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Justin Heckert

Justin Heckert is a native of Cape Girardeau, Mo., and now lives near downtown Indy. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, and one of his stories was recently anthologized in the book Next Wave: America's New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.

Make Greenville, South Carolina, your next weekend getaway

Photo courtesy of Bigstock

The sound of Greenville is the sound of water—the Reedy River whooshing beneath the Liberty Bridge in the heart of the city; the burble of the fountain at the historic Poinsett Hotel on Main Street; the steady whisk of the RiverPlace waterfall, bathed at night in the lights of the modern hotels and condos that stand above it. The sound of water belongs to Greenville just as the bleating of car horns belongs to Manhattan. But this is not to say that the city is too soft to be heard: The U.S. Census Bureau recently pronounced Greenville one of the five fastest-growing cities in America. Water is central to the story of how it got here.

Photo courtesy of discoversouthcarolina.com

Walking through Greenville, with its wide sidewalks and outdoor cafe seating, feels a little like ambling around a neighborhood in Paris. On a recent Saturday morning, two blocks of its brick Main Street were shut off for the town’s namesake market. Thousands of people milled about beneath tall red maples and willow oaks, sampling honey and tacos, fresh lettuce and squash and radishes from local farmers, soaps and jams and ice pops.

Liberty Bridge at Falls Park
Liberty Bridge at Falls Park

Photograph courtesy of Visit Greenville SC

Four hundred years ago, this area was also a place where people looked for food—a hunting ground for the Cherokee and Catawba tribes. In addition to stalking deer, turkey, and other animals along the Reedy, the Cherokee established camps on its banks.

Greenville’s first recognized settler, an Irishman named Richard Pearis, traded with the Cherokee and ultimately came into possession of tribal lands, in violation of state treaty, before the Revolutionary War. Around 1770, Pearis and his wife and children settled near the falls of the Reedy, in what is today downtown. He built a plantation, planted orchards, and sowed fields in the area that’s now the glass-and-brick RiverPlace development and Falls Park. But perhaps Pearis’s most important accomplishment was his construction of a gristmill on the edge of the falls.

Westin Poinsett Hotel, Greenville, South Carolina
Westin Poinsett Hotel

Photograph courtesy of Visit Greenville SC

In the ensuing decades, this one mill powered by the Reedy became many mills for textiles and cotton, which fueled a population spike and a robust local economy. By 1930, there were twenty-two mills in Greenville, and by the 1950s, the city was known as the Textile Center of the South. But that badge of honor soon lost its luster as the textile industry began seeking cheaper cotton overseas and mills started to close. That Greenville did not become a ghost town is owed both to forward-thinking civic leadership and a bit of luck.

When the mills shuttered, much of Greenville’s job force found new employment, but they didn’t stay downtown; instead, they departed for the outskirts of Greenville, where brand-new shopping malls beckoned. Four-lane Main Street, rather than attracting residents, carried them away from the city.

A number of visionary mayors, beginning with Max Heller, worked to lure them back by reviving downtown. Heller helped bring a Hyatt to Main Street in the seventies and hired an artist to design the downtown streetscape. Main Street’s four lanes shrank to two, bushes and trees were planted, and benches were installed. New diagonal parking allowed for easy access to stores; parking meters were yanked out.

Liberty Bridge, Greenville, South Carolina
Liberty Bridge


In 1990, the building of the Peace Center, a performing arts venue, drove the development of Main Street down to the river. A group of women called the Carolina Foothills Garden Club went to work on the beautification of the Reedy and the development of a world-class park on its banks. They hauled trash, and they planted flowers, shrubs, and trees. Falls Park remains a selling point of this model downtown, a place that has evolved into a charming esplanade teeming with boutiques and restaurants.

Along Main Street, people dine on Thai food, sushi, and hamburgers. They pack longtime favorite Soby’s, housed in an old shoe factory, for New South cuisine. Along the banks of the Reedy there are picnics, children playing, families watching puppet shows. Dogs chase Frisbees, run, some even swim. The Swamp Rabbit Trail cuts around the river, encouraging visitors to walk through the park, maybe take a seat on the rocks and listen to the sound of water.

Mice on Main Street, Greenville, South Carolina
Mice on Main Street

Photograph courtesy of Visit Greenville SC

That Saturday, after the market closed, the area remained packed, crowds of people wandering into the evening. Some sat beneath the shade of the trees and sipped local bourbon at the Dark Corner Distillery. Others became mouse hunters, squinting down at the ground, searching for the tiny bronze statues of the Mice on Main hidden in plain sight. Dozens of children gathered in M. Judson Booksellers, a local bookstore, and sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” At the entrance to Falls Park, a line wound around Spill the Beans, people queuing up for coffee and yogurt. In the distance, someone played the trumpet.

To stand on the Liberty Bridge is to stand in the best spot in the city, the place of its beginnings; to wonder what the native Americans saw here hundreds of years ago; to just stare at the water, the falls, loud and omnipresent, yet peaceful; and then to close your eyes and experience the city just by listening to it.

More to Explore: Eat like a local in Greenville

Start your day at Biscuit Head, known for its flaky, gigantic “cat-head” biscuits, selection of gravies, and jelly bar. Or head over to the city’s hipster-y West End for blueberry ricotta pancakes at the Anchorage.

Jianna, Greenville, South Carolina

Photograph by Getz Creative

For lunch, plan on a salad or light quiche at Passarelle Bistro at the entrance to Falls Park. After your meal, stroll to the Velo Fellow, the best bar in the city, for a house-brewed beer. Located behind the West End Market, the popular pub is quiet in the daytime. Or check out Coffee Underground; just look for the small stairway leading down from Main Street. Cap the afternoon at Soby’s with an order of fried green tomatoes.

Plan on dinner on the riverside porch at Jianna. Go with polpette (meatballs) for an appetizer and squid ink radiatore or spaghetti as your entree. Finish off with honey lavender panna cotta served in a mason jar.

The Big Break

The teachers began to notice him at the beginning of the 2010 school year, the stranger in a red pickup truck and lizard-skin boots. He was in the hallways and in the classrooms of the school. He was in the principal’s office and in the lounge. He was even in the lunchroom, sitting with a food tray at one of the tables near the children, almost every day. So he became familiar over the course of a few weeks at Venetian Hills Elementary, in southwest Atlanta, but not familiar in a comforting way; the stranger’s presence set the teachers on edge. The school had a secret, and some of the teachers and even the principal would end up lying to protect it, and were encumbered with the reality of why he was there. He could appear inside their doorways startlingly, unexpectedly. He’d flash the credentials of his governor-issued ID, a smile on his face and his shirt tucked into his blue jeans, boots clacking against the floor. “Hi,” he’d say. “I’m Richard Hyde. I’m one of the governor’s special investigators, and I’d like to talk to you.”

Venetian Hills Elementary School; photograph by Christopher T. Martin

First he tried to put the teachers at ease. They were terrified of him, afraid they’d lose their jobs if they uttered a word. He had more than thirty years’ experience as an investigator, and approached them with his calming, almost hillbilly drawl, as though he were a friend stopping in from the cold. He pretended, at first, to know nothing about them, even though he’d read their files; to know nothing much about what might have gone on at the school, though he’d seen the numbers—75.4 percent of classrooms there flagged for wrong-to-right erasures on the standardized tests one year earlier. He handed out business cards and said, “If you decide to talk, call me.”

And he kept coming back. He kept parking his big truck in the school lot and eating in the cafeteria, and his reptilian boots kept clacking on the tile. He talked to secretaries and nurses, people, he says, who “knew what was going on, but had never been asked.” From the first day inside the school, when he knew he wouldn’t get a lot of cooperation, his gut told him the same thing that the wildly unbelievable standard deviations on the 2009 Georgia CRCT test erasure study had all but confirmed: There was something going on here; he could feel it, but couldn’t articulate exactly what it was.

The first person who confessed was a third-grade teacher named Jacquelyn Parks. She was a well-dressed woman with a voice loud enough to carry above the noise that spilled through the hallways of what Hyde observed to be a very loud school. When he first approached her, she wanted her students and whoever happened to be standing outside the room to hear her response, almost shouting at him cartoonishly, I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT, AND I CAN’T TALK TO YOU! In his experience this was a red flag, an embellishment akin to a wink, a silent plea for him to contact her anywhere but school. So he did.

He focused on her. He kept going back to her. She would see him in his sunglasses, see his truck, see him eating lunch, see him talking to the secretary. But it was at church, according to Hyde, where the Lord revealed that she should tell him what she knew. Hyde went to her home with a female lawyer from Balch & Bingham law firm (where he works), so Parks would feel more at ease.

On the big poster-board map of the Atlanta Public Schools system in his Downtown office at Balch & Bingham, after former attorney general Mike Bowers asked him to be the lead investigator on a case that would take them almost a year to complete, Hyde had circled the flagged schools with a red highlighter, looking for a place to begin, and had seen Venetian down in his old police territory. It had seemed little better than a shot in the dark.

A self-described “former bumblin’ beat cop who will never wear a Hickey Freeman suit,” Hyde had picked Venetian Hills because he had patrolled that area of Atlanta when he was a rookie police officer on the overnight shift. This was during the Wayne Williams case, when that part of the city thought the killer might’ve been a cop.

Parks confessed with her lawyers present in the Cumberland Room of Balch & Bingham. Bowers and Bob Wilson, the other two senior investigators called by then Governor Sonny Perdue to lead the case, were in the room, and knew this was the break they needed. They listened intently. Parks described being one of the “chosen ones” at Venetian Hills, a small group of longtime teachers trusted by the principal to gather together and change students’ test scores in a windowless room, sometimes wearing gloves. After she confessed, the investigators were able to coax her to wear a wire and record conversations. Venetian Hills was the test run of something that would turn out to be bigger than any of the three investigators imagined.

“I try not to get involved emotionally in stuff like this. I’m a hired gun,” Hyde said this past winter, in his first interview regarding the matter. “But this case really affected us all, especially the guys I worked with—Mike and Bob. I think it was much more emotional for them.”

And that’s basically how Richard Hyde cracked open the biggest school cheating scandal in American history.

If you haven’t been in a coma for the past several months, then you’ve either heard or read about the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal and, in turn, the Dougherty County Public Schools cheating scandal. Dozens of teachers in both school systems had been changing answers on a state standardized test for years, which precipitated a meteoric rise in scores. These districts were lauded for their numbers, even after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution began to question them. The paper’s local reporting would help raise questions that would lead to an investigation headed by Perdue. There were never any answers or adequate explanations, even when he ordered the two school districts to perform internal investigations—which were little more than whitewashes. A 2009 erasure study produced by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, in light of the paper’s reporting, concluded that on that spring’s CRCT test, a yearly exam given to all public elementary and middle school students, some external force operated to cause the wrong-to-right erasures in the subjects math, reading, and English/language arts.

The scandals made Georgia’s public education system a national joke. Maybe you’ve read some of the reports compiled by the three investigators, documents put together with the help of more than fifty Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents and eight lawyers and paralegals at two different firms. It is hard to read the reports without getting angry. The numbers and names within the text have become a matter of stark and almost unbelievable record. The narratives of each school are windows into crooked leadership and failed responsibility. Children were so harmed over such a time that it would not be a reach to wonder if there is a generation of Atlanta schoolkids who have really learned nothing, except that a handful of their teachers were willing to do anything to keep their jobs, and in some cases to bolster their reputations in regard to their peers.

There were the “chosen ones” at Venetian Hills . . . There was the principal at Parks Middle School, a man named Christopher Waller, whom Mike Bowers described as “the worst of the worst, an absolute scoundrel,” who, according to the report, recruited teachers to cheat and allegedly refused to give them raises if they weren’t “on his team”; he had a buzz phrase, “Time to go,” when it was time to change answers . . . There were teachers who wept openly when they confessed, who had cheated merely because it meant meeting the numbers, and meeting the numbers meant keeping a job . . . There were stories of students—sixth graders—who couldn’t read, who didn’t know what a lake was, a lake . . . There was the email exchange from a principal to a teacher, stating, “These children don’t really care because they don’t have parents who set standards and high expectations for them. Sorry to say this but it is true”. . . There were teachers giving students right answers by pointing or by putting check marks next to the correct bubbles; teachers tearing open plastic packets containing the tests, reading the tests, and then using a lighter to reseal the plastic; teachers having “cheating parties,” with pizza. The final impression left by the report? That students didn’t matter. Only data.

What you probably haven’t read is how the case affected the men who signed their names to the final documents, the men who wrote the report, who ultimately dismantled the two institutions by leading the investigation and dropping its findings like a batch of napalm onto the public.

Mike Bowers is one of those men. The former attorney general of the state of Georgia has been puttering around his farm on a green golf cart, driving along a limestone ridge near some cedar trees. It’s a weekend morning in late January a few miles outside Commerce, in Jackson County, and the sun brightens the silver hair on his head. He’s dressed in a green pullover and blue jeans, a ball cap. His face is a smooth, almost translucent white. A West Point graduate, his colleagues joke that he hasn’t gone a day in his life without shaving. He is seventy years old. Bowers stops the golf cart and sees his grandson, who is visiting. “Hey, can you pick up some of this shit?” he says, waving his finger at a big pile of branches. He’s not angry with the teenager—he’s actually in a good mood. He just swears a lot. That’s who he is, even at work. There are cedar branches down all over his fifty acres, because a storm blew in. His grandson is riding Bowers’s four-wheeler. His grandson’s friend is sitting on the back. They both smile at Bowers. The four-wheeler’s motor purrs like a large cat.

“Look at this place,” Bowers almost whispers. The golf cart’s wheels grind as it moves. “This is a boy’s Shangri-la. All this quiet out here . . . this is who I am.” Bowers, a wealthy man (“I make a shitpot of money; my dad would tell me I’m stealing”), a man of power (“I’m too old to give a shit”), and a lion in the Atlanta legal scene, can sort of terrify the younger lawyers at his firm, but can also come across as boyish and charming. He is prone to get those same young lawyers coffee, and to be as approachable as he is intimidating. He doesn’t really look that old. He has a collection of Black Knight footballs in his office and loves his wife’s cookies. He still hunts with his buddies. His four-wheeler isn’t exactly an aging man’s toy; he rides horses at least twenty miles a week. Bowers and his wife, Bette Rose, live in a house at the end of a gravel path here, the wooden railing on the second floor of the house draped in black-and-gold Army blankets. This is where he stays most of the week and on weekends; the couple also has a condo Downtown, three blocks from Balch & Bingham, where he is senior partner.

Bowers, a man who switched parties in 1994 and ran unsuccessfully for governor four years later and “could’ve been president,” according to Hyde, gets angry when he thinks about the investigation. His eyes narrow and he starts to talk rough.

“What we saw here, in terms of these teachers, who were primarily single moms, was outrageous, and it was sad. It was a tragedy,” he says. “We knew the children were being abused. We didn’t get to see that firsthand, but we heard about it from the teachers. I remember one, she went to the University of South Carolina, she had worked at the Board of Pardons and Paroles. And she said, ‘I cheated. I’m so embarrassed I don’t know what to tell you. If my daddy were alive, he would be so embarrassed, he wouldn’t know what to do. I have two children, I am the sole source of income for my home, I have got to keep this job. This is a big joke, Mr. Bowers. You know why it’s a joke? Because my children can’t read or write.’”

Bowers is known to lack patience, known for his penchant to want to solve problems in a short amount of time. This was the exact opposite of what the cheating investigation required. This meant his role in the investigation was not to be a “details guy.” He does not take direction well, from anyone. He is also not a terrific interviewer, because of the whole patience thing, and also his temper, which can catch fire as quick as raking a match—and perhaps even because of his cursing. “Once the train leaves the station with Mike, there ain’t no pulling it back,” said one of the other partners at his firm. During one APS interview, with the investigators and the lawyers present in the Wiregrass Room of his law firm, he slammed his hand down on the table and yelled, “This is bullshit!” He also has a hearing aid. During another interview, while one of the Balch & Bingham partners was in the middle of asking a question of a witness, Bowers turned to Wilson, and said, “Bob, LET’S GO!,” tapping his watch, thinking he was whispering—but he was actually talking loud enough for the room to go quiet and everyone to stare at him. And so he became a “big-picture guy.” He hates typing and physically can’t make a chart on a computer, so he’d sketch something out longhand and give it to one of the lawyers to actually create. There are a lot of charts in the documents. Some of those are right out of Bowers’s head. He is also good at managing people—not micromanaging them, Hyde says. One of his two stipulations when he accepted the job from Perdue (the other being to work with Hyde, his longtime friend) was that the governor’s office would not get a preview of the report. Bowers also helped rewrite the report, took the first drafts home to Bette Rose, and when she told him they weren’t good, he tore them apart.

Everything was appearance with Atlanta Public Schools, and the focus became scores,” he says. “Move the children along, to hell with are they learning—are the scores right? As a result, children never were looked at for the need for remedial education. Hell, nobody gave a rat’s ass. And they just kept getting moved. I remember a conversation with [Fulton County DA] Paul Howard. He said to us, ‘I understand now some of the young folks that come in here charged with crimes. I’ve noticed they’ll come in here at twenty or twenty-one, and they’ve gone through the tenth grade and they can’t read.’ The boys go to prison, the girls become teenage unwed mothers. It’s real simple.”

Bowers’s father was a sharecropper’s son with a sixth-grade education. Bowers himself has four degrees. “Why do I have four degrees? I was scared to death not to get all the education I could. I was taught, ‘You’d better get it all, boy.’

“This pisses me off. Immensely. I mean, I’m a father, a grandfather. I have two sons in their late forties, a daughter who is forty-two; my daughter works in a school. If she was a teacher, and someone treated her the way these teachers were treated by the administration, you would be talking to me with bars between us. Because I’d kill somebody. I wouldn’t put up with it. What they did to those teachers is outrageous. These young women, who are very vulnerable, and they get treated like this? Good God a’mighty. We had teachers faint coming out of our conference room. They were under such stress. You can ask the GBI agents, we told the teachers, look—tell us the truth. If you’ll cooperate, we will not prosecute you, and if you’ll help us, we’ll do all we can and help you keep your license with as little sanction as possible.

“I’m worried about the future of education, public in particular,” he says. “I think the confidence of the public in public education has gone way down. Things like, we need to do away with public schools and go to charter schools. That’s what people were saying to me. I’ve heard that 100,000 times. In the state. That we need to just do away with public schools, they’re not functioning. This is a pretty good argument for it. That’s what bothers me. I believe that good public schools are essential; that’s probably the biggest impact it’s had on me. I don’t know how to fix it. Because what I saw was just a disaster. An unmitigated disaster. From the board to the bottom. If today I had children, and lived in Atlanta, I’d be very leery about sending them to public schools.”

The details guy is eating a huge bowl of brown-sugar oatmeal and shaking his head, chuckling, existential laughter. Bob Wilson is sitting by the window of Thumbs Up Diner in Decatur, just around the corner from his law office. He’s looking out and watching the traffic, the walkers, the town slowly waking up. The case became Wilson’s life. It became the thing in the room, growing larger in the corner, watching over him. It strangled his personal time, erased the routines of his regular life. He didn’t even think he could do it at first. He didn’t want to get into it—he didn’t want to sink his hands into something so thick, when his wife was about to have back surgery, and juggle the case along with the normal requirements of his firm. But the governor had called him. Would he lead the investigation? No, Wilson told him, even though the governor was calling at the behest of Bowers, who had recommended him. Then the governor’s office had called back Bowers, who was riding one of those horses on his farm near Commerce. Perdue asked Bowers if he’d do it, if Wilson somehow then agreed to work on the case as well; he played the two men against each other without them knowing.

Wilson, a self-described perfectionist, became what Hyde describes as “a perfect foil” for Bowers. Like, the antimatter version. He’s a soft-spoken man, or seems to be. He doesn’t yell, doesn’t really curse, doesn’t tap his watch to interrupt other investigators, doesn’t scream in frustration at the table. Wilson created an organizational chart at the very beginning of the process, with three levels at the top—suspected high-level cheating, middle-level, lower-level—listing the name of every flagged school. There were forty-four. He put the chart on a stand in his office.

Wilson began to read up on the case, which meant articles published in the AJC, before he did most anything else. Before he began to analyze the numbers. The stories went back several years. High test score increases, questions, no answers, etc. “Those stories asked, is it possible these scores are not really legit?” he says.

“If you look at the number of schools in the state, elementary and middle, 1,800 schools give the CRCT. High schools don’t. Out of those schools, I remember one third-grade class, the year those kids took math, they ranked 803 out of 1,200 in state. The next year’s fourth graders? Those same students were number one in the state. I’m old enough to remember when the Mets went from last to first in one sweep. But as I point out, they only climbed over seven teams. These folks climbed over 802 other schools in one year. How smart do you have to be to go, ‘WHOA, GOOD GRACIOUS! How did that happen?’”

The APS system invariably never questioned those rises, according to Wilson. They always attributed them to the good works of the administration. Wilson’s question was, if one school’s class can do that—if the teaching methods are that productive—then why can’t all schools do that, and what is it, exactly, that they’re doing? When he and the other investigators began asking upper-level APS employees, “Did you and your cabinet, your curriculum, did you ever say I want you to find out how the hell you’re doing that?”—he raises his voice and almost stands up from the table—“No. No! They just stood by the damn party line.”

Wilson and Bowers knew the grading wasn’t the problem, but they went to Indianapolis to the McGraw-Hill testing site anyway, just to understand how tests are graded, and ultimately to prove that any questioning the schools did about the numbers (“such as the schools insinuating the numbers were bogus”) was unfounded. The testing center was like a giant warehouse, full of boxes packed with Scantron testing sheets from classrooms across the U.S. The box for APS was huge, around 4 x 4 x 3, and inside was a solid mass of sheets of paper. The men stood near the machine, which was like a very fast paper processor, to watch it scan the tests. Then they took randomly selected tests (and some tests flagged with high standard deviations) into a room and went over those sheets, sometimes with magnifying glasses, to see if they could tell erasures had been clearly made from wrong to right. “Hell, we didn’t even need the magnifying glasses,” Wilson says.

“We sat there and looked at them. We found more erasures than the machines did, because the machines are calibrated to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

The reason Wilson has been laughing over breakfast is because he’s remembering what it was like to begin the investigation by interviewing former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall in his office, in what he calls a “benchmark interview,” to figure out if she and APS were going to cooperate. During the interview, Wilson asked her about principals at APS. About hiring them and firing them. What she expected of them. She told Wilson that principals had three years to meet targets, and if they didn’t, they were gone. No exceptions, no excuses. “I bet she regrets to this day she told me that during the first meeting,” he says. This stringent demand for success led to what the investigators describe as a “culture of fear” throughout the system—one that trickled down, from the top. A fear of losing jobs because of numbers not met. And so cheating was an effect of the desperation to meet unachievable targets, to remain employed.

Wilson and Bowers went to see Hall’s office. They discovered that when you went into the building, you couldn’t just go up on the elevator and get off on her floor. You needed a special pass to venture into her suite. She had a gatekeeper. “She had so many roadblocks,” Wilson says. “There was no such thing as someone in APS going up to see Dr. Hall. Hell no, she wasn’t accessible. The roadblocks became clear. Hall was nobody’s fool. She had developed a public persona for herself. And in doing that, she was setting APS apart from other districts; she created these additional targets that were above and beyond No Child Left Behind. Atlanta had its own standards. They would be a quantum leap if the numbers had been met for real, and these kinds of standards will catch national attention. And it did. Atlanta got held up as the poster child as to what urban systems could achieve. It was imperative for her to create insulation for herself. In her entire tenure, we never could find that she met with a single principal one-on-one but once. In her years.”

Her office was huge. It was a shrine. She would meet with APS principals, ten to twelve at a time, in a conference room that adjoined the office—mass gatherings. She would never eat lunch or meet with a teacher one-on-one. On the walls hung test scores in frames. “You could get humiliated,” Wilson says. “It was a room of comparisons. If you were up, great. Keep it there. If you were down, get it up. You know your job.”

One of the things Wilson will never forget is that one of her representatives said, “My primary responsibility is to give the superintendent deniability.”

“You could’ve heard a pin drop in the room,” Wilson says.

The men really could’ve killed eachother. The three of them were trapped in a conference room for weeks completing the investigation, poring over legal documents with the repetition of gerbils running on a wheel. They had been in the same room with each other so often, had been so focused in each other’s company, had so questioned each other’s points of view, knew each other so well that while they were tearing apart and rewriting one of the most important reports in the history of this state, they wanted to strangle the words out of each other’s throats.

That’s an exaggeration—but only a slight one. The men were exhausted. They were irritable. They had argued and fought over the placement of every word in the 813-page Investigative Findings: Atlanta Public Schools 2009 CRCT Cheating report that was submitted to Governor Nathan Deal on June 30, 2011.

For months last spring and summer, Hyde, Bowers, and Wilson had been working from 4 a.m. to midnight just to get it done, to get it right. They had buried themselves in its minutiae, had torn apart its legalese. There were so many drafts they could not remember the number. They spent so much time in the Wiregrass Room that its corporate workspace had developed its own aura, its own gerontocratic stain; the younger lawyers at Balch & Bingham joked that the three men might combust within the room’s walls and send plumes of testosterone curling from beneath its door.

There were no windows in the Wiregrass Room. There was nothing to soothe the men, like a painting, or a plant. There was only a big wooden table, two projection screens on the wall, a Dell laptop plugged into the projector, and the numbing clack of its keyboard as Hyde typed. Wilson’s wife called herself an “APS widow.”

This past January, two of the men sat on a bench outside the Sloppy Floyd building across from the state capitol, a few months after the reports were released. Bowers had just been quoted in the New York Times describing the cheating as “an American tragedy.” The men were waiting on Bowers’s secretary to pick them up and drive them back to the office, and so they had a few minutes to kill. During the Dougherty County investigation—which was a much smaller and faster task—they had driven down to Albany together and stayed in the same Marriott, passing the local paper back and forth, and ended up reminiscing on their lives. They have known each other for more than thirty years, since Wilson was chief public defender for DeKalb County and Bowers was attorney general. Once, in a case that went to the Georgia Supreme Court, Wilson defended Bowers and won a case for him, “kicking the bar’s ass.” There had been a hearing by the state personnel board. The hearing was closed to the public. Bowers, the AG, sued the state personnel board for closing the hearing. He said it violated the open meetings law. The governor filed a bar complaint against Bowers for “suing his client.” His contention: “My client is the people of Georgia.” Wilson was Bowers’s lawyer. The Georgia Supreme Court ended up changing the bar rules. In order to enforce the law, he could sue state agencies. “That’s kicking the bar’s ass,” Bowers says.

Beverly Hall, who was named Superintendent of the Year in 2009 by the American Association of School Administrators, resigned the same month the report came out. She denies knowledge of any wrongdoing. In February, according to the AJC, a state ethics committee declared that five educators accused of cheating have lost their licenses to work in a classroom. There is an ongoing criminal investigation.

Some of the investigators who oversaw this case are worried that APS might take the confessors and kick them out, and not deal with the other suspected cheaters, because it’ll be the easy thing to do. That is, they are curious to see the disciplinary action. The men are not convinced that those who’ve confessed won’t be punished more severely.

“Where does this fit?” Bowers asks. “Is it one of the most significant cases we’ve ever done?” Yes, of course it was, Wilson says. “We couldn’t escape it.”

The men moved on from the report. They purged themselves of it, reentered the routines of their own lives, drifted back into the world. Richard Hyde continues his investigative work for the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, a self-described “hillbilly populist” who puts the fear of God into local judges, investigating complaints against them. He bought a new house. He went on the Atkins diet. The fact that he’d broken open the case by spending so much time at Venetian Hills became nothing more than a memory, which made him smile as he propped his lizard-skin boots on his desk, just below a wall full of thousands of bound documents that he promised to never look at again.

The Great Speckled Bird Flies Again

Great Speckled Bird
The Great Speckled Bird in 1969

Copyright "Great Speckled Bird." Courtesy Georgia State University

This article originally appeared in our December 2011 issue.

An aging hippie limps into Aurora Coffee and takes a seat beneath the concert flyers that cover the wall. He drops a plastic grocery bag onto the sticky countertop, lifts out a pile of old newspapers folded in half. The hippie has sunken cheeks and a gray beard, a thick mustache and a full head of short, graying hair. He’s wearing tennis shoes and a T-shirt with a cartoon bird on the front, its wing curled into a fist. His papers—well, they’ve yellowed over the years, and the ink has faded, the pages turned brittle. He bends one of the copies carefully at the spine.

“If you open them too fast, they’ll tear,” Steve Wise says, slowly folding back the first page of a copy of the Great Speckled Bird. This issue is forty-two years and seven months beyond its publication date. With pride, he points to an essay he wrote titled “Southern Consciousness.” Wise had written: “Southern Consciousness is based on an impulse that originates in the very depths of the Southern soul, in the intense and profound feelings for the rootedness of a society, no matter how much corrupted . . . Liberate the South!”

The Bird was first published in 1968, during one of the most tempestuous times in the history of our country—especially the South, which was still in for a lot of liberating. It was the city’s first underground paper and became one of the biggest and most widely read in the region, with 27,000 readers at its peak. When Mike Wallace profiled the Bird on 60 Minutes in 1971, he called it “the Wall Street Journal of the underground press.”

Half a lifetime before Twitter and Facebook, the Bird acted in the same fashion, and in the spirit of what social media has become: a tool for mobilization, a civic rallying cry, a chronicle for news that the mainstream media chooses not to cover, and, above all, an outlet where anyone can have a voice. You could walk into its offices, manuscript in hand, and have your story, poem, or artwork published.

Wise, a Virginia native then in his mid-twenties, had an even thicker beard and hair down to his shoulders. As a member of the Southern Student Organizing Committee (an activist group that focused on civil rights and opposition to the war), and a new leftist with a history degree from Emory, he hung out with the Bird staff in a three-story house on Fourteenth Street across from where Colony Square now stands. A collective of writers, photographers, poets, and cartoonists, they banged out copy on typewriters, cutting and pasting pages on layout tables. They called the house the Birdhouse. Wise wrote about music and politics, edited stories written by anti-war GIs, sold ads, and even took rucksacks full of 300 copies to Lenox Square—then an outdoor mall—where he sold the paper for twenty cents to weekend shoppers and teenagers, which helped supplement his meager staff salary of less than $50 a week. Several times he tried to sell a copy to one of the Bird’s favorite targets, Ralph McGill, outside the office of the Atlanta Constitution. McGill did not buy.

The Bird is one of the most fascinating and most forgotten artifacts of Atlanta culture. It was printed mostly weekly from late 1968 until mid-1976, sold by subscription for about $15 a year, and hawked on the street. The police harassed the vendors who sold the paper and the hippies who bought it. The Bird called the police “pigs.”

The paper covered “news you’re not supposed to know,” according to its own lore. It tracked national stories like the Vietnam War and President Nixon and the death of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as city issues such as police brutality, the garbage workers’ strikes of 1968 and 1970, and transportation. It featured exposés on Georgia Power and dogged Mayor Sam Massell, printing the “Slumlord List” in 1971, which cataloged the city’s biggest owners of indigent property—a roster that the mayor denied existed. One of its most influential stories, “Peachtree Creek Is Full of Shit,” was a three-page investigation about E. coli and feces pollution and the nascent environmental groups that were trying to get anyone to pay attention.

The Bird was the first paper in the South to seriously cover ecology. It also discussed health food, nurtured the local gay and women’s lib movements, and sent reporters to progressive rallies and concerts and courthouses. It encouraged conscientious objectors and experimentation with illegal drugs. Though there were a few black writers, the staff was mainly white—largely because of separatism in the black liberation movement, say former staffers.

When the Bird’s first printer stopped the presses because of political pressure, two staff members drove a VW Bug all the way to New Orleans just to publish one issue. In 1972 the Bird’s offices on Westminster Drive near the Atlanta Botanical Garden were firebombed—destroying archives, artwork, posters, furniture, and production equipment. No culprit was ever prosecuted. The paper did not stop publication then, either.

Vol 5, Issue 15

Copyright "Great Speckled Bird." Courtesy Georgia State University

State Senator Nan Orrock, who represents the Thirty-Sixth District and is a founder of the Women’s Legislative Caucus and Georgia Working Families Legislative Caucus, was one of the Bird’s six founders. She wrote and edited copy and helped set type. “I came out of progressive political work, opposition to the Vietnam War. I [came] of age politically in the civil rights movement,” she says. “The motivating force was to create an alternative source of information [to what] we could find in the Journal and Constitution. Being a founder, and working on it, was a political act.”

On the heels of a successful exhibit during the 2011 Decatur Book Festival and a project to digitize the Bird’s catalog by the Southern Labor Archives at Georgia State University, the paper’s history will be featured in a GSU traveling exhibit funded by grants, which will visit colleges across the state during the upcoming year. Students will browse the digital archives and learn that the paper’s name was plucked from a hymn popularized by Roy Acuff, which references Jeremiah 12:9: “Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her; come ye, assemble all the beasts of the field, come to devour.” They’ll see the paper’s logo was a cartoon bird with large talons, its wing raised in a valiant fist. The students will also learn that without a good business model, and with Creative Loafing stealing some of its ads, the paper folded in 1976, briefly resurrecting as a monthly in 1984.

“Young people loved its point of view,” says Barbara Joye, who wrote for the paper off and on for about four years; she still lives in Little Five Points and volunteers for Atlanta Jobs with Justice, an organization that advocates for workers’ rights. “They loved the music and the accepted wisdom. The hippie culture and the political activism overlapped. It was the sixties. Every five minutes, there was something to be upset about—some new revolution, some civil disobedience. The Bird was a great experiment in democracy. Everyone on staff rotated jobs every few months. I started writing about the women’s movement, and the gay movement. I wrote about the Black Panthers. Marched with the garbage workers. We were these wild-ass hippies.”

Vol 4, Issue 37

Copyright "Great Speckled Bird." Courtesy Georgia State University

In the Bird, objectivity was a myth perpetuated by the capitalist press. The paper was often funny and, even more often, angry as hell. Headlines read: “This Page Is for Freaks,” “Gay Power on the Strip,” “Injustice!,” “United Farmworkers in Crisis.” Covers were splashed with determined ink like “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!,” with images of raised fists and malicious caricatures of politicians. A two-page comic showed a man defecating on passersby. No story the Bird ever told through images or words had two sides.

“The Bird was one of these papers in the South that took off in an environment that was not conducive to left-wing protest. It may have meant more to its readers in that sense. I bet you a lot of people read it very carefully, and very excitedly,” says John McMillian, a GSU professor and author of a book, Smoking Typewriters, about the sixties underground press in the U.S. “It was one of the best underground papers. A lot of the people who worked on it, they’ve stuck around Atlanta, continued to be plugged in to the local activist community.”

Two aging hippies sit across from each other at a wooden table near a purple porch swing in front of a shaded house in Virginia-Highland. Between them is a large binder filled with copies of the Bird. The quiet street out front is slick with rain.

“When my husband and I came here in 1967,” says Stephanie Coffin, “almost every major city had an underground paper. There was not a big one in the South, or here—there was a huge gap.” She has short salt-and-pepper hair and warm eyes. Her husband, Tom, is sitting near her at the end of the table. He’s thin, with a long white beard that forms two points, and short hair. He named the Bird and helped start the paper, after helping launch a publication as an Emory grad student called the Big American Review. “It was primitive in the beginning,” Stephanie says. “We were just a group of people who had an idea.”

Later, Stephanie and Tom had two children. Tom, who dropped out of Emory to work on the paper, earned his Ph.D. in forestry in Athens; Stephanie taught English as a second language at Georgia Perimeter College. Now they are an old married couple, both in their sixties, who often pedal around town on their recumbent trikes.

“We were embedded in the city,” Stephanie says. “That was real journalism. We really wanted a revolution. There was just a hot energy of people focusing on getting these messages across. That was a life-defining experience.”

This article originally appeared in our December 2011 issue.

The Town that Blew Away

Vaughn, Georgia, was a good place to live. Before its houses were wrecked and its trailers spit into the treetops, before its ancient oaks were uprooted and snapped in two, before its residents crawled from the ruins to see that almost nothing remained. It was a place of families, and children. It was a place of vegetable gardens and swing sets, porch lights and birdfeeders.

Photograph by Kendrick Brinson

It was a place where old Mr. English took meticulous pride in his lawn. The neighbors knew each other: Paul Porter and his grown son and daughter, his ex-wife who lived across the street; Ms. Willis and her two foster kids; the Viera family, with old license plates nailed to the walls of their pigeon coop; the Barretos, a mother and daughter, with their dogs, in the one-room cinder block house with a teeny closet; the Briscoes in the trailer beneath a giant oak tree. There were more, but not many. They all saw each other most every day. They had parties in the aboveground pool and cooked hot dogs on the grill. Their kids played together at the top of the hill, in the woods, and down in the valley, by the street. Vaughn was so small that the people there couldn’t help but see each other, talk to each other, maybe occasionally shout a joke from the porch steps. It was a ten-acre square of earth in unincorporated Spalding County forty miles south of Downtown Atlanta, with a thin paved road called Bendview as a divide. No one there had a lot of money, but they all made do. To a driver passing by, Vaughn could’ve appeared as a hamlet, a bedroom community, or a place where some rednecks parked their cars on the grass, little houses tucked into the thick of the woods. Tired vehicles slouched in the yards, yes; but the trees above them, everything around them, was beautiful.

Well, not anymore. The earth was pulled up and spread over the grass, bright as blood. The trees left behind were pitiful and thin, skeleton bones. A few houses still stood, but with holes in their windows and blue tarps flapping on their roofs. There was a propane tank that smelled like a dead animal on the top of the hillside and a line of concrete steps leading to where a trailer had completely disappeared. There was the shell of the Briscoe children’s empty playhouse, a foam mattress impaled on the branch of a dead pine, stacks of cinder blocks, and uneven mounds of bricks.

>> GALLERY: View images of the town’s wreckage and recovery after the tornado

In mid-August, more than three months after the community was blown away, a few of the remaining residents smoked cigarettes from beneath a tent donated by a local funeral home, drank Gatorade, and watched the people driving by on West McIntosh Road. Just about every other car slowed, someone inside pointing, occasionally taking a picture, then driving on. One of the residents, wearing aviator sunglasses, his skin dark from the sun, do-rag tied around his head beneath a ball cap—a man who had a nickname, “The Sheriff,” who always spoke the truth—raised his voice and yelled at them to speed up and drive the hell on by.

On April 28, a few minutes past midnight, it was raining in Vaughn. There was a strange heat in the valley below the top of the hill. Mary Willis was in bed and had the two babies tucked in. John and Brenda English had been on the computer, because the satellite dish was out. The Crowders—Howard and Cathy—sat on the end of their bed, watching the weather update, which must’ve been a few precious minutes behind. Billy Briscoe woke, adjusted to the darkness, walked outside. He could tell something was wrong. He went out onto the porch of his single-wide and stared into the woods. The pine branches had begun to pop and dance. There was something terrible coming. There was a noise in the distance, building. The sky shivered with lightning. He could feel it, though he could not hear the siren that had been wailing four miles away. He told his wife to get their kids, take them into the hallway. Paul Porter was dressed for bed, in pajama pants and socks, when he heard his son’s footsteps on the stairwell. He did not hear his phone ring, never heard his daughter’s voice message. Mike Porter had rushed to his father’s bedroom doorway, having watched the window fan fly completely across his own upstairs bedroom seconds before. His hands shook on the doorframe, and his head thrust through the door. Mike yelled, twice:


Then the house fell on top of them.

Five seconds, ten seconds, a minute, forever—no one could quite remember just how long it lasted. Across the street from the Porters, in the corner of another bedroom, a screen door rattled open, nearly broke off its hinges. The breeze had been born anew into a god-awful howl.

John English, sixty-six—nicknamed “The Mayor” by his neighbors because he was always checking on them, and always outside in the yard, by the lemon tree, in his T-shirt and straw hat, mowing—stood by one of the wooden posts at the edge of his bed and traded shouts with his wife.

“We’re going to die!” she called out, unable to see him in the dark.

She was sure she could feel the house beginning to wobble on its foundation.

“Naw, we ain’t!” he shouted back, standing beside the screen door. He had never been in a tornado; neither of them had, and thus the conflicting views on whether they were in one now.

“It’s going to kill us!” she wailed.

John was staring through the screen at the hail, at the objects spinning above the yard, including his grandchildren’s play set, the shingles of his shed. Plant pots and trees were slamming into the roof of the porch. His ears popped. A set of chairs swirled past him as he tried to pull the door closed. He asked, “Brenda, where you at?” She replied, “I’m holding on to the bed post!” then reiterated, “It’s going to get us, it’s going to kill us!” Now John, too, could feel the house start to lift.

“God a’mighty!” he said. He could not look away. He was in awe. Staring at the tornado so close, he remembered, was like blinking his eyes ten times, as fast as he could, and every time he opened them, seeing the pop of light and flicker of dark—that’s what the middle of it looked like.

The house, which had belonged to Brenda’s mother, was more than a century old, so its wood gave a desperate groan as it broke apart. Brenda had spent her childhood playing marbles in the yard and hide-and-seek and washers across the road, spin the bottle at a party within the very same walls fifty years ago, as a girl. When they’d purchased the house from her brother in 1997 and moved back in, she had told her husband, “It’s wonderful to come home.” They’d remodeled the porch and fixed some of the rooms up.

In pieces, the ceiling landed around them, and the home’s two chimneys shattered, fleecing soot into the bedroom. Rain soaked the couple as they hung on to their bed.

“You okay?” he asked, when it seemed to be over.

“Yeah,” she said.

Jesus crashed to the floor of the Crowder home. His face shattered in the frame of Cathy’s picture. The tornado took the roof and sent it away, too. The tornado busted the windows, except for in the bathroom. Cathy and Howard, who had a beard like Santa Claus and dressed up as Santa for a special needs school, sat on the edge of their bed, and nothing touched them. Across West McIntosh, Mike Porter, in the doorway of his father’s bedroom, was briefly pulled off his feet and whipped around like a flag at the top of a pole. Paul was crushed by the wooden door and pinned between his mattress bedsprings, his socked feet sticking out, but wasn’t hurt. Mike himself survived because he was standing in the doorframe, which remained intact even though the wall surrounding it fell. At the top of the hill, Billy and Amanda Briscoe knelt in the hallway of their trailer, holding each other’s hands, at opposite ends of their three children. With their other hands, they squeezed the padded edges of the bed mattress they were kneeling under, and prayed. The giant oak tree was torn from the ground with a bang and dropped lengthwise across the entire roof of their trailer, which had been reinforced months before, bowing it down close to the tops of their heads; the tree, they decided, surely kept them from being swept away. They were able to climb out of their bedroom window and into the rain. Mary Willis hid beneath her bed, which was covered by fallen layers of the house; she was holding the children. She’d had just enough time to grab them both. She was screaming. Andrew Varela was in the county jail on a probation violation, and not in his mobile home, or he would’ve been a goner, because the tornado picked it up off the ground and demolished it; the pieces formed a trail. In a house on Bendview, in front of a pond, an out-of-work carpenter named Chrys­ostom Sullivan was impaled in the leg by a metal shard; some of his ribs were crushed under a wooden wall in the only corner of his home that wasn’t completely destroyed. He pulled himself up and sat on what remained of his couch, while the rain poured on his head, for nearly thirty minutes. When it stopped, he sat bleeding and vomiting onto the floor for another hour and a half, in shock. It took paramedics the entire night to crawl through the blasted forest, find him, and maneuver him out. He remembered they pulled him, on a backboard, through a giant hole in one of the trees. Susan Barreto’s daughter, Shalena, had gone outside in the storm to rescue a baby bird from a tree. She put it in their bathroom sink. They headed toward the teeny closet to hide, but didn’t make it. Shalena was sucked under the bed, which broke on top of her and helped hold her down. A cinder block wall fell and killed one of their dogs. Susan looked up and saw sky. Something hit her face and knocked out a tooth. She huddled on the floor, more cinder blocks spilling around her.

No one died.

It smelled like Pine-Sol. Of all the things that night to startle the senses, that’s what nearly everyone remembered. The trees smelled like that after they broke. The sky cleared. The breeze hushed up, and the stars popped out. John English found a flashlight and walked over what was left of his property. His johnboat was hanging up in a tree. Billy Briscoe helped pull Carlos Viera out from beneath the concrete slab of his family’s home, which had been turned and scattered all over the Porter property. John English checked on the Porters; Mike Porter went over to see about Ms. Willis. The houses were gone. The ground was full of glass and everything else that had been inside the houses. Insulation. Piping. Toilets. Bricks. Ceiling fans. Little things that were impossible to replace, like pictures. It was difficult to walk around anywhere, there were so many damn trees—the entire woods, laid waste—yet Paul Porter did, in his socks, dripping wet, like maneuvering through a minefield, to his ex-wife’s house. It was too dark to even see. Had his daughter, Amanda, not been over at her mother’s house earlier, she would have been crushed by the debris of her little red house, which had been next door to her father’s. Paul’s truck was gone, flattened when the Vieras’ house crushed it. Power lines were down like slaughtered snakes on the ground. It was the worst thing any of them had ever seen.

And it was also weird what the tornado did. For instance, it picked up John English’s lone picture of his father and placed it all the way across the road, without a scratch on the glass. It took the tomato plants but left the beans. It took most of the house but only blew over his grill and bent a side of the pool. It took away the play set but left the air-conditioner. It took some big, comfy chairs and two Bradford pear trees right out of the ground, but didn’t take the porch fixture or the butterfly plant in the bowl. Next door to the Englishes, in an old house everyone thought used to be a hotel, a man named Kenneth Youngblood lost his porch, some windows, part of the roof on the back, but that was all.

John and Brenda slept that night in the back of their van and periodically looked out the windows and up at the sky, then somehow found slumber. Mike Porter would lay out a sleeping bag beside the road. The Briscoes crawled back inside their bedroom, beneath the oak tree, and tried to go to sleep.

Behind what was left of the Vieras’ house, the coop was broken open and the pigeons taken away.

Fourteen other tornadoes hit Georgia on April 27 and 28. This was not the record—that would be twenty, during Tropical Storm Alberto in 1994. But it was one of the worst twenty-four-hour periods in the history of the state. Tornadoes hit Trenton, Cherokee Valley, south of LaGrange, and Covington; killed seven people in a neighborhood in Catoosa County, swept through Ringgold, and killed two more—a disabled man and his caregiver—in a double-wide trailer on the far end of Spalding County. Those tornadoes got all the attention. The Vaughn tornado didn’t even warrant an article in a major newspaper. No one talked about Vaughn. The only way for a person to really find out about it was to drive past. The tornado, classified an EF3 (the largest classification is an EF5, like the one that destroyed Joplin, Missouri, in May) by the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, had winds up to 150 miles per hour, touched down near Alvaton in Meriwether County at 11:59 p.m. on April 27. It came atop the hill and popped the pine branches in front of the Briscoe trailer at 12:17 a.m. It was three-quarters of a mile wide. It followed a northeast trajectory, going down the hill, until it fizzled out near the Towaliga River, between Luella and Hampton. On the ground it moved at a little more than 40 miles per hour, taking those chairs off the Englishes’ porch, scrapbooks from Amanda Briscoe’s house, pigeon feathers from the Vieras’ coop. It took forty-five seconds to move through Vaughn. In some of those other places there was more destruction, more devastation, more human suffering, sure. One of the reasons the police couldn’t establish patrols in Vaughn immediately is because they were spread thin as it was in all the small counties, had to be in those other areas, which were getting more publicity. But in no place in the state was the destruction more centralized, more grand on a visible scale, in terms of what it did and did not leave behind.

There was a church in Vaughn. It had stood for exactly 107 years. It was a microcosm of what the town once was, and what it had become. It was nothing much from the outside. It had fallen into disrepair. The interior looked about as smooth as the Cherokee arrowheads often found in the woods behind it. The pews used to be full, but the congregation had dwindled to thirteen or fourteen people, in a sanctuary that could hold up to 100. Several of its elderly members had recently died, in succession. It did not have a driveway. The walls needed paint. The floor needed to be redone. There were few spots to park in the grass surrounding it and on the edge of the road, not that it needed them. Hardly anyone in the neighborhood even went there. But the church, Vaughn United Methodist, and its pastor, a woman named Sandra Fendley, considered the squat building to be the hub of the community and did not want it to wither and die. There were oak trees behind it, on the hillside, with muscular branches that shadowed the church, which no one could even see from West McIntosh; but it lent Bendview a sense of protection, as if the church would always be there, as persistent as nature. So this past January, Fendley and other members went door-to-door in the surrounding area, spreading word about Vaughn United. They drove out beyond the abandoned Varnadoe’s store, past horse farms and the ponds, to houses a couple miles away in Rio and Griffin; threw a picnic for people who wanted to come. They had been able to procure $20,000 to revitalize the little old building. This included a new floor, more lighting, and a new paint job. New pews. Fendley and others were able to woo about fifteen more people, including a teenager, to come to service. Before the tornado hit the church, it was almost thriving. When the tornado hit the church, it tore out its entire rear wall, facing the woods; the roof was ripped off, flew away, and the stained-glass windows were smashed. Those protective trees were completely obliterated. Some angel figurines, light as paper, were left undisturbed on a piano in the fellowship hall. Those were about the only things the tornado didn’t touch.

“To have the storm take everything away was unbearable,” Fendley says.

But the members have decided the church has to be rebuilt. Modest plans were drawn up. Pastor Fendley wrote a letter to Spalding County, requesting permission to build on a lot across from the Porter property. Fendley decided that the old half-acre lot where the church stood was too small to rebuild there, too small if the church wanted to grow; there were also “hoops to jump through,” she says.

“People in our modern world want to go to a pretty church. Maybe that is something we old folks don’t understand, but it’s true. Soon Vaughn [United Methodist] will be a new, pretty church, and people will come to be with us.” Fendley wrote those lines in the same letter. With insurance from its sanctuary and Sunday school, and contents within the buildings, Vaughn United has $155,000 for the project, but is still $63,000 short.

After the tornado, Billy Briscoe propped a big wooden cross against the front door, even though the entire back of the church was open to the daylight, to ward away the looters.

And there were looters. In the rubble, in the aftermath, in the dark, during the next couple days, before FEMA came and GEMA came and support groups donated to the people of Vaughn trash bags full of clothing, there was no protection, even by the police. Everything was there, in its apocalyptic disarray, ripe for the taking. West McIntosh Road had yet to be blocked, so traffic going to Atlanta or Brooks or Peachtree City from Griffin, or vice versa, formed a two-lane, incessant line—gawkers. So the looters were able to see all this stuff in front of them, and tried to stake their claim to what they could find. “It’s a free country!” someone yelled at Bebe Goolsby, when she asked him what the hell he was doing. It was a stranger, waist deep in one of the decimated houses across the street. Bebe was John and Brenda’s daughter, and had been given the nickname “The Bitch”—because she never put up with any shit in Vaughn. She could be loud. She was brusque. She was tall, and stocky. Thirty-three years old. She loved her parents and was often there with her kids and husband, she had ridden bikes up and down the street as a teenager, it had always been a quiet place. Now this? She walked across the street to the would-be thief’s car, took a loose brick, and smashed the back windshield. “What are you doing?” he yelled.

“It’s a free country,” she said.

She stood outside the next few days, like an eagle. “I wanted to help protect the people that raised me,” she said.

She saw a man driving a rollback trailer come and park it in Kenneth’s yard. She accosted the driver, who said he knew Kenneth, that he was merely there to help; but she worried that he had really just come to steal all Kenneth’s old cars. She stayed up nearly seventy-two hours straight with Paul—The Sheriff—and Mike Porter, holding bricks, keeping watch; people were trying to steal scrap metal out of the lots. They tried to steal a Jeep. In a television report from the scene, Paul Porter was asked what the Vaughn residents were doing for protection, and he lifted up his shirt to reveal a holster carrying a Smith & Wesson .44 magnum with hollow-point bullets. He told the newscaster that he was not afraid to use the gun—hence his nickname. The citizens of Vaughn had imposed a martial law: shoot to kill, lest anyone remain alive to sue them after the fact.

Not long after Vaughn was destroyed, a United Methodist Church official drew a map and counted that in the end, the community comprised barely two dozen structures, including two barns. Thirteen of those were totally razed.

In the early twentieth century, Vaughn used to be an actual town, with a post office, a mailing address. A man named James William Vaughn had settled there with his family and started a plantation in the late 1800s. He donated some of his land, and the place adopted his name. A few years later, the Southern railroad was built straight through town, a pair of iron veins pumping commerce through its heart. People rode the train to go work in the textile mills. They came in from other cities, stayed in the Vaughn hotel. The train even brought the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, one memorable day, long ago. But then the railroad was pulled up. The cigar factory closed. The soap factory closed. Three old country stores were eventually boarded up and torn down. Weeds grew in the vacant lots, strangling some of those memories. In 1989 James William Vaughn’s home, made out of pinewood, was set on fire and burned through the night, to the ground. It had survived more than 100 years. Nearly everything was gone, except for the homes on Bendview and West McIntosh. The modern Vaughn was no longer a town, but it was still a home. Many who lived there had grown up there, had known it their entire lives. Could either barely recall the old days, or had heard tales about them. It was a place where people still said they lived, though now it was technically Griffin.

Vaughn still had a sense of place. Until the tornado took that, too.

The people of Vaughn did get help. And it was very quick in coming. The Red Cross showed up the next day and a nurse looked after a severed fingernail on Mike Porter’s right hand. The United Methodist Disaster Relief team arrived and used chain saws to cut up trees. People had to have a way to get in, so that was the first order of business. Pushing piles to the side of the road. Clearing paths. Church volunteers were there for thirty days, beneath large temporary tents, helping clean up the debris. There were fifty-five other church groups who volunteered, and around 1,200 people onsite, depending on the time of day. The residents had food, water, Porta-Potties, a place to take a shower. Prisoners in orange from Spalding County worked in the yards, on the roads, and Brenda English grilled hamburgers for them as a thank-you for their help. FEMA came, with its voluminous paperwork, offering those without insurance a chance at a loan. John English got a grant of $30,000, not nearly enough to help him rebuild. A woman named Brenda Wolf, who lives a couple of miles away, a churchgoer at Vaughn United Methodist, brought coolers, water, snacks, helped set up computers.

After the volunteers went away, an anonymous donor provided Susan and Shalena Barreto a temporary house for a few months, and then all of a sudden they were homeless again. They’d lived in a van before they lived in Vaughn, and spent three years saving money, fixing up that little house, trying to buy the land. It was nothing, just one room, made of cinder block. The tornado had changed them; they could not keep calm at any hint of a storm. Several times, no matter where they were—for instance, eating a pizza by the windows of a restaurant—they’d gotten in their car and driven as far away as they could, trying to outrun the weather. Once they stopped in North Carolina; another time, Maryland. They were hysterical. “The biggest thing it took was our peace of mind,” said Susan. “The Doppler, if we see it, and it’s red—we take the car and go.”

“I’ve been praying for the people [Susan and Shalena] who lived in that block house,” said Mr. Crowder. “They were so nice to me. I used to tell that girl she was my girlfriend, and she’d laugh. They used to bring us clothes, and shoes.”

John and Brenda English had lived in their house since 1997 and did not have insurance, because they had just put the house in their names. For years, John had been trying to get the name of the house transferred from her brother’s. Now they were living in a little blue house next to John’s shed, which they’d owned for a while and had just never rented out.

An anonymous donor asked one of the pastors to hand-deliver checks for undisclosed amounts to the people in town. Bebe and Mike took a collection bucket from the cars passing by and stopping on West McIntosh Road, and raised $1,400 that was split evenly.

The sheriff decided to rebuild. Paul Porter’s mother had lived in that house, and the memories of her, and his life there, overwhelmed him. He couldn’t let everything be lost; he couldn’t pack up and find someplace else. When asked what the house meant, he couldn’t even talk about it. He tried. A weathered man, who was prone to scold his contractor, to call himself a “true redneck,” who looked imposing behind the mirrored lenses of his shades—well, when he tried he froze up. Choked back a tear. Looked away. Paul was one of the four people in the community who had insurance. So he didn’t get any money from FEMA. When he’d purchased the total-loss coverage from State Farm, he had commented to his agent, “I can’t ever imagine a situation in which I’d need this.”

An hour after the tornado hit, he was on a cell phone, starting a claim. It would be two months before they finally broke ground. Poured a foundation a month later, for both his house and his new workshop, and also a little two-story home for Amanda. He and Mike had been living in “the dump,” which was the Holiday Inn Express down in Griffin. The tornado shook The Sheriff. He had specifically requested a double-reinforced steel safe room in the basement of the new house, big enough to fit his neighbors in Vaughn, should the need arise. High winds made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He wanted a damn tornado siren, right there on the edge of his property. It’s funny what it did to people. John English woke up during a car trip and screamed at his daughter, “The tornado!” Some of his relatives, including his brothers, were helping him rebuild Brenda’s mom’s old house. It was a slow process. He was out there every day, white T-shirt pulled over his chest, hat shielding his face. They bought two-by-tens from Home Depot with what they’d received from FEMA. Ms. Willis had chosen to rebuild, too. She was keeping her foster children.

Near the rubble, a yellow school bus pulled up. It was the afternoon of the first day of kindergarten. Amanda Porter’s daughter, Krista, ran from the bus stop, where her mother was waiting, and they held hands as they walked up the hill.

“My baby’s getting off the bus!” Amanda shouted. She had been sitting under a tent, smoking a cigarette, watching a truck back onto the foundation of her father’s new home. This was Vaughn, in the sunlight. It had never been much, and it was even less than it had ever been. The bus pulled away and Amanda took Krista inside to do homework.

The Briscoes could not rebuild. No, they were struggling, after the tornado. They had to move into temporary church housing a few miles away; they had loved living in Vaughn. They had been there for about two years. Their little girl, Gracie Bug, chased lizards and bugs through the woods and brought them into the trailer, where her mother would find them in the bed, on the floor, on the couch, in the rooms. Gracie played with Krista and they both climbed trees. Billy and the kids rode go-karts up in and around the woods, on the trails.

Amanda Briscoe came back and looked at what was left of their trailer one day this past summer. She stood in the grass, where her bedroom used to be; pointed at the lot and described where the pictures fell onto the mattress that was on top of them. The elderly woman who owned the lot was not going to do anything with it, had decided to keep the insurance money, was not going to put a new trailer there. Since Amanda and Billy did not own the trailer, they didn’t have a choice; they couldn’t afford to come back, and had no opportunity to.

“It used to be beautiful here,” she said, looking at the hole, across from the church, where the only thing standing now was that propane tank. “Now it’s just ugly.” They’d gotten $5,300 from FEMA. Enough to buy a new little car, to share, after their SUV was destroyed. They put the rest of the money in a safe.

In the days and weeks after the tornado, many people swore they saw a pair of doves in what was left of the trees. Some had never seen doves before, and so the birds had appeared as wonderfully and unexpectedly as something pulled from the hat of a magician. They were spotted in several places, came to be regarded as heavenly, descended to protect the decimated town. Amanda Briscoe said she saw them because they were nesting in that oak tree that fell and crushed their roof, the tree that saved her family; two white doves, just sitting there. Surely, they were a sign. A symbol. They flew inside the rubble of the church and sat on the doorstep outside, before it was condemned and torn down. The town had been through so much, and the people who were staying there, who had stood their ground, who had decided to rebuild, who had refused to leave—even the ones who were coming back to look at what they used to have, one last time—they all needed something like the doves, to lift their spirits. And that’s what the doves did. Everybody saw them. Amanda Porter saw them. So did Brenda Wolf and Sandra Fendley. Enough people who saw them believed they weren’t just a stroke of luck, just like they didn’t believe that the tornado was a terrible stroke of luck, either. The doves were there for a reason.

Paul Porter saw the doves. He saw them in the rubble. He saw them in the trees. He saw them on the days before he returned to his job at the Kmart distribution center. He watched them, as he smoked cigarettes, as he drank Gatorade and bottled water, as his skin got darker as he stood every afternoon in the sun. He saw, too, how everyone else around him reacted to the doves.

So The Sheriff didn’t tell the truth.

He didn’t have the heart to let anyone know they were just a couple of pigeons.

Zombies Are So Hot Right Now

The moon has risen like a corpse from a tombstone and hangs gray above Newnan High School. During a break from eating people, zombies light cigarettes and sit on the grass. They lumber across a gymnasium parking lot that has been turned into a FEMA camp, past a television production tent with three screens and producers sitting in monogrammed chairs. They pass two dozen crew members, a long metal jib with a camera attached to its end, and gather near us, the living, in this phantasmagoric heat. The zombies have been moaning on camera, slouching and leering, baring their teeth. Contact lenses imbue a miserable hunger into their eyes. They wear tattered clothing, dried with fake blood and damp with sweat.
I have an urge to take out my iPhone and snap a picture. But a woman standing next to me—who’s driven almost two hours to be here—says a zombie pleaded with her that the fine would be $100,000 if any of them got caught posing for a fan shot. When more fans approach, the zombies recoil as if the onlookers are going to devour them.
The brick walls of a gymnasium tower over the asphalt of the parking lot. Earlier, the crew completely dressed the inside of the gym for an episode of The Walking Dead’s second season, which begins next month on AMC; the show is basically about what happens to decent people after they’re thrust into a zombie-infested society. Fictional trophy banners, custom-made at a sign shop in Senoia, waited to be hung from the rafters. The floor of the basketball court was lined with abandoned cots. Spilled on the court in apocalyptic haste were pillows and a moth-eaten teddy bear, empty cups and blankets.
Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption and, up until late July, executive producer of this series, wrote Newnan High and its gym specifically into the script. Its long driveway curving down to the road, the old wooden bleachers in the gym, its brick facade—all evoked the nostalgic feel he was looking for.
In the gym parking lot, abandoned police cars, armored vehicles, ambulances, covered army trucks, overturned tables, and huge cardboard boxes give the impression of a human outpost here against the “walkers” and the “geeks”—nicknames for the zombies in the show.
Jon Bernthal, who plays the character Shane Walsh, a former police officer tortured by his feelings for the main character’s wife, comes across the road from the set and stands in front of a group of women and children. “You nervous?” Bernthal asks a little girl, leaning down to her. He’s wearing some kind of soiled, tight-fitting T-shirt and thick boots. “You afraid of zombies?”
Bernthal poses for pictures and signs autographs. He lets a couple kids hold his prop shotgun. There are at first about ten people watching; in an hour the number grows to around fifty. The woman who warned me about taking a zombie picture now really wants to get one with Shane. “He’s smoking hot,” she says, a few feet away from him. Her name is Rachel Grantham, and she lives in Smiths Station, Alabama, a few minutes from Columbus. She drove here with her three sons, Josh, Nathan, and Karsten, after her boyfriend heard this shoot was happening. Josh is fifteen and watched season one, six episodes, with his mother a few weeks ago. He collects zombie action figures. They’ve been here four hours and now have to decide whether their desperation to use the bathroom is worth leaving and maybe missing something.
“I love zombies,” Josh says. “I really want to see them get their heads blown off!”

I love zombies, too.

This is not an embarrassing confession. It is not one that makes me so unique, either. I’ve loved zombies ever since I can remember, since I was a kid obsessed with horror and the apocalypse. Even back then, I was cognizant of the fact that they would keep coming—that the thing that made them scary was not only their undead appetites, but also that eventually nothing could stop them from getting me.
I approached AMC to be a zombie extra. They said no. This was a letdown. They didn’t explain why. Not even a digestible “You’re not thin enough,” or conciliatory “You’re too short, but thanks.” I wanted to do this very badly. How often does a show about zombies film in my town? I thought I’d be perfect.
When I was dating my wife, she used to talk about how many zombie movies I’d watched in her company; she described this like a war survivor coming home and speaking heroically at a parade. But she grew to like them, too. A couple of years ago, we dressed up like zombies for Halloween. Our eyes were black and our skin was the color of ash. We dragged our bodies like lepers through a costume party, won a prize. Zombies, she’d say, are a part of our lives. I think this is a pretty good description of the world we live in, in general. And I don’t mean that as a commentary on this Age of Fear. Literally, zombies are more popular than they’ve ever been.
Zombies are a part of our lives.
After one season, The Walking Dead has become very important not just to zombie fans, but to our city. On the night it debuted, Halloween last year, 5.3 million people watched. During the course of the season, more adults ages eighteen to forty-nine tuned in than have ever watched a program on a cable network—a show about zombies, a show that promised, like its graphic-novel progenitor, to advance the living dead/post-apocalyptic society narrative into something drawn-out, deeper, and perhaps beautiful. Those ratings were the biggest for AMC ever, way more than its flagship, Emmy darling Mad Men, and the biggest for any new show all year. It ran six episodes, and was renewed for thirteen this season. Atlanta’s skyline was all over the show; the city, throughout, was a stark and rather hopeless character. No one in the show has figured out what caused the world to end.
“Atlanta sounds like a good deal,” the main character, a sheriff’s deputy named Rick Grimes, says in the pilot, hopeful upon hearing a rumor that there’s an outpost here. Spoiler: It was not a good deal.
The first episode of the second season will premiere October 16 at 9 p.m., during AMC’s long-running “FearFest” Halloween programming. The show employs approximately 160 people, many of whom are local, and films most often within a thirty-mile radius extending from its studio in Senoia—just like Hollywood’s famous “Thirty-Mile Zone.”
The Walking Dead production offices and studios are stationed at Raleigh Studios Atlanta, in the woods of Senoia, a little town southeast of Peachtree City (where many of the cast and crew actually stay). Set back in woods, beyond a grass parking lot, up a hill, there are some shoe-box-shaped warehouses, the main studio office, the art department trailer, and several small, white, portable cast trailers. On the summer morning when I go, the first call is at 7:30 a.m. I see a cast member wearing a shower cap step out of his trailer and yawn into the sun. Gregory Nicotero, the Hollywood demigod behind the show’s zombie makeup, steps out of a parked Kia.
Beyond a clearing, with nothing but empty farmland stretching for miles, is the entrance to this particular day’s set. Atlantan Tom Luse, who is a line producer on the show, implores, “Wear bug spray.” His brow is prickled with sweat. The air is heavy, sticky. He’s just walked out of a soaring forest of oak and pine where they’re actually filming. “We have chiggers, ticks, and mosquitoes. Any kind of bug you can think of. All the actors wear it.”
The heat has become something of a tiresome joke on the set. Darabont called Atlanta “Satan’s Jacuzzi.” Last year Andrew Lincoln, who plays Grimes, lost twelve pounds before filming and couldn’t put it back on because it was so hot.
“We’re rolling! Quiet, please!”
Six cast members stand in the trees, talking. A camera on dolly tracks moves with them through the forest. I take a seat next to Denise Huth, one of the producers. She is wearing a Tommy Bahama–type hat, staring at a tiny script with her name embossed in gray letters over the pages, looking into the TV screen in front of her during each take. Gale Anne Hurd, an executive producer of the show, who worked on the movie Aliens, offers me a tuna salad sandwich. Someone walks by with a Windex bottle sloshing with fake blood.
The actors are occasionally spritzed to make them look even sweatier. As they move, twigs snap under their boots.
Nicotero brings a zombie on set: greasy hair, torn and bloodied sport coat, frayed pants. The fact that something gory might happen to it is really intriguing. But it doesn’t. The zombie doesn’t get what’s coming, as planned.
With the distant threat of rain, everything shuts down.
Two weeks later, I’m walking up to an abandoned house, somewhere close to Senoia. I’m here with Bill Gierhart, the director of an episode in season two; Mike Riley, the location manager; and Gregory Melton, production designer. This is a location scout. They all stand together, in this field stricken with weeds, studying the old house, trying to figure out how to do it justice. Melton spotted this place one day while coming around the bend. He stopped his rented SUV as though he’d just been presented a kind of revelation. He knew as soon as he saw it. He parked in the field, took out his cell phone, snapped a picture, sent it to Darabont, said, “This house has to be in The Walking Dead.” Darabont agreed with his childhood friend and wrote it into this episode. After measuring its dimensions, they are now trying to figure out how the characters will get inside; the windows and all but one door are completely boarded up.
It’s a Gothic house, with a red tin roof. Stone steps lead up to a lopsided porch. Melton thinks it must’ve been built in the 1880s. Over time the rust has turned the color of oxygenated blood and trickled all the way down the walls of asbestos siding. Two of the men in the group have flashlights; the others are using their cell phones as lights. “Shit, this is spooky,” one of them says as we enter the house from the porch. It’s pitch-black inside.
Light reveals a chair in a corner and some kind of soft floor cover peeled halfway back. Dust sparkles in the beams of light. The ancient floorboards groan beneath us. The hairs on my neck have prickled to attention.
“Someone broke in here, Greg. Someone’s thrown a brick through here, look.”
In one of the rooms, broken glass covers the floor.
This house is an example of the kinds of places the directors have been looking for—and have found—in our countryside. As part of the plot, the characters have moved to the woods. The directors need creepy. The woods are creepy. After this scout, they’re going to search for a creek, hopefully in a pristine, wooded area.
“There are lots of those here,” Melton says.

The geeks lurched into the city last summer, taking over seven square blocks Downtown. It was an event, for anyone who romanticizes civic transformation. The show got the okay to dress a chunk of Atlanta like it had been spun through the end of the world. From the start, that was one of the coolest things about The Walking Dead—the graphic novel was set partly in our Downtown area (merely because it was the closest big city to Cynthiana, Kentucky, where the writer, Robert Kirkman, went to high school), so they decided to film in Downtown Atlanta. It wasn’t another city dressed to look like ours; it was the real thing.

Mike Riley asked the businesspeople in the area if they would mind the inconvenience. Then he wrote them a letter. Then he went to city council meetings and, finally, negotiated with the GDOT. This all took about two months. One Friday night, the police shut the streets down around seven and a giant car carrier rumbled in toting wrecked cars and military Humvees. During a twelve-hour window before the first scene on Saturday morning, they dropped a sixty-ton tank at the intersection of Forsyth Street and Walton. The production crew spent the night in a kind of frenzy. The streets would reopen on Monday morning. People inside the buildings reached out of the windows and took pictures with their cell phones of the tank, hundreds of zombies surrounding it.
Spotting localities in the show has become a pastime for some Atlantans. The rooftop where T-Dog gets beaten by Merle and drops the key? That’s on top of a building owned by Norfolk Southern, at the corner of Spring and Nelson. The empty street headed toward the city, which Rick navigates on horseback on his way Downtown, a digital traffic jam to his left? That’s the view of the city from Freedom Parkway, now made iconic by the poster. The demolished hospital where Rick wakes up, bleary-eyed, in the pilot? Filmed at the offices of the Atlanta Mission on Bolton Road.
“We’ve gotten great cooperation from the city,” Melton says. “Last night, for instance, we shut down a state highway for the third time this season. GDOT detoured cars around us. This was in Hampton, State Route 20. The people here have been more cooperative than most other places. The people here are friendly and accommodating. They would never, for instance, shut down a freeway in L.A. for us. Never.”

Atlanta is the zombie capital of the world. Not only do we claim The Walking Dead, but for the past few years, every September, people in costume march from Downtown to Oakland Cemetery as part of the Zombie Walk Atlanta. In 2010 there were more than 1,000 walkers. A couple years ago, a local artist named Stan Woodard raised about $5,000 to host, for his own edification, what he called the Atlanta Zombie Symposium. This turned out to be a panel discussion at the Clary Theatre at Georgia Tech, a film festival at the Plaza Theatre, and a late-night dance/“Zombie Transformation Chamber” at the Graveyard Tavern. Around ninety people heard Emory and Tech professors and zombie cultural enthusiasts yak it up about zombie economies (financial institutions that are “dead, but don’t know it”), zombie insects, the history of zombies in Haiti.

“Something that jumped out from the symposium is that a lot of students and people didn’t know that zombies predated movies like Night of the Living Dead,” says Woodard. “That zombies are from voodoo. The history of the zombie film goes back to [the 1930s], with Revolt of the Zombies.”
In 2006 there was a great indie flick filmed here called The Signal. Fans debate whether it’s a zombie film, but I think it is. It’s about an electronic transmission mysteriously sent to our cell phones, TVs, and electronic devices, turning humans into mindless, dead-eyed killers—zombies. Some of Zombieland, with Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson, was shot in Newnan. Last year Shane Morton, a makeup artist and horror aficionado, created the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse, which he intended to use to obliterate the notion of a regular haunted house. He found an abandoned truck stop out by the Starlight Six Drive-In and hired unemployed zombie extras from The Walking Dead to populate it in October. He charged $20 to send people through.
This past May, the CDC (which was destroyed in the last episode of The Walking Dead; the exterior scenes were actually filmed at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre) spent $87 on a blog about hurricane season, wrapped in the humorous bow of preparation for a zombie apocalypse. Thanks to Twitter, traffic for the blog shut down its server. That $87 turned into a $3.3 million publicity value, said a media analysis group that crunched the numbers. The disaster preparedness task force members now jokingly refer to themselves as the Zombie Task Force, and this month, on the coattails of that blog, they’re selling T-shirts and posters on the CDC website—with the zombie logo they paid some of that $87 for—as part of an actual zombie campaign.
“Zombies are so popular here because there’s a huge horror film contingency, for whatever reason,” says Jonathan Rej, who owns the Plaza Theatre and helps run the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse. “DragonCon [our sci-fi/horror version of Comic-Con] is huge; we show a lot of splatter theater at the Plaza; the Buried Alive Film Fest, it’s just starting to take off; the Drive-In has the Monster Bash every year. There are just a lot of independent filmmakers here, and a lot of fans. The creative people who live here are obsessed with the dark side of things. People get it here.”

Before the first season began filming last year, a woman named Rachelle White went to AMC’s Zombie School. White, who lives near Midtown, had worked at Six Flags and was also a dancer and a contortionist and a model. At Zombie School, she learned how to walk like a zombie, to moan like one, to hold her arms like one, to maneuver her mouth like one, to see as a zombie sees, with a lack of depth perception; she even learned how to think like a zombie, too—which is to say, to not think at all.

There were zombie obstacle courses at Zombie School. White was instructed to, for instance, walk into a room with a table and chairs, shuffle up to the table, and continue forward until she completely fell over it, told to run into the table as a zombie would, as though she did not realize it was even there. She was asked to show just how far she could twist her feet, arms, and neck around. By the time school was out, she’d been cast as one of the main zombies for the first season of The Walking Dead. White played the part of maybe a dozen different zombies in the show, wearing wigs, prosthetics, contacts, makeup, blood, and a mouthpiece that barely allowed her to eat through a straw; this also meant that she worked twelve-hour days, five days a week, for almost three months. She was a zombie chasing Rick Grimes to that tank Downtown; she was a zombie in the woods; she was a zombie outside of the fictional CDC; and she was a zombie that eventually got a bullet through its head.
She was also an “A Zombie.” An Alpha Zombie. “The groups of zombies go like this,” she says. “A and B and C groups: alpha, beta, kappa zombies. That depends on what you do. I had some friends who were in other groups. The B Zombies often just wear masks. The C Zombies are just mostly wearing fake blood and makeup.” The standard pay for a Kappa Zombie in The Walking Dead is $58 for eight hours. The A group, White’s group—the most ghoulish and important—raked in $130 over twelve.

Here are some local stories I heard.

. . . At the Redneck Gourmet in downtown Senoia, there’s an old wooden Yater surfboard encased in glass on a wall. The first time Frank Darabont entered the restaurant and ordered a Philly cheese steak, he saw the board and pressed his face to the glass. At the bottom of the case, there is a plaque that explains it was used in the movie Apocalypse Now. Darabont turned to Melton: “This is a sign. There’s a reason we’re filming here!” The Redneck Gourmet became his favorite restaurant . . .
. . . Last year, Melton searched for the RV that would eventually become the character Dale’s omnipresent Winnebago Chieftain, a vehicle that serves as almost a talisman for the characters of the show. They’ve escaped death in it, found refuge in it. Melton had always loved old Winnebagos; he was looking for an early-to-mid-seventies version. He found one owned by a Georgia couple. They bought it in ’73, had customized it upon purchase, their names written on the side. Now they were in their late eighties. Melton made them an offer to drive it out of their lives, and they accepted. When the crew drove the RV away, the man and woman wept as they watched. Melton and Darabont didn’t want to dishonor the couple by taking their names off the side. So they merely designed a plate and put the characters’ names over it. The original names are still there . . .
. . . IronE Singleton drove to L.A. a few years ago dreaming to make it big, but he did not. He came home after a few months of getting nowhere and opened a costume shop in Dallas, Georgia, and then worked at a Subway, and then as the mascot with the huge baseball head at Atlanta Braves games. He grew up in the Perry Homes housing project in Atlanta, had studied theater at UGA. He could not even get an agent, halfway into his thirties. He pawned the lens of his DVX100 video camera and also his car and raised enough money to rent the 14th Street Playhouse for a few nights, where he performed a one-man show he’d been writing for ten years, called IronE . . . The Resurrected. He chose that name as a play upon the word irony, and to have something to break the ice during a conversation. The show was the story of his life, told through spoken word, rap, and dramatization. Many, many people did not show up to see it. A few did. In the wake of this performance, a local agent contacted him, inquired if he’d like representation. He was able to get a reading in front of the director of a movie called The Blind Side. This one thing changed his entire life. In The Walking Dead, he plays the role of “T-Dog,” a blue-collar guy who’s trying to survive . . .

Mothers are dead. Children are dead. Grandmothers and girlfriends are as dead as squirrels on the highway. In the world of the zombie apocalypse, decorum has pretty much bitten the dust, too. Everything is magnified and complicated, the notions of good and evil, right and wrong. The living are pretty much screwed.

Hence the title. The Walking Dead are us.
Why do people love this?
“Everyone is obsessed with the apocalypse,” says Shane Morton. “Everyone’s talking about financial collapses and wars and has a fear that we’re all about to die. The zombie craze is taking off now just like after WWI and WWII, all those films that were so nihilistic; there was no hope, people were so zombified from the wars. We’ve had huge movements in horror because of our culture. Books like The Walking Dead and World War Z are a reflection of how people are feeling right now.”
Max Brooks, who wrote World War Z, which was a New York Times bestselling book about a global zombie war, says, “Zombies are a safe way to explore an apocalyptic society. If you see a movie that has to do with true things—nuclear war, for instance, or swine flu—those are too real. Zombies aren’t.”
Zombies do have real origins in Africa and Haiti, in the stories of witchcraft and mind control, but these are not the “zombies” I think about, when I think of them. A “zombie” is a modern thing, birthed by George Romero in a movie he cowrote and filmed in 1968. Darabont referred to Night of the Living Dead as “the Book of Genesis,” and specifically implored that none of the zombies in The Walking Dead move any faster than the very first zombie who ever chased Barbra through that Pennsylvania cemetery. When we dressed up as zombies for Halloween—when I have nightmares about zombies—these are the visions I see.
In the daylight, after a rain, I am standing in front of a giant Queen Anne Victorian, surrounded by mud. Someone on set asked me if I wanted to see “the most important thing” in the infant history of the show. He is talking about Hershel’s Farm.
“This is everything,” he says. “This is why we’re here.”
We drive for what seems like two miles behind the studios on a gravel road. There is nothing, anywhere—and then that big white house, through the trees.
The house is the centerpiece of this expanse of land, with a barn and a tractor and recognizable vehicles from the show parked at its periphery, by the trees. It is an amazing old house, big as a plantation, with a green roof and multiple brick chimneys. It is, right now, the heart of The Walking Dead. It has the appearance of both something safe and something horrible, like the house in The Amityville Horror.
The guy I’m riding with tells a story about how the people who owned it decided to move it and hauled it out to this land. Cicadas scream from the trees. If you saw the house on TV, this would look like Georgia; there are rocking chairs on the porch, which stretches around its entire front. In the show, they’ll probably be sitting there drinking tea. Crew members walk in and out of the house. Huge coils of wire run from inside into the woods, tied together, to some unseen power source.
Everything seems quiet now, and serene, which is why the people in the show have decided to hole up there.
But tonight, it’ll get dark.
And the woods will fill with the dead.
One evening a couple years ago, I watched Night of the Living Dead for the first time in a while. I was alone. I watched it in complete darkness and then went to bed.
But my eyes were stuck open and I stared at places in the ceiling of my apartment bedroom where the wet paint had slowly dripped down and dried. I fell asleep, and awoke with sweat pooled around my back and forehead.
I had a dream. Basically, the zombies somehow got up to the twenty-eighth floor, pounded on the door, eventually smashed through the dead bolt, and then came into my apartment. I watched them rip my body in half and feast on my entrails, moaning.
They just kept coming.
It scared the hell out of me.

Her Own Flesh and Blood

I. Prelude, Marianne and Darrell, Gwinnett County, 1999
The ferris wheel and a funnel cake, just after dusk at the fairgrounds. The big lights blink and the metal creaks to life as he scoots closer to her. After the ride she blows powdered sugar on him and he chases her over the mulch, holding a greasy paper plate, trying to blow some back. He helps her up the steps of the other rides; on the Scrambler he sits to her left, knowing the force will squish her into his arms. He wins her a stuffed horse, which she gives to a kid standing in line. The only thing he wants is to be with her—to be as close to her as he can. He is aware of her story, has heard about all the terrible things that happened to her. She’s sure that no one will want to be with her again.
She doesn’t think it’s a date but will later change her mind.
Photograph by Audra Melton
She’s given him rides to their church. She’s cooked him spaghetti and made the sauce from scratch. One night they dress up like the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood and go to a party. He babysits her beagle and sits in the bleachers to see her only living son march with his tuba on the football field. He’s divorced, with five kids, and he considers meeting her some kind of miracle. Her friends call him a Bubba, and his sister warns that she’ll literally be the death of him. At first she isn’t that into him. But tonight she sees him differently, not as the quiet little guy at church, but as a simple man without artifice, powdered sugar on his forehead. He makes her laugh the whole night. She doesn’t want to break his heart, and he doesn’t want her to be alone the rest of her life. He keeps telling her that he doesn’t care about her disease. No kissing, she tells him—not out of fear for his safety, but out of chastity. They’re both in their mid-forties.
There are two stories of her life. One really begins that night, with the Ferris wheel and the funnel cake, just after dusk at the fairgrounds. The other—well, that’s her story alone; she’s lived it. It’s been hers every day: when she gets up to take her pills in the morning; when she passes the pictures on the refrigerator; when her head spins after she takes more pills at night; when she wakes up from the vivid dreams; and when she goes to work and looks at the bulletin board, when the knob turns and her office door opens and . . .

II. Grady Infectious Disease Clinic, Room 188, 2011

. . . another young man comes in. He sits down and the wooden chair knocks against the wall. He’s in his early twenties, with high cheekbones, cornrows pulled tightly behind his forehead. He tells Marianne Swanson that he’s a model, just starting his career. She looks at him, spectacles pushed down below her eyes. She’s fifty-five, a nurse, presiding at her desk. There’s a red ribbon above her name on the left breast of her white lab coat; she had it sewn on at Bass Pro Shops. On her desk sits a rectangular plastic tray filled with gigantic pills.

Though he doesn’t seem completely aware of its implications, the young man is beginning a new life. He scratches his elbow, picks at the hole in the knee of his designer jeans. He briefly reciprocates the eye contact, yawns to reveal a row of perfect teeth. He looks at her calendar, turned to April, with horses stomping through a stream; the faded Polaroids of two children, pinned with thumbtacks to a bulletin board; the drawing of a cartoon boy saying, “I have AIDS, please hug me—I can’t make you sick,” framed on the wall.
“Do you know what T cells are?” she asks in a Brooklyn accent.
The room is small, barely two feet between them.
“No ma’am.”
“They’re the good guys,” she says.
In his bloodstream, the good guys have dwindled to a discomfiting count of 189. Someone with a healthy immune system, by comparison, would have hundreds—maybe a thousand—more.
For months the young man has battled pneumonia and hepatitis B. He’s been in a sickbed at a hospital, where he found out the secret he now keeps from his family and friends, but not his lover. He nods when asked if he was sexually active and engaging in at-risk behavior long before he knew. He is part of a burgeoning group of HIV/AIDS patients in Atlanta, a group particularly hard for doctors and health workers to reach out to: young men who come from a background of poverty, little education, and single-parent families; young men who are disenfranchised and often brutally stigmatized, disempowered compared to the middle-class men who mobilized in the face of their deaths in the eighties. It’s a disease you don’t hear much about anymore, but one that is certainly not going away. This young man doesn’t know where else to go.
One of more than 1,000 names on the state’s ADAP waiting list, he’s been sent to this building adjacent to the Krispy Kreme on Ponce, taking Bactrim twice a day to allay the opportunistic infections. ADAP is the state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program, and the list exists because there aren’t enough funds to provide for all low-income, underinsured people to get the meds they need.
He confides, almost with a shrug, that he started taking his antiretroviral therapy every night when he was diagnosed in November, three medications that gave him vivid nightmares, made him dizzy. Sometime later he stopped taking the meds, then got back on them, and now they’ve run out.
He’s wearing a leather belt with a huge silver skull for a buckle and appears healthy, but for a persistent sniffle.
“I want you to understand about the virus in your body,” she says. “If you don’t take your medicine properly, it can become resistant.”
In the past two weeks the young man has missed three doses of the drugs.
“I don’t like taking four pills a day,” he says.
She puts down the laminated chart with colorful pictures she’s been showing him, as if it’s become too heavy to hold.
He has no idea.
Twenty years ago, the young man would’ve left this office with a different prognosis. He would not have left the clinic with a crumpled paper bag full of any number of almost thirty medications that could prolong his life, thanks in part to the Ryan White CARE Act. Lest anyone forget, there was a time when there wasn’t any medication, a time when a generation of young men like this one were diagnosed and then died quickly thereafter, painfully, sometimes with no one by their side. There was a time when Ryan White was a ghost of a little boy with weary eyes who wasn’t allowed to go to school because the people in his Indiana town were terrified that he could kill the other children by taking a drink from a water fountain; a time when HIV wasn’t just some chronic disease, because it chronically left everyone dead in its wake. No, this young man, tall and fit, wearing sneakers with no laces, would not have left this office with a smile, as he readies to stand now, in this new age; he would’ve left with nothing but the horrific clarity of what awaited him.
This is a story about then and now.
“Thank God we have these meds,” she tells him. “Years ago, everyone was dying.”
He looks at her and has no idea.
He puts on his headphones and walks out the door.

III. The Beginning, Marianne and Jeff, 1981–1987

They were a normal family until the baby got sick. A mother, a father, three children, only for a moment in time. She met Jeff Monforti at a church in Brooklyn and married him in 1981. He was a funny guy, he could sing, and he was Italian. They went to the same church, were saved there. In two years they had a son, Jonathan, and moved to Atlanta, into the spare room of a large house owned by their friend, Pete Falcone, who was also from Brooklyn and was a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. They settled into a new church, called Hebron Christian, which was made up of young families that met in the YWCA on Lawrenceville Highway. Jeff was always willing to laugh at himself; he loved to talk politics and watch boxing and was a competitive tennis player and brought his twelve-string acoustic guitar to services. He was good with numbers and didn’t love to read. The other men in the church immediately liked him, connected with him; he was like their lead singer. When he laughed, they could hear him all the way out in the parking lot. He struggled to find work, landing odd jobs, roofing houses, and then took technical courses and got hired at a print shop. He was always spending time with Jonathan and taught him how to play baseball.

Marianne, who was a stay-at-home mom, shopped for groceries. She would sit down at the kitchen table and figure out where the sales were, gather coupons. She cooked covered dishes for church picnics, and the pastor laughed that the Italians would all sit together, the Falcones and the Monfortis, their espresso machine with an extension cord that ran the length of the picnic table.
Joshua Paul Monforti was born in an apartment in Tucker, Georgia, in the winter of 1985. Marianne squeezed Jeff’s hands and a midwife knelt on the plastic sheets at the foot of the bed. She had a feeling they’d get another boy and named him Joshua because of the Bible and Paul after her uncle. He slept in an old wooden crib with a gingham-and-rainbow design. He was a normal baby, but only long enough to give them a glimpse of what he would never become. His hair sprouted black. A row of teeth poked through the slender pink ridge of his gums. He learned how to walk. They bathed him in the kitchen sink. She propped him on the soles of her feet as she lay on the floor with her legs straight up in the air, twirling him until he squealed. For his first birthday, she baked him a chocolate cake. He cried a lot, made the same mischievous face over and over. Sometimes he danced. He sat in a high chair and ate Cheerios. He almost spoke his first word, pointing to a ball, but all he ever managed was “baw” before he stopped trying to speak altogether.
One day, when he was fifteen months old, his lymph nodes started to swell from his armpits, eventually growing to the size of lemons. He was treated for the mumps, though he had been immunized right after he was born.
A biopsy proved inconclusive, but after more tests Joshua Paul was diagnosed with something called Burkitt’s lymphoma at Scottish Rite Hospital in 1987. Doctors drained spinal fluid and stuck chemo lines into his groin. The families at Hebron Christian took turns visiting him at the hospital, holding him, singing to him, and baby­sitting Jonathan. Marianne was pregnant again. Jeff slept in a chair in the hospital room filled with get-well cards and balloons and plush animals. Everyone at the church prayed this mysterious cancer would go away. Jeff and Marianne were with him when he died. They left the hospital and she screamed when they got to the car, the ordinary act of opening the door and going back home, only empty-handed.
He did not die of cancer.

IV. Darrell, 1999–2000

The first time they kiss is at her house, sitting on the sofa, watching TV. It’s like he’s waited all this time, has played this game in his head to try and figure out if she’s really into him, and then, finally, decides to ask her, “Do you mind if I kiss you?” She turns to him and says, “What took so long?”

She takes him to New York to meet her family. Her aunts can’t get enough of him. They try and teach him how to speak Italian. How to say “beautiful face,” which is faccia bella, and so he tries, his Midwestern tongue sliding around in his mouth. Don’t say faccia brutta, they tell him, which means “ugly.” He comes up to her later and tries to say faccia bella but can’t remember.
His father and mother treat her like she’s a daughter from the first moment they meet her, never pretend that the disease is a big deal. But one of his sisters tells him that she won’t come to the wedding because it would be like meeting his murderer.
He doesn’t really propose. That is, he doesn’t get down on a knee. He just keeps telling her that he loves her, and that he’s going to marry her, until finally he does, not a year after the fair. They get married at Lawrenceville Church of God. His five kids are there, and so is Jonathan, who gives his mother away. When the pianist starts the “Wedding March,” she just starts laughing hysterically, even though walking down the aisle is not funny, it’s wonderful. They each have written personal vows to address the other’s children. “I know I will never replace your father,” Darrell reads to Jonathan, “but I hope to carve out a place of my own in your life.”
And he does.
He sits next to Marianne on the bus as it drives to football away games and he takes them to a cabin in the woods where they drink fake Champagne and eat pizza rolls and he teaches Marianne how to shoot a gun. He and Jonathan play chess for hours, and Jonathan calls him “Darrell” and not “Dad.” He helps Jonathan cut the grass, take out the trash; helps him build a poker table and an entertainment center. When Marianne gets on to Jonathan, Darrell sticks up for him. If Jonathan wants to watch a guy’s movie, well, that’s what they do.

V. Annalisa, 1987–1989

A few weeks after Joshua Paul’s death, there was a message on the answering machine for her to call the doctor. And the doctor relayed the news over the phone, as if the message was too difficult to utter in person: Joshua Paul tested positive for HIV, and your whole family needs to be tested. One of the things that defined the disease was its mystery, and it had fooled every doctor and family member and friend who had watched Joshua Paul succumb to it. The public wasn’t sure how it was spread, wasn’t sure who could get it. And no one was sure how long a person could have it before it awoke inside their bloodstream and killed them. This was a middle-class family living a Christian life in Georgia. She and Jeff kneeled by the bedside and wailed in prayer that it was a mistake.

Her test came back positive. So did Jeff’s. They were not offered counseling, because there weren’t any counselors. Her stomach was round with the baby, and she was told there was a fifty-fifty chance it would be born with HIV. They didn’t tell her parents. The first person they told was their pastor. The secret was too heavy to hold, and they were desperate. Listening to them, the pastor realized it was as if their world had come to an end.
The pastor and his wife decided that they had to tell the small congregation; that they risked losing everyone, but it had to be done, because they were part of a family. The pastor wrote a letter. He asked the CDC for an information packet on AIDS and then planned to share all that with the men and women of Hebron Christian.
Annalisa was born at Douglasville General Hospital in December, the nurses dressed in thick, green protective space suits as she came into the world. There was a big sign on her door that warned against blood-borne disease; Marianne flipped that sign over, and it said “AIDS” in red letters on the back.
Annalisa would live for almost two years.
She turned out to be a baby who didn’t fuss a lot. They put a tape recorder inside the crib and played Christian songs; they took her to the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., for an experimental study of AZT. There were so many children there with AIDS; one father pushed his son by their door in a wheelchair and said, “We’re going to get beers and meet chicks!”

VI. Marianne and Darrell, 2000–present

He takes her on a cruise. Four cruises, to be precise—including one on their honeymoon, to the Caribbean; one to the Bahamas; and two more to the Caribbean with the kids. They start this exciting life together, an adventurous life, a type of life that she’s never lived before. Standing on top of a ship and looking at the ocean, taking a safari, riding a zip line. In the jungle, they see big iguana lizards loose in the wild. In Belize, in a cave, they wear hard-hat lights that shine beams into a place as dark and sonorous as anywhere a person could ever imagine. They go to the beaches, to the tropics, run around in the sand. He wants her to live more than she ever has. They go to the Mayan ruins. They go to the North Georgia mountains and taste wine all day. This is not how she was before they were together. She’s never even been out on a lake. So he rents a boat and takes her.

VII. Marianne, Jeff, Jonathan, 1988–1996

The congregation read the letter, heard what the pastor had to say. Hebron Christian decided to support the Monfortis, even though AIDS was such a frightening word.

Of course, everyone wondered how they got it. Everyone asked. Their friends asked, the doctors asked; her parents were incessant in their asking. For a while they told a fib, just to quiet everyone down, to keep up some kind of normal-family facade; she said that she probably got a needle stick somewhere along the line, being a nurse, but she didn’t believe that. When Jeff was in New York, before they were married, he’d lived another life; he’d slept with men. This was something he’d told her, but he’d also told her he stopped when he found God. But then he’d confided to her, and to the men in the church, that he still had a lot of conflicting feelings, and that while she was pregnant with Jonathan, he’d been unfaithful with another man. It made sense; Jonathan was the only one who tested negative. She loved Jeff and had decided to stay with him when he told her all this.
Is that how they got it? Jeff believed so. Two things happened to him in between the deaths of his two youngest children: He became an activist, speaking across the country about what it was like to have acquired the dreaded disease, and he became angry.
A group of men from the church would take him out to a bagel place on North Druid Hills Road once a week. Often they did not talk about the fact that he was getting sick, or that he was losing his sense of humor, or that he had stopped talking as much as he used to. The church members brought the Monfortis food and gave them money and took turns coming over to rock Anna­lisa every day before she died. He doubted whether people were telling the truth when they told him they didn’t look at them differently, because of course they did; he knew that some members of the church refused to eat the food out of their covered dishes.
At church, as he died, Jeff would sing this song, called “Home Free,” by an artist named Wayne Watson. It became his anthem; it came to somehow define him. He would sing it any chance he could, and it would often move his friends to tears. “I’m trying hard not to think you unkind / But Heavenly Father / if you know my heart / surely you can read my mind . . . ”
She buried him in a black three-piece suit in the summertime. “I want you to bury me in a pine box,” he told her. “I don’t want you to spend a lot of money on it.” They’d never had a lot of money. So she honored his request. She went to the funeral home and asked for the simplest thing they offered, which turned out to be a pine cremation casket, meant to go straight into a furnace instead of the ground. She got dressed up and went to see him on the morning of the funeral, stared inside the open lid. He was forty years old.
As a younger man he’d been in the Navy. She unfurled a big American flag and draped it completely over the pinewood, which helped hide how modest it looked. Near the end, she had visited him at Haven House hospice and fed him orange juice and tucked the blankets over his withered legs, had stared at him when his eyes rolled up in his head and sat quietly when he moaned for her to take him home. He’d let his hair grow long and his beard wild; he’d always been such a meticulous man.
She had been married to Jeff for fifteen years. At the end, he had started smoking, out of the blue, and would sit out on the front porch until four in the morning in nothing but his underwear, staring at God knows what. He began yelling at her and arguing about everything. He stormed through the house. Jonathan would lock the doors behind him whenever he went into a room, for fear his dad would barge in. Her church friends, whether she knew it or not, used to call her Saint Marianne, because she not only didn’t leave him, she cared for him.
But she could hardly bear what he’d turned into. She tried her best to see the man who had sung so beautifully in church and spent hours with Jonathan out in the backyard, kneeling on the dirt, wearing a catcher’s mitt.
She took one last look. And then she forgave him.

VIII. Jonathan, 1996–2002

He grew up. She was certain that she wouldn’t be there to see it. One Easter she had pneumocystis pneumonia, had barely the energy to rise from her bed, was lugging an oxygen tank around the house, and decided to hide treasure maps in plastic eggs in order to make that last holiday memorable. She took Combivir twice and Crixivan three times a day but figured it was only a matter of time. The first year after Jeff passed away, Jonathan was terrified that the medicine his mother was taking would eventually fail her, like there would never be anything to halt his family’s cursed disease. But the medicine worked. The fatigue went away. A child, he implored her not to miss a dose, so she didn’t. That first Christmas she asked him to drag the decorations down from the attic, which is something his father had always done. She taught him how to mow the lawn. She taught him how to drive their Ford Explorer, which they shared. He bought a Toyota Celica stick shift after he saved enough money. She watched him take pitching lessons and took him to a meeting at the booster club, a single mother in a room full of fathers, lobbying that her son should get more playing time. She tried to keep his childhood normal as much as she could. She was supportive when he gave up baseball. She took him to Braves games, to band practice, went with him to Savannah when he made all-state tuba, watched him perform with the Atlanta Youth Symphony Orchestra. They ate seafood on River Street and rode the go-karts at Pigeon Forge and she sat on the bus with his bandmates, toting around a bag full of extra uniforms should anyone need one. They taught each other how to use the Internet. His life became her life. He was the only thing she had left, and so she tried not to allow herself to imagine losing him. He was an only child, and his mother and grandparents bought him just about anything he wanted.

He didn’t tell her things, which she would find out later—for instance, that he didn’t want to tell his friends, for fear they would stop hanging out with him; and then, as he grew a little older, that he’d changed his mind and thought if they were going to be his friends, they should know everything.
Over a campfire discussion at a retreat in school, he told some of his friends that his parents didn’t divorce; his dad died of AIDS. Afterward people would look at him with pity, with a deep sorrow in their eyes; sometimes they wouldn’t drink after him at the fountain.
When he graduated high school, she went to work again. Her doctor said it was time. She was assigned to care for the sick babies at Grady and immediately knew she couldn’t do it. Then she became a nurse who counseled HIV patients. It was all very strange, because she hadn’t planned on living. To go back into the workforce was as unexpected as having the medicine work. She was a survivor, and even the survivors back then had AIDS take most of their dreams. In those days, that’s what it did. People gave up career paths. Sold their homes. Watched those around them die. Planned for the end. There was no treatment. And then all of a sudden they had to live again.

IX. Marianne, 2011

She takes two pills with lukewarm coffee after she eats breakfast, and one pill at bedtime on an empty stomach. That’s the way it’s been, her life for more than ten years. Viread and Videx in the morning, fished from a rectangular plastic container, along with some vitamins; Sustiva at night. She’s always had issues with her therapy; it’s never been perfect, and it never is, for anyone. Sustiva causes dizziness and drowsiness and makes her depressed and irritable. “I don’t laugh now like I used to,” she says. In April she found out she had to switch medications, because her doctor told her there’s a chance of some long-term effects from Videx, which can potentially cause peripheral neuropathy, which is a type of nerve damage. She’s had an undetectable viral load since 1999. The new regimen calls for nine pills a day instead of three. Darrell wonders how, or if, the switch will change her mood, or give her nightmares, or what exactly they’re in store for. She wonders, too; there’s always a risk, and it’s frightening. Through the years, the medicine has slightly deformed her, raised a little hump on her back and made her swell around the middle—but that’s pretty much what it does to everyone. That’s what the new patients find hard to understand, until they live a little while. A chronic disease? Sure. They have no idea.

She has dark circles under her eyes and silvery hair. She asks Darrell what kind of cheesecake he wants her to make. She still cooks most every night. She and Darrell live in a little house in Snellville with an American flag displayed above the porch and an apple tree in the yard and a row of tall irises they planted near the walkway.
“My mom is the strongest woman ever,” Jonathan says when he comes over for dinner. He’s twenty-eight, married, a software engineer with a degree from Georgia Tech who plays Ultimate Frisbee for a traveling team. When he told his wife about his family’s story, she held him and asked, “How did you turn out normal?” He’s got dark skin, dark eyebrows, looks like his father. There’s a picture of him dressed in his black wedding tux, dancing with his mother, who’s wearing a beautiful dress; it’s the backdrop on her computer at work. He helps Darrell clean up the kitchen and asks him for tips on putting sod in the front yard of his new house.
Later that evening, Marianne tries to find the note they wrote to the church but can’t. She finds something else, though, that she didn’t mean to come across; a poem that Jeff wrote right before he lost his mind. People had asked her why she stayed with him, had told her they wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d left.
It reveals so much about him, so much she’d almost forgotten. She couldn’t remember that he’d ever written anything else.
I often wonder what life would have been like, with my children three.
This would not have happened if not for me.
I’m so ashamed of what I’ve done, and often wonder what could have been.
Now looking back on all my three, there were none as smart as these.
The first looks just like his mother and then there is little sis and brother.
He had this little cute dance, she had a smile that put me in a trance.
I think a lot of what he might be or should I say what he could have been.
I think of the young girl I’ll never know, and cry for my wife whom I love so.
I know she says it’s not my fault, but it wouldn’t have happened if not for me.
You need to know it breaks my heart, to know I’ve hurt the things I love so.
There will never be a time when I will not forget the pain I have caused.
No words could express my grief.
So now you know why a little bit better, I don’t talk so much.
There are not words sufficient enough to let you know
How sorry I am.
     Love always,
The week after she switches medication, she gets a terrible rash all over her body and can’t sleep.

X. Memories, 2011

One night Marianne is flipping through some family albums with dinged-up covers and stickers peeling from the spines. She looked for the books, searching shelves and closets where she’d stored things that she never meant to open again, like the little box full of the kids’ toys and shoes and get-well cards and the clothes that she had picked out for them, the tuxedo outfit Joshua Paul wore, the denim wallet his grandfather had given him with three one-dollar bills still folded inside. She had to shut the lid after only a moment of peering in.

The album pages hit each other with a soft plastic snap.
Jonathan being baptized (snap) . . . Jeff in a suit with his collar unbuttoned at a wedding (snap) . . . Jonathan’s first day of school (snap) . . . Annalisa strapped into her Jolly Jump-Up, a little girl with dark hair and dark eyes, in the kitchen (snap), in the living room (snap) . . . Jeff in a V-neck shirt and then playing tennis (snap) . . . Jonathan sitting in his lap, wearing huge, cartoon-sized sunglasses (snap) . . . Jeff holding Jonathan above his head with both of his hands, like a trophy, then Jeff holding Joshua Paul, his fingers touching the child’s face, touching the papoose, feeling the skin (snap)—a dozen bound volumes laid out and taking up nearly half of the long wooden kitchen table, the wind chimes moving silently through the glass window on the back deck—(snap) . . . and Jeff sitting on the couch beside Jonathan, his beard thick but trimmed, his elbow resting on the couch, Jonathan sucking his thumb (snap) . . . a birthday cake (snap) . . . a trip to the zoo (snap) . . . and their old car parked in the drive (snap) and the family standing outside the house (snap) and Annalisa, in a polka-dot dress, her mother’s hands coming through the frame and clutching the girl who sits beneath plush clouds, one eye halfway shut and the other open, reaching for her mother . . .

XI. Epilogue, Marianne, 2011

She explains it again. That’s all she does, explain. What’s it’s going to be like, what it was like, sometimes alluding vaguely back to the days of her biblical suffering. Sometimes the young men listen, and sometimes they don’t. The guy she’s staring at now is wearing a black baseball cap and a green jacket; he was stabbed a few weeks ago. He does not appear to be scared by the things she is telling; he only listens, looks down at his feet, nods.

“Are you having any problems with your meds?” she asks.
“I may have missed one or two doses. It got so late . . . I was out.”
“I’m not here to finger-point you,” she says. “You think I’m being nosy?”
He laughs and shakes his head. He’s on Bactrim, too, because his T cells are down in the 200s.
“Do you know about viral load?”
She’s using a laminated, flip-open informational sheet about HIV, has it open like a pop-up book in front of his face. It shows exactly how HIV replicates. An undetectable viral load is less than seventy-five. Not long ago, this man had a viral load of almost 30,000.
He looks at her.
“Tell me again?” he asks.

Jimmy Carter

No matter your opinion of Carter’s four years in the White House, there’s no denying his imprint on the city of Atlanta. As governor, he famously called for an end to segregation, appointing African Americans to high posts in state government; he helped Delta Air Lines get its first overseas route (to London); and he equalized school funding for the state’s wealthy and poor. Postpresidency, the Plains native gave a face to Georgia-based Habitat for Humanity and donated 27 million pages of his presidential documents when he built the Jimmy Carter Library in Poncey-Highland. The Carter Center is his most lasting contribution, for almost thirty years advancing human rights and democracy. Its impact on fighting disease has been profound. Today, thanks to the center, guinea worm is on the verge of eradication.

Links to Greatness At his winter retreat in 2002, Carter auctioned off a pair of diamond, sapphire, and ruby cuff links he wore when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. They were snatched up by Evander Holyfield’s then wife, Janice, for $42,500.

This article originally ran in the May 2011 issue.

Photograph courtesy of the Atlanta History Center

John Lewis

One of the youngest heroes of the civil rights movement, Lewis rode the buses with the freedom riders through Mississippi. Lewis, the son of Alabama sharecroppers, moved to Atlanta in 1963 to head the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1965 he marched from Selma to Montgomery and was famously beaten on the Edmund Pettis Bridge and jailed. In 1986 he was elected to the House of Representatives, serving in the fifth district in the state of Georgia, becoming the second African American (after Andrew Young) to represent the state since Reconstruction. That year Time magazine described him as a living saint. He’s held the seat ever since. He was instrumental in getting the Voting Rights Act extended in 2006 and last year helped the city procure $47 million for a streetcar project.

Gold Prize This February President Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “When parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind,” Obama said.

Photograph courtesy of the Atlanta History Center

This article originally ran in the May 2011 issue.

The Beards Are a Joke

The journey wore on them. The road wore on them, as it curved into the mountainside. For five days, the Beards of Comedy had stared at the gray of the highway, and the cold and the dark had worn on them, too. They’d eaten potato chips and CornNuts, Big Macs and Subway footlongs, candy bars and cookies that left crumbs in their facial hair. They’d whizzed in the stalls of a hundred rest stops, devoured two loaves of white-bread sandwiches made with honey and Walmart peanut butter. They used luggage as pillows, bags of dirty clothes as armrests, discarded their refuse into the seat pouches and door slots and onto the carpeted floor of their rented Tahoe.
Three out of four Beards were overweight, and in the backseats they fidgeted, repositioning their arms, their elbows, their necks, their butt cheeks. Every night before their stand-up performances on their first West Coast comedy tour, they read ideas they’d written in pocket notebooks and considered their material in silence, listened to the same jokes, shared the same stories, were so familiar with the words of each other’s sets that they could practically recite them verbatim. They were barely getting paid. They shook hands with the DJs, the club owners, the bartenders. They threw their words at drunken patrons and sold their comedy CDs and T-shirts out of a suitcase. Long after the applause, they collapsed onto queen-sized motel beds they had to share, snoring themselves to sleep, farts rippling like midnight trumpets beneath the comforters.
When they were clean, they smelled of motel hand soap and Pert shampoo. When they were not, they bore a bouquet of Mountain Dew, orange rinds, and feet. They dressed in different variations of the same outfits—hooded sweatshirts and blue jeans, Dockers and moccasins, dress shoes and button-ups, tennis shoes and flannel—because they hadn’t stopped to do laundry.
Halfway into this odyssey, the only things that had not begun to wear on them were their jokes. They talked comedy, sometimes for hours. They listened to more-successful comedians’ albums on an iPod plugged into the dashboard, dissected what worked, how it worked, filled the inside of the truck with howls of approval. Other times, when the Modest Mouse or Delta Spirit trailed off, with the windows half-down and the fresh air stirring their beards, the four of them sat in silence, passing little towns with old farmhouses, empty billboards, mountains and scrub­land, brown fields with faraway cattle, the buttes of Arizona and the ridges of Nevada, staring at these things in wonder.
They were on the road because they loved the craft, loved writing and the process of creating. After four years of doing stand-up in and around Atlanta, they were at the top of the scene. But what did that mean? Not enough to pay the rent, much less buy a house. They were getting older. Some of their friends had kids, had a lot of money, had mortgages. It was time to test their local success with an unfamiliar audience, raise their profiles, see if they had what it takes. It was time to be serious about being funny.

Dave Stone had a serious beard.
He was thirty-three and had a beautiful beard, the best beard, and received the most compliments of the four Beards. It was dense, and it augmented the oval structure of his face by forming an Elizabethan point beyond his chin. It was not something that just happened, either. God, no. He brushed it. Conditioned it. Snipped its stray hairs with scissors every couple days.
On the first night of the Beards of Comedy 2011 West Coast tour, at around 9:30 p.m. in a ballroom on the campus of Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, Dave chugged a Red Bull and took the stage. He shuffled up a flight of wooden steps, where a thick, green curtain parted. He turned to his right toward an audience of 342 students and stopped, placed his hand on the microphone stand. An hour earlier, when Dave had peeked out of the greenroom while eating a baby carrot dipped in ranch dressing, the ballroom had been empty except for rows of temporary folding chairs. Now it was packed.
“I’ve been working out, as you can plainly see,” he said, tapping an index finger into his healthy gut. “Look at that one giant ab.” The crowd laughed.
Dave was raised in Canton. He used to be a DJ at 99X, and he joked to the students about that, doing his impersonation of the ridiculous tone he used on the air. He was blessed with a powerful voice, deep and resonant, a real radio voice. He was good at projecting it, manipulating it, doing vocal caricatures. He worked at seven stations in five years, then quit because he was bored.
In 2002, Dave took $3,000 and bought a trailer and a lawn mower and started Excel Lawn Care. He had been writing jokes in his spare time since he was twenty-one, but he thought they were lame and didn’t know what to do with his material. He began his lawn business with one customer, advertised and handed out flyers, and wound up with more than fifty clients. He hired five people to help him, bought edgers and trimmers. Other Atlanta comedians joked that Dave had lived, that he had literally picked up shit from other people’s yards.
One day he said, “Fuck it—I’m going to try this.” He sold the business and jumped into comedy full-time. And he loved it. In just a few years, Dave shot to the top of the food chain in the mainstream Atlanta comedy scene. He started with open mic nights, then graduated to feature work—thirty-minute sets locally and nationally, schlepping himself in a fifteen-year-old Lexus he bought from the grandmother of another comedian. Last year he put 57,000 miles on it.
Success was relative, though. He cleared barely $1,500 a month. He lived in the spare room of a friend’s house in Powder Springs. Dave had his budget down to a science, knew exactly how many times he could afford his favorite spots, like Eats, in a given month. He harassed comedy club booking agents, sending his resume and video clips, trying to fill his calendar. He put T-shirts over motel pillowcases to cut down on the risk he’d catch a cold. He’d sacrificed for his career. He’d given up on a relationship with a woman he’d been with for nine years when she told him it was either her or comedy.
Younger comics in town looked up to Dave. They sought him out, gathered around him in the cigarette haze outside the Star Bar in Little Five Points or Comedy Gold in Buckhead. They asked his opinion of their material and were often sensitive to his blunt honesty. That was a cross to bear that Dave didn’t love hefting. But he did love comedy. More than anything else.
When the Portales set was over, the Beards made $2,300 from their take of the door. Everything went into the Beard Fund, their cash for the trip. After the show, at least half the students stuck around to meet them, so they put their T-shirts and CDs on a folding table and took one last picture onstage.
It takes balls to get onstage. It takes balls to stand in front of an audience and try to connect with them, make them understand, make them want to laugh. There’s a reason Jerry Seinfeld, perhaps America’s most beloved comic, said more people are afraid of public speaking than they are of death. It’s not an easy thing to do. There are a ton of comics who have died onstage in Atlanta, metaphorically speaking. There are fewer comedians who have killed their share of crowds. The Beards of Comedy—Dave Stone, Andy Sandford, TJ Young, and Joe Zimmerman—have all killed, but they’ve all died plenty, too. There’s some great comedy in Atlanta, but there’s also a lot of bad comedy. Because while it takes balls to get onstage, it takes something else entirely to be good. It takes real work—years of practice. Years of getting up every night, of trying, failing, getting up again, taking a beating in the silence of the spotlight.
Joe Zimmerman was from Asheville, twenty-nine years old, had been performing for five years. Onstage, the soft way he spoke, the way he moved, the way he held his arms at his chest—all projected an air of harmlessness. His set could at times be like a confessional to a group of bunnies gathered at his feet. He joked mostly about himself: his problems, his chronic fatigue syndrome, his fear of horror movies.
“Women have their types,” he’d say onstage. “You always hear, ‘Oh, I go for the rebel,’ or ‘the athlete.’ Just once, I want to find a woman who’s magnetized by my personality type. One time, I want somebody who sees me to go, ‘Oh, my gosh . . . Who is that goofball?’”
Backstage, before every show, he took off his glasses and put in contacts—which required sprinkling drops into his eyes—because he thought it made him look better. He walked around, eyes puffy and blinking, until he took the stage. He was the best-dressed Beard, with his ironed oxford shirts and black pants and black dress shoes, had established himself enough to get gigs all over the Midwest and South, featured for more established comics. He had a respectable haircut and a respectable, middling beard; he had been clean-cut his entire life before growing it two years ago in order to become a Beard. He was happy it had filled in pretty well. The Beards were his idea.
Joe made some of his bones in Atlanta, because there wasn’t a big scene in Asheville, or one in Charlotte for someone who didn’t joke about NASCAR. With about 150 comics actively performing, Atlanta has the biggest comedy scene in the Southeast, and maybe the biggest, depending on whom you talked to, outside of New York, L.A., or Chicago. It has two mainstream comedy clubs, dozens of other places to see stand-up, plenty of open mics—at the Laughing Skull Lounge; the Star Bar on Monday night, where all the serious stand-ups go to hone their chops; the shows at Relapse Theatre in the wee hours; Comedy Gold; Cheyenne Grill.
In 2007 at the Star Bar in Little Five Points, in the dark and the smoke, Joe met Andy, who introduced him to Dave. TJ met Dave the same year, when they were both emceeing and doing spots at the Funny Farm. Joe met TJ at a show in Atlanta at the Warren Comedy Club. TJ met Andy in Athens one night, at a comedy show at the Loft. A few months later, the four of them were sitting at the Grill in Athens, eating french fries and feta cheese, when Joe said, “You guys should form a comedy group and call yourselves the Beards of Comedy.” No one took him seriously until he said it again the next time he saw them and vowed to grow a beard, too.
It was meant to be a joke. A parody of a hook, like Patton Oswalt’s well-known Comedians of Comedy. They were essentially making fun of the “comedy” genre by picking something arbitrary that they all had in common. But the funny thing was, once they started to tour, a lot of other comics wanted to join them, and had either grown beards or hinted, by stroking the one they already had, that they’d be interested if the Beards were willing to add another. No one ever really got that it was a joke. People would ask, very seriously, what would happen if someone shaved?

Six people showed up to the second show,
including one of Joe’s friends, a guy he played Division I golf with at Davidson College. The show was at this place called the Martini Ranch, a nightclub in a tony Scottsdale neighborhood. Joe’s friend and the other table of people sat in the very back of a room that could hold 150, so there was an entire floor of empty chairs. At one point, Joe practically begged his friend to come and fill one seat up front. He was speaking into the microphone, which whined, his voice echoing in the empty room, the cord wrapped around his feet. His friend refused at first, but relented. So there was one guy sitting beneath the lights. It was funny, but it was weird, and also a tiny bit sad. Before the show, the Beards sat in the greenroom just outside the bar, Dave reading an advertisement for the show in the local alt weekly, Andy looking at a notebook, Joe strumming a guitar. They ate pita bread and hummus, and the bar owner kept apologizing to them. Did they want to cancel? No, they decided to go ahead. The guys took turns standing at the microphone in front of the empty seats, going through their material. At times, each would turn to his left, to look at the bartender, just so he’d have someone to talk to. They made $50. Total.

Joe got gas from something he ate along the way.
For a solid day, every few minutes he’d roll the window down, then roll it up, then roll it back down, and the other guys would pull their T-shirts over their noses. He was also forced to take about a thousand naps because of his chronic fatigue, so he never really drove. He was one of those guys who ended everything with the word “dawg.”

TJ was the biggest Beard, and when he wasn’t driving, he was constantly working on his laptop, tapping the keys, keeping tabs on the Beard Fund, figuring out the cheapest prices for where they were going to stay, checking Priceline, e-mailing other comedians about possible guest spots. And because the power outlet was in the very back of the Tahoe, he often sat in the smallest seat, floating his questions to the front, smooshed like a steak in a piece of Tupperware.
Dave nodded off, his iPod headphones dangling over his beard, and began to snore—real soft at first, like he was trying to whisper, but when his head lolled back and his mouth opened wider, the snores got more ambitious, until they slightly flapped his lips like a cartoon duck as they exited his mouth. He drank warm cranberry juice because he’d had kidney stones three times in the past two years, had gone through unbearable pain while he was on the road, performing.
Andy would take a pen cap and swirl it inside his ear to get the wax out. He’d put his fingertip up to one nostril and fire snot rockets out of the other. He’d be in the middle of a thought, a comedic rumination, and stop to hock a loogie.
They endured each other. They put up with each other. They were whittled down, their layers peeled away—the road did all that for them. It provided a mirror to who they truly were. Men. Friends. Neurotics. Diehards. Dopes. Geniuses.

“I still don’t have a punch line,”
Dave said. “I have a setup. The same thing that happened to Andy at Arby’s happened to me at Krispy Kreme.”

TJ was behind the wheel, just north of the Hoover Dam, and the evening sun looked like a single coin flipped into an empty sky. The other Beards were playing a game called Joke Machine, which was a way to brainstorm.
“With my four dollars, I went to get four doughnuts,” Dave continued. “I had just enough money for four doughnuts. And I placed my order, and the lady rings me up, and then she says, ‘Would you like to donate a dollar to St. Jude Children’s hospital?’ And I was like, ‘Naaaaaaaah.’ And she looked at me like I was a shithead. I could’ve gotten three doughnuts and donated a dollar. But no sir, I needed four doughnuts. Tell those sick kids I’m sorry, but I needed the four doughnuts.” He was almost shouting now.
“That’s really all I have, just a setup,” Dave finished.
“It’d be funnier if you’d get into your own head. Was there a conflict? Did you think about it for a second?” Joe asked, leaning against a backseat window.
“Nope, not even a second. I came here to get four doughnuts. That was what I’m leaving with.”
“Most people would hesitate,” Joe said. “But for you, it didn’t even cross your mind?”
“Nope, didn’t even cross my mind. I needed four. It was the number.”
Andy, in the front passenger seat, piped up. “What’s the analogy? You don’t go to someplace and get a five-pack of beer. You need some equivalent, like, ‘No, dude, I need four—that’s why I was there.’ It wasn’t a give or take.”
“You can do a lot with that—the inner monologue, dawg,” Joe said. “Weighing the sick kids, not weighing them. Dealing with the lady judging you.”
“How ’bout the angle of, ‘What the fuck can a sick kid do with a dollar?’” Andy asked. Everyone cracked up. “I mean, the only thing worth getting for a dollar is a doughnut. What can a sick kid do with it? You can’t give a doughnut to a sick kid. So I’ll just eat it. It’s circling logic. Can’t have sick kids eating doughnuts, so I’ll take it for them. Like, somehow you’re helping them.”
Joe: “You could be eating the doughnuts, one at a time, thinking about it.”

Outside the Beauty Bar in Las Vegas, the Beards barked to draw a crowd.
Barking required standing outside the venue, handing out flyers, talking to passersby, coaxing them to see the show. It was 9 p.m. in Vegas, so the foot traffic had only begun. There were a lot of tourists, a lot of young people, a lot of the middle-aged, a lot of beautiful people, a lot of weirdos, a lot of leather pants and short skirts, football jerseys, an insufferable number of sunglasses, a lot of mumbling and disoriented dudes, a lot of women walking two- and three-by-side, holding oversized, plastic beer bottles, aimless wanderers floating beneath all that flickering neon, begging for something interesting to gobble them up. TJ stood outside the bar, holding the flyers.

“Hey, want to come see a comedy show tonight?” TJ barked. “It’s only ten bucks! Beards of Comedy. Comedy show?”
He managed, during the course of an hour, with his sweet voice and pleasant approach, with his interested laughter, with his ginger beard, with his little glasses slipping off the edge of his nose, to entice several people—including a couple from Ohio who had just filmed a spot on Pawn Stars—to actually pay money and come in.
When the show began, things went bad quickly. It was a dark scene, with the stage barely illuminated by these sinister lights. The stage was just across from the bar and was behind some tables, from which it was nearly impossible to see the Beards. It was not a place for comedy, or a comedy crowd.
It was also too loud, mostly because of the regular patrons, the Beards assumed, who sat in a long row down the bar, oblivious to what was happening on the stage. As it became clear that the crowd wasn’t into it, was never going to be, the three Beards who weren’t onstage sat in the back by the retro hair dryers and the photo booth, waiting to march to the gallows.
Right at the end of the show, as Joe considered whether to even take the stage, two guys dressed in suits and three voluptuous, high-heeled women came through the door. The main guy had curly hair and shiny shoes, wore a suit and light blue shirt with no tie. When they approached Joe, he had barely been onstage a minute, had stepped up to the mic and said that he wished the Beards had an electric guitar so everyone would pay attention.
“That’s George Maloof Jr.,” someone said. Maloof, an owner of the Palms and one of the owners of the Sacramento Kings, approached the stage. Everyone looked very red beneath the light. The people at the bar were not paying attention. Maloof said something to Joe, and Joe stepped closer; then Maloof’s hand came out of his pocket, extended toward Joe’s hand, placed something inside of Joe’s palm. This happened in what seemed like exaggeratedly slow time. Joe looked down. He smiled. He looked back at Maloof. Joe got off the stage. Maloof took the mic. The three women, dressed in short, black skirts, an Icelandic pop act called the Charlies, took the stage as a group and sang a song, a cappella. It was impossible to tell what they were singing about, only that they sounded pretty good. Some people at the bar started to dance. The Beards, at the back of the bar, fawned over what Maloof had given Joe: a $100 bill.

In L.A. something magic happened:
The Beards played in front of a full house. The show was in the back of a comic book store in Hollywood, a place called Meltdown Comics & Collectibles on Sunset Boulevard, a store packed with plastic action figures and shelves stocked with books painted in brilliant colors. It only held about forty people, but there was “industry” (the term for important people) in the crowd—in this case, representatives from Levity, a big-time management company, who’d heard about the Beards’ show in Portales. These were people who could put the Beards on television, maybe hook them up with some Comedy Central airtime, which would be a big break. One of the Beards’ favorite comics, Kyle Kinane, did a guest spot in the middle of the show. Kinane was starting to get a lot of national buzz and was not far, in the Beards’ eyes, from something huge. He had recorded his first Comedy Central Presents, which meant he could pick and choose his venues to headline. His comedy album, Death of the Party, had reached number one on Amazon in 2010. He’d been performing for a decade. Kinane was a skinny guy with a few strands of brown hair on the top of his head, but a formidable beard of his own took away from the fact that he was almost bald. He and the Beards drank Tecate beer before the show. The Meltdown crowd was an affirming crowd. Andy and TJ got a huge laugh when they did their “Morgan Freeman reads Wu-Tang lyrics” bit, TJ playing bongos, Andy reading from a piece of paper, doing his Freeman impersonation: Cash rules everything around me. Cream. Get the money. Dollar, dollar bill, y’all . . . Do you want to get your teeth knocked the fuck out . . . ? Well, do you?

The comedians threw large shadows on the white walls in the room. The audience followed them, listened. The Beards made $200 from the door and sold $80 worth of merchandise.
Later that night, at around 11:30, they drove on to San Francisco. This was an idea that sounded relatively bad a few days before, but when the Beards walked out of a bar they’d gone to with Kinane, and faced the six-hour haul, it was pretty much the worst idea of all time. They were all tired. A couple of them had been drinking. They had to be in the city for a four-minute bit on a TV show at 8 a.m. Andy drove for an hour. He held both hands on the wheel. He stopped around midnight so everyone could get an In-N-Out burger, but they’d just closed, and then a few miles up there was a traffic jam on the 5, the line of red taillights twisting into the distance. It was decided through process of elimination that Dave—who was as tired as anyone—would drive. TJ was already passed out in the back. Joe was asleep, too. Andy had tried his best, but he didn’t think he could make it any longer.
Dave got out of the Tahoe at a gas station. His face bore the mingling expressions of exhaustion, anger, perhaps hatred. He bent from side to side, stretching his legs, and got his duffel bag, which was stuffed between suitcases behind the backseat. He did something then that was like a hallucination: He brushed his teeth by the gas pump. He spat the toothpaste onto the ground. Then he got in the driver’s seat, fastened his seat belt, and turned up the band Clutch.
Around two in the morning, the Tahoe entered a thick bank of fog. Dave cursed and leaned halfway over the steering wheel, let off the gas, slowed the truck to 30 miles per hour, squinted his eyes. He could barely see fifteen feet in front of him, the highway chalky from the fog. To his left, semis roared past. Deeper into the fog, the defrost broke and the windows filmed up. Dave yelled something at Andy, who gave him a dirty T-shirt. Dave wiped vigorously to clear the windshield, to little avail. Andy tried to figure out what was wrong with the defrost, and the Tahoe skidded over to the right shoulder of the road. He turned on the heat, full blast, and put the windows down; he then turned on the air conditioner, while cold from outside poured into the truck. Andy frantically worked the dash buttons. He finally rigged a solution: Clear the windshield by turning the heat on high and keeping the windows down. Joe and TJ were still asleep.
In the morning, Dave sat glued to the driver’s seat. His eyes didn’t move. He stared in the rearview mirror, looking at the harbor of the most beautiful city in the country. Something floated in the sky, possibly a gull. Dave said, very calmly, very purposefully, “Next time, we need to make sure this doesn’t happen, guys. We need to stay awake, take turns. Because I’ve just driven the most dangerous drive of my life.”

Andy stood onstage at the Purple Onion comedy club in San Francisco,
an hour before the show, the happiest he’d looked the entire trip. He was beaming, practically bouncing. It was a place he and the other Beards had dreamed of playing, one of the most famous comedy clubs in the country. They were paying $500 of their own money just to get the stage time, to say they’d been there. One of Andy’s favorite albums, The Smothers Brothers at the Purple Onion, was recorded on the very spot he was standing, in 1961, twenty-two years before he was born.

Andy was a guy who obsessed about jokes—fretted about them, agonized over them. He was a joke machine, talking nearly the entire trip when he was awake, doing impressions, burbling witticisms. He had a response, a quip, a take on everything. He was kind of a comedic savant. He was a literary guy, too, and on the trip he’d brought Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man and was reading a book of poetry by Philip Larkin.
“My favorite thing,” Andy said, “is thinking of something, a premise, and making a joke from it that I think is really tight. Taking an interesting angle that’s not pedestrian and writing good wording, good lines, and getting a reaction. That’s the second half of being original: scoring the point with it. You can be the most random or abstract thing in the world, but it has to be received.”
Andy liked the impermanence of comedy, the malleability of a joke, because it could always be changed, tightened, made better. He worried about the tiniest bits, the shortest sentence, the individual syllable. He planned to record an album of just his material, release it on vinyl, and call it Seven Inches of Andy Sandford. At the Purple Onion, in front of a tiny crowd, he told one of his shortest, darkest jokes:
“I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and at one point, he turned to me and said, ‘Andy, I gotta ask you—what’s your secret?’
“I was like, ‘Uh, okay, my secret . . . Well [lowering his voice] . . . One time I killed a little girl, with a shovel.’”
He stared at the audience, letting an awkward laugh build.
“He was like, ‘Dude, I meant, like, the secret to your success.’”
Andy widened his eyes: “Oh, okay, well, you probably shoulda specified that.
“The secret to my success—okay. [Raising his voice.] Never let anything stand in your way . . . no matter how small.”
Andy didn’t like his set on the Beards of Comedy’s Comedy for People album, because he thought he spoke too fast. He hated some video footage that had been filmed of him performing—“I want to burn it”—because he said one word too much or moved his arms around wildly, had made exaggerated gestures because of nerves. He had these small compulsions, too, like cleaning his glasses with the tail of his shirt every two minutes, shaking his wrists and hands when he was walking around, wheezing and gritting his teeth when he laughed. He was the only Beard who smoked, and his beard was red, a different color than the brown of his head hair. He didn’t like when people brought that up.
When he was six, Andy heard his first joke. It was told by his father, who ran a mortgage company. Andy recounted the joke this way:
“I was with my dad, and there were ducks flying overhead, and he was like, ‘Hey, Andy, see those ducks? See how they fly in a V formation?’ I was like, ‘Yeah?’ And he was like, ‘See how one side’s longer?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he was like, ‘You know why that is?’ And I was like, ‘No, no.’ And he goes, ‘Because there are more ducks on that side.’ And he just walked away.”
Five years ago, Andy was a courier, delivering legal documents around Atlanta. He had a nice boss and made decent pay. But he was not happy. One night he got really wasted, drinking beer and doing cocaine. When his friends left, he was still drinking. The next day he woke up in a Publix parking lot with a broken bottle in his hand, bleeding. This scared the hell out of him. He went to the hospital where a psychologist asked if he loved himself or not. He responded, “Would you do that to someone you love?” He was placed in a mental hospital for nine days, where he decided he had no outlet for the “jumping jacks” in his brain. “I get obsessive,” he said. “And for the last four years, I’ve been obsessed about comedy. I’ve found that if I don’t do comedy . . . Well, it keeps me from being severely depressed. I’m anxiety-ridden anyway.”

Joe performed at a club in Lansing, Michigan,
a few months ago. Jon Lovitz was the headliner. The cranky funnyman had not been nice to Joe. Joe, congenial Joe, who took his glasses off and put his contacts in because he was self-conscious, who was just a road comic trying to get ahead, who smiled a lot, who was an honest, likeable guy, who told a great joke about the vitamins his doctor just prescribed him, vitamins called Zoloft. Well, when Lovitz went onstage, Joe noticed that he’d left his cell phone in the greenroom. In fact, it was just Joe, who was eating a sandwich, and Jon Lovitz’s cell phone, together, by themselves, and the way Joe told the story, there was an almost magnetic force that became palpable in the room. Joe did not think, I’m going to take celebrity phone numbers out of this phone, but then the phone was in his hand. He put the sandwich down. Then he thought, I bet it’s locked. Then he thought, Holy shit, it’s not locked. I better see his contact list. In Jon Lovitz’s contact list, the first name was Criss Angel, the famous magician. And then Joe thought, Oh, I need that number, and wrote down Angel’s number. Then, phone still in hand, he thought a little more, and it occurred to him, I need to get some better numbers. So he scrolled down with a trembling thumb and got J.J. Abrams’s number, In case I need to call him about Lost. And then he scrolled down faster, thinking maybe time was running out, thinking that maybe Lovitz would come in and kill him. Eventually, Joe found a young comic’s ultimate prize: the cell phone number for Lorne Michaels.

Then Joe accidentally called Michaels from Jon Lovitz’s cell phone, and hung up before anything happened.

The only Beard who had a day job
was TJ Young. He worked as a graphic designer at the University of Georgia, so he lived in Athens. He had a bright red beard, which he shaped with a Norelco trimmer to lengthen his face. Everyone always asked the Beards what would happen if one of them shaved, and the answer was: nothing. Again, hardly anyone got that the name of the group was a joke.

TJ had broken up with his girlfriend, on the phone, during the trip. After this happened he turned quiet, introspective, sometimes sat on the edge of the hotel bed silently, staring at his phone, at the wall, then at the floor.
He used to be the drummer in a band called Hey, Revolution!, until it broke up. He was thirty-four and liked having a reliable income, but he also had bigger dreams he couldn’t ignore.
In 2006, he drove to Atlanta once a week for six weeks to take a comedy class. The specific purpose of this class was to learn how to take a funny, personal story, tap into it, and form a concise stand-up bit. TJ had been onstage before—when he was a kid, at church, and as part of an improv troupe at his small, Christian liberal arts college in Florida. He was certain he could make people laugh, and he was quick on his toes. As part of the comedy class graduation, he was assigned a four-minute set at the Punchline.
Before that set was over, “I knew I was going to be doing this for a long time,” he said. His set was supposed to be four minutes, but it stretched to eight because he had to pause so much for the laughs.
TJ, like any comic, fed off laughter, but he also liked struggling onstage. It was strange to admit, but he liked bombing, because there was no challenge in killing a crowd. There was an intense feeling in failure; bombing was a moment of discovery, finding something new about himself each time.
Two years ago, not long after the Beards formed, TJ got a call one morning after he opened up for the comedian Jim Jefferies. The call was from his sister, to say that his father had been in a motorcycle accident in Orlando.
He cancelled a show that night and drove down to be with his mother and siblings. His dad died thirty-six hours after TJ received the call. TJ stayed in Florida for two weeks. He didn’t know if he should come back. He had a gig booked in Asheville, a wedding performance. Dave was on that show; Joe was, too. They told him he could stay, that they understood.
“My head was saying don’t perform, it was too quick,” he said. “But my heart was different. I take very seriously the job of making people laugh.”
TJ’s dad had admired the fact that his son was passionate about comedy; he’d loved to hear TJ perform. TJ remembered his father telling him on multiple occasions, “I’m so proud of you.” He liked to do a combination high-five/handshake/hug and tell TJ, “You da man.” At his sixtieth birthday party, all he did was use his iPhone to show his friends YouTube clips of TJ performing. TJ’s father laughed at him, harder than he laughed at anyone else, even before his son became a stand-up. At one performance, the bar was so small that TJ could see everyone’s face in the audience—including his dad’s, in the back, surrounded by people. He noticed that his dad’s eyes were focused on him. He spent most of that set staring directly back at his father, saw that he was laughing and having a great time, spoke as though he were addressing him. That was the last time TJ saw his father before he died.
A few weeks later, when the Beards were taping their Comedy for People CD, when he felt like he had nothing funny to say, TJ put one of his father’s handkerchiefs in his pocket and went onstage.

The journey brought them closer.
The road brought them closer, as it rolled through the fog toward Portland. There were orchards in Oregon, perfect lines of trees planted in the dirt, bare of fruit—or whatever they grew; no one was sure. Not even Dave, who knew his trees.

Near the end of the trip, the Beards sat together with their shoes off in a hotel room and ate cold Little Caesars pizza and watched Conan O’Brien. They drank Dr Pepper out of a two-liter bottle, burped and coughed, laughed at each other, shared a twelve-pack of bottled Coors, talked about L.A. and New York. They arrived in Portland around nightfall, parked the Tahoe by the famous strip of food carts downtown, ate Thai out of Styrofoam containers and had banh mi sandwiches on the street. In Kennewick, Washington, they got to meet one of the most successful stand-ups performing, someone they truly admired: a guy named Brian Regan, who asked them to come onto his tour bus to hang out. They would finish the trip paying $300 each out of their own pockets to go on the tour, but it had been an investment—in the group, in their own individual careers. They were going home, having met some important people, some of their favorite comedians, and some agents, with the hope of bigger things to come.
In his autobiography, Born Standing Up, Steve Martin wrote that one of the best times of his life was when no one knew him; when he was on the road, playing in front of tiny crowds, trying out his material in the grinding rhythm of each passing night; when he was driving from town to town and sleeping in motel beds, performing in places so small he could see the empty tables, hear individual audience members and the chairs squeak as they were moved.
Dave had always heard celebrities say that the best time in comedy was starting out, going on the road. Like Martin said, no one knew who you were. Dave was happy, could find pleasures in certain aspects of the road, liked the towns and hotels, the scenery—he once parked his car on the side of the highway and walked into a beautiful cornfield. He wondered if he would ever be happier, no matter what happened the rest of his career. This was what it was like to be doing something creative, to be serious about it, and he wanted to make the most of it, he told himself—while he still could. While he still had a journey to take.

Bill and Doug Got Married*


It was a small wedding. Bill and Doug arrived together for the ceremony, as for the past 50 years they had arrived together for everything. Each wore a braided gold band as a symbol of commitment. They were not dressed traditionally for such an occasion, but since it was theirs to celebrate, what they wore didn’t matter. They had only three witnesses: a minister, the minister’s daughter and a friend who would be taking photos. Bill was the best thing that ever happened to Doug, and vice versa. They stood and faced each other in front of a fake fireplace in Niagara Falls, Ontario, last July, in a brick chapel with a white awning painted with two blue hearts, one of the few places in the world where they were allowed to do what they were going to do; they held each other’s hand, looked into each other’s eyes, and said I do.

Photograph by Jonathan Hollada

The wedding was about love, mostly. They were old now, and gray as seashells, and love was one of the only things of which they could be certain. Doug was 77, and his weak heart fluttered in the cage of his ailing chest. He had lost one of his hearing aids and the other was broken, and sometimes when Bill would call at him and call at him he would not hear; due to high blood pressure and physical strain from the bad heart his breath seemed to force its way out of his lungs. He loved to tend the yard, but could no longer do so. Bill, 73, had an arthritic left knee; he had stopped playing his beloved organ at church. They both had problems remembering things. They had begun to make arrangements to move into a retirement home, and had learned they would not be able to live in the same room together. They were fighting the decision. The wedding, when it happened, would be about something else, as well—a kind of validation for those who had championed their cause. Bill and Doug shared their lives and their furniture and their CD collection and their love of art and a little gray house that was webbed by the long shadows of north Georgia pines in a suburb of Atlanta, and marriage in theory was not something they would ever need and they were quite certain that if they took the vows they would not be saying anything to each other that had not already been said before.


Wake up, my handsome man, Bill says to Doug on most mornings, looking across the bed to his companion.

Good morning—but I am not handsome, Doug replies.

Bill fetches him coffee: To me, you are, he says.

When they were younger, in the sixties and seventies, two Atlanta men a good twenty years from coming out as a gay couple, they masked their affections by living platonically, out of fear, and the above conversation is one they did not often share.

Two million, three hundred eighty-nine thousand, three hundred forty-four Georgians voted for Senate Resolution 595 in last November’s election, which equated to 76 percent of the vote. The amendment to the state constitution provided that Georgia would recognize marriage only as the union of a man and woman. Of course, neither Bill nor Doug is a woman. This means, barring a reversal of pervading beliefs, they will most likely never be allowed to marry in our state.


Bill is short and slightly paunchy, a good 4 inches shorter than Doug, who is about 5-foot-11. Doug is thinner, and always has been. He used to look like James Dean, or tried to look like him, and wore the cuffs of his jeans rolled up. Bill, when he was younger, posed with a cocky expression, in one picture bare-chested, like a model. Both are now bald, Bill with his hair buzzed around his head and Doug with what remains longer and slicked back on the sides. They like to eat at High Cotton in Dunwoody, where the wait staff is friendly; they are fond of the sweet potato fries and asparagus salad. They look older, sitting in the booth, with soft faces, like grandfathers.


While in college at the University of Florida in the late 1940s, when Bill and Doug were merely friends, they heard use of the word “yag.” This, they found out, was a secret word employed by the homosexual community meaning “gay,” which was much too dangerous then to say out loud. Only upon further inquiry did they learn that “gay” was a word used by older homosexuals to avoid the homophobic epithets of “queer” or “faggot.” Doug did not identify as a homosexual at the time, and had no feeling about the words “yag” or “gay.”


Did you expect to get married today? The Ontario marriage license clerk asked them. Yes, they replied. They had sworn with their hands on a Bible that everything they had filled out about each other on the marriage certificate was true. The clerk had been pleasant and sympathetic and had told them after they responded “yes” that there was no one in city hall who could officiate that day, and actually three people in the entire city could even officiate at all, and Would you like me to call one? she asked them, and they looked at each other and needed not think about a responded and told her yes, and she came back with a street address and directions how to get there, and it turned out to be a little white brick chapel—nothing spectacular in this honeymoon capital of the world—and it had two blue hearts painted on its white awning, and when they got there they stood in front of the door, and their picture was taken and would later be stowed in a modest little flipbook they would use as their wedding album. They entered the chapel, Doug in a blue long-sleeved Polo tucked into his olive pants and Bill wearing blue sneakers. A Minister of the United Church of Christ led the service, which was a civil service, not a religious one, because that’s what they had chosen, the civil service blessed in the Episcopal prayer book. Doug and Bill, who had been raised Southern Baptists, had for a long time been Episcopalians.


The two met in 1948, before school, after World War II. It feels as though, sometimes, they met last month. They have been together long enough to perhaps make them Atlanta’s oldest gay couple; in fact, in the local gay and lesbian community, they are often referred to as such. Are they? They cannot be certain.


What is it like to be gay? Quite frankly, Bill and Doug did not ask to be gay. Perhaps the people who voted yes to Senate Resolution 595 can understand this; perhaps they cannot. Bill does not know anyone who chooses to be gay because frankly it is a nuisance. There was never a moment in his life when gay was not his orientation.

Doug did not always know he was gay. He had, at age 18, what he refers to as a sexual experience with another man when he was in the Navy. He was seduced. “The intimacy was agreeable,” he writes in a brief autobiography, “but (I was) shocked when the lieutenant said, ‘Some day you will make someone a good wife.’” Afterward, he decided to remain chaste, until he graduated from college.


They came out 15 years ago. Everyone said, “We always knew you were gay.” They had been living together for four decades. There was suspicion.


They ate lunch together at the University of Florida cafeteria. They went to see plays at the drama department. They went to musicals. Maybe a couple times a month, they’d go to downtown Gainesville to a movie. Together. No one had cars in those days. They walked everywhere. They were best friends. They had common interests. They visited each other’s parents, which is what a courting couple would’ve done. In 1948, they went to New York City together. They sat up in a coach car, and didn’t get any sleep along the way. They went to the Metropolitan Opera. They cannot remember their first kiss.


On the wall of their home is Doug’s needlepoint. It’s in the shape of a greyhound. It took him three months to complete. Doug is an artist, and has an artist’s taste. He has done weaving and glass mosaic work. He loves big projects, something he can get involved in. He loved the yard work, when he could do it, getting the leaves off the driveway and planting flowers. Bill plays the organ, and has professionally for more than 40 years. A 9-foot, 10-rank Flentrop pipe organ custom-made in Holland used to grace the living room. It had to be sold, as they planned to move into the retirement home. After some arguing and pressing, they were able to get in and live in the same room. Bill was an exquisite organist, and one day, before the organ was moved out, he let the air into its pipes and began to fill the afternoon with its hollow moan.


According to Doug and Bill, there were two gay bars in Atlanta in the fifties, when they first moved here. They were raided occasionally. Patrons were arrested. People were fired back then merely on the suspicion of being gay. Bill and Doug were terrified when they were almost outed. A member of Bill’s choir class decided she was in love with him, and to put her off, he told her he was gay, and then, well, she said she wanted both him and Doug. She eventually backed off.


Bill and Doug are religious. At the beginning of their relationship, they told each other they would be religious until religion crapped on them. If religion ever does crap on them, their allegiance is to God, not to a denomination. Being Episcopalian has never crapped on them.

Doug and Bill have wills. Since their marriage is not recognized in Georgia, Doug and Bill have had to plan for what will happen, financially, if one of them were to pass on. If he had been a heterosexual married man, when Doug retired as a University of Georgia professor of pharmacology, he could’ve chosen a payout option that would’ve covered him and his spouse. As a “single” man with a gay partner, which was not recognized, the option was not possible. There was only one option. Take a payout that ends when he dies. Bill and Doug’s financial planning has to deal with what happens if Doug dies first. They have planned for it, but feel crapped upon.


Sex becomes routine. Companionship is everything you do besides sex. Some things Bill and Doug have shared in their 51 years of being companions: movies, books, theater, art, religion, politics, both of them eventually coming to adopt the same opinion on all those. They took care of each other when they were sick. They experienced many things together. Realized they were just one, a being.


They knew from the beginning that marriage in Canada had no legal meaning in Georgia. As far as Bill and Doug were concerned, it was to be a personal reaffirmation of their 50-year commitment to each other. It was a seal on 50 years together. They had tried last year to marry in San Francisco. Like a great number of other same-sex couples, they made plans for the trip there, and had scheduled the wedding at city hall. The state Supreme Court overruled gay marriage six days before they arrived. They had scheduled a celebration at The Palace Hotel. They still went, but without much to celebrate. The waiter brought them desserts with flags sticking out that read: Happy Anniversary!


Love is beautiful. Love is two people who have been together for a very long time ambling into their kitchen which is half-filled with daylight, to make sure the little miniature greyhound resting on the kitchen seat has its food, and their feet in loafers rake slowly over the hardwood floor of a house they’ve shared for 40 years and they have sold the piano and will have to give it up soon but they still have each other. Love is boring. It’s yelling into a deaf ear, as Bill does, yelling at Doug to get the paper, and Doug turns and cups his ear and asks, “What?” Love is simple. They talk about gas mileage on the way to a restaurant, in the car.


Doug and Bill believe that the people who voted for Senate Resolution 595 are sincere in their hearts. They are probably people, they say, who read the Bible literally. People who vote their conscience, they say. Everyone sees the Bible differently. But what does God see?


Two million, three hundred eighty-nine thousand, three hundred forty-four. Seventy-six percent.


Bill and Doug love each other more now than they ever did. Their marriage is not recognized in Georgia.

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