The ATL, A-Town—whatever you want to call Atlanta, it has emerged as one of the most dynamic cities in America. The town’s creative ecosystem includes a concentration of historically Black colleges and universities, a powerful hip-hop community, visual artists, filmmakers and entrepreneurs. Add to that the beauty of the city, from its expansive tree canopy to its museums, and you’ve got an intoxicating mix. In recognition of February’s status as Black History Month, we asked three in-the-know “ATLiens” of color—a muralist, an influencer and a tech entrepreneur—to lead us through their favorite neighborhoods, places that deserve a visit next time you’re in the capital of the American South.
For more on Atlanta, see our city guide here.
Tech entrepreneur and television personality
Cocktails, Cuisine and Couture in Buckhead
Tanya Sam is waiting for me on a Sunday evening in the back corner of Agency Socialthèque, the Buckhead restaurant in which she and her fiancé, Paul Judge, are investors. We’re meeting to plan our upcoming outing in the upscale northeast Atlanta neighborhood. But first, she tells me, we’re getting drinks.
Far more than being just a regular on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Sam holds two bachelor’s degrees: one in genetics and cell biology, the other in nursing, which she practiced in her hometown of Toronto, then in New York and Atlanta. Through Judge, an inventor and investor, she gained knowledge about the world of tech start-ups: She’s now not only the director of partnerships at his TechSquare Labs accelerator, but also runs her own investment-management firm assisting female and minority entrepreneurs, The Ambition Fund.
Sam exudes confident soft power: She doesn’t suggest I order her namesake Tanya Thyme tiki cocktail, made with rum, banana thyme syrup, amaro and pineapple, but when I do, she doesn’t mind letting me know with a laugh that I made the right choice.
Located inside the premium Buckhead shopping mall Phipps Plaza, Agency is comfortably sleek, with a large fireplace, cozy leather and velvet seating and bold artworks, including a pop rendering of President Kennedy and Rihanna in an embrace, created by local artist DL Warfield.
As we sip, Sam puts in a carryout order (chili-spiced lobster and shrimp spaghetti for her fiancé, kale salad with roasted peanuts, Pecorino Romano and peanut vinaigrette for her), and we plan our itinerary.
A few mornings later, we meet at one of Sam’s favorite Buckhead restaurants, The Chastain, operated by executive chef Christopher Grossman, a vet of Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. “I really love their quiche,” she raves, and seems fairly obsessed with their low-carb banana bread. Today it’s just coffee, however—Atlanta-based Brash Coffee Roasters—and soaking up the ambiance. “It’s such a nice thing,” she says, “because you can sit outside with your laptop, you get a little bit of socialization, you feel good and you can get some work in.”
Fully caffeinated, we cross Powers Ferry Road into Atlanta’s largest recreational area, Chastain Park, where Sam often jogs through its 268 sprawling acres, which also contain baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a golf course, a horse park and therapeutic riding center for people with disabilities, and a performance amphitheater considered one of Atlanta’s best live music venues. As we pass others enjoying the park, Sam says it’s not uncommon to run across rapper Cardi B out for a brisk walk around the green space—she and husband Offset, of Atlanta rap trio Migos, purchased a palatial home nearby in late 2019.
We take a 10-minute car ride south to Buckhead Village, where Sam will often hit Flywheel and Barry’s Bootcamp. The complex also offers prime shopping opportunities. She loves contemporary boutique Alice + Olivia, and today chats with the store manager, who shows her a variety of accessories ranging from earrings to designer face masks.
We then cross the street to Christian Dior, Sam’s favorite shop for some “retail therapy.” “Then you can sit out and have a glass of wine on the patio at Le Bilboquet,” the heralded French bistro nearby. Alla, Dior’s assistant manager, tells us they’re hosting a trunk show where Sam could customize garments and accessories. She’s tempted, but has books on the brain.
As the host of Tanya Time Book Club, a weekly Instagram Live discussion group for people who love literature, Sam is also a regular at the public library, hidden in plain sight inside Buckhead Village. Visiting the library is a standard component of her Buckhead shopping experience. “I’ve always loved public libraries,” she says. “And in Buckhead, you have a library in the middle of all these high-end stores.”
When she’s not in Buckhead, Sam spends time in Midtown, where she enjoys walking along the trails at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, particularly when the evening lights are shining. She’s also a fan of the renowned High Museum of Art, whose permanent collection spans everything from antiquities to contemporary pieces by Chuck Close and Kara Walker. “You just shouldn’t miss it,” she says.
“I’ve always loved public libraries. And in Buckhead, you have a library in the middle of all these high-end stores.”
—Tanya Sam, @itstanyatime
And one place that’s closer to home—both literally and figuratively—is Kate’s Club, a nonprofit organization in Brookhaven, the northeastern suburb where she lives, for children who’ve experienced the death of a sibling, parent or other primary caregiver. Sam has become a friend of founder Kate Atwood, whom she met because both shared the experience of losing their mothers before they were teenagers. “We call it the club nobody ever wants to join but you’re so glad you found,” she says. “It was really therapeutic for me to get involved. It healed me in a way—like, 30 years later—I didn’t even realize I needed.”
Today she donates time and resources to the organization whenever she can. That includes this afternoon: She has a virtual conference with the organization coming up, so we walk back to her car. We say goodbye and she hops in the car and gets on the call, beaming a smile. It’s not clear what she’s saying, but it’s certain that Tanya Sam is gonna make it work.
Heritage and Oxtail in the West End
In Fabian Williams’ Atlanta, African Americans are future people. All around the city, from prominent walls to power boxes, he reimagines modern and historic heroes in provocative ways: Civil rights leader Hosea Williams appears as a galactic being floating among constellations; a barefoot and rainbow-colored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., appears to levitate just above the ground.
Born and raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Williams moved to Atlanta after college in 2001, working initially in advertising for clients like HBO and Nike. Soon he realized he’d rather use his creative talent to push social messages, and has since become one of Atlanta’s most prominent muralists.
Williams spends many of his days in Atlanta’s West End, a historic neighborhood slightly southwest of Downtown where the promise of higher education has long been central to that community’s cultural roots and national reach.
I meet him in front of his latest work, Black to the Future, a sprawling 100-yard (and nearly finished) mural on the campus of Morehouse College. It tells the story of Black excellence, beginning with a family in an Ethiopian forest, then moving through the Middle Passage to surviving and thriving in America. Peppered throughout are alumni such as MLK, Olympic gold medalist Edwin Moses, filmmaker Spike Lee and actor Samuel L. Jackson.
As we walk toward the unfinished end, Williams points out a likeness of rapper/activist alum Killer Mike in a space suit with his whip, a spaceship with a Morehouse logo. “The idea is that Morehouse is gonna be in space. I just want to put that in their heads,” Williams says with a smile. “I’m on some future stuff now, so I want to start putting images of Black people in the future, doing well, living technologically advanced, healthy, drama-free, trauma-free. And I feel like, you know, build it and they will come.”
We hop into Williams’ black SUV and head to the heart of West End. We pull up to Afro-Centric Network, where he buys some frankincense, burning oils and fragrant candles, which he says he keeps in stock at home to help with creative inspiration. One of his murals—a portrait of Bob Marley, but with a contemporary fade hairstyle—sits across the street outside Mangos Caribbean Restaurant, a favorite spot for oxtails and cabbage. “The best in the city, as far as I’m concerned,” he says, then adds, “Well, best in West End,” knowing the stir that might arouse across town in Stone Mountain, where great oxtails abound in the massive Caribbean community.
“I’m on some future stuff now, so I want to start putting images of Black people in the future, doing well, living technologically advanced, healthy, drama-free, trauma-free. And I feel like, you know, build it and they will come.”
—Fabian Williams, @occasionalsuperstar
An example of Williams’ work connecting legacies to challenge public sentiment can be seen further down Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard (called “RDA” by locals), at the corner of Peeples Street, where the aforementioned multicolored MLK portrait, titled Wake Up West End, points at the viewer. Also across the street is a Williams mural of Colin Kaepernick deflecting golden arrows—an homage to the famous 1968 Esquire magazine cover of Muhammad Ali.
Williams frequently kick-starts his mornings in the Westview community, just at the edge of West End near the Atlanta BeltLine. His go-to is Westview Corner Grocery, an independent natural foods market, where he’s addicted to picking up a cup of locally roasted JavaVino coffee.
We walk a few doors down to Slutty Vegan, the plant-based burger restaurant, but there’s a line out the door (standard for the now nationally famous eatery), so we dip next door to another favorite, Augie’s Café, a slickly designed diner where Williams loves the turkey burgers.
Another popular eatery nearby is My Potato Factory, where Williams routinely gets a sweet potato topped with shrimp and chicken sausage gumbo. Near the front door, he painted a portrait of the late C.T. Vivian, a pillar of Atlanta’s involvement in the civil rights movement who passed away on the same day in 2020 as legend John Lewis—another of Williams’ subjects.
As we drive back toward Morehouse, Williams takes in the storefronts and hip foot traffic of the West End crowd. “We don’t have a thing out here that we made that will last beyond a thousand years—nothing, none of these skyscrapers. I feel like we can learn something from the old heads. That’s why I’m beating it into [young people’s] heads so hard, because I want them to think about legacy. What came before you, and how long is it going to last?”
Energy Exchange in the Old Fourth Ward
Nikia Phoenix is pleasantly impossible to define. A native of South Carolina and a longtime resident of Los Angeles, she moved to Atlanta in 2018, drawn to the energy of the city. “Something kept calling me here and I couldn’t ignore it anymore,” she says. A model and actress who’s starred in national commercials, Phoenix is also a blogger, podcaster and influencer who’s able to weave her own sense of purposeful activism into projects, often confronting her insecurities in her content.
We’re meeting in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, between Downtown and Midtown, an area that welcomed artsy, down-to-earth ATLiens native and new, where scrappy, energetic people can always create a random good time. Phoenix is fashionably late (with an emphasis on fashion) for our rendezvous at hip coffee shop Chrome Yellow. She breezes in with significant “drip” (ATL cool-kid lingo for personal style), sporting an oversized brown fedora, cream-hued fluffy jacket, khakis and sneakers. As we sip lattes a photographer friend on the front patio recognizes her, and they commiserate like long-lost pals. He’s not the only one who recognizes Phoenix; as the day progresses, folks will treat her as a familiar face all around the historic Old Fourth Ward.
From there we walk the BeltLine, a paved pathway laid over a former railway corridor that will ultimately form a 22-mile loop connecting 45 inner-city neighborhoods. I see her eyeing some rentable scooters. After passing the space-aged mural of Hosea Williams by Fabian Williams, we stop at Just Add Honey Tea Company, tucked off the walkway. Brandi Shelton and her husband, Jermail, own the shop, and Brandi comes out to sit with us at the fenced-in patio out front—a spectacular spot from which to view the parade of Atlantans on the BeltLine.
We share a tea sampler (mango rose, funky “farmer’s market” and a blend of berry and Georgia peach), while eating sweet potato scones, miniature brownies and macarons, and chat about the neighborhood. “This is a great place to sip tea and judge people,” Phoenix says, with a wry smile.
After teatime wraps, Phoenix leads the way toward the BeltLine, pausing to flick through the racks at a vintage clothing pop-up before continuing to Krog Street Market, a popular food hall opened in 2014 that was originally built as a cast-iron cookware factory in the late 1800s. More recently it was owned by Tyler Perry and served as an earlier version of Tyler Perry Studios. Today, it houses outstanding food stalls such as the locally famous Gu’s Dumplings and Varuni Napoli, with a premium open kitchen offering some of Atlanta’s most authentic and delicious Neapolitan pizza.
"You see familiar faces, you have great conversations with people, and you’re like, Oh, this is community."
—Nikia Phoenix, @nikiaphoenix
We head to the Ticonderoga Club, home to one of the city’s best cocktail programs. They’ve set up a carryout service window, where we grab old-fashioneds for now, and a bottled boulevardier for later. Next stop: Fred’s Meat & Bread, whose burger is one of Atlanta’s most beloved. But Phoenix’s must-eat favorite doesn’t involve meat or bread: It’s the garlic fries. Thick-cut and tossed in a green olive oil with loads of minced garlic, they’re crispy and fragrant, and just enough of a snack to share as she continues to explain why she loves this piece of the ATL.
“It’s just that familiarity,” she says. “Even when I lived in L.A. and I would come to Atlanta for a few days I always stopped here. You see familiar faces, you have great conversations with people, and you’re like, Oh, this is community. So even with all the changes happening, as long as we have community, we can talk and have those conversations. That makes all the difference to me.”
We leave the market and cross the street to Emef Studio Gallery and Store, where we gather with artist/designer Sean Fahie and store owner Emef Griffin, a photographer and videographer who sells a variety of products, including corduroy hats, duffel bags and a wide selection of houseplants in his Just Be a Good Person gallery, also inside the space. Phoenix doles out glasses of the bottled cocktail to our expanded crew, and at a long table we discuss everything from dating in Atlanta to what career success looks like as a Black creative.
A passionate advocate for women’s issues, Phoenix is the founder of Black Girl Beautiful, an organization that creates programming to encourage women of color to celebrate their inner and outer beauty. A recent victory was the social media popularity of her nearby mural, a whimsical five-word sentence painted over bright patches of color that reads: “Hey Brown Girl, You’re Beautiful.”
“I don’t go out and solicit,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Hey, I want to work with you; I want to do this, I want to do that.’ I just do what I do, and then the energy comes to me.” At twilight we finally do grab those scooters to get back to my SUV, then she scoots off toward Downtown Atlanta in search of the night’s next adventure, somehow not fatigued from our six hours of coffee, tea, cocktails, French fries and conversation. She gives energy to this Old Fourth Ward community, and clearly receives it.