ATLANTA -- The one thing you knew instantly, even before the Atlanta Falcons were well on their way to demolishing Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, was that this was going to be some kind of celebration. Samuel L. Jackson already had whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Jermaine Dupri and Ludacris performed at halftime, while Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What" blared throughout the Georgia Dome at various intervals. This was the ATL at its finest hour -- with the beloved Falcons kicking butt and the city eager to remind the nation just how cool it has become.
With all due respect to other hot locales -- namely New York, Los Angeles and Miami -- Atlanta is the place to be right now. It's been the epicenter of hip-hop culture for years, but now it's claiming the best team in the NFC, a squad plenty capable of delivering the first Lombardi Trophy ever to these parts. Falcons fans already were losing their minds as Atlanta produced a 44-21 win over Green Bay in that NFC title game. Now they're hoping their hometown heroes can conquer Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the rest of the New England Patriotsin Super Bowl LI.
If the Falcons can achieve that feat, Atlanta will surge even higher in the realm of hipness. "Atlanta is a unique city to the world," Lil Jon said. "It's a certain pulse that the city has. I don't know how to explain it, because I've been here all my life. There's no other place like it. I love the food. I love our culture here. We're the music capital of the world pretty much for hip-hop, and we got a great football team."
Lil Jon was born and raised in Atlanta, so he knows plenty about how this city has literally risen up over the last three decades. When the Falcons reached their first Super Bowl (they lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII to culminate the 1998 season), Atlanta was merely a regional epicenter with a vibrant black business community and a surging appeal for young people looking for a good time. When the city hosted Super Bowl XXXIV a year after that defeat, a wicked ice storm crippled the area and made it impossible for most fans to enjoy the week. In other words, it was difficult for people to see the potential in this city when it disappointed under the brightest of the NFL's lights.
Fast-forward to today, and there are no concerns about the need for football to show the rest of the world what is right with Atlanta. If anything, the Falcons are accentuating what locals have seen blossoming for years. Even as quarterback Michael Vick excited the NFL with his play-making in the early 2000s, artists like Usher, Outkast and T.I. already were thrilling fans across the world. Today, Atlanta is home to some of the hottest music and television shows (FX's "Atlanta" and Bravo's "Real Housewives of Atlanta"), while movie producer Tyler Perry launched his multimedia empire in this very town.
That type of success makes the natives even prouder. "I went to the school on the east side, south side [and] stayed in at least 13 different residences growing up, so I'm super-Atlanta, super-excited about the trajectory of the city," rapper 2 Chainz said. "Not just the new stadium, but the athletic impression that we are leaving on just history, period. I'm glad to be a part of it. I'm glad to see Atlanta growing. I'm glad to see us continue to hold the torch musically and in entertainment and being the driving force and the leader behind trend-setting. I just really feel like Atlanta has a lot to offer."
"Atlanta has been on top of the music scene for pretty much forever," added Lil Jon. "We started to peak out in the '70s, and then the '80s and then the '90s is when we started to have so many different hip-hop acts come up, like Outkast and myself ... Now we've just been running the music scene and creating a post of hip-hop music. Everybody wants to come here to make music. Everybody wants to sound like Atlanta rappers. Everybody wants an Atlanta rapper on their track. It's awesome to be a part of this city."
Pro football in Atlanta also became cool in the 1990s. It was back then that Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders quickly grew into one of the NFL's biggest stars, with his close friend and teammate Andre Rison right by his side. Sanders was a one-man media sensation, the type of dominant personality who eventually cut his own album, made cameos on videos with rapper MC Hammer and pioneered the idea of self-promotion to a whole new generation of football players. Long before there was "Turn Down for What," Atlanta was swaying to Hammer's "Too Legit to Quit."
Suddenly, there were no longer any walls between sports and entertainment in this town. Locals like Lil Jon had grown up rooting for legendary Falcons like Steve Bartkowski and Billy "White Shoes" Johnson. Over the past two decades, they've watched football stars like Sanders, Rison and the players that followed them itching to be part of the entertainment scene. Before this season, Vick's tenure in Atlanta -- where he starred from 2001 until his involvement in a dog-fighting ringlanded him in federal prison in 2007 -- was the most electrifying period for a city that was merging sports and entertainment.
Vick still wishes he could've brought that city a championship, because he so cherishes the time he spent there. "I was watching all those [entertainers] when I was young," Vick said. "First it was the guys with So So Def [Recordings]. Then it was Bow Wow and Ludacris. Then I'm actually playing there and eating in places like Gladys Knight's Chicken and Waffles, and I'm seeing these same people in there ... I played in some other cities after Atlanta (with the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers), but it was just different being there."
That was never more apparent than this season. It was exciting enough to watch the Falcons win the NFC South title and then blow through the Seahawksand Packers in home playoff victories. It was even more thrilling for their fans to know that win over the Packers came in the final game for the Georgia Dome. That stadium had served as home base for so many Falcons parties that the Atlanta fans coveted one last celebration as a farewell.
Of course, there will be plenty of fun to be had when Mercedes-Benz Stadium opens later this year. The Falcons mean too much to this city, and this city expects too much of a good time on Sundays for that experience to decline. The more you talk to the people who know Atlanta the best, you also get the sense that there's some type of unspoken responsibility at play here. The last three decades have seen this city firmly entrench itself as the epicenter of cool, and its residents will be damned if they give that up any time soon.
In fact, the best place to make the next statement is at this year's Super Bowl. "If we win this Super Bowl, I think the parade is gonna be the most turnt, the most crunkest, the littest parade you have ever seen," Lil Jon said. "They gonna probably shut the city down for like a week. Ain't nobody going to work for like a week. We just gonna party for seven days. Might be two weeks. We might not even leave Houston. We might stay in Houston three or four days, and then we bring it back to Atlanta ... Ain't no party like an ATL party, baby."