One day three years ago, Maynard Jackson III woke up and felt a force compelling him to make a documentary about the life of his father.
Jackson is the only son of Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr., the 54th (and 56th) mayor of Atlanta, the first person of color to hold that office in the city, the man who not only built the airport as we know it today, but who once said that weeds would grow on the runways before he’d go back on his pledge to include more minority businesses in its construction.
Maynard III inherited much from his father—not just his name, but even his nickname, Buzzy (a label Mayor Jackson’s sisters gave him in youth because of the sound he made when he slept). Maynard III also was born with his father’s sea-green eyes and, most notably, the burden of high expectations. His grandfather, the mayor’s father, was pastor of historic Friendship Baptist Church, and Maynard III’s great-grandfather was John Wesley Dobbs, who brought thousands of black Atlantans onto the voter rolls and whose political clout led to the hiring of Atlanta’s first black police officers.
Mayor Jackson died in 2003 from a heart attack after collapsing at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. He was just 65, and his sudden passing affected his family in different ways. Valerie Jackson, his widow, says that for three entire years after his death, she’d wake up at 5 a.m., remember he was gone, and weep. For Maynard III, his father’s death left things forever unsaid between them that would haunt him. In many ways, in fact, Maynard—which is screening April 14 and April 22 at the Atlanta Film Festival after showings at DOC NYC and the 2018 Pan African Film Festival, among others—is more than just a public history of a public figure, but also an exploration of the toll that a public life can exact on a family.
Bunnie Jackson-Ransom, Mayor Jackson’s first wife, distinctly remembers the tension that her ex-husband’s ambition caused in their marriage. In 1968, the couple traveled to North Carolina to show off their infant daughter to the baby’s grandparents. The future mayor returned to Atlanta early and, without telling his wife, borrowed $3,000 to qualify to run against incumbent Herman Talmadge for a United States Senate seat. The agreement with his wife had been that he’d pursue his law career, but the assassination of Robert Kennedy that year changed everything.
“He called me up and said, ‘This is what I have done’,” Bunnie recalls. “Now mind you, I was on maternity leave. We had just bought a little house. We had no savings. He had no job, and we had a baby. I said, ‘Maynard, how are we going to pay the house note?’ I was so pissed with him.”
Jackson’s Senate campaign ended in defeat, but his showing among Atlanta voters cleared the path to becoming vice mayor under Sam Massell and then, famously, to upsetting Massell in 1973 to become the city’s first black mayor. By then, he and Bunnie had three children—Elizabeth, Maynard III, and Brooke. Bunnie’s mother helped watch the children while their parents worked.
Sometime after his election, Atlanta’s newest mayor was featured in the pages of Ebony magazine. Several hundred miles away, a young woman just out of the Wharton School saw the spread and thought to herself, “Man, I want me a Maynard Jackson.” Her name was Valerie Richardson, and she would, as fate would have it, be set up with Jackson not long after his divorce from Bunnie. They would marry in 1977, and their union would produce Mayor Jackson’s third and fourth daughters, Valerie-Amanda and Alexandra.
Maynard III, meanwhile, grew up navigating an age-old tension between the path he saw for himself and the one his father imagined for him. At five, he took up the drums, and, as he grew older, he’d practice as many as eight hours a day. “I wasn’t on the path to becoming a lawyer or a doctor,” Maynard III says now. But he felt the pressures, nonetheless. “I wasn’t oblivious to what was going on, to the line of succession. But my life was taking another turn.” He and his wife, Wendy Eley Jackson, are cofounders of Auburn Avenue Films. Between them, they have four children.
In the 1990s, writer Gary Pomerantz spent hours interviewing Mayor Jackson for what would become Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, an exhaustively researched book that tells the history of Atlanta through two families—Jackson’s and that of Ivan Allen, the city’s penultimate white mayor. The audio recordings of those discussions, stored at Emory University, would inform much of Maynard, and it was from those tapes that Maynard III heard, for the first time, that his father regretted not spending more time with his son. Except the mayor never told him that directly. Says Maynard III: “He could have just said, ‘Hey Buzz, let’s go fishing or something.’ I would have been very receptive to that. It was just perplexing that he was so frustrated about that but didn’t come to me.”
Such complicated realities are essential components of any comprehensive documentary, which is why the family turned to Sam Pollard to direct it. Pollard had edited Spike Lee’s movies and directed numerous documentaries, including Slavery by Another Name. Before he signed on to direct Maynard, Pollard insisted on creative control. “I didn’t want to do a hagiography,” he says. It was essential to Pollard, for instance, that he interview not just family members but also the mother of one of the victims of the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979–1981, for which Wayne Williams was ultimately held responsible. It would be hard to overstate the fear the murders instilled in black Atlanta during those days, or how it vexed the administration of Mayor Jackson, who ordered extra protection for his own children. Maynard III remembers ditching the security detail on more than one occasion to escape on his bike to a friend’s house.
Production on Maynard took more than two years. Wendy Eley Jackson is a veteran of the film and TV industry and one of the executive producers. The challenge, as she and everyone involved in the project encountered, was keeping the documentary to a digestible length. “There are 7,280 hours of research in this,” she says. “We interviewed 43 people, but less than half of that made the documentary.” Among those in the final cut are Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton, Kasim Reed, Andrew Young, historian Maurice Hobson, as well as Bunnie, Valerie, and all five of Mayor Jackson’s children.
For the past 18 years, Valerie has hosted a talk show on WABE. Not long ago, one of her guests on Valerie Jackson in Conversation was the stage director Kenny Leon, who recalled Mayor Jackson talking about what he called “Scared Negro Disease.” “Black people who get into positions of power, they’re sometimes afraid to use that power to help others, because they don’t want to rock the boat,” Valerie says. “Kenny Leon said that when he heard those words from Maynard, he made it a point to never be afraid to use his power and position.”
Valerie, whose dining room table became covered with ephemera and mementos during the making of Maynard, says that her husband took great satisfaction in the work of the Maynard Jackson Youth Foundation Leadership Academy, which for more than 20 years has taught leadership skills to area high school students. In his later years, he’d meet with each Leadership class twice a month, guiding them, charming them, prodding them. The program continues today and has earned its students millions of dollars in scholarships. Valerie calls it her husband’s “most personal and precious accomplishment.”
It’s now been 15 years since Maynard Jackson’s death, but the issues the documentary explores—the city’s fraught racial history, the expectations placed on a black mayor, the scrutiny on minority contracts for city business—feel very relevant today. For Maynard III, though, the film’s goal is simpler: “He was the kind of guy I wish everybody got a chance to meet. He was able to touch you in a way that gives you hope.”
See the film: Maynard will play twice during the 42nd annual Atlanta Film Festival. The first screening is April 14 at 7 p.m. at the Plaza Theatre. The second screening is April 22 at 6 p.m. at the Rialto Center for the Arts. More information about the festival can be found here.
Fourteen days after she took office, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that she and Meria Carstarphen, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, had reached an agreement where the city would transfer dozens of APS land deeds to the school district. Normally, this would not be newsworthy. But the transfer had stalled under Bottoms’s predecessor, Kasim Reed, who argued that APS did not have plans to ensure that conversions of old school buildings into housing included affordable units.
The announcement was a political win for Bottoms, who had been badgered on the campaign trail by predictions that her administration would be little more than an extension of the previous. Reed, whose final months in office were clouded both by the ongoing federal investigation into corruption at City Hall and a growing fatigue with his autocratic style, had endorsed then councilwoman Bottoms and, in the weeks leading up to the runoff, had focused his efforts on bringing out national Democrats to stump for her.
Bottoms’s margin of victory was almost as thin as Reed’s eight years before—and, as it turned out, against the same opponent, Mary Norwood. The 2017 results reminded us that in Atlanta, identity politics still play a decisive role in city elections. Six weeks into her term, Bottoms spoke to Atlanta magazine executive editor Steve Fennessy about the election, her efforts to raise $1 billion for affordable housing, whether she’ll endorse in the governor’s race, and the sexism she encounters as a woman who, besides being a mother of four, is the mayor of Georgia’s largest city.
What’s been the biggest surprise for you coming into office that maybe you weren’t anticipating?
Probably the biggest change is being able to sit still because I’ve been on the go. I’ve felt like I’ve had on roller skates even before the election began. The other big surprise has been my comfort level in this transition. It’s uncomfortable because it’s new, but not nearly as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. I thought it would take me a lot longer to be confident in the job, because it’s really big and it’s new. It’s not to say that I still don’t have a ways to go, but I’m a lot more firm and solid than I expected to be.
So it’s revealed things about yourself that maybe you hadn’t anticipated or seen?
In many ways, yes. Sitting in the seat of mayor is very different than being a councilperson. The councilperson has an extremely important job, but you also have the luxury of doing a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking. Sitting in this seat really is about leading in every single way and not just responding. There’s so much to respond to on any given day, while making sure that our priorities remain top of mind.
What are those priorities?
The big priority the first few weeks in office was pushing through cash bail bond legislation. Now, we’re dealing with the APS deeds and making sure we get those transferred. The overarching priorities remain affordability and equity, and education and crime. [There are] conversations we’re having at the state surrounding transit, jobs, and economic development.
You’ve said you want to raise $1 billion for affordable housing. How do you do that?
My goal is $500 million from the public sector and $500 million from the private sector. So much work is going on with different entities across the city, with nonprofits, with the public sector, but we’re not tracking that and working together collectively. This is an opportunity for us to all sit around the table and talk about where we are and where we need to go collectively.
When it comes to raising $500 million from the private sector, what’s the pitch?
I just got back from San Francisco. The top conversation is how unaffordable San Francisco is and how it’s impacting people’s lives. The example they gave is an average two-bedroom, I believe, is $1.3 million. They were able to measure within “x” number of years how long it’s been since a working-class family could afford to live in San Francisco. It was stunning. The pitch is, “Don’t let Atlanta become San Francisco. Don’t let Atlanta become New York.” We still have an opportunity to stop it because we can look at these other cities and see what the pitfalls are.
You have so many people talking about it who, on the surface, you wouldn’t think care, but they do. You have people who may be able to afford to live in the city. It may be the CEO of a company, but their son’s second-grade teacher can’t afford to live in the city. They’re driving in from Paulding County, so that CEO cares. Or maybe someone who owns a business who’s having trouble staffing their cashier position because [the potential employees] don’t have transportation and can’t afford to live in the city. Everybody is talking about it. Everybody cares. Now, we just have to collectively do something about it.
The affordability piece is a part of it, but so, obviously, is the equity piece. Again, I think it’s about giving people a reason to care. When you talk about income inequality and then you connect it to crime rates or any number of other things, then that makes people pay attention and want to do something about it.
There’s housing displacement, and then there’s cultural displacement. Atlanta’s identity is so tethered to its black culture. Looking at development along the BeltLine, what are the tools at your disposal to preserve the essence of those neighborhoods?
It really is about education at a very basic level. My grandparents’ home is a block from the Westside Trail. They passed 20 years ago. My mother and her brothers have a home. Their children have homes. But nobody is thinking about this family home outside of a structure. So, I think it’s about educating people like my family and legacy families in these neighborhoods about what this structure means to the place and space in Atlanta. “This is the BeltLine. This is why you should care. This is why this family home is still important. This is why you shouldn’t sell it to the highest bidder.”
What I’ve found is that we begin these conversations at a very high level. If there’s a book with 10 chapters, we begin the conversations as if people have read chapters one through five. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into community meetings, and if I’ll say, “How many of you have heard of the BeltLine?” maybe 40 percent will raise their hands. “How many of you have been on the BeltLine?” Maybe 10 percent. There’s this assumption that everybody knows what it is and everybody appreciates it’s for them too, but they don’t know. We have to educate people, especially our legacy residents. “This is this cool, innovative, transformative project coming through your neighborhood. What is it? Why does it matter to you?”
A few years ago, I was speaking at the [Andrew & Walter] Young Family YMCA [in southwest Atlanta] to some teenagers. None of them had heard of the BeltLine, much less been on it. So, we took a field trip. To see the looks on these kids’ faces running down the BeltLine, it was as if I had taken them to Six Flags. I think, unfortunately in many neighborhoods, especially in African American communities, the thought of walking through a wooded trail is counterintuitive to safety. It may cut through your backyard, but who walks through the woods? It’s not something that happens in African American communities. So, it’s about education.
That education will solidify their connection to their home?
Absolutely. When someone comes through, and the family home has been paid off for the past 30 years, and they offer $50,000 in cash, you see that it’s worth a whole lot more than that, and it’s about something more than that.
What do you tell your kids about your job?
It’s more about what they tell me. I went to put something at the door last night so I would see it when I walked out the door. One of my kids said, “Bye, Mommy,” and I said, “I’m not going anywhere.” They all have very different perspectives. My seven-year-old son, who’s very thoughtful, came to me one day and said, “I’m so proud of you. You worked hard, and it was a tough race, and you did your best, and you won. You get a chance to make a difference.” For my younger kids, it is their entire life. My [seven-year-old] twins—all they’ve known is me as an elected official. I have a nine-year-old and a 15-year-old. My 15-year-old really is the only one who knows a different life. I think for them, they just adapt.
You’re mayor of the city of Atlanta. Your predecessor was single and didn’t have kids for a large part of his eight years in office. Is that a challenge?
I was laughing with one of the guys on the security detail. I said, “Gosh, up until January 2, I was the sole logistics director for this whole family organization, and I wonder how I did it every day.” I think we just stretch to the level of wherever we need to be. In that regard, there are a lot of women who do this all day, every day, and a lot of women who do it without any help from a husband, or a dad, or extended family. I am extremely fortunate that I have all of that. I have a great husband, I have a wonderful, energetic mother, got folk that I can call up when I’m in need. I’m fortunate. It takes a village, and I’ve been calling on my village a lot.
Voters in 2016 approved a one-penny sales tax increase that will fund $300 million in transit improvements over five years, in addition to $2.5 billion over 40 years for MARTA. What would you like to see tackled first?
Long-term, I am a big proponent of extension of some type of light rail throughout the city—whether it’s light rail, autonomous, whatever it may be, high rapid bus transit—some extension so that there is true connectivity throughout the city, so that people aren’t waiting at a bus stop for an hour in the dark for a bus to come.
I had a meeting this week where we talked about the bus rapid transit system. That’s a lot less expensive than light rail but accomplishes the same thing. I think you’ll start seeing things coming online within the next year or two [in areas around Turner Field]. Then, there’ll be a natural progression to extension in other places throughout the city. I think you will also begin to see this desire for other counties in the region not to be left out because it’s impacting their bottom line. There’s a reason Atlanta is attracting businesses, because although our MARTA system may not be ideal, it sure is better than Cobb and Gwinnett, and any number of other counties. I think what they’re starting to feel is they’re not true competitors because they don’t have the transit piece.
Certainly there was a productive relationship between Mayor Reed and Governor Nathan Deal. We’re electing a new governor this fall. Do you plan to endorse in the Democratic primary?
Once the Legislature gets out of session, that whole conversation will heat up. I suspect that I will [endorse] before the primary.
What will it take to elect a Democrat to the governor’s office?
I think that there has to be more meaningful voter registration throughout the state and not just the rhetoric of voter registration. There has to be real work done.
In an interview with Politico, you were asked about Mayor Reed and the pressures you felt on the campaign trail. You said, “There were a lot of critiques and criticisms toward me that just would not have been thrown towards a man. ‘Will she be her own person? Can she lead? Will she be a puppet?’ Things that I know are never asked of men or weren’t asked during this race.” You also said that you hadn’t dealt with as much sexism in your entire career as you had on the campaign trail.
I’ve grown up in Atlanta, and I just don’t recall there ever being a question asked of Kasim Reed during his run for mayor if he would be a puppet of Shirley Franklin, and how much influence Shirley Franklin would have on him. I think a lot of that was asked of me because I am a woman. There is this assumption: “Surely you can’t be smart, and you can’t be attractive, and you can’t be accomplished without it being because of something.” Men don’t have to explain themselves in that way. Pick a name. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George Bush, any number of men have never felt the need to offer an explanation as to who they are and why they are.
I was always aware of race growing up in Atlanta but never so much of being a woman and all that entailed professionally until I entered public office, and having questions asked like, “You’re a mother. How can you be mayor?” I would be shocked if any man in the race were asked, “You’re a dad. How can you be mayor?” Quite often, those questions were asked by women, which was interesting.
Toward the end of his term, Mayor Reed said he was ready to leave. He said that the talk about him trying to maintain a level of influence was not going to be borne out by reality. But as somebody who’s new to this job, it’s also understandable that you’d want to talk to your predecessor. What communications have you had with the former mayor?
Actually, very limited communications. There have been some natural things that I’ve reached out to him and asked. “Hey, I understand you were working on ‘XYZ.’ Give me a little background on that.” He has been, I would say, very mindful of not interfering. He’s even said that to me. He’s available if I have a question, as all of the other previous mayors have offered themselves up as well. He’s one of any number of folk, if I need some guidance, I’d pick up the phone and ask.
What specifically can you do, or do you plan to do, to reform the procurement process to make it more transparent, to make it less prone to corruption?
We are launching our search for a new procurement head, along with several other searches in the city. As mayor, you’re signing multimillion dollar contracts with very limited information. You get a contract, and you sign it. My concern is, I don’t want to know a whole lot about how this vendor was selected, but if I’m ever called to explain why the vendor was selected, I also don’t have a lot of information. I need a recommendation from these folk looking at procurement on how to toe that line. You can’t have so much information that it appears that you will be influenced or trying to influence, but you also need to be confident in what you are signing off on, that you’re not signing contracts blindly.
Can you talk about the election and the racial divide that the results revealed?
What I learned is that there’s still an enormous amount of racial distrust in this city. The divide is much more glaring than I thought it would be. Part of it was that it was such a negative campaign. There were so many narratives that were put out there that I think really are typical of narratives put out on African American elected officials: “You’re all corrupt. You’re all unethical.”—these stereotypes. I was not expecting that in Atlanta. I especially wasn’t expecting it as it relates to me. I guess putting it out there was not as surprising to me as the fact that so many people bought into it. I think you look at the election map, and you see how it bore out.
We anticipate creating some type of citywide program to further this conversation because I don’t think it’s a productive conversation in the heat of battle. Again, I think it’s [about] getting people to care and engage when it’s not election time. We clearly still have a very long way to go in this city. Some people would say I was probably naive to be surprised about it, but it was still shocking to me in Atlanta. I thought that we were way beyond that. The election highlighted to me that we’re not. The wonderful thing: I’ve had probably more white people in the city ask me to make sure [this conversation] happens than African Americans. That’s very encouraging.
In the Coretta Scott King suite on the second floor of the Hyatt Regency, the 59th mayor of Atlanta was doing something he’s never enjoyed nor been particularly good at. He was waiting. Waiting—and this was the worst part—to be summoned. Downstairs, the supporters of Keisha Lance Bottoms, his heir apparent, were also waiting, but at least they were sipping $11 well drinks and, when the DJ played the right song, doing the Wobble. Not that the mayor drinks. Or wobbles. He’d taken off his navy blue suit jacket and was sitting at the chair positioned at the center of the rectangular table, itself positioned at the center of the suite. There were TVs switched on at both ends of the room, and his friends and supporters and staffers clustered about them, waiting for the results to come in. This being Fulton County, where election returns take so long you’d think they were counting votes on an abacus, there was down time. Someone put a cold can of Coca-Cola on the table in front of the mayor, and he popped it open. He pulled out his phone and started scrolling.
A mayor of a big city has a gravitational force. The closer you get, the stronger the pull, until you find yourself in an orbit, and the next thing you know, you’re measuring your path against those of all the other satellites. Who’s drawing closer? Who’s pulling away? Kasim Reed had spent the last 2,865 days of his administration taking a tactical pleasure in the jockeying around him. From the outside, it may appear enervatingly chaotic—the backbiting, the scrambling for his audience and approval—but to a certain personality type, it can be motivating. It can drive them to excellence. As well as to exhaustion. Talk to those who worked for Reed for most or even all of his years in office, and they’ll mention the vacations they plan to take and the lost hours of sleep they plan to catch up on when he leaves in January. You’d search for a while before you found Reed veterans who weren’t quietly relieved their boss couldn’t run for four more years. The fact of the matter is (“the fact of the matter” being one of the mayor’s favorite turns of phrase, no doubt because it telegraphs that what’s to come is simply irrefutable) no one ever could outwork Kasim Reed.
Which brings up the opposing force, also called term limits. The mayor of Atlanta can serve no more than two successive terms, though she or he is free to run again after leaving office for at least one term. Maynard Jackson famously did that. But today, most would agree that Jackson’s third term was anticlimactic, which it was probably doomed to be, since his first two terms were propelled in part by the moral and political force that came with being the city’s first black mayor. Jackson made the city—and, most notably, the airport—the kind of place where black contractors and vendors and professionals were not just tolerated; they were encouraged. Jackson made room for them—by statute but also by fiat. He changed the culture of a city. That’s a tough act to follow, even if it’s your own.
When Mike Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, a clock in City Hall counted backward the time left in office, down to the second. Reed never needed a clock. He’s known how much time he had left since he was sworn in on January 4, 2010. When he was a teenager, Reed began mapping out his life on three-by-five cards. Go to Howard. Then law school. Run for state representative. Win. Run for state senator. Win. Each accomplishment was a stepping stone toward the ultimate goal: becoming mayor of Atlanta. So, if you’re one of the people who soured on Reed during the past eight years (and they are legion, and include those who once called him friend), who find him too autocratic, a know-it-all, an egomaniac, consider this: He started planning for this job when he was in eighth grade. No, the real surprise would be if he cared what you thought.
Not that it hasn’t taken a toll. A few months before the general election, in front of a crowd of a hundred or so Atlantans, he was asked about what life will look like for him when he’s no longer mayor. He told the story about the three-by-five cards. “Obviously, I’m a damaged person for having executed on that plan, so I’m looking forward to just walking around,” he said. To read those words, it sounds like a joke, except he wasn’t smiling when he said it.
In the suite tonight were 20 or so guests of the mayor. New arrivals were carefully vetted by his security detail. Reed’s brother, Tracy, was there, along with Tracy’s wife. So was John Ahmann, the longtime ally of Reed who heads up the Westside Future Fund, the privately funded entity trying to resurrect the neighborhoods abutting the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Some of the other guests: Robert Ashe III, the chair of the MARTA board; Amy Phuong, the parks and recreation commissioner; Yvonne Cowser Yancy, commissioner of human resources; Mack Wilbourn, the airport franchisee who once hosted a fundraiser for President Obama at his house; Jeff Dickerson, the public relations consultant who’s a frequent guest on The Georgia Gang; Steve Brock, president of Brock Built homes; Michael Thrasher, founder of Thrasher Contracting & Trucking. The mood was subdued, as if no one seemed particularly sure how to act. Was this a happy occasion? A sad one? Even if Bottoms advanced, as she was expected to, it didn’t change the fact that Reed, whom they had worked for or supported for eight years, and sometimes more, was a short-timer.
Before midnight, Bottoms herself dropped by. She was on her way down to the ballroom to address her supporters. By now, the news was all but official: Bottoms would face off against Mary Norwood in four weeks. (Eight years ago, Norwood came just a few thousand votes short of winning the mayor’s seat outright in the general election, only to have Reed slip past her in the runoff, winning by 714 votes.) Everyone in the room stood and applauded when Bottoms entered.
Bottoms’s eight years on Atlanta’s city council overlapped precisely with the mayor’s two terms. In 2015, she was named executive director of the Atlanta and Fulton County Recreation Authority. By then—or since then, it’s not clear—Reed had settled on her as his designated successor. During the coming weeks leading up to the runoff, Bottoms would find out just how far the mayor’s support would take her, but right now, she was here to thank everyone in the room for their help. There was more applause, and she laughed nervously and said if she cried, it would wreak havoc on her fake eyelashes. She ducked out. A few minutes later, Reed slipped his jacket back on, straightened his tie in the mirror, exited the room, took the elevator, then an escalator, strode past the camera risers in the Regency ballroom, and introduced the woman who would succeed him in the only job he’s ever really wanted.
TUESDAY, NOV. 21, 2017 14 DAYS BEFORE THE RUNOFF
“Mayor Kasim Reed to make important announcement.” The advisory, proclaiming a 10 a.m. press conference in the mayor’s office, was tantalizingly vague. Or vaguely tantalizing. At precisely 10 a.m., the TV cameras were set up and white-balanced, the microphones positioned, and half of Reed’s cabinet, or so it seemed, stood shoulder to shoulder with a smattering of print and broadcast reporters. The minutes ticked past. At 10:20, we heard the mayor before we actually saw him. He was chuckling from down the hall. He strolled up to the podium and grinned. “Good morning!” he declared. “Wasn’t it nice of me to get you all together for a little fellowship?”
In any given week—on any given day—the mayor’s schedule is a mix of ribbon-cuttings, grip-and-grins, closed-door meetings, and countless phone calls. “I’m not a big user of emails,” Reed has said. Face to face is best, then phone. Emails are to be avoided. When the Braves announced they were leaving the city to build a new ballpark in Cobb County, City Hall released hundreds of emails to satisfy the various Open Records requests demanding all correspondence on the deal. There was just one email from the mayor’s account. Reed is an avid texter, though he does it on his personal cell phone, which presumably shields him from Open Records laws, and he rarely conducts business on his city-issued phone. Likewise, @MayorKasimReed, what you’d imagine would be his official Twitter account, has not been updated in more than six years. Not so for his personal Twitter account—@KasimReed—which boasts more than 414,000 followers (more than any other American mayor, he’ll tell you, except for Bill de Blasio in New York City). Reed’s approach is different from de Blasio’s, however, in that he uses Twitter not just as bullhorn, but as bludgeon. When, two weeks before the general election, WSB-TV reporter Richard Belcher tweeted a link to a story about corruption at City Hall, Reed responded, “You are working overtime to prop your candidates, Norwood & Aman up. A blind man with a blindfold on can see what you are trying to do.”
But today, the mayor was in a good mood. The city had closed on the sale of the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center to the Atlanta Housing Authority, which would work with a developer to convert the 20-acre site, just three blocks from MARTA, into a mixed-income residential and retail destination. Some 250 units in the $300 million development would be reserved for low- and middle-income tenants. It is, Reed said from behind the podium, “the largest commitment to affordable housing in the city of Atlanta in more than 15 years.”
Reed fielded a few questions, and all seemed fine, until one reporter asked him to comment on the news that morning that Ceasar Mitchell, the city council president, would endorse Norwood for mayor in the runoff against Bottoms. Just a few months earlier, the safe money had been on Norwood squaring off against Mitchell in the runoff. It was supposed to be Mitchell’s turn, after all. Eight years earlier, he’d sought out former Ambassador Andrew Young’s endorsement for mayor, but Young had already committed to Reed, and so, as Young tells it, the ambassador encouraged Mitchell to run for council president instead. Mitchell agreed, and in 2017, true to his word, Young endorsed Mitchell for mayor.
Fat lot of good it did Mitchell. Young may be a pastor, adviser to presidents, a civil rights icon, a former mayor himself, but his endorsement of Mitchell—rolled out during a brief lovefest at Paschal’s—was no match for Reed, who took visceral pleasure in using his bully pulpit to slag Mitchell. The list of Atlantans on Reed’s shitlist, and there really is no better word for it, is a long one—Egbert Perry (developer), Shirley Franklin (former mayor), William Perry (Georgia Ethics Watchdogs), Bill Torpy (Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist), Vincent Fort (state senator; failed mayoral candidate), Dale Russell (Fox 5 investigative reporter), Miguel Southwell (former airport chief, fired by Reed), maybe me after he reads this story—but at the top, arguably, is Mitchell. Why? Young told me that he believes it started back when the two men were teenagers, growing up minutes from each other in southwest Atlanta. Is Atlanta really that small of a town? Yes, it is.
Now, back to that question about Mitchell’s endorsement. Here’s something a different politician might have said: We’re here to talk about affordable housing, about how today’s announcement is delivering on a promise to make the most desirable neighborhoods in Atlanta affordable for all. There’s nothing more important.
Or, another politician: It’s a political season. The council president is free to endorse whomever he wants, but I’m confident the voters of Atlanta will see that his decision is motivated more by resentment toward me and disappointment at his sixth-place finish in the general election than out of any real belief that Mary Norwood will be the best mayor for all Atlantans. Endorsements should be just that—endorsements. Not settling grudges.
But Reed was never just another politician. This is what he said: “I’m totally unsurprised. It’s consistent with his career and why he’s getting ready to be fired. He’s a guy who doesn’t even have the decency to show up to work yesterday. Right? So, let’s follow that. He’s the council president, and yesterday, he turned over his responsibilities to [Councilmember] Andre Dickens, who did a fine job. What somebody who should have been mayor would have done is woke up, put on a suit, came to work, did their job. So, Ceasar Mitchell supporting Mary Norwood is one man, one woman—two losers.”
For precisely four seconds, there was silence in the room. Not even the click of a camera shutter. There are a lot of things that Reed will undoubtedly miss about being mayor—his security detail, his city-issued Yukon Denali, his courtiers, his spotlight, his power to shape an entire city—but these awkward silences . . . they are something else altogether. Because for him, they’re not awkward.
“Anybody have anything else for the holiday?”
• • •
The best thing that ever happened to Reed as mayor occurred just after he was sworn in on his first day. He’d taken a MARTA train from the Civic Center to City Hall—he paid more attention to optics in the beginning than toward the end—where the finance people were waiting for him. For his signature, to be precise. Without signing a stack of tax anticipation notes, Reed would effectively be the boss of a company that couldn’t make payroll. For the young mayor, just 40, it was a “crystallizing” moment.
“I wanted to know why we were in that shape,” he told me in his office on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. “The reason we were in that shape is that [the city] had approved bloated pension packages and had made them retroactive. So, it was like that Mission: Impossible scene with the fuse. It was absorbing 18 percent of our cash.” The need for pension reform wasn’t a surprise to Reed; it had been a fraught topic on the campaign trail. But the urgency of the situation, laid bare by his first official act as mayor, focused him.
The Atlanta outside City Hall wasn’t doing any better. Office vacancy rates were at 18 percent and climbing. There was so much empty office space that experts figured it would take 10 years to fill it all—and that’s with no more new construction coming online. Remember how we used to worry Charlotte would overtake us?
“We had developers come in here and offer us all of their property just to save their credit,” Reed told me. “Really proud and distinguished men were trying to save their banking relationships and would come in and ask for the city to provide some help or perhaps purchase real estate because of the distress. People don’t really remember that.”
One of Reed’s favorite books is by a British educator named Michael Barber, who served in former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government in the early 21st century. Called Instruction to Deliver, the book explores how a politician might bridge the daunting gap between a promise made and a promise kept. Barber’s title under Blair was “chief adviser on delivery.” Across 436 wonky pages, Barber explores the concrete steps that the technocrats under Blair took to improve government services on the most granular level, from identifying low-performing train operators to measuring hospital wait times. It’s not easy reading, but for Reed, the rare politician who knows every big picture is simply a collection of small ones, it became a guidestar for his administration. Weekly department head meetings, where Atlanta commissioners and cabinet members would give status updates on projects and priorities (and where Reed would occasionally dress them down), mirrored the periodic “stock-takes” that Barber describes Blair hosting.
“If you don’t get the fundamentals right in government, people won’t believe you for the aspirational aspects of government,” Reed told the Brookings Institution’s Municipal Finance Conference in Washington, D.C., last summer. “If I’m getting hit over the head [going to] my car, don’t come to me talking about a program for kids. If there are potholes in my street, don’t come to me talking about money for greenspace.”
But of course the issue of pension reform was more than just a balance sheet problem; it was political. Unions were appalled that promised benefits for their members might be in jeopardy. “They realized that I was crazy,” Reed said. “The friends who helped make me mayor came into my office and they said, if you put a pension bill on the floor, we’re gonna go get ourselves another mayor.”
Although Reed had won by just 714 votes, he was still early in his term. It was time to test the waters. To ignore pension reform was not an option; even if the city somehow had still managed to avoid bankruptcy by the time he was up for reelection, to let it go unaddressed would not only violate a pledge he’d made on the campaign trail, it would hobble him from doing other things he’d promised, like opening the city recreation centers that budget cuts brought on by the Great Recession had left closed.
Ultimately, the solution that the council approved unanimously in 2011 was a hybrid of several proposals from the mayor and from council members that included a 401(k)-like plan, increased contributions from city employees, a longer vesting time, and a higher retirement age. Everyone took a piece of the credit, because everyone deserved a piece.
Yolanda Adrean, a freshman city councilmember at the time, chaired the finance committee during the pension reform debates and met occasionally with the mayor. “He listened to me,” said Adrean, who didn’t run for reelection in November. “He was patient. I know he has a reputation for being elbows-out, but if you go to him and you’re prepared with facts and you’re working for the common good, he respects that.”
Pension reform set the stage for everything to come. “Our pension costs have gone from 18.5 percent to about 14.5 today,” Reed told the Brookings conference. “We’ve saved $270 million in cash over a 10-year period, and we’ll save $500 million over a 30-year period. It became a joy to come to work because people could now come and work on other things besides laying people off and having furloughs.”
Though “joy” was not a word I heard anyone but Reed use in describing life at City Hall under him, it’s also true that those in his inner circle, especially during the early days, felt a sense of mission and purpose that was unlike anything they’d ever experienced before. As a boss, Reed’s philosophy was simple: Hire smart people, give them autonomy, and always have their backs. In exchange, he pushed them. Hard.
“He bets on people—and potential,” said Duriya Farooqui, who was a rare holdover from the administration of Reed’s predecessor, Shirley Franklin. Since 2016, Farooqui has been executive director of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, a consortium of local business and civic leaders that acts as a kind of sounding board for the mayor. But in 2010, she was 33, deputy COO under Peter Aman, and assigned to negotiate with Delta on wrapping up the long-delayed international terminal.
“When I think about the initiatives and ambitions that the mayor had for the city that I was empowered to execute,” Farooqui said, “would I have given myself that charge if I was in his place at the time? Hell no.” In 2011, after COO Peter Aman left, Reed promoted Farooqui, and before she herself left in 2014, she negotiated for the city in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium discussions.
Reed and his team delivered results: The city’s credit rating is now AA+, one step below the highest ranking. He unloaded city-owned parcels—City Hall East, Underground Atlanta, Fort McPherson, the Civic Center, Turner Field—that were more trouble than they were worth, prompting some to label him the “real estate mayor.” He brokered a deal for the Falcons to build a new stadium. He partnered with Republican Governor Nathan Deal, a relationship that expedited the deepening of the Savannah port and made Reed more welcome in the city-hostile halls of the General Assembly.
Reed reopened every recreation center in the city, two-thirds of which had been shuttered when he took office, cleverly rebranding them as “Centers of Hope.” He championed LGBTQ rights, the BeltLine, sustainability, and mass transit. Under Reed, the police department hired its 2,000th officer, a goal articulated but not achieved by his two immediate predecessors. (It has since dipped back below that number.) All of this he did without raising property taxes while also building up cash reserves (as city law dictates he must do) to almost $200 million. Undoubtedly, he was helped along the way by national trends of falling crime rates and surging employment plus a generational renaissance of cities across the country, particularly in the Sun Belt, but Reed, a man who keeps careful score, does not need to grade his accomplishments on a curve.
There were losses. He campaigned tirelessly for the first T-SPLOST in 2012, a one percent sales tax referendum that would have funded $7.2 billion in transportation improvements across 10 counties. It failed miserably. And it was under Reed’s watch that the Braves negotiated with Cobb County in secret before announcing the franchise would build a new stadium there.
Atlanta’s rapid growth—$3.5 billion in new construction permits in 2016—has, paradoxically, focused a starker light on its failures. Four out of five black children in Atlanta grow up in impoverished neighborhoods, while just one in 20 white children do. The BeltLine has been a relentless engine for intown growth but increasingly at a cost to the homeowners and renters whose historic neighborhoods it transects. Unemployment rates for black Atlantans are three times that of white Atlantans. Atlanta remains the most economically divided city in the nation. The average credit score for a nonwhite Atlantan is 560—subprime—which makes them vulnerable to vulture lenders. To be black in Atlanta is, statistically speaking, to be poor in Atlanta. This phenomenon is far from unique to the administration of Kasim Reed, but as the percentage of white Atlantans begins to creep back to levels not seen since the early 1970s, and as the median price of a home hits record highs, the “Atlanta Way” has begun to look like the way to nowhere special.
• • •
Of course, there’s what Reed did in eight years, and there’s how he did it. “Kasim is like a bowling ball: Get the hell out of my way, or get knocked down,” said Andrew Young, who was first elected to lead City Hall in 1981. Young was hardly an accidental mayor, but he recalled being almost guilted into running after serving as former President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations. “I had no idea what I was going to do as mayor until I became mayor,” he told me. So, he read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Reed, on the other hand, is very much a deliberate mayor, and the almost desperate urgency he’s maintained while in office left Young in awe. “In terms of being productive, I don’t think there’s any mayor who’s done more that’s beneficial to the city than he did.”
It was an appearance by then Mayor Young at Ben Hill United Methodist Church in the early 1980s that gave a 13-year-old Kasim Reed, who was sitting in the congregation, his life’s mission. Said Young: “I was told back when he was in college that he was too arrogant to succeed. I said, ‘No. Doing what he’s trying to do, you’ve got to be arrogant to try it.’ They said Maynard was arrogant. I probably am, too. But I know how to conceal it.”
If Reed ever was inclined to conceal his arrogance, he pretty much abandoned that pretense during his last year. In July, both WSB-TV and Fox 5 aired stories on an April trip that 10 city employees, including Reed, took to South Africa. Six of the plane tickets were business class, and the total airfare was almost $81,000. (After the reports, Reed’s office said that an unnamed NGO would reimburse the difference between the cost of business class and coach.) Similarly, 12 days before the general election, the AJC reported that leftover money in a political committee funded by local businesses to drum up support for the 2015 transit referendum went to help fund the campaigns of seven of Reed’s allies on city council. A “slush fund,” one mayoral candidate called it.
But no shadow over Reed’s final year—indeed over potentially his legacy—looms larger than the federal government’s ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) investigation into corruption at City Hall. So far, it’s ensnared two contractors (who are each serving prison sentences on charges they conspired to bribe an unnamed person $1 million in connection with city business) as well as Adam Smith, who was the city’s chief procurement officer until Reed fired him the day the FBI marched into City Hall and seized Smith’s computer. (Smith admitted to taking bribes in exchange for helping an unnamed vendor win a contract with the city; he’s to be sentenced this month.)
At the October sentencing of the two contractors, an assistant U.S. attorney said that “this year has brought into clear focus that corruption in the city of Atlanta is prolific.” It was that word—prolific—that especially alarmed and appalled Shirley Franklin. “It’s abominable,” she told me, “that any city contractor—people who’ve been here for years and years—thought during the last eight years that they had to pay someone $1 million to get a contract.”
To Franklin, Reed’s response—that his office has been cooperating fully with the investigation—was insufficient. “‘Cooperating’ with the U.S. attorney?” she said, incredulous. “What fool doesn’t? The adequate answer is, ‘I’m getting to the bottom of this, and I want to know what the U.S. attorney knows that I need to fix.’”
In February, in one of the most passive-aggressive acts in Atlanta political history, Reed called a press conference to announce the release of 1.5 million pages of City Hall documents that his administration had turned over to federal investigators. Dozens of the 400 banker boxes served as a backdrop for the photo op. “What I wasn’t going to allow to happen was for y’all to question my commitment to sunshine,” he said. Thousands of pages were printed in a font so small they were illegible. Reporters spent hours randomly riffling through the documents. If that was Reed’s idea of sunshine, everyone left with melanoma.
The question on everyone’s mind was—and remains—how “prolific” is the corruption at City Hall? At the press conference, one reporter asked Reed directly if he had taken a bribe. “Absolutely not,” Reed said. “I have never taken a bribe. I have given my life to this job. For seven years, day in and day out, I have poured myself into this job. I’ve wanted to be mayor of Atlanta since I was 13. And if you think that I would throw my life away for some short-term gratification, you don’t know me well, and you don’t know the plans that I have for my own life.”
Adrean, the outgoing city councilmember, told me that it’s the job of the mayor to address the calcified and corrosive culture of how procurement is done at City Hall. “So many of our contracts are legacy contracts that go on for 25 years. There’s so little disclosure of who these people are. We’re a public company. We’re funded by taxpayer dollars, and yet, the majority of our vendors are private businesses who don’t have the disclosure [rules] that public companies do.
“Until we get a mayor who’s absolutely serious about changing business as usual, we are going to have this long shadow across the city,” Adrean said. “The next council has to take [reform] seriously, or it’ll bring us to our knees.”
• • •
The 2017 campaign for mayor lacked the urgency and energy of eight years ago, thanks in part to the preposterous number of candidates (13, at one point) running to succeed Reed. Debates felt less like robust exchanges than tedious table readings from an ensemble cast that had grown weary of one another. Up until late summer, the safe money had been on Mitchell to make the runoff against Norwood, who was back again, undaunted eight years after her razor-thin loss to Reed. But Mitchell was languishing. Meanwhile, Cathy Woolard was finding her voice and competing with Aman, Reed’s former COO. And Bottoms, the sole black female candidate in a city where black women are the largest voting demographic, was breaking free of the pack, at least according to a poll in early October. By the time Reed went on V-103’s morning show to announce his endorsement on October 11, Bottoms had found momentum.
“She led the effort on pension reform. She helped me reopen every recreation center in the city of Atlanta. She led when I was fighting to make sure that every woman in the city of Atlanta received equal pay. She led when I wanted to open a women’s entrepreneurship initiative,” Reed told Ryan Cameron, the V-103 morning host. “I’m gonna do everything I can to see that this woman wins. She deserves it.” Then, cryptically, he added: “I want folks to look out for her and stop letting folks be so reckless talking about this black woman. I’m trying to check that.”
Cameron didn’t follow up, but Reed didn’t need him to; the mayor had done what he’d come to do. He’d given a public (if not full-throated) endorsement in the race to succeed him, and he’d also launched a warning shot that Bottoms’s opponents should be careful what they say about “this black woman.” Reed’s comments were a kind of preemptive strike. From now on, anyone who looked at Bottoms—at, for example, the donations from airport contractors that were helping fuel her campaign as they had Reed’s before—and concluded, or even worried, that a Bottoms administration would be merely an extension of his own, and that she was in his debt or, worse, in his thrall . . . well, to have those concerns meant you were sexist. Maybe even racist.
Jeff Dickerson, who used to work at the AJC and now runs his own public affairs firm, is a strident Reed defender. He believes that at least some of the criticism of Reed stems from a deep-seated discomfort with a black mayor who’s unapologetically forthright. “It’s another form of racism. When you’re as effective as [Reed] has been and all people talk about is your confrontational style, something’s wrong with that. If he were white and pugilistic or confrontational, they’d just say he was being an assertive, strong mayor . . . I say to myself, it’s time that an African-American male mayor should have license to be able to say whatever the hell’s on his mind. Everybody can’t be Barack Obama.”
As the December 5 runoff approached, though, and with Bottoms catching flak for her association with Reed, the mayor eased up. One week before the election, he spoke with me for an hour in his office. The “losers” comment had clearly done Bottoms no favors. Still, he didn’t like muzzling himself.
“To never respond,” he said, “is exactly what is wrong with politics right now. People elect you to win for them and fight for them. What I understood very early was that I am responsible for governing the people of the city of Atlanta. Sitting right here, my job approval is [in the] mid-60s . . . and the city’s ‘right track’ number is 69. I know all of this because we monitor it constantly. I know who my market is.”
Simply put, Reed explained, if Atlantans disapproved of his combative approach, then his approval numbers wouldn’t be so high. “If there was something showing up in our data that said that people did not like this in our focus groups, trust me, I’m a decent politician. I would adjust,” he said. The metrics justified the means.
And yet, he added, “if you do your research on me, I’ve never picked on anybody. Never. You can mine all of the data on me, and you will not find one time where I walked up to somebody and tapped their shoulder. That’s not even who I am. But what I believe from my father is that when people engage you in a way that is negative, you have to make it so terrible for them that they decide to pick on someone else.”
Reed often invokes his record of never having any legislation rejected by city council. Why not, I asked, use that traction to once and for all reform the procurement process in the city to make it more transparent and less susceptible to corruption? “I’ve really wracked my brain about it,” he replied. He cited ethics laws that he described as the “toughest” already in place, plus he’d prevailed in every significant court battle from would-be contractors claiming the deck was stacked against them. “The regret I have is that I think it caused me to take my guard down a bit and to become less vigilant.” He said that he’d hired a “leading law firm” to review every aspect of the procurement process, and that the firm had conducted “more than 40 interviews” before making their recommendations. (Later, Jenna Garland, a mayoral spokesperson, told me the city had issued a Request for Proposal for a consultant to review the procurement process but had yet to make a selection.)
I asked if he was frustrated that he’d be leaving office without the federal investigation being resolved. “No. I understand the perils of this job. Men who are better than me have had to go through this exact same kind of review. I run an organization with 8,500 people, and I take this extremely seriously. It is heartbreaking to me that this is happening. Anybody that looks at the way that I’ve run this government knows that I was trying to build something special. I believe that at the end of the day, we’re gonna receive a fair judgment. My personality is to keep running hard. I’m still so glad that I won.”
When he came into office, Reed was a bachelor. He was, by his own admission, “driven in an unhealthy and selfish way.” “The life I delayed”—marriage to Sarah-Elizabeth Langford, who gave birth to their daughter Maria Kristin in 2014—“is really filling my life now. I’m not gonna mislead you and say it fully fills it, but it certainly is much sweeter and slower and happier. My daughter, she just owns me.”
Not long after the next mayor is inaugurated, Reed and his family will board a flight for the Bahamas. “I’m going to have a month or two months where I’m going to be pretty much unrecognizable. And I want to learn Spanish.” After that? He expects he’ll join a university or a think tank before he maps out his next move. President Donald Trump’s victory scuttled any plans he might have had for a job in a Hillary Clinton administration, so the man with the five-year plans is feeling . . . unsettled. I asked if he would consider running for mayor again. “I don’t know,” he said. But he seemed eager to put to rest any thought that he’d play a behind-the-scenes role in a Bottoms administration. “I really have a strong ‘leave’ personality. I never wanted to be the guy who went back to his high school with his varsity jacket on. If you look at my career, I haven’t gone back.
“I’m ready to leave.”
On December 5, clinging to a 759-vote lead (a margin almost as thin as Reed’s 714-vote margin eight years earlier), Bottoms declared victory. I met with Reed briefly in his suite after Bottoms’s victory speech in a Hyatt Regency ballroom. Boxes of pizza sat opened on a countertop. Sarah-Elizabeth sat beside him. “My goal was for Keisha to be in the runoff,” Reed said. “Once that goal was achieved, my role changed to gathering influencers and focusing on raising the money that was necessary in a very short amount of time.” Due in part to their exasperation with Reed, many of his rivals endorsed Norwood. They included Mitchell, Franklin, Aman, and Woolard. In turn, Bottoms trotted out endorsements from celebrities like Killer Mike and T.I., while Reed leveraged his contacts with national Democrats to bring in New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and California Senator Kamala Harris. “They came in to stem that momentum that had been created [for Norwood] out of those endorsements.”
Reed was taking a special pleasure in the WSB poll that had come out days before the election that had shown Norwood with a six-point lead. Reed suspected that the poll hurt Norwood. “It caused her voters on the north side to feel like the race was won.”
He said he’d told Bottoms after the general election that he knew Norwood was beatable when his former opponent went home early that night. “I believe that she never recovered from losing to me. It’s the demon. You can see it in her.”
Reed had taken off his suit jacket. He leaned back. “I have a lot of peace.”
When it comes to imploding the Georgia Dome, the saying that it’s easier to tear down than to build is only slightly true. The 12-second event on Monday morning is the culmination of more than 18 months of effort, which began the very night the last monster truck rolled out of the Dome after its final event on March 5. Here are a few facts about what’s gone into the implosion, courtesy of Matt Dale, a senior director for Darden & Company, which was the project manager for the Mercedes-Benz Stadium construction and is also overseeing the Dome implosion:
The demolition and clean-up of the Dome is part of the $1.5 billion pricetag for Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Though the actual detonations at 7:30 a.m. Monday will take just 12 seconds (plus another three seconds for the walls to come down), workers will be onsite for three months cleaning it up. The Home Depot Backyard, as it’s been called, will be ready for use in time for the Falcons 2018 season.
The Falcons sought bids from demolition companies all over the world, finally settling on Pettigrew to wire the Dome for explosives, and Adamo to do the set-up and cleanup. The two companies have been on the job for more than a year.
Anything that can be detached or moved inside the Dome is gone—the chairs, the chillers, the scoreboards, the turf. All that is left is steel and concrete—250,00 cubic yards, in fact.
More than two tons of explosives (4,800 pounds, to be precise) have been positioned throughout the stadium’s interior. Dynamite has been positioned into holes drilled strategically within the concrete pillars. Which side the dynamite is on affects which way the pillar will collapse. The “ring beam”—to which the roof is attached by cables—has been wired separately with “shape charges,” which are C4 plastic explosives designed to detonate in one direction. The tension from the cables will draw the ring beam inward at the time of implosion.
No more than 50 feet of bedrock separates the Georgia Dome from the MARTA line, which itself sits just five feet below the surface. Engineers have positioned seismographs within the line and station to ensure that the shocks aren’t strong enough to damage any of the MARTA tunnels.
The Georgia Dome sits lower than Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Over the three months of clean-up, crews will crush the concrete into pieces six inches in diameter and smaller and spread it over the terrain. The concrete will provide a 12-foot base, over which will ultimately be poured sand and then finally topsoil and sod. The resulting park will still be below the level of Northside Drive.
The dust cloud will be big and is expected to leave a layer of dust as far away as a quarter-mile.
Who will hit the button? Steve Pettigrew, from the company that wired the Dome with six miles of detonation cord and a mile of electrical connections. It’s not a red button, either. It basically looks like an old Nokia cell phone.
Finally, there is no public viewing area for the event. Dome officials advise you watch it on TV (WSB-TV is broadcasting it live), unless you have friends in a downtown or midtown skyscraper. (Also be aware of the road closures and MARTA closures.)
The joke that Atlanta Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay tells is that, at some point during the construction of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Arthur Blank declared that he wanted the Falcons’ 2-million-square-foot new home to be designated as LEED Platinum. LEED is short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and each eco-friendly thing a developer does during construction earns the building points. How many points your project gets determines if it’s merely “LEED-certified,” or if it’s crowned silver or gold. “LEED Platinum” is the highest designation, and no sports facility in the world had ever earned it.
Why not? It’s expensive. Today, though, Blank announced that the U.S. Green Buildings Council had awarded 88 points to the stadium, eight points above the threshold that puts the facility in the platinum category.
“Sometimes as a leader I’ve been known to be irrational,” Blank said at a press conference today. When he requested Mercedes-Benz Stadium be LEED Platinum, he recalled, “there was complete silence. Now sometimes silence, in a legal sense, can be construed as assent. In management, though, it could mean you’ve gone out of your mind.”
The pricetag for the $1.5 billion stadium famously crept up in $100 million increments over the course of its 3-plus year construction, no doubt due in part to the innovations, big and small, that Blank knew would win them points toward LEED Platinum. Some of the highlights:
A 680,000-gallon underground cistern (beneath MLK Drive, actually) collects rainwater that is repurposed not just for irrigation, but to help run the stadium’s massive cooling towers. (Also, Trees Atlanta has access to the cistern to water its trees.) There’s also a stormwater vault that can hold 1.2 million gallons. The idea is to also reduce stormwater runoff and flooding in the neighborhoods to the west of the stadium.
LED lighting over the entire stadium cuts the energy bill by 60 percent.
The retractable roof meant builders couldn’t install solar panels way up high, so instead they put 4,000 panels elsewhere, including on top of a parking deck just off the entrance.
Initial plans for the stadium, years ago, called for the windows to open. Designers abandoned that idea, as it would have created heat gains throughout the interior. Instead, fritting on the glass helps keep the heat out and the cool in.
When the Georgia Dome is imploded on Monday, 13 acres will be turned into a park. (A hotel will also be going up nearby.)
The stadium’s proximity to MARTA also earned it points. According to the Falcons, 25 percent of fans take public transportation to games, a higher percentage than any other NFL franchise.
For Mary Norwood, it must have felt like déjà vu. Back in 2009 at her election night party at the Varsity—with a runoff against Kasim Reed looming and Fulton County results glacially slow to come in—she urged her supporters to save their energy and settle in for the long haul. Tuesday night wasn’t much different. This time, though, her opponent wasn’t Reed, but Reed’s heir apparent, Keisha Lance Bottoms. Around 11 p.m., Norwood took to the podium at 103 West, in her home turf of Buckhead, and gave the crowd—mostly over 50, mostly white—her blessing to call it a night. The writing was on the wall, after all.
“I know our ground game,” Norwood said on her way out. “I know we have thousands of yard signs. I know we have support in every corner of the city. I know I [have had] double-digit support across the entire city for the past year. I think that’s a great position of strength going into the runoff.
“We have a campaign that is totally inclusive, totally embracing of everyone in this town, whether it’s citizen, resident, business, visitor, regardless of nationality, ethnic background, or orientation. We are the all-encompassing campaign. That speaks to the Atlanta of the 21st century,” she said.
Just after midnight, seven miles to the south, Reed left his suite on the second floor of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta and headed down to the Regency V ballroom to warm up the crowd for Bottoms. Security paced him, photographers surrounded him. On the stage, Reed introduced Bottoms as the “60th mayor of Atlanta,” and indeed, Bottoms’ subsequent remarks felt almost like a coronation. To listen to her, you’d have thought she had won outright. “I don’t take the responsibility of being the 60th mayor of this city lightly,” she told the enthusiastic crowd of a few hundred.
She made no mention of the runoff battle against Norwood—a battle that had, effectively, already begun. Indeed, Bottoms ticked off the names of each of her many opponents during the race—even the early, more obscure ones, like Rohit Amannamanchi—before adding, “I stand here a better person for having spent the last year with each of them, because each of us has a very unique style, but we all have a love for this city. I look forward to working with each of my new friends—my new best friends—over the next four years.”
The rest of her remarks were a reminder of why her personal narrative (helped along by Reed’s strident endorsement and fierce advocacy) resonated with voters.
“As I walk through the kitchen to get in here,” she said, “I looked at the bags of trash and paper and I thought about my grandfather. My grandfather used to go to hotels—he called it ‘uptown,’ we call it ‘downtown’—and he would go in the back door of hotels and haul out their paper. Their trash was his gold. He would take it to a paperhouse and he would sell it. And that’s the way he fed his children. I thought about my grandfather walking through that back door so I could stand here tonight.”
“I woke up this morning,” she said, “and there was a poem that was on my heart—it played over and over again. It was a line from ‘Still I Rise’ from Maya Angelou and it said, ‘I am the hope of the slave.’ I stand here with the blood of slaves and slaveowners running through my veins. And I look at each of you and I’m reminded of what is possible in this city.”
Reed’s endorsement is a double-edged sword for Bottoms in the days leading up to the December 5 runoff. Reed’s job approval ratings are in the mid-60s, according to his office, so it makes sense to ride his coattails. But she also needs to show that she’ll be no one’s puppet, along with distancing herself from the shadow of the ongoing federal investigation into corruption at City Hall. During her nine-minute remarks, she gave a glimpse of how she’ll thread that needle.
“I’ve mentioned my friend Kasim Reed, and I’ve mentioned what a great job he’s done on behalf of this city. And because this city has come so very far in eight years financially, we can now go back and pour into our communities the same resources and the same energy that we poured into getting this city on [solid] financial footing.”
By the time all the ballots were finally counted, Bottoms won 28 percent of the vote, with Norwood winning 21 percent. Cathy Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president, trailed four percentage points behind Norwood, with 17 percent.
Now comes a four-week sprint to the finish. For Norwood, it won’t be enough to simply bring her supporters out to the polls one more time. She’ll need to draw significant support from voters who’d supported the six other candidates on the ballot. As of today, none of them has endorsed Norwood or Bottoms, or even said they planned to. Perhaps most daunting for Norwood? Bottoms is wisely playing up her own Democrat bona fides, which stand in marked contrast to what’s seen as Norwood’s own political fluidity.
Some other takeaways:
Just a few months ago, this election seemed Ceasar Mitchell’s to lose. After all, the city council president had patiently waited his turn and even had the endorsement of Ambassador Andrew Young and C.T. Vivian. But on election night, Mitchell barely scraped into the double digits. You could say Mitchell’s message got lost in the crowded field, but all the candidates had that same challenge. What likely hurt Mitchell the most was Reed, who used his bully pulpit to publicly chastise and belittle Mitchell.
Cathy Woolard and Peter Aman weren’t carbon-copy candidates, but they shared many priorities, including transit and affordability. Many voters we talked to were on the fence between the two, and so we have to think the two candidates split votes that otherwise could have all gone to one if the other hadn’t run.
Identity politics are alive and well—especially in a race where all the candidates seemed to be saying the same things. Here are two facts: The largest voting bloc in the city are black women, and Bottoms was the only black female candidate. Likewise, this election seemed to identify a new voting bloc: the eastside. Though Bottoms carried southwest Atlanta and Norwood won over Buckhead, Woolard dominated the predominantly white and gentrifying neighborhoods east of Downtown. (You can see a map of how this played out in Fulton County here.) In Atlanta-in-DeKalb communities (which include East Atlanta, Kirkwood, and Edgewood), Woolard garnered more than 37 percent of the vote.
Though the runoff for the mayor’s race will dominate Reed’s attention, at least one of his allies still needs his help. Councilwoman Cleta Winslow has a tough runoff challenge for her seat representing West End against military veteran advocate Jason Dozier. And we imagine he’s not done with the Atlanta City Council president race, either. C.T. Martin, a strong ally on the council, lost his bid to oversee the legislative body, failing to make a runoff against council colleagues Alex Wan and Felicia Moore—the most loyal of Reed’s opposition.
All through this race, we’ve seen a series of polls that showed most of the candidates clustered in the low single digits, with as many as 20 percent of voters undecided. The fact that the majority of Atlantans stayed home on election night showed either that candidates were getting more favorable internal polling or, following the 2016 elections, they figured polling is worthless and that they’d take their shot. Woolard’s strong showing supports the flawed polling argument. The only question is, did polling actually influence people’s votes?
It’s worth arguing whether Atlanta was shortchanged by the sheer number of candidates in the race. It was nearly impossible to get much of a sense of how the candidates differed on policy by going to a forum because no one had much time to speak. Local media’s attention was more focused on the Jon Ossoff-Karen Handel race earlier this year and was unprepared to cover a contest with as many as ten candidates. Forget about city council and Atlanta Public Schools contests on top of that. Unless they attended a number of meet-and-greets, many Atlantans likely cast their vote on fairly superficial grounds.
The Monday deadline was set by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney in court this morning. McIver’s attorneys said they’d let McBurney know by next Thursday, October 19, whether they would accept any deal that is offered. McBurney asked chief prosecutor Clint Rucker if the district attorney’s office, as part of a plea deal, was considering dropping or eliminating any of the charges against McIver. “I could see that happening,” Rucker said, adding that he’d first consult with District Attorney Paul Howard.
If no plea deal is reached, McIver’s trial is slated to begin October 30. In court this morning, attorneys told McBurney they anticipated assembling a pool of as many 200 jurors to find the 12, plus two alternates, who would decide McIver’s fate. Given the publicity surrounding the case, McBurney said that jury selection will determine if the case needs to be moved out-of-county.
In court today, Rucker also argued that a 1990 incident in which McIver set loose his two German Shepherds on a red Mustang near his house on Cravey Trail in northeast Atlanta, then fired his gun at the car, would be relevant for a jury to hear. Kevin O’Neal, a passenger in the car at the time, took the stand to recount what happened that night 27 years ago. O’Neal, who’s 46 now, said he and two friends—all of whom lived in same DeKalb County neighborhood as McIver did back in 1990—were toasting his impending departure for Parris Island, where he was reporting for duty.
“We were having a couple of beers,” O’Neal testified. “At one point, we noticed a couple of dogs that were coming down the road toward us. Kevin [Blase, the Mustang’s driver] was being jovial and he barked at them. A few minutes later we heard what we thought were firecrackers going off. We noticed a man walking down the street. He was holding a gun. We decided we would get in the car and regroup around the corner, out of sight. We decided to leave. We weren’t going to ask any questions. We weren’t sure of his frame of mind. As we were leaving the area, he opened fire on us as we were passing directly by him.”
No one was injured in the incident. O’Neal testified that he knew it was McIver because O’Neal had attended school with McIver’s son Robbie from first grade through high school.
Although McIver was indicted on five counts stemming from the 1990 incident, the case was ultimately “dead-docketed”—dropped, essentially—after McIver paid $2,931.10 to Blase to pay for the damages incurred by the bullet holes in his car.
Bob Houman, who was a DeKalb assistant district attorney at the time, testified today that McIver submitted to a psychological test after the shooting. McBurney asked if the result of the test contributed to the decision to dead-docket the case. “Yes,” replied Houman, who is now the chief assistant district attorney in Rockdale County. McBurney has yet to rule on whether the incident will be allowed if McIver’s murder case goes to trial. Though no details about the psychological evaluation were discussed in court, last year the AJC reported that the test found McIver to be “extremely non-violent” and “would not be prone toward aggressing against others in any form.”
Rucker argued that the 1990 shooting, despite happening more than a quarter-century ago, is relevant in the shooting death of Diane McIver. “There’s a certain disregard that he has with respect to human safety when he is handling guns. This 1990 case is a classic example.” Rucker cited a police report from the incident in which McIver told police he never had a gun at all. Said Rucker: “He is dishonest about his handling of a firearm, much as what has occurred in [the current case].”
What was Tex McIver thinking when he asked for the gun that would kill his wife?
We know what he said that night from the back seat of their Ford Expedition, his wife in the seat in front of him, their friend Dani Jo Carter behind the wheel, driving them the last few miles from the McIvers’ 86-acre spread in Putnam County to their 15th floor condo above Buckhead. Carter had run into traffic—“just a parking lot,” she would tell police—on the Connector, so she exited onto Edgewood Avenue, rousing Tex from his slumber. “This is a bad idea, girls,” Carter remembers him telling them. “This is a bad area.”
We know what he told Atlanta Police Detective Darrin Smith three days later, when he was recalling their exit off the highway, the left turn that took them through the underpass beneath the interstate, a fear that feels more suited to the downtown Atlanta of 20 years ago than to late September 2016. “My dismay was [it] seemed like every turn we made, the street was darker and there were more people milling about. I mean it was the kind of thing that rose the hair on the back of your neck.” (These remarks are contained in the transcript of McIver’s interview with police on September 28, 2016, reported here for the first time.)
We know what he told his friend Bill Crane. Well, strike that. We know what Crane said McIver told him, that McIver didn’t know what the intentions were of those people milling about. Were they homeless? Were they Black Lives Matter protesters? It had, after all, been a summer of anger across America. Just four days earlier, in Charlotte, protests over the police shooting of an unarmed black man led to one person shot dead. And the day before, while Tex was in Putnam County buying feed for his cattle and grocery shopping for dinner, there were more Black Lives Matter protests at Lenox Square, a block and a half from their Atlanta condo. To Tex McIver—then 73 years old, a partner at one of the city’s most prestigious law firms, a Republican loyalist whose money and privilege insulated him from the realities at the heart of those very protests—the nation may have seemed like it was fraying at the edges.
In the days and weeks after Crane, acting as Tex’s spokesman, uttered those three words to reporters—Black. Lives. Matter.—the narrative of Diane McIver’s sad and tragic death became freighted with something much more complicated. Now race was part of the story. And in the year since, and with Tex’s murder trial set to start next March, it’s never left. The whole tragic, hubristic affair sounds like something that Tom Wolfe would dream up. In fact, he kind of already did, except it took two novels—The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full—to anticipate the McIver drama, from the fateful turn off the highway (Bonfire) to the prideful lawyer stuck in traffic outside the Piedmont Driving Club (Man in Full). Turned out that Diane McIver was even shot not far from the Driving Club’s front entrance.
And so Tex McIver has become a symbol. What kind of symbol says more about who we are than who he is. To those close to him, convinced that he loved Diane without question and could no more shoot her intentionally than sprout wings and fly out of his jail cell, Tex is a victim of reverse prejudice, a convenient scapegoat for a society riven by class and racial resentments. Or is he, surrounded by his half-dozen defense attorneys, nothing more than a rich white man who believes the rules do not apply to him, who has spent decades with his thumb on the scales of power, who’s cynically exploiting race-based fears to cover up the opportunistic murder of his wife?
Not long after Diane Smith moved into the Villa at Buckhead Heights on Kingsboro Road, someone slipped a note under the door of her condo. Diane wasn’t home at the time, but one of her best friends, a cosmetologist named Dani Jo Carter, happened to be there. She called Diane, who had risen through the ranks at U.S. Enterprises, the advertising and media company founded by Bill Corey, owner of the Corey Tower.
“Read it,” Diane told Carter from her office. The note was from one of Diane’s new neighbors, who wanted to welcome her to the building. The name on the note said Claud “Tex” McIver.
Carter told Diane, “I’d change my name to Tex, too.”
Tex kept pursuing her, but Diane was not interested. As successful as she’d been in business—at her death she was U.S. Enterprises president—her first marriage at age 40 had been a mistake. But Tex was persistent, and she finally agreed to join him for dinner at his apartment. She didn’t have high expectations, though, judging by what she chose to wear—a baseball cap and some workout clothes.
Sure enough, they started dating; Tex even leased out his unit and bought one next to hers. They tore down the wall between the two to make one super-sized condo (now for sale for $674,900). And then one day Tex told Carter he needed her help picking out a setting for a $60,000 diamond. He was going to propose to Diane. In 2005 they married at the ranch; guests sat on hay bales.
Every marriage is a merging of assets and liabilities, both literal and figurative. To their union, Diane brought a frankness that could be disarming. “Not much filter,” as one person close to her described it. She wasn’t above remarking on a friend’s weight gain, but then she’d follow up with tips and encouragement for shedding the pounds. At U.S. Enterprises, visitors would be surprised to see that the woman arranging the food before a lunch meeting turned out to be the very person running the meeting. Over the years, Diane had built up a small but fiercely loyal support network that Tex would enjoy now too. There was her housekeeper. There was her assistant. There was the man who detailed her cars and ran errands. And there was Dani Jo Carter.
For his part, Tex brought a Rolodex of contacts throughout Georgia’s political and legal communities, acquired since 1972 at Fisher Phillips, one of the nation’s most prominent employment law firms. A strident conservative, Tex supported—financially and otherwise—the campaigns of some of the state’s most recognizable Republicans, among them Nathan Deal, Mike Bowers, Newt Gingrich, Paul Coverdell, Johnny Isakson, Lynn Westmoreland, Casey Cagle, and Brian Kemp.
In Tex’s mind, a candidate’s conservative bonafides excused all manner of sins. When a federal grand jury indicted former Congressman Pat Swindall in 1988 on 10 counts of perjury amid a money laundering investigation just weeks before he was up for re-election, McIver doubled down on his man. “I support him more than ever and intend to give him additional money because it looks like he needs it more than ever,” McIver told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, adding he’d back Swindall even if the congressman was convicted. (He was, on nine counts, and sentenced to a year in prison.)
As the balance of political power in the state shifted to Republicans at the beginning of the 21st century, McIver’s loyalty was rewarded. For 12 years, until his resignation last spring, he served on the State Election Board, where he used his position to vigorously push forward a voter photo ID law, even authorizing the mailing of 300,000 letters touting the new law though it had been deemed unconstitutional. In early 2005 Governor Sonny Perdue appointed McIver to the Judicial Nominating Commission, which recommends to the governor names for vacancies on court benches. McIver was a party stalwart with both hard and soft skills, a potent combination of means and desire.
Those means allowed him to purchase his country retreat in Putnam County, with its private lake, guest house, and horses. Tex, born in the state that inspired his nickname, called it a “ranch.” There, he’d entertain clients, politicians, even the entire Putnam County Sheriff’s Office. And Diane loved it, too. “She was so driven in her career, but when she got to the lake it was jeans and T-shirt and just relax,” said Andrew Ward, who first met McIver after Ward offered to buy the ranch from him. Tex chuckled. “I don’t think you could afford it,” he told Ward. Ward instead bought a lot across the road, built a house, and the two men—and their wives—became fast friends.
Tex brought other things to his 2005 marriage with Diane, not the least of which was his regrets from his first marriage, which had ended five years before in a divorce so acrimonious it poisoned his relationships with two of his three grown children.
Oh, and Tex brought his guns.
• • •
Janie Calhoun lives across the hall from the McIvers’ condo in the Villa at Buckhead Heights. One afternoon, about four or five years ago, she looked out her window and saw, sitting on her terrace, a buzzard.
The next day, Calhoun was at the McIvers’, joining them for dinner and telling them what she’d seen. She glanced out on the McIvers’ terrace—and there sat the same buzzard.
“Oh my God, there he is!” she exclaimed.
“Well, we can scare him,” Tex said. He got up and returned with a pistol. The sliding door was open, and he pointed the gun through it.
According to Calhoun, she and Diane were sitting in the dining room, closest to the terrace. Austin Schwall was in the condo, too, but in the kitchen. Austin is 11 years old, so he would have been six or seven at the time. He is the godson of Tex and Diane McIver and the second child of Craig and Anne Schwall, who are divorced. Craig Schwall is a Fulton County Superior Court judge and was appointed to the bench in 2005 by Governor Sonny Perdue to succeed Judge Rowland Barnes, who’d been shot to death in the courtroom by Brian Nichols, a defendant who’d escaped custody and went on a rampage that ultimately claimed four lives. Schwall was recommended to Perdue by his Judicial Nominating Commission, of which Tex was, back in 2005, a new member. This kind of connection between Tex and Georgia power brokers is typical.
Tex raised his pistol and shot at the buzzard through the screen door. The bird flew away, uninjured. Austin laughed.
Calhoun told this story in court on April 25. At that point, the most serious charge against Tex in connection to his wife’s death was involuntary manslaughter. One of the conditions of his bond was that he not possess any guns. But eight days before the court hearing, in the process of executing a search warrant to look for evidence that Diane may have had a second will, investigators from the Fulton County District Attorney’s office found a Glock in Tex’s sock drawer. After three days of testimony from witnesses such as Calhoun, McBurney revoked Tex’s bond and sent him to jail. On April 27, he was indicted on seven counts, including felony murder.
Calhoun and the McIvers, it turns out, have a mutual acquaintance: Howard Sills, who’s been sheriff of Putnam County for 21 years, which is about how long Tex has owned his ranch. Calhoun works for Trinity Services Group, which provides food services to the corrections industry, including the Putnam County jail, over which Sills presides. In many ways, the McIver case illustrates just how small a town Atlanta really is.
Calhoun and Sills both became de facto custodians of Tex’s guns in the days and weeks after Diane’s death. Calhoun actually helped clear all the guns from Tex’s condo twice—first because she was worried he was so distraught he might kill himself, then later, after he’d reclaimed them, when his bond conditions forbade them.
Calhoun retrieved about four pistols from his closet floor, another from his armoire, plus one long gun. She put them all in her closet. (They’ve since been moved to a safe at a law firm.)
Last Christmas Eve, Sills backed up his car to the garage at the ranch and loaded his trunk with the guns Tex kept there. Sills told me he transported about 35 guns from the ranch to the evidence room at his office.
“That might sound like a lot of guns to you,” he said. “That’s not a lot of guns to me. That’s not a lot of guns to the average middle-income rural Georgian man.” Sills said most of the rifles were lever action. “Tex was queer for lever action rifles. I guess it’s a Texas thing. I think 20 of them were lever action, and I’d say six or eight were handguns.”
A few days after Diane’s death, Sills and his wife hosted Tex for dinner. He seemed still in shock. In years past, Tex had joined Sills and others on a pheasant hunting trip to South Dakota. The annual trip was approaching, and Sills asked Tex if he wanted to come. “I don’t want to touch a gun,” Tex told him.
• • •
On November 4, 1999, Donald Wright was deposed in Tex McIver’s divorce case. Wright was a partner at Fisher Phillips and had interviewed Tex before he joined the firm in 1972. Lawyers, of course, often have to set aside their personal beliefs in order to best serve their clients, but no doubt Tex found the work of Fisher Phillips, which represented exclusively management in labor disputes, to square neatly with his own conservative beliefs.
By the time of Wright’s deposition, Tex was already into the third year of a protracted divorce battle with Nancy (who goes by “Jinx”) whom he’d married in 1966. In her initial filing for divorce, in July 1997, Jinx said the marriage, which had produced two sons and a daughter, was “irretrievably broken.” In subsequent filings, she accused Tex of having an affair “for several years” with a woman who lived on the Putnam County ranch, then valued at $510,000. Although Tex claimed in a deposition that the woman was merely a tenant, Jinx said in court papers that Tex and his alleged paramour had taken trips and attended parties together. (The woman was not Diane McIver, whom Tex began dating years after his divorce.)
The divorce dragged on for years, and the case file fills two deep cardboard boxes in the Fulton County court clerk’s office. Motion after motion by Jinx’s attorney accused Tex of not disclosing fully all of his business interests, which included an investment in a kaolin mining operation in middle Georgia. In one filing, Tex detailed his net worth as amounting to $987,449 with a net monthly income of $17,000. But his monthly bills totaled more than $21,000, thanks to mortgage bills on his condo and his ranch, college expenses for his daughter, plus $8,000 in monthly payments to his estranged wife.
Wright’s 1999 deposition was one of dozens taken during the three-plus years Tex and Jinx sparred in court. In his deposition, Wright described Tex as “team captain” in the firm, responsible for managing a group of a dozen or so lawyers. Asked to describe Tex’s performance at Fisher Phillips, Wright said, “He’s been a moneymaker. He’s put money in my pocket and in all the other lawyers’ pockets. A good producer, worked hard.”
Just a day after Wright’s deposition, Jinx’s attorney, Harmon Caldwell Jr., stood before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Melvin Westmoreland and recited a long list of documentation he was still waiting on from Tex that would, Caldwell argued, give a complete picture of how much he was worth. “Mr. McIver is a very, very good lawyer,” Caldwell said in court. “He knows what he’s supposed to do in this case, and he has made a conscious decision that he’s not going to do it.” In court that day, Westmoreland found Tex in contempt, which Tex described in subsequent testimony as “probably one of the most devastating events of my life.” Six months later, he was declared in contempt a second time.
Finally, on July 31, 2000, the two sides struck a settlement. For Tex, who’d testified in Westmoreland’s court just three months before that his attorney fees alone had already cost him more than $100,000, ending his 34-year-old marriage came at a steep price. Tex agreed to pay Jinx $686,275 in alimony. She also got half his retirement account (valued at $727,484 at the time of the settlement), roughly $400,000 from dividing up their property, and he agreed to pay $100,000 for her attorney fees. The settlement even stipulated how Tex could visit their dog, Malone. “The wife shall allow the husband to use her garden hose if necessary to wash the dog after one of his visits.”
Any mention of his first marriage “caused a change in [Tex’s] temperament,” Crane said, according to a transcript of his interview with the district attorney’s office. Crane told me that Tex was especially hurt when he was not invited to the wedding of his daughter, Meredith. “He didn’t know that he’d ever recover not being invited to his own daughter’s wedding,” Crane said. “He tried to go. He was not happy about being left out.”
When I reached Meredith by phone, she said, “This is a family matter and we want to keep it in the family.”
After the divorce settlement, Tex and the lawyer who’d represented him, James Macie, became friends. One year, before Tex had met Diane, Tex joined Macie and his wife for Christmas Eve church services. After he married Diane, the two couples went on a cruise together. “These people had an incredibly high lifestyle,” said Macie, who has written to Tex since his friend has been in custody. “They loved to go to the Kentucky Derby. They would fly to [Louisville] and have Dani Jo or her husband drive their limo there, so they’d have the use of the limo to drive around the Derby. I mention it only because it demonstrates that these were people living extraordinarily beautiful lifestyles.”
When I spoke to Macie, he was rooting for his friend but acknowledged passing doubts that I had yet to hear from any of Tex’s other friends.
“This is what happens when you’re crazy about guns,” he said. “The society we live in, the people who bang the drum about Second Amendment rights that we should carry guns everywhere, this is what happens—if it’s accidental. You don’t need to be driving through downtown Atlanta with a loaded pistol in your car.”
Before he was an attorney, Macie spent nine years as a Catholic priest, a position that gave him a rare insight into human behavior. “Having heard confessions for nine years, and having heard people talk about their lives in an intimate manner, I’m fully cognizant of the fact that the best people can, shall we say, sin,” Macie said. “It’s been my life experience that even good people can do bad things.”
• • •
Rachel Styles was working as a secretary for Ted Turner at the Braves when she first saw Diane at a Corey company picnic some 35 years ago. She saw a woman hustling about, wearing a hat, clearly in charge. “I said, I’ve got to meet this woman,’” Styles recalled. “As a female in the business world, she was someone who struck my eye. I wanted to be like that woman. So I introduced myself to her. Sometimes when you meet somebody you just click.”
Styles had a cousin who lived in the penthouse apartment in Diane’s building, and he’d host a Fourth of July party every year to watch the Lenox Mall fireworks. It was there that Styles first met Tex McIver.
“He was the perfect match for Diane,” Styles told me. “Diane was a very strong woman. She intimidated a lot of men. They just didn’t want to compete with her. But Tex didn’t want to compete with her; he was just infatuated with her.”
Styles coordinated their 2005 wedding and saw Diane revel in her life with Tex, especially at the ranch. “Diane loved the outdoors,” Styles said. “She loved hunting. She loved horses. It was just a perfect setting for her.” They’d spend most weekends there, and usually drive back to Atlanta on Sunday evening. Occasionally they’d stay an extra night and get up early on Monday to make it to work on time.
“They really were lovebirds,” Styles said. “Everybody argues, everybody disagrees a little bit. But never would they disagree to the point where there was any hostility or whatever. Diane might get a little fired up, and then Tex would say, ‘Honey, we need to think about this.’”
In the fall of 2012, Diane coaxed Styles out of retirement. A receptionist working under Diane at Corey was on sick leave. Would Rachel be interested in filling in for a few months? Styles stayed more than three years. One day at the office in late 2015, Diane asked Styles to make copies of some confidential papers for her. Because they were personal papers, she didn’t look at them before she handed the copies to Diane. “Thank you,” Diane said. “This is my new will.”
Did Diane McIver execute a second will to replace her 2006 will? Styles’s remarks to prosecutors indicated that perhaps Diane had at least drafted one and gave the district attorney a possible motive for why Tex may have intentionally shot his wife. The search warrant that turned up the gun in Tex’s condo was focused on looking for evidence of a second will or codicil to the first one; prosecutors even searched the office and home of Harold Hudson, the attorney the McIvers hired to do their estate planning.
At a court hearing in early September, Hudson took the stand while chief prosecutor Clint Rucker tried to jog his memory. Among the documentation that Hudson turned over to investigators, as a result of the search warrant, was a 2011 email from Hudson to Tex and Diane. The first part of the email is titled “Diane’s New Will.” It recaps a meeting from the previous day. One significant difference: Austin Schwall was named in the email outlining the proposed new will. (The will in probate court now was executed in 2006, before he was born.) If Diane died, according to the email, the farm would go to Tex, and if he were not alive, it would go into a trust for Austin. Likewise the condos and their contents—to Tex, unless he predeceased Diane, in which case it went to Austin’s trust, paid to him when he turns 30.
Rucker was particularly interested in deliberations between the McIvers and Hudson—deliberations around possibly changing the ownership designation of the ranch to a limited liability company. Such a move, Hudson said, would have meant tax benefits for both McIvers. But Diane apparently objected, because if she died first, then Tex’s children could potentially have a claim to her share of the ranch upon Tex’s eventual death. She wanted to protect her share for Austin Schwall. From the testimony:
Rucker: You knew that Diane’s objection was, she didn’t want Tex’s children to be able to take an interest in the ranch, right?
Hudson: I believe that’s correct.
Rucker: Yeah! And they disagreed, or talked about that, in your presence, right?
. . .
Hudson: I got a feeling that issue had been going on for a long time before I met with them. . . . I believe that you are correct, that the objection to putting the property into that [entity] was that if Diane died first, she wanted her ownership interest in the property to pass as she directed and did not want it necessarily to go to Tex’s children.
. . .
Rucker: She wanted her interest in the ranch to go to her godson, Austin Schwall. You knew that that’s what they were disagreeing about, right?
Hudson: No, I think Tex also wanted—they were both very, very keen on Austin.
Rucker: I’m not talking about keen. I’m saying Diane specifically told you for the preparation of her second will, she wanted her interest to go to her godson, Austin Schwall.
Hudson: I don’t remember. It’s in the email.
Rucker: What was the codicil about?
Hudson: I think the codicil was about the jointly held property.
Rucker: The ranch.
Rucker: What changes did the codicil make to the will?
Hudson: I can’t remember.
Rucker: You can’t remember. But you know that Claud McIver signed that codicil and Diane McIver did not?
Hudson: That’s my understanding. I know Claud McIver signed it. I don’t believe that Diane ever signed it, because I don’t think she was ever willing to go forward with it.
Summer was still very much hanging on during the final weekend of September last year. In Putnam County, where Tex and Diane McIver were spending the weekend at their ranch, the temperature peaked at 93 degrees on Sunday. That morning, Tex had made coffee and breakfast for Diane, as well as for Carter, whom the couple was hosting. Too hot for golf? Not for Diane, who would shoot 76 that afternoon at the course on Lake Oconee. Tex and Diane were not known to be particularly competitive, except on the golf course. Diane could talk some trash.
Early that evening, with the sun going down, Tex and Diane picked up Carter at the ranch, where she’d spent the day horseback riding. Diane drove everyone to Longhorn Steakhouse in Conyers, where they met Craig Stringer, a Corey vice president. Over dinner, Diane ordered a bottle of wine and drank a couple of glasses. Tex had one glass, Carter recalled, though Tex later said he’d taken just a couple of sips from it. Around 9:30 p.m., they said goodbye to Stringer. Carter, who doesn’t drink, took the keys to the Ford Expedition. During his first interview with police, three days later, Tex was asked if they took the unfinished bottle with them. “No,” he said. “Left it on the table.”
Tex was tired. He fell asleep in the back seat behind Diane. This wasn’t unusual; after all, Tex was 73, he’d had a drink at dinner, and he’d spent four-plus hours in the Georgia sun playing golf. “When I get off the golf course, I’m really tired,” he told police later. But there’s another thing, as Steve Maples, one of his attorneys, told me: Tex had been diagnosed with parasomnia, a term that covers a broad spectrum of sleep disorders, such as sleep paralysis, confusion on awakening, and involuntary movements. When Tex would doze off, Diane would often fuss at him, saying he needed to wake up or he wouldn’t be able to get to sleep later.
From the restaurant in Conyers, it’s a straight shot west on I-20, so it probably wasn’t much more than 25 minutes before they were merging onto the Connector on their way to the condo in Buckhead. Traffic was backed up due to road maintenance, so Carter took the Edgewood Avenue exit.
“Tex!” Diane said, according to Carter. “Tex, wake up and look at Waze!” Carter wasn’t sure why Diane didn’t consult her own phone. Tex woke up. Carter had most likely taken a left at the bottom of the off-ramp, which took them under the Connector briefly as they headed west on Edgewood.
Tex told APD Detective Darrin Smith he doesn’t sleep well in cars, that it’s “kind of a twilight zone thing for me.” The hard-right turn off I-20, and then the downward roll on the Edgewood exit, roused him. “And I came up and I said, ‘Girls, where are we, and what’s happening here?’” he told Smith. He looked around. “We were clearly off our path,” Tex said. “We went through an area I thought that was particularly dangerous at night. I’d seen police vehicles there. It’s a route I take from my office to [Diane’s] office. And I see police vehicles there with the blue lights on, and they’re doing things with people that are there.”
Tex described the underpass as “very dark” with a “particularly high population of homeless people. At least in the daytime and—but at night there were a lot of people there. And I quickly said this is a big mistake, and we’re in a place that we don’t belong. And, of course, here we are in an almost new SUV and two women in the front seat and all that.” (Detective Smith asked Tex if perhaps they had been near the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter, and Tex replied, “I’m not sure where that is.”)
From the back seat, Tex said, “This is a bad idea, girls. This is a bad area.”
“We’ll be on Piedmont shortly,” Diane replied, according to Tex.
“Darling,” Tex said, according to Carter, “why don’t you just hand me my gun.”
In his interview with police, Tex explained that there had been some car break-ins at his office, “where the only thing they’re looking for seems to be a gun,” so he had wrapped his .38 caliber Smith & Wesson in a Publix plastic grocery bag. “If you open the console, you had no clue what you’re looking at other than a flashlight and some stuff like that.” (Police photos of the console’s interior show a holster for a pistol.)
The .38 in his lap, Tex told Smith, “I laid back again and went to sleep.” As Carter drove north on Piedmont and approached the intersection with Ponce de Leon, Carter started talking about the Clermont Lounge. Maples told me Carter was educating Diane about Blondie, the legendary stripper who crushes beer cans between her breasts. “She’d never heard of [the place],” Carter told police, “but that didn’t surprise me because that wouldn’t entertain her at all.”
They crossed Ponce, continuing on Piedmont toward 10th. Past 10th, because Carter recalled remarking on a restaurant at the intersection. At the next red light—14th, possibly, because Carter remembered they had not reached Ansley Mall yet—“Diane and I were just chattering away.” Then she heard a “boom.” At first, Carter thought another car may have struck theirs. “I’m looking around, and I see Tex putting the gun down, and he said something about he had fallen asleep, and I don’t know what image was in his mind when he woke up,” Carter told Smith.
Tex: “Dani Jo came to a stop, and anyway I’m just—it was just time to wake up. Anyway—but she came to a stop and I was handling the gun. You know, I realized it was in my lap, and it went off.”
During the subsequent investigation, forensic examiners from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined that, if the hammer had been cocked while it was in Tex’s lap, pulling the trigger would have required two-and-a-quarter pounds of pressure—effectively a hair trigger. To fire the gun with the hammer uncocked would require more than five times as much pressure. It’s unclear whether or not the hammer had been cocked.
When Diane indicated she’d been shot, Carter thought she was joking. But then Diane was “breathing funny,” and appeared to pass out. “Darling, darling,” Tex said to her, cradling her head as he leaned forward from the back seat. He directed Carter to drive to Emory University Hospital on the Emory campus, 4.3 miles from the intersection of Piedmont and 14th. “I made the judgment that Emory was the closest hospital,” Tex told police later. “They’re a client of our firm, and I’m there a good bit.”
Tex’s judgment was poor. “All I could think of was Piedmont Hospital,” Carter told police, but she wasn’t sure how to get there. Her instincts were right; from the intersection at 14th, Piedmont Hospital was just 1.9 miles away. Emory University Hospital’s Midtown hospital was even closer—1.5 miles. And Grady, with its Level One Trauma Center? Just 2.7 miles in the direction from which they’d traveled.
The Ford Expedition sped up Piedmont, through the Monroe intersection, then past the manicured lawns of Morningside. The bullet had passed clean through Diane, taking a slightly downward trajectory through her body, even though a rod placed through the seat where the bullet entered and exited “suggested the bullet traveled down to up.” In a few thousandths of a second, the bullet penetrated where Diane’s eleventh rib met her eleventh vertebra, scattering pieces of bone along the bullet’s path. The bullet went on to slice through her left adrenal gland and left kidney, before severing the blood vessels leading to and from her spleen, then through her pancreas and stomach. At that moment, blood began spilling into her abdominal cavity. Bullet wounds like these, the emergency room doctor, Susanne Hardy, told police later, “wreak havoc in this area.” (Police later found the bullet on the seat where Diane had been sitting.)
When Hardy first laid eyes on her in Room 2 a little after 10:15 p.m., Diane was not talking. But she came to a bit. Hardy saw two wounds—in the back and in the front—and asked where the gun had been. Behind her, Diane said. “It was an accident.”
Diane’s blood pressure was so low it was almost undetectable. She was given a “massive transfusion,” according to hospital medical records. While Hardy went to fetch the equipment to intubate Diane, her patient said, “I’m gonna die.”
Before she put the tube down Diane’s throat, Hardy asked if she wanted to see her husband. “I don’t know why that came to me,” Hardy told police. “And she said no.” Five minutes later, Diane went into cardiac arrest. Surgeons opened her chest, spread her ribs, and cross-clamped her aorta to stanch the bleeding from her wounds. Her pulse finally steady, she was rushed to the operating room. It was 11:03 p.m.
The hope was to stabilize her sufficiently to send her to Grady, but, according to the emergency doctor’s report, Diane “never was stable enough to transfer.”
In the operating room, surgeons opened her abdomen, only to find “several liters of blood, what would be expected to be her near-total blood volume.” For over an hour, surgeons fought to save her, removing pieces of the damaged organs, tying off the damaged blood vessels, but her blood pressure kept dropping. “Her chance of survival was zero at this stage,” the attending surgeon’s report reads. “There was no disagreement whatsoever among anyone involved, including all of the surgeons and anesthesiologist, that we could have done anything differently and given her a chance to survive.”
• • •
If doctors make for bad patients, lawyers make for lousy defendants. From arranging estate sales of Diane’s belongings in the immediate weeks after her death, to sitting for Bible-clutching jailhouse interviews with local TV reporters, to allegedly leaving a message on Carter’s husband’s voicemail urging him to tell her to stop talking to the police, to having a pistol in his sock drawer when a judge had declared firearms off-limits, Tex McIver’s biggest problem, as his friend Howard Sills put it to me, “is his fucking self.”
And that’s by no means a complete list. One day last December, Crane and Tex were having lunch in Buckhead. According to Crane, Tex was asking him to reach out to reporters and retract the Black Lives Matter comment. This wasn’t the first time, Crane told me, that Tex had asked Crane to walk back the remarks; at Diane’s memorial service, Tex made a similar request.
Crane said he refused all of Tex’s entreaties, simply because those three words, Crane said, had been “spoken to me” and there was no putting the genie back into the bottle.
“Tex would say he never uttered those words,” Crane said. “What I think did happen is that he got negative feedback from his employer, he got negative feedback from his legal counsel, and that this is the crux of the [district attorney’s] case, which is political and not criminal.” Indeed, Tex’s alleged request of Crane is the basis for one of the three witness-influencing charges against him; the other two involve Carter.
“Atlanta as a city may be miles ahead of most major cities in the country in terms of actual race relations,” Crane said, “but the news media is inordinately focused on and foments any issue of race. I should have known with my decades in the market that there’s a better way to phrase that. If I’d made that choice—if I’d said ‘activists’ or ‘protesters’—perhaps you and I wouldn’t be talking. It was a judgment call on my part to repeat it.” (Tex’s lawyers insist he never mentioned Black Lives Matter. In the transcript of Tex’s interview with police on September 28, he does not reference it or protesters.)
Rachel Styles told me she believed Tex never uttered the words either. “But it doesn’t matter,” she said. “If you go through that area late at night, it’s a little scary. I would probably want to pull my gun out if I was there. Of course, Tex and Diane had this nice SUV—and there were all these carjackings going on around Atlanta.”
Styles said she can think of no other motivation behind the prosecution of Tex than race. “Even Diane told doctors it was an accident!” she said. And Sills, who knows a thing or two about criminal cases, calls it “the worst case of malicious prosecution I’ve ever seen.” Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s office declined to comment.
Indeed, Detective Darrin Smith concluded the shooting was an accident. From his report: “After an extensive investigation . . . I determined that Claud McIver was holding the gun in a careless and reckless manner, that if [discharged] would cause significant injury or death if anyone was directly in front of said gun.” It was the DA’s subsequent investigation—prompted no doubt in part by Tex’s own actions in the weeks and months after Diane’s death—that led to the grand jury’s indictment on malice and felony murder charges, along with witness influencing.
There’s no small irony that some of Tex’s own friends are listed as witnesses for the prosecution. They are left to wrestle with two choices—that Tex shot his wife intentionally, or that a man who was around guns all his life handled one in a way that was inexcusably and tragically reckless.
After Diane’s body was released to Tex, he asked Styles to oversee the cremation. “I had to get Tex to sign the papers to do the cremation,” she said. “He knew once he signed those papers that it was the end. It took him a day and a half to do that. He’d look at them and start crying. I went down to identify the body and check out the facility. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. But I promised Tex. And Diane was just as beautiful that day as she was every day. No makeup on, but she was still Diane. It’s been horrible. It’s wrecked so many lives. She could have lived if it had been God’s will. Maybe God said it was time, ‘You’ve done your duty here. It’s time to come home.’”
On the first Tuesday of September, in courtroom 5B of the Fulton County courthouse, one of Tex’s five attorneys stood before Judge Robert McBurney with a simple request: Would the judge permit Tex to come into court free of leg irons and shackles?
“He has a right,” said the attorney, Joe Sharp, “to attend these hearings without being in chains.” His client was no threat, Sharp argued. “I would think that someone in middle school could take him down in his condition.”
Sharp was not exaggerating. Tex had appeared ever frailer at each successive appearance in McBurney’s courtroom. The extra weight that Diane teased him about while she was alive (she once bet him $5,000 that he couldn’t lose 30 pounds) was gone. At his arraignment on felony murder charges a few weeks before, Tex had seemed almost unrecognizable from the distinguished attorney he’d been. For one thing, Tex seemed to be boycotting the jail barber: His shock of white hair had grown over his ears and now seemed on a collision course with his eyebrows. He’d also stopped shaving. Between his unruly head of hair and his bushy white beard, Tex looked less like the rainmaker he’d been than a casting director’s idea of a startled moonshiner down from the hills.
On this day, though, as Sharp pleaded for his client to appear in court unfettered, Tex was once again clean-shaven. Still, he looked tired, glassy-eyed. To his right sat William Hill, a former Fulton County Superior Court judge himself who was heading up Tex’s defense. Tex has known Hill for decades; when he was in the midst of his bitter divorce, it was Hill who Tex called on for legal advice. On his immediate left was Steve Maples, a Decatur attorney whose connection to Tex also goes back a generation; when McIver was charged in 1990 with firing his pistol at a car with three young men inside, Maples defended him. (The matter was settled out of court.) To Maples’s left was Bruce Harvey, the closest thing Atlanta has to a celebrity attorney. Harvey sat quietly for most of the proceedings, hands folded, his thin braided ponytail lying flatly against his lapel. McIver has so many lawyers there wasn’t room for all of them at the defense table, so the fifth member, Alex Bartko, sat in the first row behind it. Occasionally he’d whisper over Tex’s shoulder before passing him a note.
“Can anyone in this courtroom really think of a reason why he can’t attend these proceedings without shackles, chains, and handcuffs?” Sharp was saying from behind the podium, clutching his reading glasses in both hands, his suit jacket unbuttoned. “And if there exists no compelling reason, then what is goin’ on? Because if there exists no such reason, then we’ve moved into a situation where we have a pretrial detainee that’s bein’ punished, and that’s not appropriate. So, your honor, we ask that Mr. McIver be freed of the chains in pretrial proceedings, and we also ask that he be allowed to attend all pretrial proceedings in street clothes.”
McBurney had been busy hearing motion after motion from both sides in the case. Sharp’s request was the day’s first order of business, and the judge didn’t waste any time, invoking Brian Nichols’s 2005 rampage immediately.
“I have learned, as a lawyer in this courthouse who appeared in front of Rowland Barnes, and as a judge in this courthouse,” McBurney said, “you cannot judge a book by its cover, and that it is inappropriate—and likely unconstitutional—to have a policy that says, ‘If you’re over 50, you don’t need handcuffs.’ Or, ‘If you’re white, you don’t need handcuffs.’ Or, ‘If you’re wealthy, you don’t need handcuffs.’ That’s not a policy that would withstand any sort of scrutiny.
“There are no special privileges for anyone here.”
Atlanta journalist Maryn McKenna, who spent 10 years covering the CDC for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has a new book about how widespread antibiotic use in animals, particularly poultry, impacted and changed factory farming. She’ll attend the Georgia launch party for the book at Manuel’s Tavern at 7 p.m. on Monday, September 18. Below, she discusses the book with us:
I came away from your book with a mixture of terror and hope. The terror is that every year 700,000 people die worldwide from antibiotic resistance, a number that could go up to 10 million in the next 35 years. The hope is that companies like Perdue and Chick-fil-A are leading the way for real change, at least in the poultry industry. Which should we be feeling more of? I think we should still be incredibly worried because the overuse of antibiotics, and consequently antibiotic resistance, is still a problem all around the globe in agriculture and in medicine. But it’s legitimate to feel hope now. This book started actually with my previous book, Superbug, where I told the story of the emergence of antibiotic resistance by writing the biography of one organism—staph—and how drug-resistant staph emerged. I thought it was going to be a story of two epidemics—how it began in hospitals because of how we’d misused antibiotics, and how this bug then moved out into the wider world. But I realized there were three epidemics—in hospitals, in the community, and in agriculture. But in that book I only got to tell the agriculture piece in one chapter. As bad as the situation in medicine was, the sheer volume of antibiotics in agriculture was so much bigger. Averaged across the globe, antibiotic use in agriculture is twice what it is in medicine and four times that in the U.S.
When I started reporting this in the summer of 2014, I thought I was writing another public health disaster book. But within the first year of my signing the book contract, things started to shift in the United States. While the book is the story of this enormous problem that’s been building for decades, it’s also a chronicle of how we may be able to improve things. And it’s about chickens because they were the first animals to get antibiotics as growth promoters, which is the basis of factory farming. Chickens appear to be the first sector of the protein industry that will exit antibiotic use. At least in the United States.
Is this trend away from antibiotics irreversible? I think so, at least in poultry. Chick-fil-A and Perdue stepped out in front of the pack and said, “We’re going to change this.” Interestingly, at least to start with, neither of them said, “We’re going to change this because antibiotic resistance is a danger.” They just said, “We’re going to change this because our customers want us to.” Then other companies followed along behind them, one after another. Tyson, McDonald’s, Taco Bell. Almost all of the major poultry producers.
Yet you write that it appears antibiotic use in meat production in the U.S. has actually gone up in the last five or six years. It appears that way based on the federal data. But we don’t actually know. All of the measures for antibiotic use in agriculture in the United States are all just proxy measures because none of them measure what is actually being given to an animal. Which species is it? What types of farm is it being raised on? We don’t have any of that data. All that we get is sales data from the pharma companies—what the tonnage is of antibiotics being sold for agricultural use. We can see that those totals are going up and up. We can’t necessarily see what’s going to pigs, cattle, or chickens.
Separate USDA data shows that 40 to 50 percent of the poultry farms surveyed have ceased using most antibiotics. So, if the USDA data is saying that poultry is using fewer antibiotics, but the FDA data shows that the sales of all are going up, it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s the other species receiving the drugs—cattle and pigs, primarily.
Talk a little bit about the dual use of antibiotics in animals. The first thing to remember is that we only take them when we’re sick, right? The point of an antibiotic is to cure an infection. Most of the antibiotic use in animals is not for that reason. If we did in humans what we did in animals, we would consider it inappropriate if it’s not intended to cure an infection.
Most antibiotics are given to meat animals for two reasons. The first is that very small doses—much smaller than would be used to cure an infection—cause them to gain weight and to specifically gain muscle mass.
[The practice] is affecting what we would call the gut microbiome—the community of bacteria that lives in the guts of every living thing—and changing how nutrition is processed and absorbed. The industry discovered in the 1940s that if you gave tiny doses of antibiotics to animals—mere grams per ton of feed—then you could either get them to the weight at which you wanted to sell them quicker using the same amount of feed, or you could use less feed and be raising them from the same amount of time. So either way we were incurring an economic benefit.
It turned out that if you raised that dose, from say, 10 grams a ton to about 200 grams a ton, it would also protect the animals against incurring an infection. That first achievement of growth promotion starts the ball rolling for the whole sector of factory farming, where barns get bigger and many more animals get put into barns and the more you put them together, the more likelihood there is that they’re going to get sick.
As the movement accelerated to phase out antibiotics, how did Georgia poultry farms adjust? We raise more chickens than any other state in the union. If we were an independent country we would be, like, the fourth-largest chicken economy in the world.
In Georgia there are both extremely conventional chicken farmers who continue to use antibiotics, continue to keep their birds inside of old barns, raise them for 35 to 42 days. There are also farmers who are contracted to companies that are starting to rethink if that’s the best way, like Perdue. They’re still asking their farmers to raise birds at a very high volume, but they have effectively eliminated antibiotics. They’ve changed the birds’ diets and the physical structure of the barns—putting windows in the barns and giving the birds things to exercise and climb on—so they have some requirements other than just sitting in place and growing.
We always want to lionize the small producers, which embody the best possible experience for the animals. But it’s big companies changing their minds—like when Walmart started selling organic produce and companies like Perdue started saying, “We’re going to do this without antibiotics”—that really moves a market.
You begin and end the book with anecdotes about eating a succulent chicken—first in Paris, and then in Brooklyn, and how different they tasted from factory-farmed chicken. But you don’t talk about cost. The big question for chicken—and for any meat that goes antibiotic-free—is a question that faces all of food production: Is better, safer food going to be something that only well-off people can afford? That hangs over all of these transformations of food systems.
One evening last fall I spent eight hours shadowing an Atlanta police officer during his evening shift in southwest Atlanta. Actually, it was a bit more than eight hours, because when you’re a cop, shifts don’t often end neatly at the top of the hour. In our case, a woman had reported her 12-year-old son missing—he’d left the house while his mother was at work and hadn’t told his older brother where he was going. Dad was out of the picture. Because it had been hours since anyone had seen the boy, the law demanded the police pull out all the stops—a mobile command unit, an infrared-equipped chopper in the air, a BOLO to every other officer around.
This was around 10 p.m., and the officer’s shift was, technically, supposed to end in an hour. It had been an eventful seven hours already. We’d been to a day-care center where a troubled eight-year-old foster child had been banging his head against a wall. While the grown-ups talked in the next room, he showed me the superheroes he’d been drawing. What else? My cop had negotiated a truce in a violent feud between a mother and her daughter; he’d searched in vain for the thief who stole an old man’s prescription at Walgreen’s; he was the first responder to a teenager who’d been shot in the backside in what we could only conclude was gang-related, since the kid didn’t say a word, even as he bled onto a neighbor’s couch. The gun unit arrived to search for shell casings in the gloomy parking lot near Campbellton Road where the kid had been shot. On the horizon, we could see the gleaming lights of downtown a few miles to the northeast. It might as well have been another planet.
As for the missing boy, another cop spotted him walking casually down a dark street with a friend. We raced over and the officer I was with jumped out of his car and started lecturing the kid. “Where you been? You know how many people have been looking for you? You leave your house without telling anyone? What’s your problem?” The kid stared ahead, like the cop wasn’t even there.
The ride-along was part of Leadership Atlanta’s class of 2017, of which I was a member. Over eight months, I and 80 of my classmates assembled once a month for an entire day to do a deep dive into a different topic. Criminal justice. Race. Education. Public health. The idea behind Leadership Atlanta is simple: Assemble influencers from different fields, and show them how the city really works. But the exercise is more than academic. As our eight months wound down, guest speakers—judges, professors, doctors, politicians—would ask us, “Okay, now you know the problem. So what are you going to do about it?”
It was spring. For the first time in 24 years, Atlanta magazine was under new ownership. At one point it dawned on me that I was mapping out stories for my 100th issue as editor-in-chief. For eight-plus years, I’d been editing stories by other writers, whom I was envying more and more. Leadership Atlanta had reintroduced me to the city I thought I knew, and now I wanted to tell some of those stories myself.
Atlanta’s at an inflection point. We have the BeltLine, we have a booming economy, we have a new stadium. But we also have the worst economic mobility of any city in America. We have skyrocketing housing costs. We have a pipeline from our schools to our prisons that needs to be redirected. How, and whether, we resolve these tensions will determine the city we’ll be.
I’m burying the lede. This issue marks my final issue as editor-in-chief of Atlanta magazine. Betsy Riley, who’s been with the magazine for 15 years, most recently as editor of our quarterly HOME magazine, will be taking over for me, and I can’t wait to see what she has in store. As for me, I’m not going far—about 15 feet to my left, to be precise. When you read this, I’ll be the magazine’s executive editor, responsible for editing and writing the longform stories that appear in each issue, the stories that crack the code of this city, that help us see it in new ways.