A Night at the Door with Atlanta’s College Bar Bouncers

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The city is home to 57 colleges, all with their own preferred hangouts. The eyes and ears of three very different bars tell us about their normal—and not-so-normal—nights on the job.

Atlanta is renowned for many things, including the world’s busiest airport, Coca-Cola, lemon pepper chicken wings, modern hip-hop and the most famous strip clubs on Earth. Aside from their geographical connection, there’s something else that binds together these cultural touchstones: college students. And ATL’s got plenty of those.

You’ve probably heard of Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morris Brown College and other HBCUs that comprise what’s known as the Atlanta University Center (AUC). Larger schools like the Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University and Georgia State, along with lesser known but regionally important schools like Agnes Scott and Oglethorpe, also contribute to the 57 colleges and universities in the Atlanta region, where more than 250,000 students are enrolled. And if there’s one thing that’s universal about the city’s student population, it’s that they like having a good local bar. 

Despite being relatively close to one another, each school is vastly different. The AUC, for instance, is less than three miles from Georgia Tech, but culturally the campuses are worlds apart—as are their bars.

In this volume of “A Night at the Door,” we speak with the bouncers at three Atlanta bars that welcome local college students in droves.

First, we visit Rock Steady, a popular spot not just for its drinks, but also for fans of Caribbean and West Indian cuisine in its downstairs dining room. The closest campus is Georgia Tech, whose dorms are within walking distance, but you’re most likely to catch students and graduates of the AUC, just 2 miles south, hanging out here. Upstairs, it serves hundreds of Hot Steppers (spicy Margaritas) and Caribbean 69s (a tropical take on the French 75) to the tune of hip-hop and reggae music. 

Then we head to MJQ Concourse, which opened in 1994, and is beloved as one of Atlanta’s most iconic places to drink and dance to DJs spinning hip-hop, house, trip-hop, trap and indie jams. While MJQ doesn’t cater to any specific college, it’s just 3 miles from Emory University, and connects the elite college to the rest of Atlanta’s vibrant nightlife. If you don’t run to MJQ to shake your college-educated ass as soon as you turn 21, you’re doing Atlanta all wrong. 

Finally, we hit Our Bar ATL, whose patrons are primarily Georgia State students—it’s just down the street from the university on Edgewood Avenue. Partner and bouncer Shawn Rolison says that while he’s not a naturally social person, he keeps watch over the door and cautiously protects regulars, treating (and defending) them like family. 

We asked the bouncers at each bar to share their stories, struggles and favorite post-shift drinks. See, through their eyes, what a college night out in Atlanta looks like.

Age: 41

Workplace: Rock Steady

Atlanta College Bouncers

How long have you been at your bar, and what’s your role?

I’ve been here since we opened in November 2019, just before the pandemic. I’m the co-founder of Rock Steady in Atlanta, amongst other roles.

What’s the crowd like here?

Our crowd is extremely diverse, ranging from artists and entertainers to young professionals and politicians. Our guests are generally more affluent, usually between 28 to 40 years old and primarily women.

What’s a typical night out in Atlanta like?

Atlanta is quite a city for nightlife and dining, and there’s always a number of events going on throughout the city. Often people bar-hop or stop in for dinner at one place, and end up somewhere else for a cocktail, or somewhere to dance. You can pay $100 for valet somewhere, or $20—it all depends on what you want to experience. This city has the range!

What’s the hardest part about working the door?

Our room is not that large, and we have quite a cult following with frequent regulars. Sometimes managing capacity and expectations can get quite difficult. A lot of ego and entitlement tends to arrive at the door; we have to deal with a lot of high-pressure situations when all of that flares up.

What’s it been like working the door here over the past couple of years?

I honestly enjoy it. We run a different type of door. Since we are a higher-end, full-service restaurant, we tend to lean heavily into hospitality with a much softer and inviting approach in contrast to many other doors. We have a lot of fun, crack jokes, let people come in and out and don’t charge a cover. Nonetheless, we know how to control our crowd and properly manage our door to keep the experience amazing for our guests. In short, we will not get pushed around, regardless of the kindness we tend to employ.

Do you ever have to kick anyone out?

Of course; it happens when alcohol and ego are involved, but it’s very [few and far between] when we have to. We tend to lean into de-escalation techniques and more diplomacy as opposed to brute force.

Why are you good at your job?

I’m a people person, so I’m able to navigate all the different types of people we encounter in our industry. It takes confidence, discernment, experience and a number of other skills to manage the door at a “hot spot.” To make it all work properly, it’s social architecture.

What do you drink when you’re done with your shift?

Usually it’s a Topo Chico… Hydration is a must. In the event I do have something stronger, it’s something neat: perhaps a good rum, bourbon or tequila. No sugar.

Age: “Grown”

Workplace: MJQ Concourse

Atlanta College Bouncers

How long have you been at your bar, and what’s your role?

I was hired in 2009, and I am the doorman/face.

What’s the crowd like here?

Diverse. Literally every type of human on planet Earth parties here together.

What’s the hardest part about working the door?

Regulars who don’t know my name are the most entitled people ever… We are not about to argue because you want me to do something I’m not supposed to do.

What’s it been like working the door here over the past couple of years?

Surreal. It took a while for people to come back outside, post-quarantine. Now look at us: long happy lines with me in leather chaps, spanking customers!

Do you ever have to kick anyone out?

I used to; now my job is to keep them from going in. It’s the nicest “go away” you’ll ever hear.

What do you drink when you’re done with your shift?

A Maker’s Mark whiskey mule, garnished with a lime.

What’s your ideal night out?

A few cocktails and shots at home. Order one of my favorite vegan dishes. Eat. Pull up to a sensual cultural immersive experience (art, music, social, etc). When that’s over, go to MJQ… Yeah, really. Then at 3 a.m., find a food truck, eat, then hit up some dark underground after-party until we’ve had enough. Then go home to play weird music [while] watching the sun rise.

Why are you good at your job?

I pay attention to people. People pay attention to me. Being 6’6″ and aesthetically marketable has its advantages. [Winks.] Also, I have actual friendships with the owners, management and my coworkers, so they are priority. Furthermore, as a music artist and event host on the local scene, I know how to control large crowds. Lastly, I’ve done it for 14 years now, so I’d better be good at it! Dafuq?!

Age: 37

Workplace: Our Bar ATL

Atlanta College Bouncers

How long have you been at your bar, and what’s your role?

I’ve been at Our Bar ATL from Day 1, so a little over three years now. My role: Do whatever the fuck Sarah (our boss lady) says to do! Right now I’m checking IDs, searching for weapons and making sure bullshit from the outside—negative energy—doesn’t make its way on the inside.

What’s the crowd like here?

The crowd at Our Bar is very eclectic. We’ve got everything from college kids, lawyers, hustlers, career professionals, Black people, white people, gay people, straight people, neighborhood hoodlums… basically a big trail mix of fuck shit! The weird thing is that everybody knows everyone and they all get along quite well.

Do you ever have to kick anyone out?

Plenty of times. It comes with the job. People are disrespectful assholes when drunk and high.

What’s the hardest part about working the door?

The hardest part about working the door is that people will dump all their emotions on you like you’re a therapist. You have to realize we don’t give a fuck, but I gotta listen so I can ensure you’re not about to be a bother to staff or other patrons. Our job is in a social setting and I’m not really a social person, so it forces me to come outta my own shell. But that doesn’t mean we’re friends.

What’s it been like working the door here over the past couple of years?

When it’s good, it’s good, but when it’s bad, it’s fucking terrible. Being security, I’m the first and last person you see when you come to the bar. I can say I’ve seen people start coming for a while and then they change into someone totally different over time, for better or worse. Being that we’re on Edgewood it’s technically the hood, but we call it home. With that being said, we’ve experienced a few devastating losses when it comes to patrons we’ve gotten used to kicking it with every day. Because of that, there’s a big sense of family and protection amongst the staff and regulars. We’re welcoming, but we’re cautious as fuck to new people.

What’s a typical night out in Atlanta like?

I’m still trying to figure that out myself and I’ve been partying in Atlanta for 18 years now. There’s nothing typical about Atlanta, so who fucking knows what you’re going to come across. All I know is that bastardized version of clubbing—standing on couches, models-and-bottles bullshit—is lame. Hit up a dive bar or two, and meet new people, do drugs in the bathroom (not at Our Bar ATL, but somewhere else…) like classy adults, and see where the night takes you.

Why are you good at your job?

Who lied to you and said that I was? I think I’m good at my job because I truly care about whether or not everyone is safe, not just physically but emotionally. I like to let people know they are being heard. What I’m hearing might be bullshit, but I want you to know I’m listening.

What do you drink when you’re done with your shift?

Before, during and after a shift, I’m drinking Crown [Royal] Apple!

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