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Atlanta Is the New Influencer Capital of America

ATLANTA — It’s no secret Atlanta is one of the nation’s great culture capitals, home to many power brokers in music, fashion and the arts — a city that, since the 1980s, has produced some of the biggest names in rap, R&B and hip-hop, and over the last decade, seen explosive growth in its entertainment industry (thanks, in part, to Georgia’s generous tax credits).

This mighty metropolis is also now where some of the internet’s most important creators are living and working today.

Atlanta is where 15-year-old Jalaiah Harmon created the Renegade, a dance that took over TikTok in late 2019 and remains one of the app’s best-known viral trends. It’s where Lil Nas X turned “Old Town Road” into not just a hit single but the biggest thing on the internet. It’s where YouTube stars with followings in the multimillions record their videos and where some of TikTok’s biggest viral videos and trending challenges began at a casual weekly meet-up called TikTok Thursdays.

Atlanta’s creators are noteworthy for the ways in which they defy prevailing ideas about the influencer economy. Like most people making content online, they’re hard working, focused and have a deep understanding of the internet. But they show none of the entitlement or attitude that has come to characterize the better-known TikTok stars of Los Angeles. There is drama — it’s the internet, after all — but also an overwhelming sense of community and camaraderie.

Another key difference revolves around race. Atlanta’s creators are predominantly Black. In Los Angeles, on the other hand, most influencer collectives have no or very few Black creators. And despite creating and driving many of the internet’s biggest trends, Black creators receive fewer brand deals and are consistently paid less than their white peers.

But Atlanta’s new generation of entertainers is hoping to change that. In the last three weeks, two all-Black Gen Z creator mansions, the Collab Crib and the Valid Crib, opened in the city about 30 miles apart. Their members want to cement Atlanta as a hub for online talent and are hoping these homes will bring a level of legitimacy to their status within the larger creator ecosystem.

“We’re trying to work together and build each other up as one,” said Devron Harris, 20, a member of the Valid Crib.

Over the past year, mansions full of young influencers have proliferated across the United States (in Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas) and around the world (France, the U.K., Mexico, Spain and Russia). Perhaps the best known is the Hype House, which formed in December 2019 and drove a creator-house boom in the Los Angeles area — the center, in popular imagination, of celebrity, trends and influencer culture.

“We’re motivated by houses like the Hype House or the Sway House,” said Omar Williams Colon, 19, a member of the Valid Crib. Their members, after all, have gone on to secure high-paying brand deals, sign with top talent agencies, invest in start-ups and start their own product lines.

The Valid Crib began to take shape in the spring, while Georgia’s shelter-in-place order was in effect. Its 20 creators connected online, trading messages over Instagram DM and Snapchat. In July, the group met up in person and began renting Airbnbs, where they would collaborate as a group on videos they would then post to social media.

In November, they secured a lease on a seven-bedroom brick home on a quiet cul-de-sac about 20 minutes from downtown Atlanta. It’s charming and suburban, with black-eyed Susans lining a small concrete path in the front yard.

The house is in the final stages of a renovation; the stairs are still unfinished and the floorboards are being installed. But over the past few weeks, the group’s members have been moving their stuff in. (All of the common rooms are unfurnished, though their landlord is planning to provide some furniture soon.)

“Right now our house is still loading, I’d say,” Mr. Williams Colon said. He’s already poured a ton of effort into his own room, installing colorful rope lights around the ceiling and painting a geometric design on one of the walls. “We’re trying to put our own vibe and style into it so when people see it they know, ‘Oh, that’s Valid Crib.’”

The Collab Crib, whose members live in an 8,500-square-foot mansion south of downtown, was conceived by Keith Dorsey, the 32-year-old chief executive of Young Guns Entertainment, a talent management firm in Atlanta. He sorted through his roster of talent and recruited the group’s eight members, a mix of up-and-comers and more established stars. Many of them remain in disbelief about the opportunity to live and work together.

“I’m still like, ‘Am I dreaming? Is this really real right now?’” said Tracy Billingsley II, 25, a Collab Crib member known online as Tray Bills.

Collectively, the members of these two houses are responsible for dozens of viral trends. O’Neil Rowe, 19, of the Collab Crib, created dances to songs by DaBaby, Roddy Rich and Lil Yachty that all took off on TikTok. His own single, “Snappin,’” has already appeared in 20,000 TikTok videos.

Valid Crib and Collab Crib creators are also already regularly featured on massive meme and Instagram accounts like Worldstar and The Shade Room (“Instagram’s TMZ,” as The New York Times put it a few years ago). D’Aydrian Harding, 19, a member of the Valid Crib, founded his own “TikTok cult” (an open fandom, not an ideological group).

Though the followers and fame that have come with the work have been reaffirming, Mr. Billingsley said he finds the freedom and power of being a creator to be the most appealing part of the job.

“It’s the entrepreneurship aspect,” he said, “working for yourself, being your own boss. A lot of people nowadays in our generation don’t want to work for somebody. A lot of people are establishing their own brands and really working for themselves. That’s really the American dream now.”

Creators at the Collab Crib recently kicked off a 90-day blitz where they plan to each post at least three times a day on all platforms. They write down follower-count goals and meet regularly to discuss metrics and brand deliverables.

“At Valid Crib, it’s this or nothing,” said Richard Bimpa, 19. “There’s no going back, it has to go. All of us are working hard and grinding. It’s do or die at this point.” Mr. Bimpa said he was currently posting five videos a day to TikTok and four to Instagram, in addition to teaching himself to edit YouTube videos.

Though the Valid Crib formed organically, Mr. Dorsey now manages both groups. “I have more executive control over Collab Crib and the structure of the house, logistics, planning and the overall concept of the house,” he said. “When it comes to Valid Crib, they got their own house and negotiated their own deal. I let them control their own thing.”

But in light of the pandemic, he’s also had to act as a public health adviser to both groups. He made sure members of the Collab Crib tested negative for Covid-19 before moving in, and has tried to limit the number of visitors at the house for the time being (though he hopes that, in the future, the houses can serve as a home base for the broader Black creator community).

His main focus, Mr. Dorsey said, is to “keep their promos flowing.” But sponsorship has been a challenge. While many creator houses have received easy cash and boxes of free products from brands, Mr. Dorsey faced an uphill battle looking for a backer for the Collab Crib. Several brands dangled opportunities that failed to materialize, with one potential backer instead choosing to put money behind an all-white creator house. A home furnishing company responded that the demographic wasn’t a fit for their brand and refused to even take a call.

Creators of color have seen this sort of discrimination from brands for years. Accounts like @InfluencerPayGap call attention to the pay disparities between Black and white influencers. Black creators are featured less frequently in brand campaigns. They’ve described feeling tokenized and receiving inferior treatment at brand-sponsored events. On TikTok, as on other social platforms, white creators profit off Black culture and, as the writer Jason Parham recently wrote in Wired, “steal the viral spotlight.”

“Racism even plays into the algorithm and why Black creators tend to have smaller followings,” said Chrissy Rutherford, a digital creator and a founder of 2BG Consulting, a brand consultancy focused on diversity and inclusion. “A lot of brands have complained that there’s no Black creators with larger followings, but it’s like, have you ever considered that you are basically only engaging and following and giving likes and opportunities to white creators? It works both ways.”

Eventually, Mr. Dorsey got Dubsmash, a short-form video app with deep ties to the Atlanta creator community, to sign on as the Collab Crib’s primary backer along with Cash App, a mobile payment service.

Dubsmash is also helping the group negotiate brand deals and is providing media training and career mentorship. Instagram chipped in some money contingent on the creators supporting Reels, its new short-form video feature. The sleep products company Casper provided mattresses. (The Valid Crib has received no outside funding, and members of the house split the rent by room.)

“The Black creator community has been underacknowledged and underfunded, despite having made arguably the largest contributions to social media,” said Barrie Segal, the head of content at Dubsmash. “This moment feels long overdue and we’re so excited to see the creators’ careers grow as a result of this.”

What the creators in Valid Crib and Collab Crib want is to fundamentally change the system and show that mainstream success can be found outside the L.A. bubble.

“We’re starting a wave that isn’t there for people that look like us,” said Mr. Dorsey. “We could have easily moved to L.A., but we wanted to trailblaze something new. Everyone in L.A. is trying to fight to get a seat at the table, while we’re in Atlanta building our own table.”

Some creators also feel that they’re treated more fairly outside of Los Angeles. “There are more opportunities as a Black male or Black female in Atlanta than you would get in L.A.,” Mr. Harris, of the Valid Crib, said. “People are more willing to work with you even if you don’t have as many followers.”

Both houses have plans to release merch and product lines and are hoping to forge deep partnerships in Atlanta’s music and entertainment industry. They have become politically involved, too, encouraging their followers to register to vote in Georgia’s Senate runoff elections. After the pandemic, they also plan to host more in-person events and meet-ups.

But these next few months will be pivotal. Hype is transient on the internet, and without the right press or the amplification that comes with big brand partnerships, some houses fizzle. Creators are acutely aware of the fleeting nature of online success, and those in Atlanta plan to churn out more and more content in coming weeks.

“Hopefully a year from now we’ll be in a bigger house,” said Mr. Harris. “More Valid Crib members are graduating high school, so hopefully they’ll move in.” (Not every member of a creator house lives with their collaborators.)

“We want to be the biggest creator house on the East Coast,” said Mr. Billingsley.

Theo Wisseh, 18, a member of Collab Crib, nodded in agreement. “We want to become one of those brands with one of the most die-hard fan bases where everything sells out in two minutes,” he said.

Already, that base seems to be growing.

“It’s the new Hollywood. YouTube, Instagram, it’s taking over,” said Malachi Collier, 19, a Black creator who lives in Georgia and has been following what Mr. Dorsey and the Collab Crib and Valid Crib are building. “It’s another outlet for our culture, which is why Atlanta is taking over.”