South DeKalb
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A family history of South Dekalb

To better understand how folks find their way in Atlanta and why they stay, Amiri Banks dives deep into the bedroom community of South DeKalb.

Story by Amiri Banks, South DeKalb Fellow
April 12, 2023
Photos by Melissa Alexander
How we reported this story:

Canopy Atlanta asked over 50 South DeKalb community members about the journalism they needed. This story emerged from that feedback.

Canopy Atlanta also trains and pays community members, our Fellows, to learn reporting skills to better serve their community. Amiri Banks, a Canopy Atlanta Fellow, wrote this story.

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South DeKalb residents value the kinship of living in a deeply interconnected bedroom community with a rich culture. Just ask dem folks.

My family history in South DeKalb begins with my great-grandparents, Alfred and Cozzella Lester Carmichael. They raised four daughters in a house that Alfred built during the 1940s, in the Thomasville Heights neighborhood less than five miles west of Gresham Park. In 1966, one of Alfred and Cozzella’s daughters, Zzellistine, married my grandaddy, the late Ulysses Banks. The rest is history. 

For over a century, South DeKalb was mostly farmland, dirt roads, and forest. My own family history—like when my godbrother, Langston “Lank” Weaver, describes how his grandparents “knew how to save money, eat right, grow dey own food”—is proof of the area’s rural roots. And those roots have helped create a culture of mutual respect, collective accountability, and pride for one’s village. That culture has since inspired artists with global reach: Gucci Mane, 21 Savage, Young Thug.

I wouldn’t exist to write this if not for the country flavors that resulted in my birth. I take as much pride in those legacies as I do in being born at DeKalb General Hospital (now Emory Decatur Hospital) and raised in Decatur. 

Growing up on the East Side, some of my closest friends were children of immigrants from Guyana, Ethiopia, India, Vietnam, and Sierra Leone, to name a few. And as the descendant of African people, my family legacy is also global. So I appreciate what Lank wants his children to experience here: “Diversity. I just want them to have the urge to wanna learn different languages,” he says. 

As a polyglot, I truly believe South DeKalb (and Atlanta, for that matter) inspires a love of language, because our vernacular is so integral to our identity. In Lank’s words, “We gon talk how we talk, just ‘cause dat’s our flavor.” 

South DeKalb residents—including many of my family and friends—have created a deeply interconnected bedroom community by cultivating the land, starting or supporting local businesses, enriching the arts and music scene, adding to the lore of places like Exchange Park, and building their own family legacies. 

To better understand how folks landed here and why they stayed, I interviewed four longtime residents: my great-uncle, Clifford Banks Jr.; my mother, Meika Banks; my godbrother, Lank; and my cousin, D’Aunte “Tay” Ellington.

Clifford Banks Jr. (b. 1955, Monticello, Georgia)

Uncle Clifford grew up as one of nine children—along with my grandaddy, Ulysses—in Monticello, Georgia. His grandfather, Joseph Columbus, founded two chapels in Jasper County and “din take no junk from nobody.” His father, Clifford Sr., was no different. Clifford “told the white man the business,” Unc says, to where locals plotted to kill him. 

“They said ‘don’t go huntin’ wit ‘em cuz they gon’ make yo death seem like it was an accident . . . My mama begged him to move to Atlanta,” Unc says. 

Until recently, Clifford Jr. lived in Kirkwood, where the Banks family once occupied multiple houses on Lincoln Avenue. “I remember when Lincoln was all white, except for our family and ‘bout three others,” Unc says. As a young adult, he played basketball at what is now Perimeter College at Georgia State University. Later, he served in the United States Air Force, worked for the Atlanta Board of Education, and opened a Deluxe Car Wash on Flat Shoals. 

But Unc is especially proud of his restaurant ventures. In the early 1990s, he opened Glenwood Diner near Glenwood Lanes, where Unc once had a bowling league. Four years later, he opened Brandon’s Fine Food at a former Cracker Barrel off Panola Road in Lithonia. This was a promise he made to himself when he used to drive by the property: “I said, ‘One day I’mma buy dat property and change the name from Cracker Barrel to Nigga Buckets,’” he jokes.

The local paper took notice, giving Brandon’s a reputation of its own by calling it the “first upscale Southern-style cooking restaurant.”

“Man, them [restaurants] was very profitable,” Unc says. “Each one of them paid me $192,000 a year.”

Meika Banks (b. 1972, Atlanta)

A portrait of Meika Banks.
Meika Banks moved to South DeKalb in 1996. These days, she’s finding time to slow down and appreciate her local scenery.

For much of Mom’s life, South DeKalb was where “family-oriented” functions took place. Mom, a West End native, frequently visited my grandaddy and his partner, Charlene, in Decatur. She and her cousins worked at Glenwood Diner, where there was “lots of laughing.” And when she was 13, she spent one summer volunteering at the YMCA and hanging out at Golden Glide with her stepsister, Erica. 

“I ain’t have no business at Golden Glide. It wasn’t for skating, it was for gathering,” she says. Yet there they were, in the parking lot “filled with teenagers and dancin’ and loud music. We was out there all night.” 

In 1996, we moved into a condo at Orchard Lanes, off Flat Shoals and Columbia Drive. The move was motivated by convenience, rather than any kinship with the area; the condo was owned by my grandaddy, who lived off Boring Road at the time. Even when she was looking to expand and eventually landed in a house in Panthersville, it was because the house “just fell in my lap.” She eyed another house in Henry County, with vast front and back yards for me and my little bro Harrison. But at over $300,000, that house was over her price range. 

“Those birds wake up every morning and have sum’n to say, and every morning I’m like, ‘Ohh what they talkin bout!?’”

Meika Banks

It’s only as of recently that Mom has been able to take in South DeKalb’s verdant scenery. “Back then, somebody single wit a child and another child ain’t got time to look at the trees. You know what I mean? Them trees got lost in my commotion,” she says.

Nowadays, though? “Those birds wake up every morning and have sum’n to say, and every morning I’m like, ‘Ohh what they talkin bout!?’”

Mom acknowledges South DeKalb is not perfect, though she celebrates the diverse community and appreciates the noticeable presence of educated, affluent Black folks. So despite its challenges and changes, Mom feels that Decatur is “still greater. Different, but greater.”

Langston “Lank” Emil Weaver (b. 1983, Decatur)

South DeKalb savant Langston “Lank” Emil Weaver is raising his family in the same home he grew up in.

Lank, a savant who paints, tattoos, and runs his own apparel line, is part of a family of local legends. His father, Lawrence Elliott Weaver, coached football at Glenwood Hills Youth Athletics Panthers from 1978 to 1990. And his brothers, Lawrence Elliott Jr., Lucius Elliott, and the late Lyle Elton, were all star players at Columbia High School. Lawrence even set a high school record for most hits before thriving at Georgia Tech, and Lyle left his mark at West Point.

Lank’s surroundings, particularly the area’s business landscape, have changed drastically since he graduated from Columbia High School. He remembers when Exchange Park was “big in the community, it was almost like a family.” He fondly remembers Glenwood Lanes, Megaplex Entertainment Center, strip clubs like Jazzy T’s, and teen clubs like Sharrons Showcase. “TJ Maxx, Sears, Toys “R” Us, and JCPenney. We had it all!” he says. But things have changed in recent years. “Everything just done got taken away.”

Lank also senses that “criminal means sum’n different” from when he was growing up—that the trap evolved from means to an end to “dis is my career, I’on see nun else.” 

So it’s no wonder Lank is an avid supporter of local businesses like Fletcher’s Place (“a staple in the community”), Fresh Treats Gourmet Bistro, and Mustafa’s Boxing Gym. He’s also proud to be raising a family in the house where he grew up, on Finesse Drive. He has been steadily renovating the home (“Basement was shot, roof caving in”), and is grateful to his wife for being “right there as a partner” while he strives to “keep sum’n in the family.” 

 “Ain’t no gentrification over here,” Lank says. “You know plenty folks done lost they house or whatever the situation is . . . We ain’t lettin’ dat shit go.”

D’Aunte “Tay” Emmanuel Ellington (b. 1988, Decatur)

Top row, left to right: Lawrence “LB” Butts, D’Aunte “Tay” Emmanuel Ellington, Deandre Ellington
Bottom row, left to right: Rick Ellington, D’Aunte Ellington Jr.

Photo provided by Amiri Banks

Growing up, Tay and his brothers, Lawrence (or “LB”) and Deandre (my dawg), thrived in sports. First his father, Rick Ellington, had them try baseball. Then Tay and LB—“a damn Michael Vick before Michael Vick”—played football for the Glenwood Hill Panthers. Going into senior year, Tay was even placed on a statewide camp team with Cam Newton and Da’Norris Searcy.

In the 2010s, though, Tay and LB have had a different reputation around the East Side. Performing as rappers Ammo and Psych, respectively, they founded QMB, or Quick Money Boys. 

Tay vividly remembers when QMB performed one of their bangers, “No Moe,” for the first time. 

“We used to be deep, bro,” Tay says. “So everybody was just behind us, and I seen them bobbing. I said, oh yeah, we got em, we got one. And then I started doing my verse. The DJ said, ‘Hold on, hold on! We finna bring this back!’ Bruh, I was so hype.”

No matter how hype shows got, at venues like Scores Sports Bar off Wesley Chapel Road and Prime Time off Covington Highway, Tay remembers those times as mostly clean fun: “Wun nobody trying to shoot nobody or rob nobody.” He wants the same for his children and nieces. “Now it is worse than when we was kids,” he says. “These niggas is killing and robbing. Everybody can have a gun basically now, bro . . . They be having guns at school. That’s the main thing I’m worried about.”

Tay once had ambitious dreams for football and music. Now, continuing his family legacy is his biggest priority. “I got a lot on my plate,” he says. “But I’m gonna get the job done.”

Amiri Alfred Otis Banks (b. 1994, Decatur)

Amiri Alfred Otis Banks calls Belvedere Park home today.

Anyone alive knows that everything ain’t go’n always be beautiful with family. Sometimes, relationships will be difficult or harmful, forcing people to find community elsewhere. Yet understanding those relationships is vital in a world that constantly seeks to isolate us from ourselves and our ancestral lineages.

Listening to my family’s stories has inspired me to learn more about other families that have established themselves here. I’m also curious about South DeKalb’s ongoing evolution from a nexus of nightlife and retail to its largely undefined new identity. 

I live in Belvedere Park now, and while life or love could lead me elsewhere, I hope to be on the Eastside for many more years. You might catch me on the west or south sides, organizing against Cop City with Community Movement Builders, or in another state/country visiting friends and family. But just like my mom, I’ll always come back to Decatur.

Editor: Christina Lee

Copy Editor & Fact Checker: Adjoa D. Danso

Canopy Atlanta Reader: Mariann Martin

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