Somewhere over Oklahoma on a flight from Albuquerque to Atlanta, my eyes started to look like those of the CGI racoon filling my tiny airplane TV screen—round, damp, and on the verge of spilling over. Yea, I admit it. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 got me. Rocket the Racoon had me weeping or, rather, all the manipulative storytelling powers (crisp, teary-eyed close ups; the subject of animal cruelty; lost friends and chosen families; a soaring soundtrack; a medium-funny joke to split tension; shallow emotional catharsis; etc.) of a Marvel juggernaut bearing down on me at 30,000 feet. The credits started to roll just as the plane slipped across the Georgia state line. For narrative’s sake, I’ll say the state’s film industry stamp, a simple illustrated peach and “Georgia” appeared just as the wheels touched down.
In the early 2000s, Georgia began passing a series of tax incentives that led to a thunderous boom in films made in and around its capital. As it stands in 2023, Georgia’s tax breaks for productions, up to 20% (and an extra 10% if you include the Georgia peach in the credits), are the largest in the country. The rapid creep of Georgia’s cinematic takeover, which began in the late 2010s with The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games series, accelerated once Marvel arrived to film Ant-Man in 2015. Almost without exception, all Marvel movies are now filmed, at least in part, under Atlanta’s canopy. DC Studios, ever a step or two behind Marvel’s cultural domination, moved in with The Suicide Squad and Black Adam in 2021–22. The city has since become the hub for blockbuster films geared towards a broad, often meaning white, audience. Tyler Perry made his hometown the site of his mega-studio in 2015, pumping out movies and TV shows at a record pace in South Atlanta. Prestige television has followed suit, even for shows set decidedly not in Georgia. Netflix’s Ozark was filmed primarily on Atlanta’s many nearby lakes and in its lush suburbia. As of 2016, more movies are now made in the state than in California. If cinema was born in France, and developed in Hollywood, it’s now mass-produced in Georgia.
The maturation of the Georgia film industry has been written about frequently in recent years. Post-2016, mass media has positioned the state’s rising prominence in film as evidence of the latest edition of the New South, a term coined to describe a region reorganizing itself for economic boom times and finally ready to shed Civil War sins (which it has carried on behalf of the rest of the country since the nation’s inception). There is little mystery to the reason for this industry growth—combine the generous tax breaks of a business-friendly state, rapidly deployed infrastructure, a major airport and intersecting interstates, decent year-round weather, and geographically and architecturally varied surrounding, and it’s easy to understand why studios have set up shop here.
A 2018 Time article and photo essay outlines this trend, landing squarely on Atlanta’s particular ability to “be Everytown.” An included quotation from the Duffer brothers, creators of Stranger Things described their decision to film in Atlanta: “We gained this American heartland aesthetic which now defines the show. . . . We needed suburban neighborhoods that look unchanged since the ’80s—Atlanta had them. We needed urban streets and skyscrapers for a Chicago set piece—Atlanta had those. We needed a quarry with a steep cliff—Atlanta had it, less than 10 miles from our soundstages.” In other words, Atlanta is, according to the filmmakers, easily redefined and described as a place other than itself—all the markers of a canonical American city, but a faceless one, chosen for its malleability, rather than its specificity.
Set dressing is an art, and locational camouflage has always been embedded in the practice of film development: movie lots, set-dressed locations, elaborate soundstage builds, and now computer-generated worlds are essential to the craft. But other major industry cities with cinematic dominance—New York, Paris, and most obviously Los Angeles—have cultivated a firm definition of place-ness that collides industry with location. These locations both make movies and tell city-specific stories. There are whole meta genres dedicated to movies about making movies that are intrinsically tied to location (from Sunset Boulevard (1950) to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), and others). Washed out by green screens and CGI, or cropped and edited until its urban streets and suburban sprawl are architecturally reconfigured into a different city, Atlanta plays host to the United States’s most pervasive cultural output, while rarely being the subject.
A generous read of this trend is that Atlanta’s filmic contributions are in their infancy, and most of the film businesses who have set up shop there are still imported from California. Perhaps as the Georgia industry develops, studios will be born here rather than installed as regional offices, and there will be more consideration and cultural space given to stories about Atlanta. Case in point—Tyler Perry, who sets many of his television shows and movies in Atlanta. There are a couple other notable contemporary exceptions of the 2010s: Donald Glover’s brilliant FX hit Atlanta and Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, and even the early seasons of The Walking Dead.These exceptions are chosen for and defined by a distinct sense of Atlanta that permeates the screen, either culturally, structurally, or both.But try googling “movies about Atlanta,” and you only get exhaustive lists of the literal hundreds of films being made there.
There is no doubt that Atlanta’s adaptability, or rather, its positioning as infinitely adaptable, is a financial boon for the state, its companies, and its film workers. The Georgia Film Office, the governmental body that manages and attracts the industry to the state produces a whole series of slick promotional YouTube videos that tout the wonders of movie-making in Georgia by interviewing the stars and directors who work here. The video for Spider-man: No Way Home, filmed in and around the city in 2020, highlights Atlanta’s transformation into New York City for the feature, and ends with a producer proudly proclaiming, “You won’t know it’s not in New York when you see it.” Obviously, it’s cheaper to send Spidey—the superhero, who is arguably more than any other inextricably tied to his hometown identity—swinging through Atlanta’s streets. After all, unlike Brooklyn, Atlanta has both city grit and room for the massive soundstages necessary to achieve Marvel-level CGI polish.
No level of marketing or adaptability, however, has insulated the state from the fickle nature of the industry. When the Writers Guild of America (WGA) walked off the job in early May, films and TV productions with finished scripts continued to push forward. Crews, make-up artists, production assistants, etc., kept working. Then when the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) joined the writers in July, with no actors to film, everything shut down. These strikes have had stunning, if utterly predictable, ramifications for every single sector of the industry. According to NPR’s Marlon Hyde, there are some 20,000 film industry workers in Georgia and only 4,000 of them are part of the striking unions. Likely almost all of them are out of work for the foreseeable future. In addition to its tax incentives, part of Georgia’s appeal is its status as a union-hostile, right-to-work state.
Practically, Atlanta’s location and origins as a railroad town means it has nearly always been a vital site for trade and commerce. It would be a falsehood to categorize the arrival of Hollywood as a purely expansionist force. The city’s relationship with the film industry and positioning as a hub for cinematic infrastructure is one actively courted, and the latest example of the state’s century-long orientation towards commerce and production—often at the expense of its citizens and cultural identity. One of the rallying cries for the growing movement against Atlanta’s Cop City, an expansive police training facility planned for the city’s largest green space, which will include the development of another gigantic soundstage, is “No Hollywood Dystopia”.
Atlanta is not faceless. From its cultural and civic titans, to the mazelike, pitted surface roads and the dramatic slope of its skyline, Atlanta is viable for cinematic masterpieces bolstered by locational specificity. Dozens of neighborhoods with distinct identities and unique cultural communities with fraught, joyful histories spread out from under the skyline. The city at a distance appears improbable, almost futuristic, a symbiotic collision of steel and foliage. Yet, while historically, economically, and geographically noteworthy, Atlanta has been denied the opportunity for in-depth storytelling on a mass cinematic scale—despite its emergence as a headquarters for the craft. Why?
The answer to this question speaks to the current state of the medium. As any contemporary film critic will tell you, the Marvel-ification of the industry alongside the advent of streaming and the accelerationist effect on contemporary media consumption precipitated by the pandemic has led to a flattening or simplification of the types of stories that are produced. Facilitated in part by Georgia’s practical and cultivated relationship to production, the current entertainment industry is perfectly positioned to churn out endless Star Wars and superhero movies on Atlanta’s ever-expanding soundstages. The writer and actor strikes demonstrated that the companies who have film in a stranglehold are concerned chiefly with profit, not the quality or complexity of the storytelling. Capitalism denies everyone the intimacy of detail, and Atlanta is not a simple place.
We all, as a culture, deem certain cities and locations as iconic and thus worthy of our most nuanced narratives. In those cities, we willingly grapple with the intricacies of identity informed by place and history. In the resistance to Atlanta’s identifiable picturing in mass cinema, it is evident that the culture prefers to keep the South and its cities relegated to the nation’s faceless, economic engine, rather than engage with the complexities of its specificity.
Frustratingly, describing Atlanta as an “Everytown” hints at the possibility embedded within it. For all of its multifacetedness, in its racial diversity and economic disparities; for its underappreciated musical, artistic, and civic genius, Atlanta is the perfect place and backdrop to tell deep, nuanced, grand, even revelatory stories.
 Eliana Dockterman and RaMell Ross, “How Georgia Became the Hollywood of the South: Time Goes Behind the Scenes,” Time, July 26, 2018,https://time.com/longform/hollywood-in-georgia/.
 Marlon Hyde, “How the actors and writers strike affects many non-union industry employees,” NPR, July 19, 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/07/19/1188543470/how-the-actors-and-writers-strike-affects-many-non-union-industry-employees.