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Cameron Albert-Deitch

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Atlanta’s Guardians Football Club brings together players from around the world

The members of the Tuesday night Guardians Football Club speak 10 different languages and come from seven countries on four continents. There’s Bekzat Baylarbekov, a stocky defender born in Kazakhstan, who moved to the United States from Siberia in 2013. There’s Sergio Hurtado, a Colombian midfielder who came here in the third grade. There’s coach and player Ozer Kocdemir, who emigrated from Sweden in 2013.

If it seems like the Guardians club is the soccer pitch version of the United Nations, that’s by design. The club was started in 2014 by Jason Brooks, a 33-year-old player, coach, and die-hard fan who was bothered that—even in heterogeneous Atlanta—soccer tended to break down along racial or socioeconomic lines.

“There are a lot of nice fields on other sides of town,” says Brooks, who is black and lived in Lakewood Heights on the southeast side. “What I thought was, Let me see how many people we can get to come to our side of town.”

So, with income from his job as a medical parts consultant and $5,000 he inherited from his soccer-loving father, Brooks paid for equipment and hired consultants to create a nonprofit called Diversity in Our Soccer. Today the organization sponsors four teams, all with the Guardians FC name, each meeting on a different day of the week. They play under the lights at Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School, seven on seven against other competitive recreational teams from across the city. The fields are 40 yards by 45 yards. Three games are played simultaneously. The goals are roughly six feet by nine feet, and each half is just 25 minutes long.

For players like Kocdemir, who’s only been able to find part-time work as a translator at CNN, the games are both an escape from daily worries and a place to bond with kindred spirits—even if they’re from half a world away. “We’re all giving each other joy,” he says. “It’s a pleasure for all of us to play and win and grow together.”

Adam McCabe is one of just two Americans on Kocdemir’s team. He played in England and Thailand before moving to play in Slovakia in 2014. There, in the dead of winter, he felt isolated. No one around him spoke much English. And he was dealing with an identity crisis: He was gay, and he hadn’t told anyone.

After three months McCabe came home to Atlanta, where he plays with the Guardians to stay in shape for his role as a midfielder with the semi-pro Georgia Revolution FC. He didn’t tell his teammates was gay—only coming out to family and friends—until this past December, when he told his coming-out story to Meanwhiler.

“That’s what I enjoy with this group,” he says. “We have a love for the game, and everything outside of that doesn’t really matter.”

Thoughts of Home: The Lake Lanier I once knew

Lake Lanier
Illustration by Clare Mallison

I remember a house.

It was on the northwest tip of Lake Lanier, only 35 minutes from my hometown of Roswell, but my family could almost feel civilization slipping away along the drive up. Shopping centers gave way to ramshackle gas stations, which in turn gave way to farmland. We rolled into the drive on gravel.

Once my dad was stopped while jogging by a local deputy sheriff. “Son,” said the sheriff, “what are you doing?”

“Running,” my dad said.

“I can see that,” said the sheriff. “What are you running from?”

Lake house evokes glamour, but ours was simple: one open floor with two small bedrooms, an upstairs loft, and a back porch. I remember racing to the water and jumping in, ignoring the splinter danger of our wooden dock. I remember pulling weeds, sweating, and learning firsthand the family adage, “If you didn’t get dirty, you didn’t do the job right.” I remember cookouts and picnics, midnight bedtimes and fresh air, dogs and kids running free. Without city light pollution, at night I could gaze past fireflies and see stars.

When my grandparents sold the house, I was almost 17 years old. High schoolers want to feel like adults, but I felt as crushed as a child that day.

My family saw it coming around the time I was born. When my grandparents and great-grandparents built the house in 1979, there were no grocery stores for miles—and only a single tiny restaurant. But in the early 1990s, a Kroger opened. Then a pizza delivery place. And in 1996, the North Georgia Premium Outlets. What greater sign of impending civilization is there than a mall?

Development took its toll. My dad would get sinus infections from swimming in the water; we’d all have to shower after getting out to avoid being sick. We were at the mouth of Thompson Creek, and according to experts, creeks are more susceptible than lakes to storm runoffs carrying oils and metals from newly paved roads. Favorite pastimes fell by the wayside as larger boats arrived: The water became too choppy for kayaking or waterskiing, too loud for peaceful lounging on the dock. The 35-minute drive stretched to 90 minutes in traffic.

This is no exposé: Sally Bethea, founding director of environmental organization Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, assures me the lake is healthy—for now. “Lanier isn’t a highly polluted lake, but it is at the point where legal measures need to be taken to make sure it stays high-quality water,” she says.

I haven’t been back since the property was sold; I’d rather remember it the way I left it. Days before the deed transferred, my dad picked me up from school with one of our two Weimaraners in the car. “We’re going to the lake house,” he said.

I circled the house one last time. I stood in the garden, looking down at small wire fences that had once towered over me. I walked toward the dock and sat in the sand. Surprisingly, there were no Jet Skis, and the only sounds were those from nature. My dog appeared beside me. I put my arm around him, and together, we watched the sun set.

Cameron Albert-Deitch is an assistant editor at Inc. magazine.

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2016 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.

Want to open a Waffle House franchise? Don’t hold your breath.

Waffle HouseThe yellow-and-black tiled sign outside, the red padded booths, the low-hanging globe lamps. Could all this be yours one day? Maybe, but don’t hold your breath. According to Bert Thornton, Waffle House’s vice chairman emeritus, the list of people trying to get into the WaHo biz is “very long and very distinguished.” The company owns about 80 percent of its more than 1,800 locations and has stringent franchise conditions that deter most prospective operators. Typically, only expansion plans from existing—and particularly successful—franchisees are considered. The reason, Thornton says, is that WaHo is dedicated to maintaining consistency from one location to another. “We would rather raise our babies from the start,” he says.

This article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue.

Anything can happen at Waffle House—including good deeds

Waffle HouseIf we’ve learned anything from Waffle House, it’s that almost anything can happen. Like in January, when a woman stripped naked in a Kennesaw WaHo, threw plates of food, broke a customer’s nose, and resisted arrest. Or in May 2014, when a man tried to rob a Norcross location with a pitchfork but dropped it as he ran away—a mistake because employees chased after him with it. But not every surprise is a bad one. During Snowpocalypse 2014, with the metro area in gridlock, Stephanie Diggs, then manager of an Alpharetta WaHo, spent nearly 15 hours running the restaurant with only one other employee. Soon customers were pitching in—washing dishes, taking orders, and yelling at anyone complaining about slow service. “I had a group of ladies that actually gave me their hotel room and told me I could stay in it as long as I needed,” Diggs recalls. “It was 100 percent unexpected, from start to finish.”

Does Waffle House celebrate birthdays? Depends on where (and when) you go.

Waffle House birthday
Illustration by Ryan Snook

There should be a saying: No two birthdays at Waffle House are the same. At a Roswell Road restaurant in Sandy Springs, you’ll receive a hearty “Happy Birthday” from the staff. At the Holcomb Bridge location in Roswell, you might get a free waffle or a slice of pie. If you plan ahead and your local servers consent, you could even get to order off-menu—like the cupcakes five-year-old Elis Gedney recently received at one Suwanee location. Regardless of how you celebrate, a number of WaHo employees agree: Mornings are almost always a better bet than evenings. “They might be a little more cheerful on first shift. You might get a waffle!” says a Midtown server. “If you come in on first shift, they’ll sing ‘Happy Birthday,’” says another in Brookhaven. One server in Decatur gets extra points for honesty. “We could sing,” he says, “but that might not be so great.”

This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue.

Who has the better Cherry Blossom Festival—Washington D.C. or Macon?

International Cherry Blossom Festival, National Cherry Blossom Festival
Illustration by Martin O’Neill

The National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., may draw more than a million visitors, but the city’s 3,750 cherry trees pale in comparison to Macon’s 350,000. Here’s how the Southern celebration stacks up to its counterpart in the nation’s capital.

International Cherry Blossom Festival
Macon, Georgia
2016 dates March 17 to April 3
Inaugural year 1983
2015 attendance 230,000
Origin story When Macon real estate magnate William Fickling Sr. visited D.C. in 1952, he noticed that the cherry trees looked just like one in his own backyard. He resolved to plant more, bringing 500 saplings to Macon in 1973 and eventually donating 150,000 trees. The festival was launched by the city’s beautification commission in 1983.
Historical setbacks Uh, Georgia thunderstorms? In the past three years, they’ve had 14 days of rainouts.
Where can I see cherry trees? Ingleside Avenue, Wesleyan Woods subdivision, Fickling Farm, and downtown near Third Street
What else can I do?  Held March 25 through April 3, the Festival at Central City Park features amusement rides, stunt shows, live music, and more.

National Cherry Blossom Festival
Washington, D.C.
2016 dates March 20 to April 17
Inaugural year 1935
2015 attendance 1.5 million
Origin story Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki donated 3,000 cherry trees to the District of Columbia in 1912 to commemorate a growing friendship between the U.S. and Japan. Twenty-three years later, civic groups came together to celebrate the trees that had become a city staple.
Historical setbacks In 1938 the construction of the Jefferson Memorial forced the clearing of some trees, and a group of women chained themselves together at the site in protest. The festival was also temporarily suspended after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Where can I see cherry trees? The Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, East Potomac Park, and on the grounds of the Washington Monument
What else can I do? Hit the annual pink-themed parade (held this year on April 16) as it marches down Constitution Avenue.

Photography credits: Macon photos: Alan Thiese, William Haun, Matthew Smith; Washington D.C. photos: Courtesy of the National Cherry Blossom Festival

This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue.

Atlanta Waffle House serves up special friendship for one man with disabilities

Charlie Schoen isn’t your typical 20-year-old. Beset by disabilities, he’s long been confined to a wheelchair and is able to communicate only in his own language of gestures. His parents, of course, can understand him—and so can the staff of his favorite Waffle House, at Northside Drive and I-285. When Charlie pulls on his ear, they know he’s referring to April, a waitress he befriended when he was eight. When he wipes his mouth, he’s talking about another waitress, Georgette. WaHo staffers have hosted Charlie’s birthday parties, and they came to the hospital to see him when he had surgery a few years ago. They provide Charlie the rare chance for social interaction, and it couldn’t make him happier. “That’s all he wants,” says his dad, Charles. “Hugs and love and waffles.”

This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue.

Christmas one of the busiest days for Waffle House

Waffle House
Illustration by Ryan Snook

Ah, Christmas Day. Wake up and open presents. Spend time with family. Head to your favorite Waffle House? Christmas is one of the busiest days of the year for the breakfast chain—and not just because it’s about the only restaurant open. “We have customers who come out that day just to see their favorite servers,” says Pat Warner, WaHo’s vice president of culture. “Families showing up in their pajamas after getting up and opening their gifts.” The camaraderie extends to WaHo execs, all of whom work alongside cashiers and cooks on Christmas. Years ago Warner watched as a regular customer acted as a greeter, offering a rose to every woman who entered. Last year he saw a Griffin pastor and his daughter do the same (minus the roses). “It goes back to the passion our customers and our associates have for that little shoe box of a restaurant,” Warner says.

This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue.

Waffle House’s Waffle Wager gives free food to lucky college football fans

Illustration by Ryan Snook
Illustration by Ryan Snook

Last November two things the South takes very seriously—college football and Waffle House—got together for the second annual Waffle Wager. The winner of the Georgia–Auburn game earned free WaHo victuals for its city the following Wednesday (plus $10,000 toward the school’s general scholarship fund), with Athens reaping the benefits of a 34–7 blowout. Over 24 hours, Waffle House gave away 3,700 waffles, 1,200 cups of coffee, and 5,100 orders of hash browns. “I was amazed; there was a constant line,” says Kelly Thrasher, Waffle House communications director. “Kids get really, really excited to get free food!” This year, WaHo isn’t announcing participants until November 16, but we know they’re picking rivalry games and trying to avoid repeating teams, so Georgia, Auburn, Alabama, and Texas A&M are probably out of the loop. Everyone else, stay tuned.

Update 11/17/15: It’s been announced that this year’s Waffle Wager will be between Clemson and South Carolina.

This article originally appeared in our November 2015 issue. 

You’re probably a Republican if there’s a Waffle House in your state

Illustration by Ryan Snook

Last year the Washington Post looked at 2012 presidential election results and found that Mitt Romney won 16 of the 25 states that have at least one Waffle House. Of the states without a Waffle House, President Obama won all but eight. The conclusion: If there’s a Waffle House in your state, you’re more likely to support a Republican for president. Of course, correlation is not causation, but it’s intriguing to examine Waffle House’s political giving. According to Follow the Money, Waffle House has contributed $912,014 to political candidates in various races across the Southeast since 1992 (mostly to Georgia candidates, which makes sense considering the company is headquartered here). Governor Nathan Deal, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, and Representative David Ralston have all received WaHo money. Waffle House has donated to only one Democrat—Richard Raymond, who ran for Commissioner of Public Lands in Texas. Contribution? Eight dollars. He lost.

This article originally appeared in our October 2015 issue.

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