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What is it? An oral history of Izzy, the mascot marketing snafu of Olympic proportions

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

It would be hard to overstate how shocking it was when Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Atlanta? Over Toronto? Athens? Melbourne? The news, which came on a Tuesday in September 1990, sent the city into a frenzy of celebration. But for Billy Payne, who’d run the three-year campaign that led to the announcement, it was just the beginning. Now came the hard part: Finding corporate sponsors, building an 85,000-seat stadium, delegating the thousand and one tasks to ready the city for the world stage. Far down on his list? Designing a mascot in time for the closing ceremonies of the Barcelona Games in 1992, when the Olympic torch would be passed to Atlanta. Payne quickly appointed a “mascot committee,” which created design guidelines and canvassed for submissions. Ten companies proposed a mascot. One was chosen. The winner would live in Olympic infamy.

Bob Cohn, cofounder of public relations agency Cohn & Wolfe, member of Payne’s mascot committee: In Barcelona in 1992, they had a fantastic mascot—Cobi, who was typical of Spanish art and filled with creativity. Mascots were warm and fuzzy symbols: Look at Waldi, the Dachshund, in 1972; Misha, a Russian bear with a big smile, in 1980; Sam the Eagle, a fun-looking tribute to America, in 1984.

Harry Shuman, then director of public information for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, or ACOG: We contacted a number of design companies and asked them to give us a submission. But we were not going to pay them. Some of them wrote us back letters [that essentially said] “The nerve!” or “We’re not doing anything for nothing.”

Ginger Watkins, then ACOG chief of staff who led the mascot committee: Part of the restriction was that it would have to be copyrighted. So it couldn’t be characters that existed in Georgia lore. They had to create a brand-new character.

Shuman: We gave them somewhat specific directions. It had to be just one character. It needed to be unisex. It needed to be noncontroversial. It couldn’t relate to the Civil War or slavery—we weren’t going to have Rhett Butler. So among the submissions was a fox, a gorilla for Willie B. [the famous gorilla at Zoo Atlanta], a peanut called “Peter Peach Nut,” a raccoon, a couple of flames. Somebody sent a tiger. Somebody sent us a deer. The last one to come in was [John Ryan’s] character.

John Ryan, then senior director at DESIGNefx, the animation division of Crawford Communications: The basic job was to design something that would appeal to children and broadly on a world stage. There was a mention of trying to acknowledge regional flair. For me that meant they were going to get designs that were pecans and peanuts and pooches. So I fell back to classic design technique, seeing things from the perspective of an alien who had just landed here. I was a transplant to Atlanta. Reducing the mascot to a possum or pecan or peach representing Atlanta seemed a little silly to me.

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
John Ryan, pictured in 1992 with his original rendering

Photograph by Rich Mahan/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Working from his home office, Ryan settled on a character that was neither human nor animal. It resembled a blue tear, with hands sprouting three fingers and a thumb, lightning eyebrows, and a big, sheepish grin. It wore five Olympic rings—two on its eyes and three on its tail—and oversized sneakers nearly half the size of its body. Ryan named it Hi-Rez.

Bob Brennan, then ACOG spokesperson: Billy Payne wanted to do something modern, reflective of the technological world we lived in.

Billy Payne, then ACOG’s president and CEO: Computer-generated visual effects were virtually taking over the entire entertainment industry. You had movies like Jurassic Park, Total Recall.

Shuman: I received Hi-Rez right at the deadline, a Friday. I had a doctor’s appointment on Monday. While I was out of the office, Billy went through them.

Watkins: The material was laid out, not in a prioritized order; you could see them all on a big conference room table. When Billy looked at that [proposal], he said, “Gee whiz, wow. That’s the way we ought to go. Let’s go with that one.” It was a gut decision.

Payne: As CEO of the Olympic Games, I felt it was both our responsibility and within my authority to make whatever decisions needed to be made. I don’t know how people have characterized how democratic the process was, but when we got to the point of making a decision, everybody knew I was probably going to make the decision.

Shuman: By the time I got back on Monday afternoon, Ginger told me Billy had made his decision. It was Hi-Rez. I did my Macaulay Culkin face [from Home Alone, as if to say], “Oh no, you’ve got to be kidding me!”

Payne: We had so many things to do. Were we raising enough money? Were the stadiums going to be built in time? How are we going to train 50,000 volunteers? All of those had enormously higher importance than the mascot.

Shuman: You didn’t question Billy. He had already done the unthinkable: He had brought the Games to Atlanta when nobody thought there was a chance. Who am I to question his choice?

Payne: The logical question that you would ask on seeing it is “What is it?” I guess we just said, “Well, we should just put it into one word.”

Shuman: The name, Whatizit, was almost worse than the character itself.

Watkins: The name had too many letters. Does it have a space in it? Does it have a question mark at the end of it? Does it all run together? Is it with a z? All of that became a complication.

Ryan: We had to have [final] designs submitted by March [1992], knowing it’d be debuted in August at the Barcelona Games. I had an immediate task of going through all the sports to create poses from javelin to wrestling. There was a period of all-nighters.

Shuman: We were under a really, really tight timetable. It looked more like a worm to me when it was done. Except it was a bit longer and thinner. It really looked funky.

Watkins: Some things that are creatively the right thing to do are not always mechanically easy to do. This was, first and foremost, very difficult to translate into a costume. It had to be nonthreatening; it had to be inviting to kids. In a huge stadium it can’t be little. It had to be wearable by an adult, and it couldn’t just plod along.

Shuman: To generate interest about the mascot, we did these billboards all over town saying, “Whatizit?” We built up this huge anticipation.

Ryan: It was made very clear that if secrecy was violated, Crawford could lose future contracts. It was a scary time. My son saw me work on original designs before the secrecy order was lifted. The billboards had a drape over them, but you see the top of the eyeball and lightning bolt eyebrows. My son was 10, and he said, “Dad, is there something I should know?”

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
Billy Payne fends off Izzy

Photograph courtesy of Harry Shurman

The closing night of the XXV Olympic Games in Barcelona came on August 9, 1992. After Mayor Maynard Jackson accepted the Olympic flag, a troupe of tap dancers took the stage. Meanwhile an amorphous animated character filled the stadium’s video monitors. “If you’re wondering what it is,” said Bob Costas on the telecast, “its name is . . . Whatizit?” Inside the 22-pound costume was Norcross resident Mark Evans, a former University of North Carolina cheerleader, who had to show off Whatizit’s dance moves.

Evans: I took the field with Gregg Burge, the famous New York [tap] dancer. He and another dancer helped guide me to the field. “Watch out for this cable . . .” I couldn’t hear anything but the roar of the crowd. You can’t see your feet, so you go on muscle memory.

Joel Babbit, CEO of the Narrative Content Group, veteran ad exec who worked with Payne to promote the Olympic bid, and City Hall’s first-ever chief marketing and communications officer under Jackson: If Maynard had an opinion, he kept it to himself.

Brennan: My mental image was of some Chinese broadcaster seeing this thing for the first time. “How do you say ‘Whatizit’ in Mandarin?”

Ed Hula, editor and founder of Olympic publication Around the Rings, who was in Barcelona: I just felt at a loss to exactly what we’re seeing. Like, this is it? This?

Julia Emmons, who oversaw the marathon competition at the Olympic Games in Atlanta and was in Barcelona: We were horrified. Completely and totally horrified.

Shuman: Then we come back to Atlanta, and the letters started coming in. I got the letters. They’re complaining: This is terrible.

Hula: I really wasn’t anticipating or expecting the reaction that it got hours, days, weeks, and months afterward. It’s just entertainment. But [ACOG] had a lot riding on the mascot financially from license sales.

Robert Hollander, then ACOG’s vice president of licensing: My heart dropped into my stomach.

Hula: It’s something that’s supposed to evoke an image of Atlanta, the host city, and it really didn’t do that at all.

Payne: What the mascot represents is a drop in the bucket compared to what you want an Olympic Games to say about your community. We didn’t even think we were compelled to do something that would make somebody in Australia say, “That mascot must be from Atlanta, Georgia.” It never crossed our minds.

Michelle Hiskey, an AJC reporter who covered the Olympics: When you think about Atlanta now, you think about winning teams like the Braves in 1995, you think about Outkast, you think about films made here. You didn’t have that yet. Atlanta had been searching for an identity. It was sort of like a bigger Charlotte.

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
R. Land’s Izzy-inspired artwork

Photograph courtesy of R. Land

Ronnie Land, an Atlanta-based artist, better known as R. Land, who has made Izzy-inspired art: This was our “Hey, world, we’re Atlanta” moment. It’s almost like parody of every other mascot that came before it—a generic mascot that’s not anything but everything at the same time.

LaTara Smith (née Bullock), ACOG’s “project coordinator for Izzy appearances” during the Olympics: I’ve heard everything from toothpaste to blue blob. It was something that could not be described in the way of a dog, or a cat, or an eagle like past Olympic mascots. He was just a blue being.

Hiskey: People were going to focus on the crazy blue thing because there wasn’t a lot of other cool stuff here. So it wasn’t helpful to have Izzy.

Bob Hope, president of Atlanta-based public relations firm Hope-Beckham Inc.: I thought [Billy] briefly lost his mind.

Kevin Sack, a New York Times reporter based in Atlanta, wrote in a 1996 story that “[i]t is precisely Izzy’s nothingness that has unwittingly made him an apt symbol for this Olympic city. When officials with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games playfully named the creation Whatizit, it seemingly did not occur to them that the sociologists and scribes of the world would soon be asking the same question about Atlanta.”

Ryan: It was for kids. So it was funny to me that it took that path toward the mean-spirited side. A few folks in the local media immediately latched onto it. Whatizit’s costume made Mike Luckovich’s punchline. I got a good laugh at that. Colin Campbell became obsessed with it.

Colin Campbell, then an AJC columnist: The city, like the Olympics itself, had great resources: good restaurants, the symphony, the Braves. There’s more substance in the town’s history and the civil rights movement—[those are] things of real importance. And it had a lot of other stuff you try to edit out. People were embarrassed [by Whatizit].

Watkins: You did everything you could mentally not to be distracted. But it did, of course, have an effect when you picked up the paper and read an article. You wish people would look at the good stuff instead of focusing on the minutiae and losing the big picture.

Campbell: I suspect I hurt some people’s feelings. But crap is crap.

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
A four-foot Izzy doll from the Atlanta History Center

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Each passing day made the pixel more of a punch line—“blue doofus,” “road kill,” “a genetic experiment gone horribly, ghastly wrong.” Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, slammed it as a “bad marriage of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the ugliest California Raisin.” By spring 1993, less than a year after the mascot’s Barcelona debut, ACOG’s top brass went back to the drawing board for both the name and design. Payne’s staff enlisted an army of marketers, set up nationwide focus groups that included more than 150 children, and landed on a list of five new names. Soon after, 32 Atlanta-area children were chosen for the Kids Advisory Council to pick the name out of 3,300 submissions. ACOG officially retired Whatizit in October 1993.

Watkins: We went to Parade magazine. They ran a whole program on children renaming it. The most submitted name was Kirby. I had no idea why. But Kirby was already trademarked. The second most popular was Izzy. It was Whatizit but shorter. It was easy. No questions of spelling. It worked.

Babbit: I liked the name Izzy. You always think of Izzy as a friendly person who’s always smiling, being affable, a little bit of a personality.

Jacqueline Blum, senior vice president of Film Roman, the animation studio behind The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Garfield and Friends, which produced an Izzy cartoon for TV: Izzy was a character created by committee. So many people had input on what this character should be. There were too many cooks in the kitchen.

Ryan: You got into a scenario where you have multiple art directors and bosses. It was hampered by politics. If the clients think they know your business better than you do, it’s not a good start.

Hope: [Izzy was] like New Coke. You can research something all you want. It can tell you all the things you’d probably like to hear. But it still backfired.

Smith: Izzy developed a nose. Izzy got a little shorter and a little happier—I like to say happier rather than wider—he used to be tall and slim with no nose. But then he developed into a lot more of a character.

Shuman: We had these stars coming out of his tail at one point. It looked like he was farting or something, which is kind of weird.

Ryan: Mention was made that kids are wearing their hats backward, so maybe Izzy should have its shoes on backward. I raised my hand and said, “Maybe not?” They left the shoes the way they are. But I was removed from the process when I tried being the voice of reason.

Watkins: We learned over time how to make the costume better. The costume had to get fuzzier. The costume had to get softer. It couldn’t be tight.

Evans: Children loved the mascot. It got children aware of the Olympic experience and involved with athletics. We did programs where we went to children’s hospitals and special needs events. It was enriching.

Hollander: ACOG’s licensing program [generated] somewhere close to $100 million in royalty revenue from the sale of all Olympic merchandise. I can’t tell you exactly [how much was from Izzy merchandise]. I’d guess probably close to 15 percent. We sold a lot of plush.

Watkins: I’m guessing [the bestselling item] would be the doll that was 12 inches that could be carried under a kid’s arm. They were fuzzy. It could be talked to.

Don Rooney, the Atlanta History Center’s director of exhibitions: Refrigerator magnets. Key rings. Neckties. Tennis rackets. Lounge chair pillows.

Shuman: Billy wanted to market the shoes. Izzy had huge feet. Billy was always looking at a money-making angle, and I thought, “Who’s going to wear shoes that look like that?” That was one of his ideas we never got off the ground.

Blum: It’s not a particularly easy character to animate. We produced a pretty significant animation at our expense—hundreds of thousands of dollars—for a half-hour special.

Hollander: Our broadcast partner, NBC, had gotten out of the children’s program business. They didn’t want anything to do with it. I went to Turner in Atlanta and said, “We’ll just give you this program if you will air it for us.” It aired two times, possibly three, [on TNT] before the Games. Basically they just did us a favor.

Watkins: They created an Izzy balloon that flew in New York City in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy merchandise
Just few of the Izzy items hidden away at the Atlanta History Center. Check out this article for more unusual merch.

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Closer to the Olympics, ACOG decided it needed more Izzy mascots. Evans helped create a mascot program that recruited volunteers through auditions.

Smith: By the time the Olympics came around, we had upwards of 20 Izzys that could be in different places at one time.

Kira Wilsterman, a Decatur teacher who became an Izzy volunteer: Izzy came to our school to get the kids pumped up. I asked [Izzy], “How does one become the mascot?” They were having tryouts the next weekend. There were hundreds of us.

Evans: We worked with performers to [standardize] the mannerisms. We wanted to make sure all performers presented the same character. Don’t exclude children. Let children approach you versus approaching them. Don’t want to scare children.

Adam Jay, then a high school student who volunteered to be Izzy: We were given a sheet about who Izzy was. There were things Izzy could do and couldn’t do. For example, Izzy loved everyone, so whether it was a critic or a fan, you didn’t show any negative emotion. You had to know the sponsors: He could hang out with Coca-Cola products but not hang out with Pepsi products.

Wilsterman: We had to put on the gloves and the feet. Izzy had a size 22 sneaker, so you had to fit your shoe inside Izzy’s shoe, inside another little pocket, and be able to walk around in his big feet. After that they had us put on the costume for the full-fledged audition. It was big and heavy and very hot.

Jay: You entered through the top of his mouth. You needed two people to take off the costume because his eyes snap to his body.

Smith: A lot of children thought it would be fun to swing on the tail. When that happened, the costume sat on your shoulders, and you could throw your back out.

Evans: The lighting bolt eyebrows and rings on the tail were prime targets for being pulled, punched, or ripped off for a souvenir.

Smith: Handlers began watching the perimeter. Izzy could only see a certain distance.

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
“Animating” Izzy in 1992

Photograph courtesy of Harry Shuman

On the night of July 19, 1996, 83,000 people headed to Summerhill for the opening ceremony at what would eventually become Turner Field. Gladys Knight sang “Georgia on My Mind,” Chevrolet pickup trucks circled the cheerleaders in the showcase, and Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch. Izzy was out of sight. When a reporter asked about the mascot’s whereabouts, Smith replied: “We were told that Izzy didn’t have a role in the opening ceremony. We’re all sorry about that because we knew so many kids who wanted to see him.” Two days later the Associated Press wrote: “Was he run over by one of the pickups and left for roadkill outside the stadium? Is he still waiting for a shuttle bus? Was he held hostage by Gumby?” Soon enough, though, Izzy was back on the streets.

Smith: We took over one of the Olympic headquarters offices. We had calendars on the wall that showed where each Izzy would be every day. You would check in, get your costume, and go out.

Wilsterman: Sometimes it was on the field or in the venue. Other times it would be outside as a crowd-pleaser.

Jay: We were instructed to wear the Izzy costume 30 minutes on, 30 minutes off, because you would sweat.

Wilsterman: There were two fans at the top of Izzy’s head [inside the costume]. We were lucky if one even worked.

Jay: I remember having a headset so if I needed to get out of the costume. I was able to whisper into a little microphone that went into the escort’s ear.

Smith: Izzy didn’t talk. There was always a person there [helping] Izzy if he had to sit down or got dizzy or overheated.

Jay: We did have to scale back appearances dramatically once the bomb happened. You wouldn’t go to Centennial Park and see Izzy. It was a safety issue. There were rumors, threats; you didn’t know what was true. Izzy didn’t do public appearances—only [ones for] ticketed sponsors.

Brennan: I don’t think Izzy showed up at the closing ceremony.

Jay: When the flame went out, so did Izzy. He was extinguished with the flame.

Rooney: We did an exhibition on the first anniversary of the Games. The question came up: Can someone dress up in the Izzy costume to greet visitors in the Atlanta History Center? We were told Olympic mascots do not live on after their time. They don’t come to life again.

1996 Atlanta Olympics Izzy
LaTara Smith with Izzy

Photograph courtesy of LaTara Smith

Smith: I still have one of the Izzy costumes. The rest of the costumes went into a black hole somewhere. No one is supposed to have one—except for me.

Payne: People didn’t like it. But we sold a lot of merchandise, held a privately funded Games; we actually made money, which we gave back to the community. So I guess it did okay.

Watkins: It was not a mistake. Did we create issues for ourselves by not getting the first costume right? Yes. We got it right later on. Billy’s vision of what it could be was definitely not a mistake. I never lost my enthusiasm for Izzy. If you questioned it, all you had to do was look at Izzy next to a child. They loved it. You felt it.

Smith: We were able to be goodwill ambassadors for the Olympics. Was it the greatest experience of my life? I would say it was the most unique experience of my life.

Evans: I do appreciate the originality and willingness to do something different. I do think it was a missed opportunity to do something more representative of Atlanta.

Land: Atlanta tries so hard to be what we think the world wants to view us as. Izzy was so squeaky clean and so safe for a soulful and funky metropolis in the down and dirty South.

Shuman: Izzy was kind of like Colony Square—a little bit before his time. On the other hand, he’s also like Jimmy Carter. He’s much more beloved now, in his retirement, than he was during his tenure.

Smith: It would’ve been easier to have a phoenix.

Campbell: It boggled the mind. It was silly. It was pointless. It was tacky. It was kitsch. It didn’t say anything. It was cutesy. It was unrelated to the city.

Babbit: It doesn’t matter what it was. Whatever the mascot, there would’ve been a huge number of people making fun of it.

Hope: Billy did a lot of things great. The logo for the Olympics was spectacular. Two things weren’t: the Olympic cauldron, which looked like a McDonald’s french fry holder, and Izzy. It was bizarre. It was a Smurf.

Cohn: It doesn’t take away from the magnificence of Atlanta. There were things that really did matter. That picture of the coach holding Kerri Strug in his arms, if you saw that image today, it would mean something. An image of Izzy? I don’t think it would register.

Shuman: Usually everything Billy touched turned to gold. This might have been his one mistake.

This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.

Winning gold and chauffeuring Ali: Memories of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics

1996 Atlanta Olympics Opening Ceremony
Performers form the Olympic rings during the opening ceremony at Olympic Stadium, now Turner Field.

Photograph by David Taylor/Getty Images

Opening ceremony
“I performed with the ASO chorus. First we did the national anthem at one end of the stadium. The second it ended, half of us had to sprint—in polyester robes in Atlanta summer heat—to the other end and run up the stairs to the top, where we spread out along the rim and sang another song. Once that ended, we were supposed to sprint back to our original location. I always thought we deserved Olympic medals for choral athleticism!”
Carol Wyatt, executive assistant at the Gail

Keeping the beat
“I was one of 100 drummers in the opening number of the Opening Ceremony, ‘A Call to the Nations.’ Kenny Ortega managed the event. The day of the ceremony, both Mickey [Hart, who cowrote the song] and Kenny joined us in a prayer circle before we went out on the field. I remember the moment before stepping out on the field, realizing that there may have been 86,000 present in the stadium, but many millions were watching around the world.”—Sherry Wheat, Atlanta

1996 Olympics Gail Devers
Gail Devers (center) with her gold medal at the 1996 Olympics.

Photograph by Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

Photo finish
“Getting the gold medal in the 100 meters at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 was my biggest achievement because just months earlier I had come back from Graves’ disease. I didn’t know if I’d be able to walk again, let alone run. Four years later I knew the race would be close. When my name came up as the winner, I was like, ‘Thank you, God.’ And thankful that I had a big head that helped me win at the line!”
Gail Devers, gold medalist in the 100 meters and 100-meter relay, now an entrepreneur and mom in Buford

1996 Olympics pin
Izzy pin from the Atlanta History Center

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Collect them all
“At Underground you could buy pins at the Olympic Experience store. One of my neighbors worked there, and one day she called me and said, ‘You better come down here. We just opened up a box of something. I’ve got a funny feeling they’re going to go fast.’ A box of these pewter Whatizit pins was there. [But] they were supposed to go to Billy Payne’s office. Number­ed one of 96, two of 96. So she said, ‘Look, I can let you buy two of them because we want to spread them out. We don’t want anybody to buy them all and hoard them.’ I said, ‘Sure, great.’ Billy [Payne] never got them.”
—Bill Gornto, Olympic pin collector, owner of Twist ’n Scoot

Family bonding
“I had just graduated high school and had a real chip on my shoulder. My mom went to visit my sister in Colorado that summer, so it was just me and my dad at home. He worked for the Georgia Army National Guard and got passes to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Begrudgingly I agreed to go with him. But once I saw the torch lighting and realized what a moment in time I was witnessing, that wall I had put up crumbled. The bonding experience with my dad was something special he shared with me only. It was the beginning of a more adult father-daughter relationship that flourished until he died in 2004.”
—Leslieann O’Neal, Douglassville

1996 Olympics memories High Museum
Photograph courtesy of the High Museum of Art

Global relations
“The High assembled artworks from 29 different countries for the exhibition Rings: Five Passions in World Art. Couriers accompanied the loans and supervised installation of each object. We had such a wild variety of languages, personalities, and customs, but when it came to working in the galleries, we all understood each other and what needed to be done.”
—Frances Francis, senior registrar of the High Museum of Art

“My father and I went to the Opening Ceremony, and I vividly remember the excitement of finally seeing the completed stadium. I wasn’t very experienced with a camera, but my dad lent me his Yashica 35mm, and I documented what I could. Recently I visited Turner Field to get one more photo of the changes to the skyline—and to sit in the same seat as I did 20 years before beside my dad.”
—Dustin Grau, Duluth

The torch run
“When the Olympic torch run came through Atlanta, my mom and siblings drove up to watch. After one of the runners passed on the flame, he walked up to our car and said hello. He let me touch the torch and told me about where the run was going. My mom told me after the exchange that touching the torch would give me luck. It’s a moment that has always stuck with me.”
—Michele Baker, Atlanta

1996 Olympic bombing
Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Fighting fear
During the Olympics, I worked at a recruiting firm. Everyone was caught up in the spirit of the Games, and I wanted to be involved, so I worked nights in a Swatch kiosk selling watches. I was in the park the night of the bombing. It was very festive, a lot of camaraderie. Afterwards there was fear in the back of your mind. I was 26 at the time. I had tickets to the track and field finals, really fantastic seats, and I went. At that age, I was not as afraid of things. Now? Oh no, I would’ve never gone back there.”
—Nancy Geery, from our 2011 oral history of the Olympic Park bombing

1996 Olympics Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali at the 1996 Olympics

Photograph by Michael Cooper/Allsport via Getty Images

Guarding Ali
“For a week I was the only state trooper assigned to Muhammad Ali. When we got to the Olympic Stadium the afternoon [of the opening ceremony], I cracked my black Suburban’s window down, and there was that chant: Ali! Ali! Ali! I thought we were going to get mobbed.

My job was to stay with him until he lit the Olympic torch. With the Parkinson’s disease he had, I told [the officials], “I ain’t sure he can hold that [torch].” But they said, “Give him a shot.” I was about 10 feet away from him because, if something happened, I was on top of it to make sure it was lit. But he knew what he had to do. It was unbelievable. I worked so many details over 31 years. This Olympic detail with Muhammad Ali is tops. It’s history. My grandkids can someday go back and look at it.”
—Johnnie B. Hall, retired state trooper

Celebrity sighting
“My friend, a television executive, had some prime seats for all of the events and asked me if I wanted to attend any of them. My wife suggested I take my mom. But a couple of days before [the events], the bombing happened. I was sure that my mom wouldn’t go now. But when I called her, she said, ‘Nothing is going to stop us!’ So off we went to women’s basketball, diving, and track and field, where we sat in front of Bob Dole, who was running for president.”—Eugene White, Mountain Park

1996 Olympics Teresa Edwards
Teresa Edwards during the 1996 Olympics

Photograph by Jed Jacobsohn/Staff via Getty Images

A birthday to remember
“I was elected to read the athlete’s oath at the Opening Ceremony, which happened to be on my birthday. I spent that morning with President Clinton, following him and his family around Atlanta. Bill was really cool. I just tried to keep up with him and not get in the Secret Service’s way. That night I remember Muhammad Ali entering the stadium. The thrill, oh my God! Then I had to deliver my speech, so I had to get my composure back. I was so proud to represent my sport. Those Olympics were a game changer for women’s basketball and helped pave the way for the WNBA. We knew what was at stake.”
—Teresa Edwards, gold medalist in women’s basketball, now assistant coach for the Atlanta Dream

1996 Olympics MARTA
Crowds at Peachtree Center station

Photograph by AP Photo/Tannen Maury

MARTA’s big moment
“I signed up through AmeriCorps to be an Olympic Ambassador. Part of it included working security at the Olympic Village at Georgia Tech. I still have my pith helmet, which made it look like you’re going on a safari. Every day I’d head toward downtown. We kept getting the message: Take MARTA. Take MARTA. You would step on the platform. It was packed. The train would arrive. It was packed. Everyone felt like riding MARTA was part of our civic duty. I’ve never seen it busier.”
—Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition

Before there was Uber
“I was a volunteer driver during the Games, [and] my motor pool site was near the Marriott Marquis, which was the official Olympic hotel. You never knew who you were going to get. I drove members of the Puerto Rican sports federation to Gainesville for rowing, the head of the anti-doping committee’s family to Stone Mountain for tennis, and a top official of the International Olympic Committee. I took two brothers who headed Tonga’s sports federation on a tour of the city and ordered them fried green tomatoes at lunch.”
—Harvey Newman, professor emeritus at Georgia State University

Open road
“I flew out of Hartsfield the morning after the opening ceremony. For months everyone had been told to stay off the roads. I’ve never sailed down the Connector as easily. At least in my memory, there may have been only one or two other cars on the entire stretch.”
—Kyle Kessler, architect and community program manager for the Center for Civic Innovation

1996 Olympics Shannon Miller
Shannon Miller during the women’s team gymnastics competition at the Georgia Dome.

Photograph by Doug Pensinger/Allsport via Getty Images

Winning gold
“During the gymnastics team finals, I remember walking into the Georgia Dome, with 40,000 screaming spectators. The applause was deafening, and there were flashbulbs going off like the Fourth of July. It was just a sea of red, white, and blue. I knew that night was going to be magical. Receiving that gold medal was amazing. There’s nothing like standing up there on the platform in your uniform and seeing the American flag being raised.”
—Shannon Miller, gold medalist in balance beam and team gymnastics, now an entrepreneur and childhood obesity advocate

1996 Olympics
Wuellner with Katie Couric

Photograph courtesy of Noah Wuellner

Cutting the cord
“I worked for the Today show during the Olympics. One of the rare items at that time was a mobile telephone. NBC entrusted me with one, but it was the now relic ‘bag phone,’ which resembled a purse. Having to tote it through all the security checkpoints made me the focus of great ridicule by the security officers—that is until the bag was opened for further inspection, when a look of amazement swept over their faces. All the jeering was followed by 10 to 20 minutes of show and tell.”
—Noah Wuellner, Atlanta

A whole new ball game
“We drove from Norcross to the Chamblee MARTA station and rode downtown, where we got tickets off a guy in the street. They happened to be for the semifinal Ping-Pong match. My dad was definitely a fan. Growing up, he made my siblings and me learn how to play. Stereotypically China was in the match; I can’t remember the other team. The players were intense. They’re so good, so each round lasts forever; the match went for maybe a couple hours. Like any seventh grader, [I got] bored. I was like, ‘Dad, why do we have to watch Ping-Pong?’ In hindsight it was cool.”
—Amy Phuong, Atlanta parks and recreation commissioner

Fortunate friends
“Prior to the Olympics, I had a pen pal in the Maldives. I got a call a couple of days before to the start of the games from a coach on their team, who had a letter from my pen pal to deliver personally. I asked if there was anything I could do to help the team, and they asked if I could host two Maldivian teenagers who were traveling to attend an Olympic Youth Camp at Berry College. In exchange we asked if they could get us into the Olympic Village. We were able to make it in with Maldivian credentials and by luck met Muhammad Ali.”
—Ralph Parker, Marietta

1996 Olympics Billy Payne
Billy Payne

Photograph by Matthew Stockman/ALLSPORT via Getty Images

Merchandise mania
“[ACOG] sold a lot of merchandise to privately fund [the Games], and we actually made money—which we gave back to the community—so I guess it did okay.”
—Billy Payne, head of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG)

1996 Olympics club
The official Olympic Games club

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Product placement
“People would send bizarre ideas for products they wanted us to license. Someone sent a refrigerated container that held your lipstick, so it wouldn’t melt at the Games, since it was really hot in Atlanta. There was another container that held your cigarettes. It had a time lock that opened [only] every four hours to help you stop smoking. That didn’t make the cut. Remember the vuvuzelas in the World Cup? We had tons of those presented to us. We passed.”
—Robert Hollander, ACOG’s vice president of licensing, who was responsible for approving official merchandise

Home field advantage
“Everything was within a three-mile radius: my home in Midtown, the stadium, and Georgia Tech, where I went to school. It was incredible to be in the middle of the city as it was being built up. I would drive by the stadium while it was being constructed, and that was motivation, knowing that one day soon I could be running in front of 80,000 people. I saw it like I had a home field advantage. After I won, I didn’t know how to act. It was the first time in my life that I crossed the finish line and still felt nervous, like I couldn’t believe I was actually Olympic champion. You’re not supposed to feel nervous once you cross the line. The race is over.”
—Derrick Adkins, gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, now a motivational speaker in New York and Atlanta

Electricity in the air
Competing in front of such a large crowd in Barcelona [in 1992] was a great experience, but to swim in front of your home crowd was incredible. The energy in the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center was electric and something I will never forget.
—Joe Hudepohl, gold medalist in the 4X200 meter freestyle relay, now an investment portfolio manager in Atlanta

1996 Olympics Kim Batten
Kim Batten

Photograph by Mike Powell/ALLSPORT via Getty Images

A single regret
“I’d gotten injured a little before the start of the Olympics, and I was a wreck. No one really knew except those in my circle. Because I was being so careful, I didn’t go to the opening ceremony. Later I really wished I’d gone. Even with winning silver and not gold,
I have no regrets except for that.”
—Kim Batten, Silver medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, now a graduate student and owner of a sports performance company in Atlanta

1996 Olympics Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton
The Clintons attend the games.

Photograph by Simon Bruty/Allsport via Getty Images

Performing for the Prez
“I’d just moved back from Asia and scored some pretty good gigs for the Olympics. Then I got a call from producer Horace Jones, who was in charge of a gala event at Symphony Hall on the day of the opening ceremony. The week prior I was asked for my ID and had to fill out some forms. It was one of the first gigs where I got searched. Our arts ensemble was a piece of a bigger production, so our time was short, less than three minutes. When we rose from orchestra pit, the first set of eyes I came upon was Bill Clinton and then Andy Young. I didn’t realize until I got home that I forgot my ID. It was a real special moment: You played for the president, you played the shortest gig of your life, and you didn’t get arrested without your ID.”
—Omar Phillips, tour drummer for Outkast

1996 Olympics
Denker’s badge

Photograph courtesy of Steve Denker

Game changer
“In 1993 I was graduating from Hofstra University and received a job offer from Aramark, which was involved in servicing the new Olympic Stadium. The opportunity to be part of the Games was overwhelming. (Also I had heard that the girl-to-guy ratio in Atlanta at the time was 16-1, and as a marketing analytics guy, those are odds you take.) That summer I watched as the stadium rose out of the ground. We had meetings to discuss progress updates, crowd logistics, security, event delay scenarios. But as the Games began, I realized that the flavor of the Atlanta Olympics wasn’t in the venues; it was outside in the Village and in the bars.”
—Steve Denker, Smyrna

Seizing opportunity
“While the athletes were parading around the perimeter of the field during the Opening Ceremony, the orchestra was taking a break, and a few of us slithered into the bowels of the stadium so not to miss a minute of the procession. We stood as close to the edge as we could to watch all the wonderful people go by. The athletes began to slow down to ask us to take their pictures, which we gladly did in return for a few Olympic pins and many grateful smiles and greetings. This was the highlight of the day until we were told to stop because we were slowing down the whole ceremony.”
—Ronda Respess, violinist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Meeting the stars
“I had been an Olympic fanatic since I was little, so when the games came to Atlanta, I knew I had to be a part of it. When hiring began, I went and told them that I didn’t care what I did, but it had to be in the Olympic Village. I ended up getting a job with Wolf Camera in the village, where I met Katie Couric, Al Roker, Maynard Jackson, Newt Gingrich, Muhammad Ali, and lots of athletes. I was even on TV when Al did the weather one day.”
—Kathy McDonough, Peachtree Corners

This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.

Atlanta Must Reads for the Week: Gas station grub, an infamous pedophile, and Latin night at the queer club


Charles Bethea for the New Yorker on race and radicalism in Hillary Clinton’s college years

Bethea, an Atlanta-based contributor to the New Yorker (and Atlanta magazine), talks to some of Clinton’s old African-American classmates at Wellesley College about the presumptive presidential nominee’s evolution from Goldwater Republican to stalwart Democrat:

In her memoir “Living History,” from 2003, Clinton acknowledges that, before Wellesley, “the only African-Americans I knew were the people my parents employed in my father’s business and in our home.” She went on, “I had not had a black friend, neighbor or classmate until I went to college. Karen Williamson, a lively, independent-minded student, became one of my first friends there.” Now a health-care consultant and, until last summer, the president of the Wellesley College Alumnae Association, Williamson remembers “clowning around in the dorm” and once attending a white church with Clinton. “She was somebody who was clearly smart,” Williamson said. “And, over the course of her years at Wellesley, she became more exceptional. But during our freshmen year she was just somebody who was a friendly, fun person.” Gist agreed: “She was and is warm, empathetic, and funny. The disconnect between that person and how she appears and is portrayed has always puzzled me.”

As has been widely reported, Clinton arrived at Wellesley College as a Republican “Goldwater girl,” influenced by her father’s conservative politics. She joined—and soon led—the school’s Young Republican chapter her freshman year. “I didn’t see her as a Goldwater girl, per se,” Francille Rusan Wilson, a professor in the departments of history and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, said. “She was a moderate person. As time went on, she wasn’t one of the more vociferous women’s-lib or anti-war women. She was not the leader of most campus protests, or the forward edge of radical change. But she was part of the consensus that helped bring things to a conclusion.”

Read: Race, Activism, and Hillary Clinton at Wellesley

The Georgia News Lab on why local judges haven’t followed Georgia’s ethics laws

What happens when a group of college journalists grab hold of Georgia’s ethics laws? For 50 elected judges in metro Atlanta, it was a rude awakening to hear they hadn’t filed personal financial disclosures or paid subsequent late fees. In partnership with the AJC and WSB-TV, the students of the Georgia News Lab proved to judges that ignorance of the law is, in fact, no excuse:

Some judges seemed surprised and even exasperated when told by student journalists they hadn’t followed disclosure laws. “You’re saying I’ve been fined?” Judge Tom Davis asked in a phone interview. Davis, a Superior Court judge in Gwinnett County, has been on the court since 2006. He had never filed a personal financial disclosure report, and had racked up $500 in late fees for overdue reports.

The day after a reporter spoke with him in April, he started to get his filings in order. Over the course of several days, he filed years of reports, from 2006 to 2014. In a first, he also filed a personal financial disclosure on time—his 2015 report. Judge Davis acknowledged the breakdown was his fault. “I blame that on no one else,” he said.

All told, the 50 Superior Court judges reviewed were assessed at least $13,500 in late fees over the past five years. Some swiftly settled their debts as word of the news investigation spread through local courthouses, but a few still haven’t paid up. In March, roughly $4,750 was unpaid and by June 9 five judges still owed $2,125.

“I’m just dumbfounded,” said DeKalb Superior Court Judge Clarence F. Seeliger. “I think when the attention’s brought to them, they ought to be paying as soon as possible. That’s part of our responsibilities as judges.”

Read: Many Atlanta judges flout state ethics laws—and don’t pay their fines

Robert Booth for The Guardian on one of the world’s worst pedophiles

For more than four decades, William James Vahey drugged and abused his students at schools across the globe without retribution. It was only after the feds closed in on him two years ago that, shortly after passing through Atlanta’s airport, he committed suicide. Booth takes us into the world of one the worst pedophiles ever:

It was not yet clear whether the material on the flashdrive had been created by Vahey or simply obtained from the internet. “There was no arrest warrant or search warrant for his residence because these cases take a while,” FBI special agent Carlos Barrón told a reporter from Univision, a Spanish-language TV station based in the US.

From Atlanta, Vahey could have gone to the family beach house at Hilton Head Island, a picturesque stretch of Atlantic coastline in South Carolina. Vahey shared the house with his wife Jean, with whom he had two children, and who was at that time working in London as the head of the European Council of International Schools. Instead, he headed north to Minnesota, where his mother was staying in a nursing home.

The morning after Vahey had checked in, the front-desk manager at the Quality Inn could get no response from Vahey’s room. He went to the door and opened it with a master key. Vahey lay dead in the bath, stiff from rigor mortis, his torso smeared with blood. On the floor lay an eight-inch kitchen knife. Bottles of medicine were scattered across the room, along with a suicide note to his family.

The Rock County deputy coroner, Dr Richard Morgan, recorded that there was no sign of struggle. Morgan pushed his finger easily into a deep wound in Vahey’s chest and concluded: “cause of death: self-inflicted knife wound to the chest”. Vahey’s short torment since being exposed was over. That of his victims, their families, his colleagues and superiors around the globe, was about to begin.

Read: How did one of the worst paedophiles in history get away with his crimes?

Muriel Vega for Thrillist on her love of gas station grub

Vega, an Atlanta-based writer (and Atlanta magazine contributor), opines on the surprisingly delicious gas station food our city has to offer:

I’m unsure of the exact moment when I fell in love with gas station food. Was it the time I tried the Krispy Krunchy Chicken at the station on Moreland? Maybe it was when I walked out of the Clermont Lounge at 1am and handed the man standing by a smoker a $10 bill in exchange for the biggest BBQ sandwich I’ve ever seen. Whenever it was, it wasn’t love at first sight. But the spark had been struck. And that spark would ignite a bonfire.

But allow me to backtrack a bit. I’ll admit that eating gas station food is not for the weak-willed or faint of stomach. The first time I tried the fried chicken at the Exxon, I was nervous, hungry, and could feel the gaze of the cashier silently judging my seemingly odd choice. The gas station had always been within walking distance of my house, but aside from the occasional tank of gas, I never thought to pick up my actual dinner from there.

And then I did. And the more I went, the more I enjoyed the crispy dark meat accompanied by a flaky honey biscuit. A few weeks later, I visited a hot chicken pop-up in Candler Park, where the chef validated my palate by telling me that the Exxon I was frequenting was one of his favorite chicken joints. I knew I was onto something.

Read: An Ode to Atlanta’s Forgotten Food: The Gas Station Market

Justin Torres for the Washington Post in praise of Latin night at the queer club

In the wake of the Orlando massacre, there’s been an incredible amount of incredible reporting about the nation’s deadliest attack since 9/11. That includes reporters in Orlando (The Sentinel’s coverage) and Atlanta (“Atlantans reflect on 1997 bombing following Orlando gay club massacre“). Here, Torres pens a beautiful essay on the sanctity of clubs for the LGBT community:

People talk about liberation as if it’s some kind of permanent state, as if you get liberated and that’s it, you get some rights and that’s it, you get some acknowledgment and that’s it, happy now? But you’re going back down into the muck of it every day; this world constricts. You know what the opposite of Latin Night at the Queer Club is? Another Day in Straight White America. So when you walk into the club, if you’re lucky, it feels expansive. “Safe space” is a cliche, overused and exhausted in our discourse, but the fact remains that a sense of safety transforms the body, transforms the spirit. So many of us walk through the world without it. So when you walk through the door and it’s a salsa beat, and brown bodies, queer bodies, all writhing in some fake smoke and strobing lights, no matter how cool, how detached, how over-it you think you are, Latin Night at the Queer Club breaks your cool. You can’t help but smile, this is for you, for us.

Outside, tomorrow, hangovers, regrets, the grind. Outside, tomorrow, the struggle to effect change. But inside, tonight, none of that matters. Inside, tonight, the only imperative is to love. Lap the bar, out for a smoke, back inside, the ammonia and sweat and the floor slightly tacky, another drink, the imperative is to get loose, get down, find religion, lose it, find your hips locked into another’s, break, dance on your own for a while—but you didn’t come here to be a nun—find your lips pressed against another’s, break, find your friends, dance. The only imperative is to be transformed, transfigured in the disco light. To lighten, loosen, see yourself reflected in the beauty of others. You didn’t come here to be a martyr, you came to live, papi. To live, mamacita. To live, hijos. To live, mariposas.

Read: In praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club

After a year on the campaign trail, Donald Trump’s song remains the same


On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump stood in the Trump Tower and declared that the American dream was dead. “I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again,” he pledged.

In the year since Trump announced his presidential candidacy, a lot has changed. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who led the polls the day Trump joined the race, fizzled fast. Jeb Bush, the GOP establishment’s pick, failed to fulfill his family’s legacy. In total, more than a dozen Republicans of all stripes—Bobby Jindal to Marco Rubio; Ben Carson to Chris Christie; Carly Fiorina to Ted Cruz—were slowly devoured by the Trump leviathan.

The boisterous billionaire has vowed to resuscitate a struggling nation, all the while neglecting to provide any details on how this revival will occur. And he’s continued to stoke xenophobia, race-bait, and vilify the press. If his latest stop to Atlanta—six weeks after becoming the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee—is any indication, he won’t be wavering from that message as heads to the Republican National Convention next month.

Three days after 49 people were killed in an Orlando LGBT nightclub, the country’s deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11, Trump yesterday used the massacre to talk about why he’d be fit to become the nation’s next commander-in-chief. After a private fundraiser at Charlie Loudermilk’s Buckhead home, which was co-hosted by Gov. Nathan Deal and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, the presidential candidate was introduced at the Fox Theatre by the likes of Ralph Reed and Herman Cain—the latter calling him a “shucky ducky kind of candidate.” Right before 1 p.m., Trump walked onstage with none other than Vince Dooley. The legendary University of Georgia football coach offered a hearty endorsement of the Republican only to be drowned out by loud barks from those packed inside the Fox Theatre.

“Great guy, great guy,” said Trump, backed by U.S. and Georgia flags, before striking a more serious tone. “So, the world changing rapidly, it’s a lot different, it’s not a pretty picture…”

An ardent Donald Trump fan
An ardent Donald Trump fan

Max Blau

Before diving into his routine spiel—the one you’ve heard a hundred times before, with the walls and the winning—he called the Orlando shooting a “horrible, horrible” event that took the lives of “incredible people.” By incredible people, Trump meant gay people, who he claimed were “so much in favor of what I’m saying” in regards to making the country safer. What Trump was saying, though, had to do with keeping out “radical Islamic terrorists” who “want to destroy us”—doubling down on recent anti-immigration rhetoric. However, he didn’t offer an actual solution, simply proposing that, in addition to a temporary ban on Muslims, the U.S. should establish “safe zones” in countries like Syria that are paid for by those nations.

“It’s humanity!” Trump said. “We have so many problems here. But we build safe zones there, and now, we have to get the Gulf States to pay for it. They have tremendous amounts of money, they’re not doing much, and it’s their territory. We have to get them to pay for it.”

Later on, he vowed to “save the Second Amendment” and went so far as to claim stronger laws would have saved the lives of some victims in the nightclub shooting. How, exactly? With fewer restrictions, he explained, club goers could have strapped more firearms on their waists or ankles to defend themselves. More guns, less carnage, he reasoned. The crowd roared its approval.

He then rambled some more, mostly about the declining state of America—a nation getting shafted in trade deals, a economy losing jobs, workers making less money than two decades ago—and pledged his presidency would reverse that trend. Those criticisms devolved into personal mockery—like when he made fun of the tone of CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer’s voice—that were only matched by insinuations that a “crooked” Hillary Clinton “will basically do whatever Obama wants her to do” in order to avoid prosecution for deleting personal emails related to the 2012 Benghazi attacks.

Protesters get arrested outside the Trump rally at the Fox Theatre
Protesters get arrested outside the Trump rally at the Fox Theatre

Max Blau

As at other Trump speeches, protesters inside the Fox made sure to disrupt the rally nearly half a dozen times. Outside the venue, five more protesters were also arrested in the middle of Peachtree Street for disorderly conduct. Hours before the paddy wagon arrived, a few of Georgia’s state Democratic officials, including Sen. Nan Orrock, blasted Trump—the man vowing to “make American great again”—for acting downright “un-American” by spreading hate through his speeches.

“We know the nation’s not going to fall for it,” Orrock said.

After a year of the Trump campaign, the GOP’s presumptive nominee is facing record lows in the polls: one from Bloomberg Politics had him down 12-percentage points, one from NBC News had him down seven points, and one from the Washington Post and ABC News found that 70 percent of Americans view Trump negatively. In Atlanta, Trump responded with a tactic as old as his campaign: he called the numbers “phony.” Whatever the numbers, he said, he vowed to press on, unfazed by the facts.

“We’ve been the dummies for too long,” Trump said. “We have to be the smart country. We have to be the brilliant country.”

Below are some photos from inside and outside the Trump rally held at the Fox Theatre.

How a Georgia Tech professor created a robotic drumming arm

Gil Weinberg
Gil Weinberg

Photograph by Josh Meister

A few years ago, Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg heard from local drummer Jason Barnes, who had lost his right arm after being electrocuted but wanted to play drums again. So Weinberg’s team built a prosthesis that could hold not just one drumstick but two. Afterward Barnes became an overnight sensation as one of the world’s fastest drummers. Weinberg then wondered, “Why not everyone?” Enter the brand-new “smart” arm, a two-foot-long artificial appendage that attaches to a drummer’s shoulder. Drum machine, meet your match.

Weinberg’s team wrote a code to process what the robotic arm senses. A series of algorithms controls where it moves, how fast it plays, and when it reacts to the drummer.

Lend a hand
Based on a drummer’s movements, the robotic arm can play different parts of the kit. Focused on the hi-hat? It’ll play the ride cymbal. Playing the high tom? It’ll cover the floor tom.

With feeling
Says Weinberg, “I hope robots will actually help humans create new kinds of music that makes you cry, laugh, or send shivers down your spine.”

Double time
The third arm isn’t just smart; it’s fast. The world record speed is 1,208 strokes per minute. The new arm can sustain close to that speed for as many encores as needed.

Through an algorithm, the robot listens to what the drummer is playing and responds accordingly. “If you play a sophisticated rhythm, it can answer you,” Weinberg says.

What’s next?
Weinberg wants the arm to react to a drummer’s thoughts. His team is now researching how to make the robotic limb respond to a percussionist’s brainwaves through an electroencephalogram (EEG) headband.

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

Atlanta Must Reads for the Week: Grady’s mental health crisis, Chick-fil-A’s wildly popular app, and an ex-NFLer turned Carter Center intern


Mike King for Creative Loafing on Grady’s mental health crisis

King, a longtime journalist, has spent decades reporting on the plight on public hospitals. In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, A Spirit of Charity, he describes the stark state of Georgia’s broken mental-health system and the burden it places on hospitals like Grady:

If there is one medical condition where public health policy has failed the poor and uninsured most, it is in mental health care. Despite numerous scandals and journalistic investigations over the years, public officials have rarely put forth efforts to comprehensively deal with it. Think of the last time a political campaign—any political campaign at any level—had a platform promising to fix mental health financing or services for the poor.

What little progress that has been made on the subject has been to de-stigmatize chronic depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, addiction, substance abuse, and other conditions as something more than just bad behavior. But “mainstreaming” those disorders has largely been limited to patients who voluntarily submit to treatment and are covered by insurance when they need it. Underlining the point, in the 1980s and 1990s, as mental-health advocates began to make headway in demanding insurance companies cover psychiatric conditions the same way they cover other health issues, there was a surge in for-profit and private psychiatric hospitals opening to accommodate the demand.

Usually covered treatment began with a hospital stay to reestablish a medication regimen, followed by outpatient visits for psychotherapy, counseling, and medication compliance. How long the hospital stay was and how long outpatient care lasted depended largely on what was allowed under the patient’s benefit plan. This is still largely the model used today for insured patients who need help coping with their illness. But for the poor and uninsured, it is a much different world.

Read: Georgia’s Broken Mental-Health System

Tyler Estep for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on a Georgia mother’s response to gun violence

Estep profiles a Grayson mother who lost her 14-year-old son in a horrific armed robbery in 2012. Four years later, she’s turned her anger into action as a gun control advocate:

“I never imagined it would be just me,” she says now. She still travels—Italy, Dubai, Las Vegas—but with friends, not Paul. She still goes to work, in the business office of a healthcare company, but there are no requests for Chick-fil-A on the way home. She doesn’t sit at her kitchen table anymore because Paul’s not there.

This is Stephanie Stone, the grieving mother whose life was changed by three bullets. But from those bullets another Stephanie Stone was born, too: Stephanie Stone, the activist for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. A strong, outspoken woman who spends her time counseling other survivors of gun violence and advocating for responsible gun ownership and an end to senseless violence. A woman who spent Mother’s Day weekend leading hundreds in a march across New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge.

“I never envisioned this to be my life,” she told the crowd, which included actresses Julianne Moore and Melissa Joan Hart. “I never imagined a life without my Paul. I didn’t ask to become a member of this club with a lifetime membership. However, I’m determined to make a difference as best I can, so there will not be any more new stories to share about innocent lives being stolen as a result of gun violence.”

Read: Mom On a Mission

Adam Chandler for The Atlantic on why Chick-fil-A’s app rose to number one in the App Store

The Cathy family’s fast-food empire isn’t exactly known for being a leader in technology. So how did Chick-fil-A’s app become more popular than Facebook’s? Chandler explains:

In late 2014, Taco Bell became the first major fast-food chain to roll out an order-ahead app. Finally, a Fourth Meal habitué could pay ahead, skip the line, join a rewards program, and creatively customize their Nachos Bell Grande without enraging a line of people behind them. Shortly after a very involved launch, Taco Bell even threw free Doritos Locos Tacos at mobile-app users. Despite all the fanfare, the Live Más app, while popular, was never the No. 1 free app in the Apple universe. Because, really, what fast-food ordering app would be?

Earlier this week, Chick-fil-A, the sometimes maligned and beloved chicken chain, introduced its One app, which offered all of the things that Taco Bell’s app does, plus the immediate promise of a free chicken sandwich just for downloading the app. In just three days, the app has been downloaded over a million times and has led the most downloaded free app iTunes tally board since Wednesday, muscling out the likes of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and the (frankly, weird-sounding) multiplayer snake-battle game slither.io.

So how did a (relatively small) chicken chain conquer narcissism and reptilian infatuation in the digital realm? In part, by courting families, a demographic that it pursues more vigorously and more successfully than most other chains. “82 percent of millennial parents say they would do almost anything to avoid long lines at fast food restaurants when they are with their children,” the company noted in a press release announcing the launch of the app. “In fact, nearly half (48 percent) said they would rather not eat at all than stand in a line.” For a company that does more sales-per-store than other quick-service restaurants by a long shot, this is particularly meaningful.

Read: Why Is Chick-fil-A’s App Number One in the App Store?

Mark Maske for the Washington Post on a pro-linebacker’s decision to leave the NFL behind

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland is spending his summer as an intern at the Carter Center. As Maske explains, the successful rookie retired after just one season in the NFL due to his concerns about the potential for long-term brain damage:

Following his second day of work as an intern in the mental health program at the Carter Center last month, Chris Borland was driving home past a high school. On a field situated along the road, he saw a football team in the middle of a spring practice. Borland pulled over and watched for 10 minutes, not out of nostalgia for a game he left behind, but rather fixating on the players as their helmets collided repeatedly during a series of contact drills.

“It’s just unnecessary,” Borland said. “I think you can teach technique and scheme and everything without hitting your helmets together.”

As Borland watched that May practice, he found himself at the intersection of his former and current life. He began his 10-week unpaid internship at the nonprofit public policy center founded by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter about 14 months after he stunned the football-watching world with his abrupt retirement from the NFL. The decision came following a successful rookie season as a linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers and stemmed from wariness over the prospective consequences of brain injuries, particularly chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. All of that swirled in Borland’s mind as he watched those high school spring drills.

“I thought of a lot of different things,” Borland said last week, sitting in a Carter Center conference room. “The decision I made — when I see kids’ heads bang together, I think of [how] your brain sits unfastened in a pool of cerebrospinal fluid. And it’s gelatinous and it’s crashing against a hard skull. So that’s kind of an image I always have when football’s on.”

Read: The ‘Most Dangerous Man In Football’ Traded an NFL Career for an Internship

Willoughby Mariano for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on how a LLC hurt an Atlanta neighborhood

Mariano, an investigative reporter, has previously reported on opportunistic investors scooping up cheap property in Atlanta’s blighted neighborhoods. In Ashview Heights, she tries to track down the owner of one such property. The state’s corporate secrecy laws, however, made her search extraordinarily difficult:

I had stopped by the west Atlanta house because I hoped my snooping would have made whoever was behind Ilimite nervous enough to fix it up. No such luck. The same condom wrapper from a week ago lay next to a mailbox post with no mailbox. The front door was still open, electrical sockets were still gouged out from the walls, and the same empty bottles of vodka lay on the living room floor.

You can be sentenced to jail for owning or operating place like this, although few have. (Buckhead speculator Rick Warren, sentenced for code violations last fall, is the exception, not the rule.)

There are many reasons why scofflaw owners escape consequences, but in the case of 1045 Ashby Grove and some 800 others pending before City of Atlanta code enforcement, it’s because police can’t find anyone to bust.

“You can’t put an LLC in jail. You need to have a person,” said police Maj. Barry Shaw, head of the city’s code enforcement office, when I visited their office behind Turner Field. I’m good at finding people, so I thought I’d hunt an owner down.

Read: How Legal Corporate Secrecy Harmed One Atlanta Neighborhood

It’s a great time to be a craft brewer—just not in Georgia


The politics of craft beer

In tiny Greensboro, Georgia, the old North West Street cotton warehouse is in near ruin, its roof sagging and trash strewn across the dusty floor. But Taylor Lamm, a 33-year-old Augusta native, sees a second life in the century-old walls. He plans to launch Oconee Brewing Company. there this fall.

Near the shores of Lake Oconee, 75 miles east of downtown Atlanta, Oconee Brewing could become a craft beer oasis between Athens and Macon. But success is far from assured: Lamm is opening a brewery in a state that is notoriously unfriendly to them. Despite their best efforts to update Depression-era laws initially designed to prohibit monopolies, brewers in Georgia still cannot sell their beer directly to customers. Instead they have to go through distributors. In the case of Oconee Brewing, Lamm is considering a deal with McDonough-based Georgia Crown Distributing.

So come fall, if the Yesterday Cafe around the block from the brewery needs a new keg of Oconee Brewing beer, Georgia Crown would have to send a truck to Greensboro to deliver it to the restaurant—a nearly three-hour round trip. It’s these kinds of illogical restrictions that small brewers say are stunting the growth of their industry in Georgia, which ranks 48th in the country in the number of breweries per capita.

As evidence, they point to North Carolina, which loosened its laws over the past decade and has become a craft beer powerhouse. Indeed, three of the country’s major craft brewers—Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues, and New Belgium—have opened breweries in North Carolina, home to 10,000 craft beer jobs. And Portland, Oregon, a city of 620,000, boasts more breweries than the entire state of Georgia. Since South Carolina began allowing the sale of up to 48 ounces of beer for on-site consumption three years ago, the number of breweries has tripled, from eight to 24. While craft brewing is a fast-growing industry in most of the country, Georgia remains one of only two states—Mississippi is the other—that prohibits on-site sales.

State Representative Michael Caldwell, a Woodstock Republican, had long assumed that Georgia’s beer laws were a by-product of a “Bible Belt” mentality. But after visiting Reformation Brewery in his district and doing some research, he concluded that legal reforms are instead being blocked by the outsized political influence of the distributors.

Since 2010 wholesale companies have made nearly $600,000 in campaign donations to state lawmakers—not counting contributions from executives and their families. (In contrast, small brewers gave less than $60,000 over the same period.) Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle alone received more than $100,000 just in 2014 from the lobby and its supporters. The contributions have paid off: Two 2013 bills to allow direct sales, including one with bipartisan support, never got out of committee. The 2015 “Beer Jobs” bill, which allowed variable pricing of brewery tours depending on how much and what type of beer a customer wanted to take home, passed only after language to legalize direct sales was removed—effectively gutting it.

The status quo, the distributors argue, is good for them and for brewers. Distributors have the clout to make room for their clients’ product on store shelves, says Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association assistant director Martin Smith. “If you look at the past six years, the number of brewers in Georgia has doubled,” Smith says. “In the first three years of their existence, they typically grow at a 100 percent rate. That points to a system that provides opportunity.”

It’s also true that, despite their griping, only two Georgia craft breweries have shut down since 2004, when Dogwood Brewing ceased operations rather than continue with its distributor. And one of the oldest beer-makers in the state, SweetWater Brewing, is now the 18th-largest brewery in the nation. Still, small brewers say the deck is stacked against them. For example, under state regulations, brewers wanting to change wholesalers must suspend Georgia sales for four years unless their distribution company releases them from their contract or they can prove the wholesaler violated the agreement.

Georgia brewers have their own lobby in the form of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild. But it’s the David to the distributors’ Goliath. To gain approval for variable tour pricing, it had to promise not to lobby for direct sales again until next year. The guild’s failure to push meaningful changes through the General Assembly is discouraging to brewers like Glenn Golden, who founded JailHouse Brewing Company in Hampton in 2009. He began with a healthy knowledge of the law but underestimated its impact on his business. “There’s no way I’d start here again,” he says.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican whose district is home to two small breweries, doesn’t believe his colleagues are in any rush to modernize Georgia’s beer laws. Case in point: Caldwell couldn’t even get approval for a House study committee to consider potential reforms, although such committees are commonly used to deal with controversial issues. Updates to the law may come, Ralston says, but they’ll be incremental.

“The longer things remain the same, the harder it is to change them in one fell swoop,” he says.

In the meantime the local craft beer industry will have to survive on the enthusiasm of true believers like Oconee Brewing’s Lamm. “We know what we we’re getting into. I’ve been asked, ‘Are you thinking about moving to another state?’ That’s not the case. Georgia is home.”

Cider house rules
Under Georgia’s arcane rules, Marietta’s Treehorn Cider is classified as a malt beverage producer—although it doesn’t use malt—placing it under the same restrictions as breweries. Atlanta’s Urban Tree cidery, on the other hand, operates as a “Georgia farm winery,” which allows it to sell growlers and cans on-site—and even serve cocktails in its tasting room. The difference? Urban Tree’s apples come from a northeast Georgia orchard managed by its owner. How do you like them loopholes? Jim Vorel

Editor’s Note: When this article was published in our June 2016 issue, Oconee Brewing Company was known as Lake Country Brewing Co. This version reflects the brewery’s name change.

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

Johnnie B. Hall, the Georgia state trooper assigned to Muhammad Ali during the 1996 Olympics, remembers the moment that defined the Atlanta Games

19 Jul 1996: Muhammad Ali holds the torch before lighting the Olympic Flame during the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
19 Jul 1996: Muhammad Ali holds the torch before lighting the Olympic Flame during the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.

Michael Cooper/Allsport via Getty Images

Before the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games began, Georgia State Trooper Johnnie B. Hall received the assignment of a lifetime. For an entire week, he had to escort Muhammad Ali, throughout Atlanta, protecting the champion at every step of the way and ensuring that the boxer, who’d been battling Parkinson’s disease by then for 12 years, didn’t drop the torch once it was handed to him by swimmer Janet Evans. That moment— which almost didn’t happen, as the Washington Post reports—remains one of the most iconic images in Olympic history.

Hall, now retired, recalled the week he spent with “The Greatest,” who on Friday night died at age 74 after being treated in Phoenix hospital for respiratory complications.

For a week, I was the only state trooper assigned to Muhammad Ali. I picked him up from the airport. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people that were there. He always had time to stop, for just a few minutes, to chatterbox with them. My job was to make sure nobody hurt him. Usually, someone like that, they don’t care about law enforcement. He was very, very nice. We had a good relationship. He was living at the Peachtree Hotel on Peachtree Street. I had a room adjoined to his—so that, if he needed anything that night, I could be reached. During the Olympics, he had to be in a certain place at a certain time. I’d tell him: “We’ve got 20 minutes. It’ll take us 10 minutes to get there. We need to go.” He never said a word about it. He just called me “Little Champ.”

The [opening] day started around 5 a.m. I had to go in advance to go look at the stadium to make sure I had a way in and a way out. Then I drove back to the hotel. I got him a nap. At around 5:30, 6 o’clock that afternoon, he got dressed. I said, “Muhammad, you’ve got to light the Olympic torch between 8:30 and 9 o’clock.” When we got to the Olympic stadium that afternoon, I cracked my black Suburban’s window down, and there was that chant: Ali! Ali! Ali! It was awesome. But I thought we were going to get mobbed. I said, “If you don’t mind letting me in, and if people want to talk, or take pictures, we’ll do it afterwards. They understood my job.

My job was to stay with him until he lit the Olympic torch. With that Parkinson’s disease he had, I told [the officials], “I ain’t sure he can hold that [torch].” But they said, “Give him a shot.” I was about 10 feet away from him because, if something happened, I was on top of it to make sure it was lit. It took him a little bit longer to walk up there. But he knew what he had to do. He didn’t have any problems. He lit the Olympic torch. It was unbelievable.

I’ve never dreamed of anything like that. The next morning, I called my family and told them about Muhammad Ali. I worked so many details in 31 years. I was on Jimmy Carter’s security detail when he was running for president. This Olympic detail with Muhammad Ali is tops. It’s history. My grandkids can someday go back and look and it.

Atlanta Must Reads for the Week: Georgia’s alarming heroin epidemic, a Stax soul legend returns, and Jimmy Carter’s last stand against racism


Wyatt Williams for the Bitter Southerner on William Bell

Stax legend William Bell has had a long and winding music career that—even with a hit song, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”—never led to stardom. Williams profiles the soul stirrer as he releases his latest, and perhaps greatest record:

Bell left college to tour behind “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” The song was one of the first national hits for Stax. Bell was poised to be the label’s leading man. He lined up a one-week stand at the Apollo followed by a six-month itinerary of gigs. Success looked imminent.

But Bell hadn’t even finished his first week at the Apollo when his mother called. She had a letter from the government, a draft notice for Vietnam. Between gigs, Bell drove over to the enlistment office with the intention of discussing a deferment, of showing off his list of engagements, of trying to work something out. When he arrived and asked to discuss a deferment, the sergeant asked him to raise his right hand. “I didn’t know anything about the military, so my right hand goes up and I repeated after him,” Bell said. When he asked again to discuss the deferment, the sergeant just replied, “No, you’re in the Army now.” Bell’s uncle had to be called to pick up the car. The next morning, Bell woke up in Fort Polk, Louisiana.

When Bell told this story in the backseat of the sedan, he laughed. He delivered that line about being in the army now as if it were the punchline to a joke. He paused, quiet for a moment. “I’m laughing now. It was not funny then. It was like being put on the chain gang. The Army was like being put in prison.”

Read: Three Verses

Michell Eloy for WABE-FM (90.1) on Georgia’s growing opioid epidemic

In a four-part series, Eloy highlights the rise of heroin in Georgia, the treatment services available, the systemic problems in curbing opioid use, and the families affected by addiction:

Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 2013. That’s the day David Laws got the call every parent dreads. “And I just knew something was wrong,” Laws said. The night before, Laws had spoken with his daughter Laura, who was staying at a friend’s house. The call came from Laura’s mom, Laws’ ex-wife.

“Her mom was screaming over the phone. And I just hung up on her,” Laws said. “Then I picked it up, and she said, you know, Laura’s dead.”

Laura had overdosed on a combination of morphine, cocaine and alcohol. She was 17 years old. Laura was one of 81 people who died of an overdose in DeKalb County in 2013, according to county records. Statewide, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 1,098 Georgians fatally overdosed that year. The following year, that number jumped to 1,206, about a 10 percent increase. According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, more Georgians now die from a drug overdose than in car crashes. But tracking these deaths in Georgia comes with challenges and needs to be improved, said Dr. Gaylord Lopez, director of the Georgia Poison Center.

Read: As Overdoses Increase, Ga. Rushes To Better Track Drug Deaths
Read: Georgia To Overhaul Prescription Drug Monitoring Program
Read: Despite Overdose Epidemic, Ga. Puts Pause On Opioid Programs
Read: Opioid Epidemic Drives More Ga. Kids Into State Care

Jeanne Bonner for CNN on Hollywood’s slow acknowledgement of AIDS during the 1980s

Three decades ago, the AIDS epidemic was regularly covered by journalists, but ignored by Hollywood. Bonner looks back at how the entertainment industry slowly came around to recognizing the disease and its impact:

In the early 1980s, the AIDS crisis was being covered nightly on the news — but that was likely the only time you’d hear about it on your television. The entertainment industry struggled to produce story lines or songs around an epidemic that was shaping the national conversation of that decade. The disease first surfaced in the early 1980s: In June 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported cases of a rare lung infection found in five previously healthy gay men living in Los Angeles. It would become the first official report of the disease we now know as AIDS.

But fear about the deadly disease quickly took hold, and since it was tied mainly to homosexual men—many of whom were not openly gay—public outpourings of sympathy were the last thing you saw. As Elton John would later write in a CNN opinion article: “Around the country, family members shunned infected relatives, doctors were afraid to touch AIDS patients, let alone treat them, and hospital wards filled up with young men covered in lesions, dying excruciating deaths.”

Hard to get your 21st-century mind around that, right? So perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that it wasn’t until the mid to late ’80s that a few flutterings of references to the AIDS crisis began to pop up in popular music, TV programs and movies.

Read: Hollywood’s struggle to deal with AIDS in the ’80s

Molly Samuel for WABE-FM (90.1) on the uncertain future of the old Chattahoochee Brick Co. site

After the Civil War, convicts were forced into labor at the old Chattahoochee Brick Co. in a grueling environment that’s been described as “essentially a death camp.” Today, Samuels explains, the impending sale of the now-empty lot has sparked a debate about the site’s history and future:

A fight is looming over whether to develop a mostly empty lot on the west side of Atlanta or turn it into a memorial to a grim chapter in the city’s past. It’s the site of the old Chattahoochee Brick Co., located in a sort-of horseshoe formed by a rail line, the Perimeter and the Chattahoochee River.

The place seems innocent enough now. Near the entrance, there’s a sunny, exposed cement lot, overgrown with weeds. Piles of bricks are scattered around, left over from a modern brick company. In the woods behind that lot are remnants of an earlier factory, the Chattahoochee Brick Co., which operated in Atlanta at the turn of the 20th century.

Read: Debate Over Empty Lot Unearths Ugly Piece Of Atlanta History

Emma Green for The Atlantic on Jimmy Carter’s final push to end racism

Progressive Baptists could help put an end to racism in America—at least that’s what former President Carter hopes. But he’s up against a number of challenges, Green writes, including the declining influence of Christian houses of worship:

Jimmy Carter, 91, has a wish for his fellow Baptists: end racism. “Our country is waking up now to the fact that we still have a long way to go in winning a battle that we thought was over in the 1970s or ’60s,” he said in an interview. The longtime Sunday school teacher and former United States president wants to start this change within his own faith: He’s pushing churches to organize around social-justice issues, including racial discrimination.

But the future of progressive Christianity in the U.S. is fragile. Congregations are shrinking; young people who organize politically largely do so outside of the church. Carter is hoping for a new generation of institutional Christian leadership precisely at a time when Christian institutions are becoming weaker.

Nine years ago, Carter brought together Baptist leaders to form a coalition called the New Baptist Covenant. Roughly 15,000 people gathered in Atlanta in 2008 to kick off a new era of unity in the fractured denomination, which has split a number of times, including over the issue of slavery. Since then, the group has worked in fits and starts—it held some regional meetings and other conventions, along with efforts to convene online that “didn’t work very well at all,” said Bill Leonard, a preacher and Wake Forest professor who is involved in the organization. Now, the group is trying to reboot, with a public-relations push for media attention ahead of another meeting in Atlanta this fall.

Read: Jimmy Carter Makes One Final Push to End Racism

Which fireworks should you buy this Fourth of July?

Photograph by iStockphoto.com

Want to shoot a bottle rocket during an alfresco brunch? Sounds ill-advised, sure, but technically it’s legal if you’re an adult—thanks to Georgia lawmakers, who in July of last year made it A-OK to buy and set off fireworks in the state. This is the first full summer when you can legally light Roman candles anytime between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. (on July 3 and 4, as well as New Year’s Eve and Day, that extends to 11:59 p.m.). Just stay 100 yards away from a gas station, a prison, or a power plant.

Expert Dan Peart from Phantom Fireworks has some advice on making it through the Fourth intact.

Hasta La Vista Baby
Where to buy
Phantom Fireworks, multiple locations
What does it do? Fountains, which emit dozens of different colors, spray sparks 10 feet high. Light this one with a grill lighter and listen to it crackle.
Should you try this at home? Go for it. “They were already legal in Georgia before last year.” Shoot these off in your front yard or your driveway.

Red Rhino
$9.99 for a 144-pack
Where to buy
Extreme Fireworks, Alpharetta
What does it do? Point these lightweight fireworks up, light the fuse, and watch them fly, whistle, and pop.
Should you try this at home? No harm, no foul. “Bottle rockets get a bad rap, but they’re pretty benign.” Stick them in a bottle. Don’t point them at your friends.

Flashing Thunder
$13.99 for six Roman candles
Where to buy Sky King Fireworks, Smyrna
What does it do? These half-inch Roman candles shoot 10 flaming balls about 50 feet into the air. Light the fuse, stick it in the ground, and step back.
Should you try this at home? While you can hold some smaller Roman candles, most will burn your hand. “Holding and shooting these is not the intended use.”

Old Glory
Where to buy
Sky King Fireworks, Smyrna
What does it do? After loading the mortar, keep your distance and cover your ears, as these colorful aerial shells burst apart with a bang. Load and repeat.
Should you try this at home? Among the more potentially dangerous options. “You’re flirting with the mentality that, ‘Hey, I’m conducting a professional show.’”

Komodo 3000
Where to buy
Phantom Fireworks, multiple locations
What does it do? You’ll only light a single fuse, but stand back, because this “show in a box” will rapidly fire off 119 “shots” in just over a minute, include red crackling comets and a starburst.
Should you try this at home? “Shoot it on a hard, flat surface. Brace it with a brick on either side. Make sure you have clearance. Keep your audience as far away as possible.”

Professional-grade fireworks
Price N/A
Where to buy N/A
What does it do? Welcome to the big show. This is what you’ll see at the city’s Independence Day events. Yes, an FBI background check is required. No, you can’t buy them without a license.
Should you try this at home? Grab your lawn chair. “Definitely not safe for consumers. It’s a different world.”

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

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