An Underground Nightlife Complex Is Bringing Art and Music Back to Downtown Atlanta
The once-iconic subterranean venue has languished for decades, but new owners want to restore it to its former glory.
Eerie Echoes was gearing up to be a perfect rave. It had a great DJ, plenty of hype, and a cool subterranean location. But first, organizers had to show people how to get there. “This will probably be the door that’s open that night,” a party promoter said with uncertainty in a TikTok video a week before the rave, standing in front of a huge wall of doors.
The event saw moderate success despite the less-than-intuitive destination, and the video aptly summarized the challenge faced by anyone who has attempted to revive Underground Atlanta: You have to get people in the door.
The venue, like the rest of downtown, has somehow eluded the redevelopment frenzy that has transformed surrounding neighborhoods like Castleberry Hill and Midtown with high-rises and trendy loft renovations. But the space—a gigantic warren of streets and storefronts beneath 12 downtown acres—is bursting with potential. In the 1970s, it was the hottest spot in the city with live jazz and packed nightclubs open until the wee hours of the morning. After its heyday, it was hollowed out by urban disinvestment, and by the mid aughts, it was a ghost town surrounded by vacant parking lots. Since then, Underground Atlanta has been the white whale of Atlanta developers, many of whom bet big on restoration ideas that went nowhere—but all of that could be changing.
After a stint as a row of storefronts and a history museum that glossed over the city’s racist past, the complex peaked in the early ’70s, when millions of visitors flocked to Underground for live music and go-go dance clubs. One of the most famous venues, Dante’s Down the Hatch, opened in 1970. The space was shaped like a pirate ship, surrounded by a moat of live alligators, and known for its fondue. Dante’s became the legendary linchpin of the Underground, with live jazz seven nights a week.
King Williams, a documentary filmmaker and Atlanta journalist who covers the city in his Substack newsletter The Breakdown, grew up listening to his dad play bass at Dante’s. But by the time he visited in the ’90s, Underground Atlanta was an anemic echo of its former glory. Business tanked as suburbanites began associating the complex with crime. In 1977, construction of the new MARTA Five Points station tore down several popular Underground businesses, and the entire complex shuttered in 1982. A campaign led by Mayor Andrew Young resurrected Underground in 1989, rebranded as a shopping mall, though Dante’s and other music venues along Kenney’s Alley reopened as an entertainment corridor.
“It was still a place people would go,” Williams recalls. “It had a surge in the early ’90s. Things like Freaknik (the legendary HBCU spring break party) and the National Black Arts Festival brought people in.” The mall appealed to teenagers, who skipped school to hang out at the arcade and food court. When tourism surged during the ’96 Olympics, the “urban cleanup” that accompanied the games basically amounted to a whitewashing campaign, which pushed out the local Black Atlantans who’d supported the struggling businesses.
When Williams was attending nearby Georgia State University in the 2000s, he said foot traffic at Underground Atlanta had reduced to a trickle. Desperate to keep Underground relevant, the city passed a special ordinance allowing bars there to remain open until 4 am, but business dwindled anyway. It still hosted the Atlanta Peach Drop on New Year’s Eve but there was little to draw visitors the rest of the year, and in 2016, Underground Atlanta shut its doors completely for the second time.
Eight years later, a new developer is approaching Underground Atlanta in an entirely different way, leaning into music venues and art galleries, offering artists heavily subsidized or even free rent to court visitors—and dollars—back to the beleaguered complex.
“This property meant so much to the city and the community,” says Shaneel Lalani founder of Lalani Ventures, which purchased the sprawling property from another developer in 2020 for a reported $31.6 million. “This was one of those lifetime opportunities—it felt like we really had to redevelop this.” Lalani immigrated to Atlanta with his family from India when he was nine; Underground Atlanta was one of the first places his parents went to look for jobs.
So far, the strategy appears modestly successful. In 2021, Lalani brought in the traveling exhibit of the renegade artist Banksy, which sparked interest from local artists and gave Lalani the idea to allow them to curate the space. They put out a press release offering six months of free studio space (with prices slowly rising to below-market rates) and got more than 400 inquiries. They rented out 10 spaces, and the art crowds drawn in by galleries has helped secure other tenants, like The Pigalle, a burlesque bar, and the Atlanta Comedy Theater, which will host rising comedians Mo Gilligan and Jesus Trejo this year.
Since then, art galleries like Mom Said It’s Fine—the venue for Eerie Echoes—and the Public Art Futures Lab are creating desperately needed space for emerging Atlanta artists to share work, while nightclubs like Future and the relocated Masquerade are drawing large crowds for drag shows and live music.
“Lalani Ventures trusted artists enough to let us do our own thing,” says Mike Stasny, who created Mom Says It’s Fine studio and gallery. “There are a lot of other developers … that don’t ever experiment in this way, so as long as I get to be an artist, I don’t mind being ‘leaned on.’”
“It’s a win-win for us,” says Lalani. “Artists are curating their own space, they’re bringing people in. That really got things going for us.”
Lalani Ventures isn’t betting on downtown alone. In recent years, there’s been a surge of development in the area, which has struggled economically despite being one of the most walkable parts of the city and home to some of its oldest buildings. Over at The Gulch—another subterranean cavern created by turn-of-the-century growth—a $5 billion redevelopment project is underway. In late 2023, a pair of tech investors rescued a huge swath of historic south downtown from foreclosure, after a German developer’s revival plans spiraled. Those developers have big, if vague, plans for the neighborhood, which abuts Underground Atlanta. Meanwhile, MARTA is launching a complete overhaul of the Five Points station next-door, which will also have big implications for the future of Underground Atlanta.
“There are no third spaces [in Atlanta] anymore,” Williams says. “It makes sense to double down on nightlife and get it back to where it was before.”