really good for the black film industry, which is just taking off.”

“It’s providing a platform for the African-American community that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

According to Atlanta’s Office of Entertainment website, the city is committed to minimizing disruption in neighborhoods and businesses during film shoots. But small business owners say the government isn’t doing enough to regulate the impact of having to close their businesses while filming takes place around them.

“The occasional negative is a shut-down road or a parking hassle. But these are minor and the trade-off is worth it,” Gabriel Wardell, a 48 Hour Film Project producer, told me.

“The productions have been professional, and do their best to steer clear,” Wardell added. “I’ve had a few films shoot in my East Atlanta neighborhood, and a few close to my office. And the impact has been minimal, but the upside is astronomical.”

“The impact has been minimal, but the upside is astronomical.”

- Gabriel Wardell, 48 Hour Film Project producer

The people in high-volume filming locations who I interviewed are aware that the movie industry is sticking around, but want to see the relationship become more beneficial for everyone involved.

“These are major film companies,” Young said. “I’m not asking them to make me rich; I’m just asking them to respect my business also.”

Another upside is the industry has made Atlanta more appreciative of the areas of the city it used to ignore. Neighborhoods that were once left off tourist maps are now part of guided film tours. The challenge now, however, is preserving what attracted Hollywood to Atlanta in the first place.

“We were here before the movie trucks came,” Vintage’s Williams said, “and we’ll be here after they’re gone.”