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Charles Bethea

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Chef Seni Alabi-Isama raised the culinary bar in Statesboro. Now, he’s bringing sous-vide barbecue.

SmoQue Pit
Seni Alabi-Isama scopes out the barbecue competition at Vandy’s in Statesboro.

Photographs by Gregory Miller

In the fall of 2013, a few months after opening his acclaimed restaurant Gunshow, chef Kevin Gillespie was on his way back to Atlanta from a food and music festival in Bluffton, South Carolina. As he and his wife, Valerie, drove along a desolate stretch of I-16, hunger struck.

“Val, didn’t you hear about a restaurant there?” Gillespie asked as he eyed a sign for Statesboro. She had. The restaurant was called South & Vine, and it was a culinary oasis, a friend of hers had said, in a town otherwise known for serving Bud Light and burgers to Georgia Southern University students. The Gillespies were suspect—but still hungry.

Twenty minutes later they entered the corner space of an early 20th-century brick building on South Main Street and examined South & Vine’s menu. They saw hangar steak with chimichurri sauce and handmade pasta including a braised oxtail ravioli. As they made their way through a double-cut pork chop with a Benton’s bacon-apple-cabbage hash, Kevin and Valerie chatted with chef and owner Seni Alabi-Isama. Until recently the Nigerian-born, Decatur-raised Georgia Southern graduate had been best known for his computer repair shop and his Muslim name. (Alabi-Isama says some who can’t pronounce it call him Seni “Habba Habba.”) Gillespie was surprised to find such refined cooking in Statesboro. This would be a good restaurant anywhere, he thought.

SmoQue Pit
Seni Alabi-Isama fires up his smoker.

Photographs by Gregory Miller

Of the approximately 100 restaurants in Statesboro, some 70 percent are fast food chains. South & Vine grew out of Alabi-Isama’s frustration with that kind of culinary monotony. (He still finds himself at Panda Express more often than he’d like to admit.) He craved thoughtful food made from high-quality ingredients that reflected his wide-ranging cultural influences—his mother is Trinidadian, and he also lived in London as a child. So he started cooking. Guests lined up for the self-taught chef’s shrimp and grits, which Georgia Southern professor Dina Walker-DeVose—a self-proclaimed “shrimp and grits connoisseur”—says is the best she’s had in Georgia, “maybe anywhere.” Jimmy Carter celebrated his grandson’s graduation from Georgia Southern at the restaurant in May of 2013.

SmoQue Pit
Fans of the chef’s shrimp and grits will find it at SmoQue Pit, too.

Photographs by Gregory Miller

Just three months after that presidential visit, South & Vine erupted in flames—an electrical fire in the ancient attic. After a period of mourning, Alabi-Isama opened 441 Public House just down the road in June 2015, with the financial help of a former South & Vine regular. At 441 Alabi-Isama raised the bar with a worldly menu, including braised octopus and beef tataki, but despite local fanfare for his shrimp and grits, the investor grew impatient before the venture could become profitable. In July 2016, 441 Public House closed.

Last September another perhaps more deeply pocketed local fan approached Alabi-Isama. “All I know is, I need to eat,” he said, handing over the money for Alabi-Isama to get started on the SmoQue Pit.

Had this second benefactor not appeared, Alabi-Isama says he would have moved somewhere with a more vibrant food scene. (And, perhaps, more black-owned restaurants; he knows of only one other in Statesboro.) Given a third chance to elevate local cuisine, however, he couldn’t resist.

“I would never have done barbecue, though,” Alabi-Isama says, standing in front of a former gas station—right across Main Street from shuttered 441—where the SmoQue Pit will open this year. But, he reasoned, there were only two barbecue joints in town, Shane’s Rib Shack and Vandy’s Bar-B-Q, and both used subpar ingredients from mass suppliers. (Alabi-Isama says he’ll be buying meat from local purveyors and vegetables from local farms.)

SmoQue Pit
Smoked chicken, mac and cheese, cole slaw, and Brussels sprouts

Photographs by Gregory Miller

Alabi-Isama had never smoked a whole hog until last summer, but that didn’t worry him. He’d been experimenting with a low-temperature controlled vapor oven akin to a sous-vide machine, and had discovered that incorporating the modern technique would remove 70 percent of the labor and improve consistency, one of barbecue’s hobgoblins. At the SmoQue Pit, he’ll smoke brisket, pork, chicken, and other meats for four hours—about a quarter the time of traditional pit barbecue—over pecan wood in the 500-pound capacity smoker on the restaurant’s back porch. Then he’ll put all but the chicken (fully cooked in the smoker) in the vapor oven until it’s ready to serve, resulting in ultra-moist meat that melts in your mouth, a kind of carnivore’s butter with indelible notes of smoke and wood.

Gillespie says he knows exactly where he’s stopping on his return from South Carolina this year.

This article originally appeared in our July 2017 issue.

On screen, Little Women: Atlanta is all drama all the time. Off camera? Not so much.

Little Women: Atlanta
Amanda Salinas and Ashley “Minnie” Ross

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

On an unseasonably warm winter evening at the Gilbert House, a cozy 18th-century home turned event space in historic Roswell, Pete Garcia works on a seating chart. A dozen dinner guests are expected in an hour, and some aren’t exactly best friends. Also, the gathering will be televised. “I’ll have my senior cameraman aimed at where we might see some conflict or some words exchanged,” says Garcia, who is in his late 30s and sports a man bun. “Or even”—because you never know—“a quick exit.” Mark Scheibal, a bearded man in his 50s sitting beside Garcia, laughs and adds, “Eyelines are very strategic.”

Garcia and Scheibal are coexecutive producers of the Lifetime network reality show Little Women: Atlanta, now in its third season, which is about the lives of seven Atlanta-based women with dwarfism. Among them: feisty twins, Andrea and Amanda; “Ms. Juicy,” a contributor to the nationally syndicated Rickey Smiley Morning Show; and Tanya, a former dancer and self-described “head creatress at Life Body Naturals” skincare line, whose pregnancy is the reason that they’re gathering tonight.

Little Women: Atlanta
Tanya (in white dress) with Ms. Juicy and Tiffany “Monie” Cashette.

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

“It’s a gender reveal ceremony,” says Justin Guinyard, a tall field producer for the show, as he digs into a plate of food from Zoe’s Kitchen—dubbed “lunch” despite the late hour of 6 p.m.—in a corner of the house. Once the cast arrives and all four cameras begin to roll, this corner will become a sort of war room with viewing monitors surrounded by a small crowd of producers. There are two dozen crew members at the house, which has been decorated “in a tribal, sort of Bohemian theme,” in the words of owner and event stylist Jennifer Shields. “Feathers, arrows, things like that.”

The talent is running late, as usual, and Scheibal has strongly considered heading to Costco for a craft services run. Instead he tells a story about what went on the night before in Buckhead.

“We were at Havana Club until 3 a.m.,” he says excitedly. “The usual drama ensued between these girls.” Provoked or organic? “The story is the story,” Scheibal says. “Obviously, we have to produce it, put them in situations that allow it to happen or amplify it.”

“A lot of our show is based on ‘little people problems,’” adds Garcia. “In an average-sized world, they have to deal with [things] that the rest of us don’t even consider.”

Little Women: Atlanta
Crew members discuss the scene with the Salinas twins.

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

Little Women: Atlanta
An audio technician on set.

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

Created by star Terra Jole and production company Kinetic Content, Little Women: L.A. was an immediate hit when it debuted in 2014. The first spin-off in New York aired the following year, and soon afterward talks began for a third Little Women series. Kinetic was already producing a number of reality shows in Atlanta and decided to base the second spin-off here. Little Women: Atlanta launched in January 2016, and now 1.3 million viewers tune in per episode. “The little people world is very small,” says Kinetic vice president of communications Paria Sadighi. Ms. Juicy “was already a known commodity because of her role in the radio business,” says Sadighi. “With her help we found other little women here or who lived out of state but were looking to move to Atlanta.”

Little Women: Atlanta
Things get awkward at dinner.

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

Around a quarter to 7, three of the cast members enter the house, high-heeling past two bored-looking security guards vaguely familiar with the show. (“If I’m watching Cupcake Wars,” one says, “I might check it out after.”) Ashley “Minnie” Ross chats about her pre-taping ritual: “I don’t know what I’m getting myself into, so before I get out of the car, I pray. I pray to control my tongue. But sometimes it gets a little loose!” The crew laughs. At 7:07 p.m. two more women exit an Uber Black S.U.V. Soon they’re all here, perched somewhat tensely on a couch. Guinyard explains how the gender reveal ceremony will go down.

“Tanya will take a bath ball and drop it into this bowl of water. I don’t know how it works, but it’ll dissolve, I think, and the water will turn pink or blue.”

Meanwhile a production assistant finishes taping one last light tube to the ceiling. The blinds are shut. The makeup touch-ups are finished; the tweezers and lash glue are put away. The talent is herded back outside and microphoned up. Garcia and Scheibal each put two earpieces in: one to hear the talent, the other to communicate with the crew.

“Anyone not under four-foot-two,” someone shouts, “get behind the wall over there!” Another voice: “Send in the girls!”

Dinner, observed on one of the monitors in the war room, goes off without much drama. Tanya’s mom tells mildly embarrassing stories about what her daughter was like as a little girl. Andrea pushes her six-month-old daughter in an average person–sized stroller, causing Garcia to exclaim into his headset.

“That’s a little person problem!”

Finally the ceremony begins. Tanya drops one of the bath balls into the bowl of water, which sits before a mini teepee. The water begins to froth. There’s clapping and a collective chorus: Oh my god, it’s pink!

Tanya’s mother thanks everyone for being there on such an important day. “She’s too nice,” murmurs Scheibal, smiling. “This is not a nice show. We need her to be more like Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket!”

Guinyard rushes out with a request for the cast: “That was great! But can you do one more big reaction just for us?”

Everybody reacts one more time, not quite as enthusiastically.

Soon the day is wrapped. Three hours of shooting will result in perhaps five edited-down minutes of television, but Scheibal is pleased. He likes his job. “I’m as cool as a dad can be to his teenage daughters,” he says. “It doesn’t completely embarrass them that I work in reality TV.”

Watch the episode featuring the gender reveal party here

This article originally appeared in our May 2017 issue.

That time I almost became a reality TV star

I was almost sort of famousIn the fall of 2011, I received an email from a casting agent who’d grown up in Atlanta and now worked at a New York–based production company. “I’m looking for dynamic groups of high school alumni that are still in touch with one another,” the message began. The groups needed to be made up of “successful, established, classy individuals.” The theme of the show, which Bravo supposedly planned to broadcast, was “where we were then, where we are now.”

I was 29 and struggling to make it as a freelance writer. MTV’s Jersey Shore was the hottest thing on TV. Those idiots are getting paid, I thought. Why not me and my old buddies? A decade after graduating from Paideia, we were still tight. And at least some of us were semi-successful. We had a radio program director, a tech entrepreneur, a solar entrepreneur, a lawyer, a DJ, and me. I assured myself that my nascent writing career could survive becoming the next Pauly D.

Soon after discussions with the agent commenced, my friend Rick was already seeing stars. “We are closing in on our own reality show, and the international fame and fortune that will inevitably flow from it,” he wrote to the rest of our group. Wearing suits—classy! established!—Rick and I filmed each other, per the agent’s instruction, awkwardly musing about our tame high school experience (that time we played hooky and went to a Braves game!). Despite the agent’s earnestly expressed crush on Rick—“Sorry if this is totally unprofessional,” she emailed him, “but you are really good looking”—we didn’t get cast on the show. In fact, no show ever aired; it died in development. A few years later the same agent emailed again: “Nationwide search,” the message began, “for affluent engaged couples who have gregarious personalities for a hit series!”

This article originally appeared in our May 2017 issue.

The AJC’s Rodney Ho watches every reality TV show so you don’t have to

Rodney Ho

Rodney Ho is hard at work on a Friday morning. Sitting on a couch in the living room of his spacious home in Peachtree Corners at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, he’s watching a new CBS reality show called Hunted, billed as “the world’s most elaborate game of hide and go seek.” Ho concentrates, rapt, his laptop open beside him.

“I’m not recapping every episode of this one,” says Ho, a young-looking 47-year-old who is married to a civil rights attorney. “I’m just following it to see if anything interesting happens. Some shows with Atlanta characters, I’ll recap every episode. But I don’t know yet if this show merits it.”

Ho graduated from Princeton with a degree in political economics and has been a journalist for a quarter century, with stints at the Virginian-Pilot and the Wall Street Journal. He’d covered business for years—banking, airlines—before joining the AJC’s features department in 2001. Then in 2002 one of the paper’s TV writers handed him a VHS tape that would change his life.

“It was,” he recalls, “some summer replacement show called American Idol.” Atlantans were involved, but “the TV writers wanted nothing to do with this piece of crap. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll interview these Idol people, whoever they are.’ As the show became popular, I latched onto it.” Ho covered American Idol for the next four seasons. By 2005 TV was his main beat, and the AJC was paying his cable bill.

His home library is a testament to the intellectual ravages of the beat, full of books by former Idol contestants trying to squeeze the last few dollars from fly-by-night fame.

“I haven’t read all of these,” Ho assures me.

Among other hard-to-comprehend feats, Ho has watched every episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta and written more than 136,000 words of weekly recaps.That doesn’t include all the words I’ve written about the show in other stories,” he adds. “I know it’s ridiculous. But in journalism, you need the steak—the investigative stuff—and you need really good burgers. I’m the burger guy. I generated more online page views in 2016 than anybody on the AJC’s staff [because] I have a good sense of what will hit.”

When it comes to page views—most of Ho’s pieces appear only online, though a few run in print—bad behavior and sex is what grabs them. “If someone from a show gets married,” Ho says, “that story does okay. But if they go to jail, it does a lot better.” His most-clicked story ever was about Mimi Faust from Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta. “She had a sex tape,” he says. “I wrote about it without posting [the video]. But because I put ‘Sex Tape’ in the headline, I disappointed 800,000 people!

“I don’t know if that generates respect,” Ho continues, laughing. “But it generates job security. What I do will not win me a Pulitzer. I know my place.”

Still he does follow—and occasionally try to cover—more substantive topics. During Donald Trump’s spat with John Lewis, PBS announced plans to run a documentary on the congressman, which Ho decided to write about. “It didn’t get any page views,” he says. “I was like, ‘Okay, sorry John Lewis.’” But he puts such trials in context. “It’s not coal-mining, what I do. I mostly get to stay at home—in my underwear, if I want. Our music critic has to go to the Tabernacle and file a story at two o’clock in the morning!”

If Ho’s job were ever taken away, he says that he and his wife would continue watching a few reality shows like The Amazing Race, which they once considered trying out for. “She’s still upset about the time I went to cover a tryout for an HGTV show about backyard renovations,” Ho recalls. “She came along and endeared herself to the producers. They loved her. But when the higher-ups found out that I cover TV, they nixed us, and our backyard never got redone.” He peers out at it through bay windows. “Oh well.”

This article originally appeared in our May 2017 issue.

Can Atlanta United do what the city’s other big league franchises haven’t?

Atlanta United FCAtlanta is a sports town, just not a unified one. I know passionate fans of the Braves and Bulldogs, but also Lakers lovers, Phillies fanatics, Alabama die-hards, and Chelsea hooligans. Atlantans come from all over and bring their exotic sporting allegiances with them. (I even know a fan of the Moose Jaw Warriors, an ice hockey team in Saskatchewan.) Some of these relationships might be challenged or even co-opted by local teams—as seems to happen in other transplant-filled cities, like New York and Chicago—if not for our shameful history of professional sports failures.

Sports can bring us together, literally. But the key to this alchemy is winning. We’ve had pro basketball, baseball, and football teams here for more than a half-century—we had hockey, too, but that didn’t last—and come away with just a single championship. (Braves, 1995.) Now that the Cleveland Cavaliers have won an NBA title, we are America’s most championship-starved sports town, having endured 76 consecutive seasons since our single, sad, lonely title. (Insert Super Bowl LI snark here.)

Now we’ve got a brand-new Major League Soccer team moving in: the lazily named Atlanta United. (There’s already Manchester United, as well as the D.C. United and Minnesota United, in the MLS.) Our United have hired an outstanding coach—Gerardo “Tata” Martino—who, one imagines, will be happy working for the team’s deep-pocketed owner, Arthur Blank. Blank, in turn, can leverage his Falcons front office to efficiently support the team. But, at the end of the day, can the United unite us?

There’s more than enough local interest in soccer to support an MLS franchise here—even to fill the 29,000 lower deck capacity at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Ten times that many watched each MLS game on TV last season, the most ever.) There’s recreational soccer played every night, until almost midnight, at Silverbacks Park near Embry Hills. Some football fans here are devotees of the English Premier League, the best football league on earth. Others—the majority of soccer people in Atlanta, I think—have played the game, or watched their kids play it, and would simply enjoy watching a familiar game played at a high level.

I don’t run in soccer-obsessed circles, but I know a dozen people who’ve purchased season tickets for the United’s first. Some were let down by our former minor league soccer team, the Silverbacks, who—without much media coverage or investment—ended up perpetuating two dubious conclusions: that soccer can’t thrive here and that Atlanta teams will always let us down. If the United can win—and Blank will have to take some checkbook hits to make that happen—we will see sports do what it can do best: remind us that whether we live in a cavernous mansion on West Paces Ferry or a cramped apartment in Clarkston, we all get a chill when the announcer yells, GOOOOOAAAAAALLLLL!

This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.

Jim Stacy, 4.0: The Pallookaville founder contemplates his next move

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Jim Stacy
Jim Stacy used a children’s Styrene model kit to make the skull chalice (center left)

Photograph by Andrea Fremiotti

I’m at a place called “Fun Junction USA” 30 minutes south of Atlanta, being driven around the set of Sundance TV’s comic noir series Hap and Leonard in a cargo van. Chef Jim Stacy is at the wheel, wearing overalls, a conductor’s cap, orange sunglasses, and, of course, that lumberjack beard. In the back, a box of pork rinds surfs a massive pile of snacks—popcorn, Cheez-It crackers, potato chips—and nestled in the van’s passenger door is a squeeze bottle full of raw honey.

“Rolling! Rolling!” a set hand warns us. Stacy dutifully rolls up the windows.

“This is the best happy accident,” he says of his job as a craft services chef for the show. “I needed some time out of restaurant work.”

On Halloween 2013, Stacy opened Pallookaville Fine Foods in Avondale Estates. It was a place where both hipsters and families chowed down on corn dogs amid kitschy vintage toys, and it was a popular success. But after a few years, “I didn’t have deep enough pockets to make it tenable in the long run,” he says of handing over the Pallookaville concept to James Maggard and Jason Hylton, owners of Oakhurst’s Matador Cantina and Tucker’s M/Five Seven Two, in 2016. “You have to lay your ego aside and do what’s best for the brand. I’m just glad to see it still rolling.

“It’s a relief to be out of the game for the moment,” he goes on. “Atlanta’s food scene is really crowded right now, and we’re losing a lot of intown stuff like Alfredo’s. That’s really a shame.”

He’s particularly disdainful of mixed-use developments. “You get to wash yourself, go to work downstairs, and eat a burrito, all in the same building,” he scoffs. “It takes the adventure out of living, as far as I’m concerned.”

In his 50 years on earth, Stacy has sung in a punk rock band called BigTop (he hit the stage dressed as a clown), run both the Star Bar in Little Five Points and the Starlight Drive-In Theatre on Moreland Avenue, and performed with a short-lived burlesque group called the Dong Squad. “Every seven years or so, I try something new,” he says. He’s done 20 episodes of food televisionDeep Fried Masters, Get Delicious!, and Offbeat Eats, among them—which earned him five Emmy awards and two appearances on Leno’s Tonight Show, where he served fried pumpkin pie and moonshine to Quentin Tarantino. Before all that, in the mid-1980s, he was student body president at Marietta’s Sprayberry High, hard as that is to square with his professional peregrinations since.

Chef Kevin Rathbun admits that his friend of eight years, whom he calls a “gentle giant,” has trouble focusing his talents—and his attention. “Stacy’s got that charismatic look, and I think he’s really good on TV. He just needs to dial in on what he wants to do.”

Jim Stacy
Jim Stacy

Photograph by Andrea Fremiotti

Now Stacy has two food-themed web series in the works—labors of love, which he hopes to sell this year to the highest bidder. One is a hybridized puppet and live- action animation show about food science that, in Stacy’s words, “is MythBusters and Mr. Wizard and Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Julia Child combined, with me hosting.” The other is a food history show.

Among Stacy’s other pursuits: shopping a neighborhood-focused reality cooking competition tentatively called Best of the Block; writing a novel about clowns and circuses; and finishing the manuscripts on six children’s books he hopes to publish, one of which is about “a ghost’s first night as a ghost, trying to find a sheet.”

In the meantime, to support his scattered projects, as well as his family, Stacy has been doing the slightly less glamorous work of cooking on film sets. “I’m getting to chef really great meals for 100 to 300 people a day,” Stacy tells me. “Look,” he says, pointing to a man walking near us, “there’s Michael K. Williams from The Wire.”

Will Stacy ever get back into the restaurant game? He’s been talking about opening a doughnut shop and a Hawaiian meat-and-three since last spring, but lately he’s sticking those back under that conductor’s cap, waiting for the right collaborators, seed money, and timing to line up. All Stacy needs for now, it seems, are fresh ingredients and the occasional fan on set. “I served Kurt Russell a while back,” he says. “He came up to the truck and said, ‘Fix me a big-ass bowl of chili, son.’ And I was like, ‘Holy shit, Snake Plissken!’ He liked it.”

Why the Atlanta Hawks are worth watching this season

Dwight HowardIt’s been feeling like the dark days again—1989, anyone?—in Atlanta professional sports. The suburb-bound Braves are in the midst of a down-to-the-ball-boys rebuild, and the Falcons haven’t put together a winning season since 2012. Meanwhile, it’s been 55 seasons since the Hawks (then in St. Louis) played for (and lost) an NBA championship. This season isn’t likely to break that streak with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors returning at full strength. Yet the Hawks are certainly worth watching. In 2014–2015, they won 60 games for the first time ever, and after making it to the second round of the playoffs last season (and acquiring a phalanx of born-again fans), they’ve picked up one of the greatest ever Atlanta-born hoopers: Dwight “Superman” Howard. There are caveats, of course. Howard, a center who turns 31 in December, is slightly past his prime and known to drive coaches mad. And the Hawks parted ways with fan favorite all-stars Al Horford and Jeff Teague in the off-season. But plucky German-born Dennis Schröder is poised to replace Teague, and we’re excited to see Howard paired with power forward Paul Millsap. What else? Well, 22-year-old rookie DeAndre Bemry may have the most impressive, well-groomed Afro in the league. And that’s a return to the 1980s we can enjoy.

This article originally appeared in our November 2016 issue.

One Square Mile: Visit a Mosque Day at Duluth’s Madina Institute

Madina Institute DuluthMadina Institute | Duluth | 24 miles northeast of Atlanta
It’s cold outside on Visit a Mosque Day. Men wear thobes and parkas, while women wear coats and abayas. Shoes are placed in cubbies outside the door. Inside, it’s warm and delicious-smelling. Umber Hanief, a program director at Gwinnett Technical College, has brought food for newcomers, who have traveled from Buckhead, Decatur, and places between. Prompted by the attacks in Paris and California and the anti-Islam furor that followed, the Atlanta Muslim community organized the event with the support of 16 local mosques. “Originally,” Hanief says, “we were just gonna get packaged things. We thought, People won’t want buffet-style. Then a couple people in our group told us that their friends at the churches are expecting ethnic foods. So we’re like, Oh no! What do we do? The hummus was easy, so we made that; it’s becoming very popular in America. A lot of people know about samosas—deep-fried, everyone likes that. The biryani we weren’t expecting. We were afraid some things would be a little spicy.” Nearby, Ethan Rubenstein digs in. “My favorite is the baklava!” says the 12-year-old from Johns Creek. His aunt, Leanne Rubenstein, who is executive director of a nonprofit called Compassionate Atlanta, tries on a hijab. Ethan gets his name written in Islamic calligraphy at a nearby table staffed by two Muslim women. “He’s very open-minded,” Rubenstein says. “He knows a lot, reads a lot. I hope that together we can educate our friends and family about what Islam is all about. I think there’s a lot of misinformation and Islamophobia. Hearing things like, ‘Muslims shouldn’t come into the country,’ this has happened to the Jewish people!” A man walks up to a microphone: “It’s just poetry,” he says to the crowd of white and brown faces, as two young Muslim men prepare to recite ancient songs of peace in English and Arabic. “Please don’t be alarmed.”

This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue.

At the Smite World Championship, gamers have rock star status (and paychecks to match)

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe

The day after watching the Hawks beat the Bulls at Philips Arena in January, I drove north of the city to a much livelier sporting event: the second annual Smite World Championship, held at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Smite is a game played on a computer or video game console, with 13 million registered players worldwide. This was news to me, too; my last serious gaming phase, if you can call it that, coincided with the debut of the Nintendo Game Boy, circa 1989. Smite, I soon gathered, involves two teams of five taking on the characters of gods (Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Mayan, Chinese, Japanese, and Hindu) to kill opposing players, destroy the other team’s base, and eventually “raise Thor’s hammer,” as a game analyst, commentator, and coach named James Horgan put it to me.

“There are three lines on the game map like roads,” Horgan began. “Between them, there’s the jungle—basically a big forest. In that forest, there are camps of cyclopses, and each camp has its own little ‘buff,’ which you get when you kill them. Buffs [allow you to] attack harder or move faster.” He paused, correctly sensing that I was losing the thread. “It’s a mix of chess and basketball.”

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe
Smite World Championships
Peter Dimitrov from Germany

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

In the media room were writers, photographers, competitors, and surprisingly attractive groupies from nearly every continent. According to Todd Harris, cofounder of Alpharetta’s Hi-Rez Studios, which created the game, each month about 100 million people watch other people play video games, like Smite, over the Internet. Much of YouTube’s traffic is driven by this activity, but the gaming broadcast leader is Twitch, which Amazon acquired for a billion dollars in 2014.

“To folks wondering if this is a fad,” said Harris, “those viewership numbers and that acquisition show there’s something here.” As do the purses at major events. This year the Smite World Championship offered $1 million in prize money, funded by a few blue chip sponsors: Xbox One, Red Bull, Intel. There’s certainly more money here than on the professional Ultimate Frisbee circuit. John Salter, a 25-year-old Cartersville native with a degree in exercise and health science from Kennesaw State, led the 2015 winning team and pocketed $260,000. Many of the assembled, including 21-year-old Cody Oswald, spoke about him with reverence.

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe
Smite World Championships
One of the Smite competitors was Ben McKinzey, whose nom de guerre is Saltmachine.

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

“It takes a special sort of appeal to [make someone] want to watch people play video games,” admitted Oswald, who lives in Boise. He’d saved up $1,000 to travel to Atlanta. “It’s a love for, at first, the game, and then that grows into loving the community. And when you take the time to come here, you get to meet and talk to famous people. BaRRaCCuDDa [Salter’s nom de guerre] is someone you can connect with. You watch his streams, and he gets really personal; he talks to you. Yesterday I stayed three hours after the competition ended just to talk to him. It was so in-depth; it didn’t feel like he was a celebrity.” Salter’s team lost in the semifinals this year, but he stuck around to watch.

Walking into the theater for the best-of-five grand finals between Team Enemy and Team Epsilon, I felt I’d stumbled upon something like The Hunger Games: the palpable bloodlust of the crowd (3,000 mostly white males below the age of 35) beating noisemakers, the cheery British announcer, the underwriting of the powerful, and the practiced brutality of the players in their teens and 20s, sitting at computers onstage below a giant screen displaying the battle. Captured by monitor cams, their faces were projected on huge panels flanking the stage for scrutiny and adoration. With their headsets transmitting “team comms” while blocking out the noise of the crowd, they resembled a pubescent NASA mission control.

Smite World Championships
André Brännvall from Sweden

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe

A collection of European all-stars, Team Epsilon consisted of iRaffer (decent beard), Yammyn (silver chain), emilitoo (backwards cap), Dimi (Russian), and the beanie-wearing, acne-scarred killer known as Adapting, thought by some to be the best Smite player in the world. Team Enemy was a geekier-looking group: Adjust (bushy eyebrows), Khaos (pencil neck), saltmachine (also pencil neck), Vetium (spectacles), and their 22-year-old captain, PainDeViande, known for his emotive leadership. He fired his original team members a few months prior to the competition, an usher told me, and assembled “a ragtag, Moneyball-type team.” All of them, like the members of Team Epsilon, are professional gamers.

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe

They unpacked their keyboards and mice, put on their headsets, and flexed their fingers. Time to play. Throughout, commentators spoke over the loudspeakers, excitedly saying things like: “One small mistake will cost the team a fire giant!” and “He finishes off his breast plate of valor.” After Enemy made a remarkable (but inscrutable to me) play, the crowd began to chant: U-S-A! U-S-A! But to no avail. Epsilon won the first game handily and the second by coming from behind. The third was close but had the same result. I derived some pleasure from the whole thing, much as one would from watching a well-acted foreign film without subtitles.

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe

In the lobby on my way out, I struck up a conversation with Jeff Kelly—a noticeably older audience member—who’d driven from Dixon, Kentucky, with his son, Jordan. “I thought it was a waste of time until I attended last year and saw the energy and the excitement. It’s addictive. I wanted Jordan to go to law school, but he said, ‘Dad, I can walk out of college with a computer science degree, no debt, and be making $90,000-plus a year.’ So this world is a good economic choice for him, I guess.”

Hi-Rez Studios was certainly pleased with the results. They won’t be leaving Atlanta anytime soon. “When we’re recruiting employees,” said Harris, “we often refer to Atlanta as the nerdiest, geekiest city in the nation.” Online surveys by Movoto and Bustle support this claim. “And it’s only getting better: Every time our players boot up Smite, they see the ‘Made in Georgia’ peach.”

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe

This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue.

Eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney returns to the site of his iconic gym

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Lee Haney
Lee Haney where his former gym used to stand, now Ponce City Market

Photograph by Maria Lioy

“Man,” Lee Haney says, “I am puzzled! Golly. Oh my goodness. Mass confusion! I feel like Captain America when he fell in the ice and woke up years later.” Haney is a superhero of sorts—from 1984 to 1991, he won eight consecutive Mr. Olympia titles—but right now he’s walking in circles around a parking garage below Ponce City Market. It’s a sunny day, and he’s wearing a long-sleeve black Under Armour shirt, wind pants, and Brooks running shoes on his “wide, Platypus flat feet.” Haney is a fit 56: 5 foot 11 and, at 237 (mustache included), about 20 pounds lighter than when he was last Mr. Olympia.

“We’d turn off the street and come in here,” he continues, pointing toward Glen Iris Drive. “Then come this way.” He motions behind him. “This could be the elevator that we’d go down. I think we might be down too low.” He takes the stairs leading back up to the market’s main level, then outside. At a retailer called Archer Paper Goods, Haney stops in his tracks.

“This is it! These are my walls right here with the designs on them. I remember that. I had them put there! This is awesome!” From 1993 to 2006, when the building was sold and he had to move out, Lee Haney’s World Class Fitness Center was a 20,000-square-foot facility in the bowels of the old Sears building on Ponce de Leon Avenue, where Atlanta’s muscle-bound trained. “We had recumbent bikes, treadmills, elliptical machines, body masters, every Nautilus piece of equipment you could think of. We also had what we called the ‘Animal Kingdom’ feature, where the really hard-core training took place: squat racks, dumbbells, heavy weights, all the suffering stuff. There were golden lion statues on each end of the entrance. I think maybe the lions were right around here.” He points to a corner of Archer’s. “But it’s hard to tell.”

Lee Haney
Lee Haney’s World Class Fitness Center

Photograph courtesy of Lee Haney

Inside the paper shop, a man is texting behind the cash register. Haney approaches.

“Hi, my name is Lee Haney.”

“Okay . . . ”

“We trained Evander Holyfield here. The Rock has been here. I had a gym here for a decade.”

“Yeah? Very cool.”

“The red and black on the pillars over there, that was our decor.”

“I’m sure this is a complete 180 from what it was before.”

“It’s awesome,” Haney says.

“Is this your first time back since you left?”

“Yeah! I moved out to Fayetteville.”

“Well, you need to bring your wife back here.”

“I will. Thanks, man. Check out Lee Haney on YouTube!”

A self-described “Panera guy,” Haney spends the next 45 minutes wandering around the market’s food stalls. He poses with a lollipop in front of Collier Candy Company and shakes his head at the number of fried offerings at Hop’s Chicken. He finally settles on a veggie patty at H&F Burger, not far from Honeysuckle Gelato. Would he have dessert?

“I do some dairy. I’m careful on that; it needs to be hormone free. But everybody has to have ice cream!”

Lee Haney
Haney in his competitive body-building days

Photograph courtesy of Lee Haney

Since the late 1980s, Haney has had two children (Olympia and Joshua), written books (TotaLee Awesome: A Complete Guide to Bodybuilding Success), hosted television and radio programs (TotaLee Fit with Lee Haney), and launched a line of supplement products (Transformation Now Kit, $250). Recently he’s been an online fitness coach and mentor at leehaney.com. “Health and fitness is who I am,” he says. “It’s what I do.

“I wanted to be Samson or Hercules from the age of six. When I was 10, I asked my parents for a set of weights. I had my Charles Atlas book to go along with that. Every time we went to the grocery store, I’d rush to the magazine area and read the ones with Arnold Schwarzenegger and all those guys on the covers: Pumping Iron, Muscle and Fitness, Muscle Builder by Joe Weider. You had the training routines of all the greatest body builders; you could read and mimic, find out about nutrition. That was pretty much how I got my education.”

“When I was about 14,” he says, “my dad built me a T-bar rowing machine. He was a welder, and he made it for his boy. And his boy used it. And guess what? Best set of lats in the business!” He flexes. “I still got ’em!”

It’s time to go outside for “some vitamin D,” which, Haney says, is best when it comes from the sun. “I knew there was a lot of possibility in this building,” he concludes, marveling at the view from the second-floor terrace. “I love what they’ve done. But where’s the gym?”

This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue under the headline “Weighing In.”

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