Had my pen, and plus my paper
We caught the 86 Lithonia headed to Decatur
Writin' rhymes tryna find our spot off in that light
Light off in that spot, knowin' that we could rock
— "Elevators (Me & You)," ATLiens (1996)
One year after Andre Benjamin paid lyrical homage to Decatur in "Elevators (Me & You)," the song about "moving on up in the world" that launched OutKast's sophomore album, ATLiens, an altogether different depiction of the Eastside hit the big screen. The 1997 film B.A.P.S. starred Halle Berry as a ghettofied, gold-grill-and-beehive-weave-wearing bumpkin who moves straight from the DEC to L.A. with video-ho aspirations.
It was a far cry from Rashan Ali's image of the Atlanta suburb. The longtime Atlanta radio personality, who considers herself "the epitome of a Decatur girl," grew up in the section of unincorporated DeKalb County that would become one of the nation's wealthiest African-American enclaves in the 2000s.
"We were the typical middle-class black family in Decatur. Didn't want for anything," says Ali, whose father, Buck Godfrey, coached the Southwest DeKalb High School Panthers to successive state divisional football championships in the '80s and '90s. During Ali's eighth grade year at SWD, she shared a social studies class with a young Andre during his short stint at her alma mater. He was kind of quiet, Ali recalls, but he still had a presence. "Back then it was cool to be different," she says. "He was your regular cool Decatur kid."
Though he left before a full year, as Ali recalls, it must've been long enough to infect him with Panther Pride. He rocked the school's band uniform on Aquemini's inside album art. It went a long way in bridging the friendly cross-town divide between Decatur ("where it's greater") and the SWATS ("Southwest Atlanta Too Strong").
The 86 bus line Dre rhymed about no longer follows its former route from Five Points MARTA station to downtown Lithonia — a likely casualty of budget cuts that have long plagued the transportation system. Despite metro Atlanta's exponential growth through the '90s, racial fault lines hampered the transit authority's attempt to expand into northern suburbs. The inherent fear was apparent in the tongue-in-cheek translation of MARTA's acronym: Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta. Meanwhile, classism kept portions of South DeKalb equally resistant to MARTA expansion.
Ali "was one of those kids that [didn't] take the bus," but she remembers the significance that Andre's shout-out carried for her side of town. "That's when we really started [claiming] Decatur and saying, 'Oh yeah, y'all talk about Atlanta, but Eastside all day.' That was the beginning of giving ourselves a real identity."