When Carnival descended on Stonecrest on May 26, its pulsating afro beat could be heard on I-20.
Motorists driving by the 16-month-old city could not escape the sweet sound of pan.
Along Mall Parkway, an estimated 40,000 locals and tourists lined the street in celebration of Caribbean culture and the 2018 Atlanta DeKalb Carnival.
The excitement was palpable.
The historical significance of the event was not lost on 29-year-old Britney Henry, a lifelong resident of the area.
“I knew I couldn’t miss this,” she said as she watched 4,000-plus scantily clad masqueraders and musicians extracting the most melodious tunes from steel drums.
It was Henry’s first time attending the annual carnival, held annually on the Saturday before Memorial Day. The Atlanta DeKalb Carnival relocated this year to Stonecrest after three years on Covington Highway in Decatur.
Henry said she remembers when Stonecrest was nothing but dirt and they were trying to build the mall for years.
“We finally got the mall, then we became a city, and now we’ve got a carnival,” she said. “So I’m here to support.”
The day was tailor-made for street revelry. Earlier in the week, weather forecasters had predicted a 70 percent chance of rain. Instead, there was 80-degree sunshine, nearly perfect for women decked out in tiny bikini costumes adorned with brightly colored beads, chiffon and feathers.
Band members from DeKalb, Haiti, Panama, Costa Rica, Jamaica, The Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Virgin Islands, Saint Lucia, Guyana, Brazil, England and Canada, and throughout the United States paraded with sweat towels and sprayed each other with cool water as they danced in the street behind tractor-trailers and other trucks blasting soca, afro and calypso music.
Twenty-four mas bands, with names like Inferno, Jamboree, Madd Colors, Islandaz Mas Experience, MasVibez, Island Fuzzion, MaddFlavadaMovement, Atlanta Junkanoo, Calabash Alley Masqueraders, and the Awakening, took more than four hours to parade two miles into the Festival Village located in the mall’s parking lot outside the Atlanta Sports City Tournament Central building.
Along the way, masqueraders worked the crowd, stopping to dance and pose for photographs, to give each other space, and to allow the police to direct traffic - all the while vying for bragging rights as the liveliest and most colorful ensemble.
Spectators young and old, adorned in flags and colors from every Caribbean country, used their umbrellas for shade as they cheered on the sea of humanity.
Some watched from the backs of trucks, some sat in lawn chairs along the roadside, and many others stayed on their feet dancing.
The parade began at midday near the Stonecrest Walmart. The grand marshal, Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary, was joined by other elected city officials bearing a “Welcome to the City of Stonecrest” banner.
Lary, a former concert promoter, said the event was the largest he had seen in a city the size of Stonecrest during his 30-plus years of working in large-event management.
“It’s now our signature event,” he said May 29. “From talking to our retailers, we think about 40,000 people came – it’s just unbelievable. Every local business person I’ve been talking to so far had a 100 to 150 percent boost in volume.”
The mayor expects city staff to determine the economic impact of the carnival – which he guesses to be upwards of $2 million – by next week.
Lary, who hopes to convince organizers to change the event’s name to “Stonecrest Caribbean Carnival,” said he was most impressed with the costumes and the children masquerading.
“I’m just so happy,” he said. “There weren’t any break-ins, no fights; it was an incident-free event.”
Inside the ticketed festival village, the mas bands also performed on stage for a panel of judges – a first for the event.
Revelers partied until 10 p.m. to live music by international soca and reggae artists. More than 30 vendors – from the various Caribbean islands and Florida, New York and Philadelphia – sold Caribbean-themed arts and crafts, clothing, and food and drink.
Cilia McTush, a carnival organizer, declared the event a resounding success.
Despite the huge crowd, the carnival lived up to its proud history as a crime-free event.
“Our feedback so far has been really good,” McTush said May 29. “We’ve received a lot of emails and calls from festival goers and vendors saying how much they liked it compared to past years and other carnivals.”
For the 2019 Carnival, organizers say they want to better manage entry to the festival village and the traffic associated with the event.
Some latecomers missed some of the parade after spending more than an hour just trying to get off I-20 and into the nearby mall property to park. There were also long delays for motorists leaving the area after the parade.
“I think we got more people than we expected,” McTush said.
After spectators and participants ballooned from 6,000 in 2015 to more than 15,000 in 2017, carnival organizers – the Atlanta Carnival Band Leaders Council and Atlanta Carnival Entertainment – had expected up to 25,000 people to attend.