It's 5 o'clock Sunday morning, and though the icy wind is unforgiving as it slices through alleyways, the insistent thump of house music echoing up the back stairwell of this smoky downtown bunker signals that the party inside is just warming up.
There's no one minding the door, so you're free to wander past the DJ table, the handful of dancers, the busy cash bar, and head up the stairs, where clusters of urbanites sit chatting or simply chilling out with a cigarette.
"We usually get going about 4 a.m. and try to wrap up around 6:30," says the party's host, a casually dressed thirtysomething who calls himself "Fulfeel." He's been throwing late-nights for in-the-know Atlantans for several months now; ever since City Hall imposed earlier closing times for bars and nightclubs, he's found demand for his after-hours soirees soar.
"There's been a big surge in late-night parties since the first of the year," when the city rolled back last call from 4 a.m. to 2:30, he explains. So big a surge, in fact, that Fulfeel now throws parties on both Friday and Saturday nights, and has little problem drawing 200 people.
Across intown Atlanta, from downtown to Cabbagetown and the west side to the West End, a nightclubbing crowd that grew up with the city's longtime 4 a.m. bar curfew is turning out in droves for private, after-hours parties of dubious legality.
Many of these late-night watering holes offer some of the allure of the old-fashioned speakeasy. They are word-of-mouth affairs in various lofts, warehouses and unconventional spaces where guests can sip off-the-books cocktails and thumb their noses at a city that would try to tell them when and where they can party.
A bit like speakeasies for a newer generation, other after-hours parties are advertised via carefully selected e-mail lists or cryptic flyers, with hush-hush locations revealed only after a series of steps serve to heighten the thrill of the illicit gatherings.
Guests for one recent party were given tickets containing a phone number; when they called it, they were instructed to go to a downtown restaurant where someone checked them out before giving them directions.
Carrie, a 28-year-old club promoter, explains that after-hours party impresarios can't be too careful.
"The promotions we do are very last minute because we don't want it to get around to the wrong people," she says.
Since lucking into an expansive, grungy ballroom tucked away in an unassuming downtown high-rise last fall, Carrie's been throwing large-scale after-hours parties on a regular basis. With the help of friends and loft-mates who take turns mixing drinks and DJing, she's increased the pace to at least one party each weekend for the last month.
The folks who show up are mostly in their 20s and 30s, with full-time jobs as computer programmers, artists, Web designers and bartenders. "You could consider this crowd ravers all grown up," Carrie says.
In an effort to reduce the impact of a potential police bust, the guerilla hosts check IDs at the door and post signs listing suggested "donations" for drinks -- $1 for bottled water, $3 for a PBR, $4 for a mixed drink -- although Carrie concedes that she doesn't know how much it would protect them.
According to Assistant City Attorney Roger Bhandari, Atlanta code only applies to the sale of alcohol. However, charging a cover and giving away drinks is still considered illegal under city law, he says.
By all accounts, including his own, the godfather of after-hours parties in Atlanta is DJ Red, a 36-year-old freelance sound engineer who lives with five roommates in a warehouse building tucked into a commercial area near Howell Mill Road.
He's been throwing all-night house parties for about eight years now because, well, he likes to party.
"When I get loud," says the plainspoken Red, "you can hear me four or five blocks away."
Even so, Red claims he's managed to stay within the bounds of the law by not charging a cover price, by requesting donations for drinks and by hiring an off-duty cop to mind the door. Red buys all the party supplies and asks friends to bartend for tips.
He gets upset when people call his place "Club Red"; it feeds the impression that he's running an illegal business.
"It's a private home with suggested donations for each item," he explains. "All the police around here know who I am. I'm not breaking any laws."
Still, Red's certainly resembles a clubber's club, from the long lines for bathroom stalls to the breakers' circle on the dancefloor to the languid bodies laid out in nooks, crannies and cubbyholes.
In fact, the increased demand for after-hours parties has Red feeling the need to scale back before he burns out. He says he's already cut his party schedule from every other week to once a month. It's not as if it's a moneymaker for him, he says.
"I use the money we make to pay for the place and upkeep on the sound equipment," he says. "I got 20 bucks to my name right now."
Another longtime after-hours site is the Memorial Drive building occupied by the International Artists Group, better known as IAG. An artists' collective whose half-dozen members live in studio spaces carved out of the former machine shop, IAG has been throwing all-night parties with live bands and open-mic nights most every weekend for the past decade.
The space -- a vast, industrial hall with plenty of thrift-store couches and bar stools -- would feel like a second home to any fan of the Earl. At the far end of the room from the stage, like a toy ship in a bottle, sits a full-sized RV camper.
Although he's somewhat vague on the details, IAG founder Greg Davis says his group has avoided problems with the law by asking for donations rather than charging for cover and drinks.
However, he admits that IAG was shut down by the city Fire Marshal earlier this month because there were too many partiers crammed into the space, which had two blocked fire exits.
"I'm embarrassed as shit about that," says Davis, who adds that the group is planning to get its certificate of occupancy in order to expand into a bona fide private membership club. He plans to resume the parties to capitalize on the vacuum in the city's late-night club scene.
Back at the Sunday morning loft party, sunlight is beginning to peek around the heavy curtains in the windows upstairs. The booze ran out an hour ago.
"That's the goal," says Fulfeel. "I need to get people outta here so I can go to sleep."
At 7:30 a.m., a girl behind the bar wearing a black Misfits T-shirt and a golf cap holds up a paper towel on which she's written: "We are closed. No drinks, no water, no no no ... ."
As the music continues to pound through the darkened room, nobody seems to have noticed.
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