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Thomas Lake


One Square Mile: Stone Mountain Park Carillon

Photograph by Dustin Chambers
Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Stone Mountain Park Carillon | Stone Mountain, GA | 18 miles east of Atlanta

Here is the office on a Sunday afternoon in her 40th year at the machine. The music runs from her fingers to the circuitry in a dark room below her feet and then under the ground and down the hill and up the amplifying tower at the water’s edge, 380 feet away. This journey takes less than a second. “I’m pushing 8,000 watts,” Mabel Florence says. “That’s a lot for an old lady.” She will not say how old. But she will share the secret of her unfailing attendance as the official carillonneur of Stone Mountain Park: “If you’re sick, take about five aspirin and a good shot of Scotch.” The massive electronic carillon was a gift to the state from Coca-Cola after its appearance at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Now she plays the bells every weekend: twice on Saturdays, three times on Sundays, the sound ringing out across the park. Today she opens the console room and looks at the only two people in the small amphitheater outside and asks them whether they want to hear love songs or Christmas songs. They say love songs. She plays “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and the man pulls the woman close. They walk away during “Ave Maria,” replaced by two more lovers during “O Holy Night.” There are no words for the way she plays that song on those bells on this damp gray afternoon with the leaves red and yellow and the man and the woman standing there in wonderment. Then they go, and the amphitheater is empty once again, and Mabel Florence plays on. She does not intend to retire anytime soon. This is a powerful machine, perhaps a dangerous one, and she will choose her apprentice carefully. “I’m gonna find an engineer and teach ’em to play,” she says, “rather than find an organist and electrocute ’em.”

This article originally appeared in our January 2015 issue. 

One Square Mile: Mid-Georgia Livestock Market

Photograph by Dustin Chambers
Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Mid-Georgia Livestock Market | Jackson, GA | 49 miles southeast of Atlanta
They sell beef by the pound, even when it still has hooves and a beating heart. The auctioneer wears a white Stetson hat and speaks the numbers in a glorious monotone. He is very fast, very efficient. The cow walks off the scale and through the first gate and the auctioneer calls out the bids in his numerical shorthand and the cow prances and kicks up some wood chips and maybe it moos or leaves a warm souvenir and the bidding ends and the second gate opens and there goes the cow, off to the feedlot if it’s young, the slaughterhouse if it’s old, and then the next one walks in. It all takes barely 15 seconds. There are 375 cattle to buy and sell this Wednesday afternoon at the Mid–Georgia Livestock Market in Jackson, and the bidders will pay dearly. Supply is down. Demand is up. Beef prices are near an all-time high. The man in the big chair at the edge of the railing pays $1,875 for a pregnant cow weighing 1,565 pounds. He is Luke Weaver, a 71-year-old retired insurance agent, and he will tend the calf and one day bring it here to sell. The special chair belonged to a previous auctioneer who retired but kept coming back to watch the auctions. Now the old auctioneer has passed on, but his chair is free to whoever sits there first. Today it belongs to the man they call Mr. Luke. There is less competition than before. Mr. Luke remembers the auctions of 30 years ago. They could be wild, full of double-dealing and intrigue, and instead of three hours they might last 12. Now the buyers represent large industrial concerns, and the local sellers are dwindling. “Too many houses,” Mr. Luke says. “Too many people sold their farms.”

One Square Mile, our new photo column, profiles places located one square mile from metro Atlanta’s 8,376. This article originally appeared in our December 2014 issue.

Fixer, Charmer, Builder, Mayor.


The mayor of Atlanta lives alone on a hill at the edge of the city, in a five-bedroom house that serves as a hotel. He is rarely seen there, except on Sundays or when he’s asleep, four to six hours a night, and even then police watch the house in rotating shifts. No wonder he keeps the blinds drawn.

August 10 is a Tuesday, the 219th day of his administration, and a white sun lights the pines on the crest of the hill. In the driveway, two men fiddle with their BlackBerrys next to a black Ford Taurus with tinted windows. One is the mayor’s deputy press secretary. The other is a bodyguard, with barrel torso, dark suit, earpiece. The men wait for the mayor because it is their job to wait for the mayor and also because these are the only minutes all day he will truly have to himself. And so, although Delta is the largest airline in America, and although Delta’s presence in Atlanta has been a crucial part of the city’s rise to international prominence, and although the mayor has an eight o’clock meeting with the CEO of Delta, and although the mayor is in moderate danger of being late to that very meeting, nobody tries to hurry him up.

Photograph by David Walter Banks

Educated guesses can be made about what he’s doing in there. Drinking his breakfast, in all likelihood—twelve ounces of straight Coca-Cola. Reading the New York Times and the Financial Times. Putting on his tailored Tom Ford suit, black, with a jacket that broadens his shoulders, and tying the tie with a four-in-hand knot that sweeps from his left to his right. In any case, he is preparing. The mayor has said that he is neither particularly smart nor particularly talented—whether or not he believes it, this self-deprecation is obviously false—and that he has made his achievements by working harder and preparing more thoroughly than everyone else. “I think you should work as hard as you can humanly withstand when you’re young,” he has said, and there is no doubt he lives by these words. Kasim Reed is forty-one years old, fifteen years younger than the average mayor among the ten largest metropolitan areas in the United States. Of those ten, the only one younger than Reed is Adrian Fenty, age thirty-nine, of the District of Columbia, with whom Reed regularly exchanges text messages. But Fenty is a triathlete with a wife and three young children. Reed has no wife, children, pets, or discernible hobbies other than the occasional late-night jog. (He used to enjoy swimming, but he has no time for that anymore.) Thus, he can serve the city with a single-minded dedication that borders on monasticism. He worked fifteen hours on Monday and will work twelve more on Wednesday. Today’s workday will last fourteen hours. This is not an especially busy week.

The black Ford Taurus makes a granular hum as it idles in the driveway. The temperature will rise to ninety-five degrees by late afternoon but now the air is cool, if a little heavy. At 7:41 a.m. the front door opens and the mayor swaggers down the front walk. He stands six feet tall, 210 pounds, thirty-five pounds softer than he was in college, with minuscule threads of white in his short black hair and a crease near his left eye from the day more than thirty years ago when a Coke bottle shattered and a shard of glass pierced his cheek.

“Need to stop anywhere, sir?” asks the bodyguard, Investigator Craig Cooper, driving out of the subdivision with the mayor in the backseat. He asks this question even though it’s 7:44 and they have twelve miles to go through rush-hour traffic and only sixteen minutes to do it.

“No,” Reed says, scanning the Atlanta Journal-­Constitution. “Reese,” he says, handing one of his two BlackBerrys to Reese McCranie, the deputy press secretary in the front seat, “would you plug that in, and turn up the air?”

McCranie complies, and Reed turns to his other BlackBerry. Investigator Cooper guides the Taurus onto Interstate 285 and presses the accelerator. The speedometer approaches 90 miles per hour. Cooper drove Mayor Shirley Franklin before Reed, and Mayor Bill Campbell before Franklin, with a brief side job as Mike Tyson’s bodyguard. Now he drives with ruthless precision, weaving from lane to lane, inches from rear bumpers, always in control. If you’ve ever been cut off on a road in Atlanta by a black Ford Taurus with tinted windows, there is some chance you’ve just come close to meeting the mayor.

At 7:55 the Taurus pulls off Interstate 20 to wait at a red light in a long line of cars. The mayor pauses his telephone conversation.

“Coop,” he says, “would you go around this? I wanna go!”

Coop goes around it. He pulls into an empty right-turn-only lane, drives parallel to the thicket of cars, and sweeps past them in a wide left turn. It’s 7:58 when he passes through the gates to a garage under City Hall. Reed gets out of the car and enters a secure elevator. McCranie hands him the freshly charged second BlackBerry. Reed gets off the elevator and walks toward his office. He has an eight o’clock meeting with the CEO of Delta Air Lines, and he arrives at exactly eight o’clock.

here are days when the mayor eats nothing until 4 p.m. This happened a week earlier, when he had a press conference in the noon hour and then sat at his desk signing papers between one and two when he should have been eating lunch. He keeps the papers in neat stacks, and they move in a C-shaped pattern: newest at the bottom right, oldest at the top right. So he sat there going through them and thinking about lunch—soul food from the Busy Bee Cafe? Beefsteak tomato salad from Morton’s?—until it was too late because his two o’clock appointment was there. Eventually, a little before his four o’clock, McCranie offered to bring him a bag of chips. “What kind?” Reed said. “Miss Vickie’s jalapeño,” McCranie said. Reed accepted them, along with an apple and some chicken someone else brought, and thus he powered on, despite complaining that his staff members sometimes approach his care and feeding as though he were a pet dog or a zoo animal. They leave food in the kitchen behind his office and expect him to eat it when he gets hungry enough. On this Tuesday morning, someone has done just that. The mayor finds a Styrofoam tray of bacon, toast, and grits; when there’s a gap in his schedule around ten because someone else is late, he brings the tray to his office and has a real breakfast.

“Hey Reese,” he says. “Will you come and fix my collar?”

For Reed, the west wing of the second floor of City Hall Annex is both an office and a home. It was commissioned in the eighties by Mayor Andrew Young, one of Reed’s mentors, who modeled the annex after the city hall in Toulouse, France. It has a library, a bathroom with a shower, a balcony overlooking the lawn, and a half-moon-shaped living room with floor-to-ceiling windows where Reed conducts most of his meetings. On the lower level of a glass-topped end table he keeps a copy of Life magazine from March 6, 1964, with a grinning and perspiring Cassius Clay on the cover, and on a table against the opposite wall he has a hardcover book called The Official Treasures of Muhammad Ali. The mayor may very well idolize Muhammad Ali, but this cannot be the only reason he has two artifacts glorifying the champion boxer in an otherwise sparely decorated living room. Cassius Clay chose the name of Allah’s prophet. Kasim Reed had it given to him.

Kasim is the mayor’s middle name, but it has been his unofficial first name since childhood. His three older brothers rarely used his real first name except in moments of playful severity. His brothers were named Charles, Carlton, and Tracy. Charles is a Germanic name. Carlton has roots in northern England and Scandinavia. Tracy comes from the Irish. The future mayor was born in the late spring of 1969, when his father was terribly displeased with the Europeans of America. They had shot Dr. King. They were bombing Laos and Cambodia. They had slaughtered three students under color of law in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and gotten away with it. The future mayor’s father was Junius Reed, a Baptist by upbringing but a radical in 1969. He looked around for something radical to name his fourth son—a rejection of the Euro-American power structure. He named the boy Mohammed.

Kasim’s mother, a United Methodist minister’s daughter, never liked the name, and in an interview for this story she said Kasim never liked it either. When asked about that, however, Kasim said his mother must be projecting. Even though he has always been a Methodist himself, he liked the name just fine because he liked Muhammad Ali. The evidence was there in his ceremonial living room. This episode proves the earlier point. Reed may work hard, but in politics he is quite talented.

o appointment on this Tuesday is more important to Reed’s mayoral strategy than his 10 a.m. at the Central Park recreation center. Reed has said he believes in doing a small number of things very well, and one of those things has been his effort to reopen sixteen recreation centers that were partially or completely shut down because of budget cuts during the Franklin administration. Rec centers cost money, of course, but Reed pledged not to raise taxes. Instead he laid off more than 100 employees from other city departments and persuaded several of the city’s corporations to lay out their own cash. He has even tried to sell corporate naming rights to his so-called Centers of Hope, as professional sports teams do with their stadiums. Reed is a terribly practical mayor.

“I thought Sharon had the scissors,” McCranie says into his BlackBerry as the Taurus cruises up Mitchell Street. “Hey, Coop? Can you hold two seconds? We need the scissors for the ribbon.”

“I’ve got a knife,” Cooper says.

McCranie laughs nervously.

“You’ve got a knife?”

“That’d be great,” Reed says, enjoying himself. “That’d be a great scene. Cut the ribbon for the reopening of the children’s facilities.”

“It’s like a Rambo-style knife?” McCranie says.

“Yes sir,” Cooper says. “Keep it with me, brother.”

“Never know when you hafta shank somebody,” the mayor jokes.

“That’s awful,” McCranie says.

“A knife is quiet,” Cooper says.

“I’m never gonna make you angry,” McCranie says. A moment later someone calls to say the scissors are already at the recreation center. Cooper guns the Taurus toward the Old Fourth Ward as Reed reviews the notes for his speech.

“So Mayor,” McCranie says, “you know, we’re gonna start with the ribbon-cutting, right at the front? We’ve got a big banner, actually, that’s on the side of the building that’s got a picture of you and two kids with the word Hope written across it. I think you saw it yesterday.”

If Reed is listening, he shows no sign of it. He’s making a phone call.

“Hey, how are ya,” he says. “Getting ready to cut the ribbon. The one at the recreation center.”

“I am. I told you, last night was bananas. This morning wasn’t any better. Yeah. Really contentious.” (He must be referring to his meeting with Richard Anderson, the CEO of Delta, after which he walked out shaking his head.)

“Well, no—”

“I thought that I was very kind, in respecting that.”

It’s clear from his tone of voice that he is not addressing a subordinate.

“I think you like to lecture me. You must like to lecture me. I was just callin’ to say good morning.”

“No, I don’t.”

“I think that it’s kinda ridiculous, but it’s okay.”

“That’s not what I’m saying at all. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I thought I was listening to you.”

“I think you just wanna be offended. I think you wanna be offended.”

The Taurus approaches the recreation center, but a double-parked Mercedes blocks the road. Cooper activates the loudspeaker.

“PULL OVER TO THE RIGHT,” he says, and the Mercedes does.

“Offended,” the mayor says. “I think you wanna be offended.”

“I’m not! I wasn’t doing that.”

And then, without pausing for a second, he looks out at the recreation center and asks McCranie, “Where’s the mural for Tupac?”

For a long moment, McCranie is speechless. Suddenly Reed bursts out laughing. Everyone else does too.

“I’m just joking with you,” he says, and then, back into the phone, “I’ma call you right back.”

“Got me on that one,” McCranie says.

“Did you see that face?” Reed says, still pleased with himself.

The mayor steps out of the Taurus into a throng of children and cameramen. He smiles, cuts the ribbon, and walks into the rec center. It smells like fresh lacquer. The wooden floor shines, and there are good nets on all six basketball hoops. Children pack the bleachers, making a wild racket with their inflatable thundersticks. The mayor gets a standing ovation.

Reed attended about 550 public events in his first six months as mayor, and he gave more than 125 speeches of at least seven minutes. Each event was important in its own right, but his presence was part of a larger strategy. Reed won the mayor’s race by just 715 votes. He hoped his extraordinary visibility would raise his approval rating, sending a message to the City Council that the public stood behind his budget proposal. “The council senses weakness,” he said. The strategy apparently worked. His approval rating soared above 70 percent, and the council passed his budget by a 12–1 vote with $3.7 million for his precious Centers of Hope.

“So today, young people,” he says, “if nobody ever tells you this again, the mayor of your city is telling you, and your City Council is telling you: You all are valuable, you’re important, and the long-term success and vitality of this city is tied to what you become. So I need you to work harder than you’ve ever worked. I need you to prepare yourself right now. Because you are the future of this city, and I look forward to the day you lead it.”

“Let’s play, Atlanta,” he says. Someone pulls on a length of fishing line. A net opens on the ceiling, releasing a shower of red and white balloons. Children stream to the floor. The popping balloons sound like gunfire. Reed stands in a crush of children, autographing their thundersticks and leaning in close to speak with each one over the roar of the music. He poses for innumerable pictures, smiling his special camera smile that makes him look slightly less dignified than he actually is. Former Atlanta Hawk Dominique Wilkins is here too, signing autographs of his own, but even a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame can’t draw the crowd away from Kasim Reed. He stays until the end, until almost everyone is gone, missing no chance to shake a hand or touch a shoulder. Reed has given a lot of thought to these public events. He says the day will come when he gets punched in the nose, and he wants to make sure there are a lot of people out there who will see it and say, “Hey, that’s my guy you’re punching.”

When it’s over he gets in the Taurus, and Cooper drives him away. Reed gets on the BlackBerry again. His college friend Charles King is in town. King is a film agent who represents Tyler Perry, and he has come with Ari Emanuel, perhaps the most famous agent in Hollywood, the basis for the character Ari Gold in the HBO comedy Entourage, brother to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. The two agents want an audience with the mayor, preferably today. The mayor gets seventy-five to a hundred requests for meetings or appearances every day. He has four people managing his calendar, including two who mainly send regrets, and he does his best to evenly distribute his appearances throughout the city’s 132 square miles. Nevertheless, he can make or break appointments however he sees fit.

“Charles King,” Reed says on the phone. “It’s Kasim. My man. How are ya.”

“Just lemme know when you wanna come through. It’s not a shot in the dark. It’s easy work.”

“Just come by the office before you meet with Tyler. It’s 55 Trinity Avenue, and you need to park under the building.”

ere are the fifth and sixth verses of a seven-verse poem that Reed keeps in a frame in his office:

Nothing can replace watching the days, where

From my distant sideline vantage, I watch

Promise meet achievement, one after another, and

Feel a father’s tears, roll down my aging face

While you set out to make men move, and

Put smiles on the faces of children, remember

Though the sojourn is sometimes thankless,

Sometimes lonely, it is always worth the climb

Junius Reed wrote this poem for his youngest son, the one he named Mohammed in his radical season, and it would not be unfair to say Kasim got more attention than the others. The first three sons were all born by the time Junius was twenty-two, when he was working three jobs to pay the bills. By the time Kasim was old enough to have his own interests, Junius had become a successful manager for the Mead Corporation, a paper company with offices on Marietta Street. He bought Kasim golf lessons and expensive camera equipment. His brothers were so much older that they didn’t see him as a rival; in fact, as Kasim remembers it, they spoiled him too. His mother taught him compassion and proper English, and as an accomplished singer and actor, she also gave him his stage presence. The Reeds lived in the middle-class Loch Lomond neighborhood near Niskey Lake in southwest Atlanta, where parenting was a collective responsibility and almost everyone seemed to be friends. He attended the old Westwood High School, which by several accounts was as good as a costly private school. By traditional definition, Kasim Reed is a self-made man. There is no such thing as a self-made man.

But the boy was always preparing. At age nine he canvassed the neighborhood with business cards that said Kasim’s Lawn Care Service. Kasim Reed did not mow lawns. He was pragmatic enough about hard work to know that good leaders delegate responsibility, which is why he personally won the contracts and sent older friends to do the actual mowing while he reinvested the profits in the entire stock of irregular sneakers from a failing business on Fulton Industrial Boulevard and then sold them at a markup until he had a pile of money on the bed. He memorized Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech well enough to perform it in public. He listened to his mother, Sylvia, who prayed when she got out of bed every morning and believed that God tapped her on the shoulder to wake her up. He internalized the teachings of the Reverend Cornelius Henderson at Ben Hill United Methodist Church, where Sylvia took the boys every Sunday, so at around age ten he could stand before the congregation and deliver a riveting and hilarious children’s sermon on the importance of telling the truth. He studied the harsh dynamics of power in Machiavelli’s The Prince and incendiary attacks in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. He asked older boys from the neighborhood for their counsel on important decisions and weighed it against what he already knew. He might do what they said, or he might not.

Junius loved to talk politics at the dinner table. He inspired Kasim with tales about Thurgood Marshall, the African American attorney who won twenty-nine of his thirty-two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually became a Supreme Court justice. Junius told Kasim that Marshall was a necessary partner for Dr. King because he brought King’s dreams to life through legal action. Kasim wrote a book report about Marshall and decided he would be a lawyer and a politician. Somehow he acquired the notion that politicians must live cleaner lives than everyone else. This was one reason he decided to stay away from alcohol. By the time he discovered the truth—in college—he was used to being the only guy in the room drinking straight Coca-Cola.

Kasim Reed paid for his education at Howard University with profits from a 14-karat-gold jewelry business he’d started in high school. He also sold Howard-themed boxer shorts and arranged delivery of student possessions for off-site storage over the summer. Then, as now, he crammed more activities into each day and night than twenty-four hours would seem to allow. He and his new friend Chip Joyner raced to see who could read the most books and newspapers. They both favored Michael Korda, author of Power! How to Get It, How to Use It. Joyner helped Reed get elected as the undergraduate member of the board of trustees—Reed would eventually become the youngest general trustee in the university’s 143-year history—and Reed helped Joyner write an acceptance speech when Joyner became president of the Republican club.

Reed had no trouble taking precise positions on dangerous topics such as the first Gulf War, which the first President Bush was selling to America when Reed appeared on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in November 1990 to join the debate.

“If he satisfies the constitutional requirements,” Reed, then twenty-one, said on television, “and satisfies the concerns of all Americans, not just African Americans, then at that point, then we should put the moral will of this country behind the president and support him in his actions.”

Reed put his political capital at risk again the next spring, when he persuaded fellow students to approve a surcharge of $15 per semester to boost Howard’s endowment and decrease its reliance on federal funds. He thought the students were too accustomed to taking, and he wanted them to practice giving back. Over the years, money from his Independence Fund helped renovate a reading lounge, buy new equipment for the fitness center, and provide $1,000 debit cards to students who came to Howard from schools in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. The fund now holds more than $12 million.

“Who’s the largest alumni donor to Howard University?” said Artis Hampshire-Cowan, senior vice president and secretary. “It may be Kasim Reed.”

In March 1989, when Reed was a sophomore at Howard, the students revolted. Their uprising lasted seven days and encompassed several figures of national repute, including Bill Cosby, whose convocation speech at the nation’s most prominent historically black university was canceled when a throng of demonstrators took over the stage. The students pulled down an American flag and replaced it with one of African liberation. They seized the administration building and refused to leave until the university met their demands. They wanted better campus security, swifter access to financial aid, and a more Afrocentric curriculum. Above all, they wanted the board of trustees to banish a new member named Lee Atwater.

You may remember Atwater. He was the wily and ruthless Republican strategist who helped defeat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign by linking him with Willie Horton, the African American convicted murderer who went on a crime spree after being let out on a prison furlough while Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts. Atwater never lived down the charge that he had won votes for George H.W. Bush by stoking the fires of racism. And yet, when Howard appointed him to its board of trustees in the winter of Bush’s inauguration, it wasn’t hard to see why. The university paid nearly 70 percent of its education costs with money from the federal government, which was now led by a Republican, and Atwater was among the party’s most powerful men.

Reed was friends with Ras Baraka, chief architect of the revolt, and they remain friends today. The revolt ended peacefully, with Atwater’s resignation. Two years later he died of a brain tumor. But Reed took no part in the revolt. He thought Atwater’s appointment to the Howard board was a smart, strategic move that would help keep the university financially solvent. He even said so in the Washington Post.

This pragmatic approach continued during Reed’s eleven years in the Georgia General Assembly, first as a representative and then as a senator. He made Republican friends at an astonishing rate for a Democrat. This spring, with the future of Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure riding on a bill in the legislature that would let voters in each region decide whether to raise sales taxes to pay for capital projects, Republican Speaker of the House David Ralston saw Reed walking the halls of the statehouse to rustle up votes for the bill. Ralston loaned Reed his conference room and stood by him when Governor Perdue signed the bill.

“The mayor has a great sense of fair play,” says Joe Wilkinson, an old-fashioned Republican representative from Sandy Springs who campaigned for Reed in the mayor’s race. “He can put party aside and say, ‘What is the right thing to do?’ And I saw him do it time after time.”

In fairness to Reed, the Republicans have not always loved him. In 2006, State Senator Eric Johnson released a statement condemning Reed and other Democrats.

“Their proposal makes them modern-day Pharisees,” he said. “This is election-year pandering using voters’ deepest beliefs as a tool.”

Johnson could be forgiven. He was insensible with jealousy. Kasim Reed was making headlines for cosponsoring a bill to let Georgia high schools teach an elective class on the Bible.

There were more than sixty debates in the 2009 mayor’s race. Reed studied his two main opponents until he was confident he could judge their temperaments by the clothes they wore on a given day. He came to respect them, and the feeling was generally mutual, and they all ran clean campaigns, mostly. Reed began the race nearly unknown to city voters but he gained ground every day. In the November general election, he surged past Lisa Borders and took just enough votes to force a runoff with Mary Norwood, the frontrunner, who was making a somewhat apologetic bid to become Atlanta’s first non-African-American mayor since 1973.

Cold rain fell the day before the runoff election but it tapered off by late afternoon and the stars came out. Fog rolled in overnight but when it lifted by ten the next morning, Sylvia Reed looked on the clear blue day and thanked God for making His face shine on her youngest son. Research has shown that rainfall on Election Day drives down turnout, shifting the outcome a few percentage points toward Republicans and away from Democrats. Turnout was heavy for a runoff election, which Reed won by 715 votes—less than one percent. His mother was not the only one convinced that sunshine put Kasim Reed in the mayor’s office.

Which may be true. Except the mayor’s race is supposed to be nonpartisan. And belief in the sunshine theory requires the belief that Mary Norwood was a Republican, and this belief on its own may have proliferated just enough to swing the election. Yes, it was a clean campaign, mostly, but Mary Norwood did suffer an incendiary attack that would have pleased Sun Tzu. The Democratic Party of Georgia mailed out flyers that accused her of being—oh, the horror—a Republican, even though she had run as an independent. The accusation was doubly pernicious, like a flaming arrow. Her Democratic supporters had to reconsider their positions. And the Republicans in her stronghold of Buckhead must not have appreciated the campaign of denial that reached an unseemly conclusion when she disavowed her previous Republican leanings by telling Atlanta Progressive News, “Just because you did cocaine once doesn’t make you an addict.”

If Norwood had wanted to fight fire with fire, she could have leveled the closet-Republican charge at Reed. Some evidence did exist. (According to Reed, Norwood supporters did send out some accusatory flyers, although they received little or no media coverage.) She could have talked about Atwater, the Republican friends, and the time the Washington Post (incorrectly) identified Reed as a Republican in college. In fact, Reed’s father was intellectually curious enough to join the Republican Party for a brief period in the eighties.

“You never overcome your father,” Kasim Reed has said, describing his father’s strong influence on the course of his life, and he’s right. Kasim Reed is not a closet Republican. He’s a pragmatist, like the man who gave him the name Mohammed. This has helped him succeed as a Democrat.

“Mayor Reed is the type of leader who can reach across party lines to get things done,” says Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “He’s a strong Democrat, but he is willing to work with folks on the other side of the aisle to achieve the greater good. That record has given him a very broad appeal and a bright future within the Democratic Party.”

If Reed has political aspirations beyond the mayor’s office, he won’t admit them now. He says being mayor is like playing golf: Look up too soon and you hit it in the trees. Besides, he’s getting tired.

“I’ve been at this a minute,” he said one day in the Taurus. “You write down the pace of this thing, it’s been something. I mean, eleven years. I’ve been spending—I got out of school in ’95, ran in ’97, won in ’98, sworn in ’99, two terms, and then ran a mayoral campaign, you’re thirty. Then ran a transition at thirty-one? Ran for the senate at thirty-two? My whole life has been about twos and fours.”

But when he needs a lift, he remembers these six words from his father:

Passion is the enemy of fatigue.

he biggest agent in Hollywood pays Reed a visit just after noon. Ari Emanuel wears khakis, a baggy polo shirt, and blue canvas shoes that look to have cost about ten dollars. With him is Charles King, agent of Tyler Perry, classmate of Reed’s from Howard University School of Law. The three men have a private conversation in Reed’s library for about half an hour, and Reed leaves the meeting with fresh energy.

“That was amazing,” he says. Emanuel told him the city could create jobs by providing tax credits for the filming of television commercials. Reed loved the idea. It was a social call that became a business meeting; for Reed, there is often no distinction. When he flies to other cities on business, he sends out a group text message to see which of his friends are in the vicinity. Jamie Foxx? Jamal Crawford? T.I.? Chris Tucker? Sean “Diddy” Combs? Reed has many famous friends. He met some through the Howard alumni network; others came from his years as an entertainment lawyer. (His legal career ran concurrently with his time in the legislature, and he used to sleep even less then. Sometimes he’d work all day in Los Angeles, catch an overnight flight back to Atlanta, stop by his condo to freshen up, and head to the office.) Reed made a lot of deals in the music business, where his clients included the hip-hop quintet Nappy Roots, the female rapper Solé, the former Destiny’s Child member LeToya Luckett, and the record executive Shakir Stewart. As an attorney, Reed didn’t pretend to be a crusader for justice. It was enjoyable work that made him a lot of money. And he used some of that money to help get himself elected. Reed estimates that he has spent more than $100,000 of his own cash on his political campaigns over the years; his rich and powerful friends have kicked in quite a lot more.

“I believe in doing good and doing well at the same time,” he said in a recent interview. “For me, it all runs together.”

It all runs together: His Centers of Hope are part of a larger strategy to steer children away from crime, thus helping keep his foremost campaign promise—making the city safer. Zooming out even farther, the centers figure into Reed’s postracial worldview that says assigning blame for the plight of minority groups is less important than making sure America stands unified against rising economic challenges from India and China.

It all runs together: Getting elected to office takes money; staying effective in office takes political capital. And so, although some people have called for him to take personal control of the Atlanta Public Schools, which would theoretically let him prepare many young minds to beat our competitors in the Far East, he has no intention of doing so. In the hallway between meetings on this Tuesday afternoon, he declares this non-intention to a small gathering of staff members. His friend Adrian Fenty took over the schools in D.C., and now Fenty is in danger of losing his job. There’s principle, and there’s political suicide. It’s not enough just to do the right thing. You have to put yourself in position to keep doing the right thing.

It all runs together: At 6:17 p.m., as he leaves the office to vote in the primary election and then attend a community meeting at a church in southwest Atlanta, he is joined by a lovely woman in a polka-dot dress. He is working tonight. It seems he also has a date.

onight’s meeting at Mount Carmel Baptist Church on Campbellton Road will include a speech by Police Chief George Turner, whose selection caused as much public debate as any of Reed’s mayoral decisions. The episode is worth recounting for its lessons in the slippery nature of political capital.

After his 715-vote win in the mayor’s race last year, Reed tried to build unity and popular support by asking his defeated opponents to serve in the new administration. No one had heard of such a thing in Atlanta. He put Mary Norwood on the search committee for fire chief. He put Kyle Keyser—a bartender inspired to run for mayor after he was robbed at gunpoint outside the Pizza Hut on Boulevard—on the search committee for police chief. He named Lisa Borders cochair of the transition team, giving her charge of all the executive searches. Crime had saturated the news during the mayor’s race. Police Chief Richard Pennington sought refuge in the numbers, insisting that actual crime was down even if the perception of crime was up, but hardly anyone seemed to believe him. Reed had made crime-­fighting the cornerstone of his mayoral campaign. He’d pledged to install more surveillance cameras, increase police pay, and add 750 cops to the force. Now he was in an odd position. He had to keep the city safe despite giving up his mayoral right to unilaterally choose its top crime fighter.

The police chief search committee had an impressive range of members, including two pastors, a campus police chief, a police union boss, a former police whistle-blower, a public defender, the chief executive of a public corporation, a community advocate, and the owner of a gay bookstore. It would take several months to pick a police chief by committee, and in the meantime Mayor Reed had to put someone in charge. For interim chief he chose Turner, a deputy chief whose twenty-eight-year disciplinary file with the Atlanta Police Department consisted of a single oral admonishment for showing up late to a training session. Besides having a clean record, Turner was born in Atlanta. This was an advantage. As Mayor Shirley Franklin’s campaign manager, Reed had run the search for the department’s last chief, Pennington, an outsider from New Orleans whose tenure in Atlanta was generally seen as a disaster. He could be hard to find when the city needed him most.

Interim Chief Turner did not act much like an interim chief. By June he had cleared 363 internal-affairs complaints, fired six bad cops, and deployed a narcotics team that made more than 1,000 drug-related arrests. No, he didn’t simply mind the store—he redecorated it. One day Deputy Chief Carlos Banda was the longest-serving officer in the department; the next day he had gone into sudden retirement. One day Major Elizabeth Propes was a respected commander in the zone that included East Atlanta and Inman Park; the next day she’d been shipped off to Siberia, otherwise known as the airport. Meanwhile Chief Turner renovated the command staff, promoting lieutenants to majors and majors to deputy chiefs. These moves sent a clear message to any outsider who thought of applying for the chief’s job: If you wanted to bring in your own command staff, you’d have to start by demoting people.

The search committee interviewed six candidates. Turner was the only internal one. The citizens say they were told to deliver three to five finalists. They analyzed and ranked the candidates and delivered three finalists. George Turner was not among them.

It may have been an honest mistake, a miscommunication, an inevitable consequence of delegated responsibility. The citizens will never know. What they do know is that they thought they were done. They were not done. It turned out Mayor Reed wanted five candidates, not three—in fact, he had always wanted five, to ensure a robust variety—so they had to reconvene and deliver five. In other words, all their interviews had been spent eliminating just one candidate from a field of six.

The committee members were dismayed. Their friends had told them the whole thing would be a sham, but the members had gone on believing otherwise and had worked diligently for no pay because they wanted a good chief. Anyway, they reconvened and delivered the list of five. And when the mayor announced that he and his chief operating officer had done their own interviews and cut the list back down to three finalists, George Turner was back in the running.

According to Reed, the truth was more complicated than the conspiracy theorists believed. One of the final five had dropped out of contention after getting a different job. Another had most recently been chief of security for a school system and was therefore not a serious candidate to lead a major city’s police department. That left three legitimate and available finalists. No matter what the search committee had done—and in essence, no matter what Reed had done—Turner was destined for the final three. The field narrowed itself.

The other two finalists were Louisville Metro Police Chief Robert White and Cedric Alexander, federal security director for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Each finalist had a different appeal. White had the most experience as a chief. Alexander had the most education. And Turner knew Atlanta better than his opponents ever would. Reed finally chose Turner, even though that meant overriding the wishes of the very citizens he had asked to help him find the chief.

“He wasted our time,” said Lou Arcangeli, the respected former Atlanta Police deputy chief who served on the search committee. “He tried to trade on our credibility and our good names. And ultimately, I think Kasim Reed has spent some political capital.”

Maybe. But Reed saw the way Interim Chief Turner behaved and it reminded him a lot of how Permanent Chief Turner ought to behave—appearing at community meetings all around the city, taking charge during the Screen on the Green crisis, cutting the crime rate, seeming just as omnipresent as his predecessor had seemed invisible. If Kasim Reed had been named interim police chief, he would have behaved a lot like Interim Chief Turner did. He would have tried to win with an abundance of hard work and preparation. And so Reed spent some political capital (angering a few citizens on the search committee) in the hope of gaining far more (making the city safer for everyone). Just as he worked himself into the job of mayor, he let George Turner work himself into the job of police chief.

he mayor has a girlfriend. He will say nothing about her for public consumption, except that they’ve been together two years and she is a great lady. He divulges her first name but says it’s off the record. A man kept under twenty-four-hour watch must guard his remaining secrets.

The woman looks several years younger than him, with a model’s cheekbones and a delicate frame, and they ride in the back of the Taurus, leaning close together over the center armrest. Their voices are nearly inaudible from the front, but the tenor of their conversation suggests that she’s in control—that the boss of 7,000 people is not above being bossed himself.

At 6:50, ten minutes before the meeting starts, Reed asks the driver to make a detour for the Starbucks on Cascade Road.

“I need something warm,” he says, preparing himself for the citizen complaints he will surely receive. “I need comfort, because I’m getting ready to be torn apart.”

On command, Senior Patrol Officer D.S. Bell pulls up to the drive-thru and orders a tall caramel macchiato, stirred, with whipped cream. Make that two. The lady would like one. This will stand in for dinner.

They are eighteen minutes late to Mount Carmel Baptist Church, but the mayor stays in the car when it stops at the curb. “I need a minute,” he says, by which he means he needs to finish his macchiato, because it would not make political sense to walk late into a community meeting holding a Starbucks cup.

“I think you should go in first,” he says to the woman, and she giggles at his joke. He goes in first and sits down at the head table with his fellow city officials. She waits a few seconds until the entourage has dissipated and then sits alone in a corner, at least fifty feet from her date.

The meeting will follow a simple blueprint. The Reverend Timothy Flemming Sr. will go down a list of unacceptable conditions along the Campbellton Road corridor, and then the mayor will have to face a crowd of about 100 good churchgoing people and tell them how he’ll fix things. So the pastor says a woman was raped and killed, her body thrown in the woods, and it might not have happened if they had better lighting on this road. He says frequent power blackouts are disrupting the computers. He says they hardly ever see a street sweeper. He says a concrete wall up by the Krystal has collapsed, creating a public abomination, and no one will take responsibility.

The mayor stands and receives his applause, looking as fresh as he has all day.

“First of all, pastor,” he says, “I want to start by saying thank you. Not just for the town hall meeting tonight, not just for what you did yesterday or the day before, but for what you have done for years. And that’s why I’m delighted to be here. But I wouldn’t start this meeting without acknowledging you for being an exemplar for this community. Since I’ve been a boy, I have looked up to you and admired you for the work you do at Mount Carmel. Mount Carmel, thank you for sticking with Campbellton Road, for being a part of what makes it special. So I am profoundly grateful to all of you. I live off of Campbellton Road, so I’m no stranger here.”

He gets to the list.

“Poor lighting on Campbellton Road,” he says. “I have my Public Works commissioner, Richard Mendoza, here tonight. So that’s something that we’re gonna have to work on together. Because I don’t wanna just high-five you and give you a fake answer. I’ve got to find out how much it costs. Now in the 2011 budget that was supported by Councilwoman [Keisha] Bottoms, we put $11 million in for infrastructure investment. So what we need to do right now is to identify the lighting problems on Campbellton Road—Keisha and I will work together—and then we need to find out what it will cost, and determine from the $11 million that we’ve set aside for infrastructure what we can do there. So that’s something we have to partner on.”

Reed is not just a young and energetic mayor. He has hired a team of young and talented idealists, and many of them are here tonight, taking notes, planning action.

“Now, the constant power blackouts. I will personally, and any member, including you, Pastor Flemming, any group of parishioners that you designate, can accompany me to a meeting with Georgia Power where we hash out the blackout issue. I don’t know the answer to the blackout issue, but I know that Atlanta is one of Georgia Power’s most significant clients. And I believe that I can get an honest answer as to why blackouts are occurring. And I’m willing to do that in partnership with you, with members of the church in the meeting, so that there can be no doubt about a couple of things: one, that we asked for the meeting; two, that we got the meeting; three, that Georgia Power responded to the concern; and four, that an answer was brought back to this church, and that this community was respected. So that’s what I’m prepared to do as it relates to that. And I didn’t have this list in advance, by the way.”

Watching Reed in the spotlight, it’s tempting to believe that he is not only better in public but somehow more real: that the audience has a way of bringing forth his best and most genuine self.

“The fact that no street sweeper comes down Campbellton Road, no Public Works support. Give me one week. And if no street sweeper comes down Campbellton Road within a week, I will come back and clean the streets myself.”

Applause and cheers overwhelm his voice.

“The wall at Krystal’s restaurant,” he says. “When this meeting is over, if the pastor has time, I’d like for him to take me and show me the wall. And then I will direct my chief of staff, Candace Byrd, to meet with this owner and determine who owns the wall. And at least tell the church the truth. If the city owns the wall, the city will fix it.”

He stays another ninety minutes, answering questions about foreclosures, vacant houses, people waiting for buses without proper shelter, a family of seven thrown out on the street by a bad landlord. At the end, when a church deacon brings up Krystal once again, he says this:

“Oh, we’re going to the wall together, sir.”

And they do. The lady sneaks out in front of him, and they get in the Taurus and drive in a caravan up to the Krystal, where Reed and his team get out in the warm night to look at the tumbledown concrete wall.

“Candace,” he says.

“Yes,” says his chief of staff.

“Let’s move,” he says, and she pledges to take care of it, and the deacon is convinced that everything will be all right, and he thanks the mayor and shakes his hand. Reed gets back in the Taurus with his date. Her perfume is in the air. He directs his driver back Downtown, where her car is parked. He walks her to the car. They hug for a few seconds, and then he opens the car door for her and she drives south toward the interstate. It’s 9:33 p.m.

“Home, sir?” the driver says.

“Yeah,” the mayor says. He has removed his tie.

“Let’s go home.”

The Room that Makes the Trains Run


The nerve center of Atlanta’s electric rail system hides in an unmarked concrete building east of the city limits in DeKalb County, behind a fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. The outer gate opens only with an electronic key card, which also opens the building’s front door. To reach the control room, you pass another tall metal door marked with a sign that says This Door Must Be Locked at All Times. Cell phones are forbidden in the control room. Sunlight is scarce. The bosses of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority want no distractions for the workers who on an average weekday keep 242,000 riders safe.

The Rail Service Control Center runs nonstop, seven days a week, with nearly sixty workers in rotating shifts. They are the railroad equivalent of air traffic controllers. Before them, two Mosaic Display Boards dominate the room’s eastern wall. The boards resemble the black grids from the old board game Battleship, magnified a thousand times. They show diagrams of MARTA’s 48.1 miles of tracks, with 750 volts of direct-current electricity flowing through the third rail. The left board shows the trains moving. Each train glows red against the tracks.

“You’re only as good as your last rush hour,” says a sign on the wall behind the controllers. About thirty trains run every rush hour—twelve to fifteen east and west, seventeen to twenty north and south. They go an average of 55 mph, including stops, reaching 60 mph on the long stretch between Buckhead and Medical Center. The controllers use a computerized system called Automatic Train Control to keep the trains spread out just enough so they arrive at each station every six minutes. According to Gregory Edwards, the control center’s acting general superintendent, their average on-time rate is 98 percent.

The trains look essentially the same now as they did in 1979, when they first started running. But the insides are much newer, thanks to a rehabilitation effort that involved shipping the forty-ton cars to New York and back via tractor-trailer. The refurbishing saved $408 million for a system that’s always short on cash. With a huge budget shortfall this year and no dedicated money from the state, MARTA will have to cut rail service by 14.2 percent this fall. Your $2 fare doesn’t come close to covering operating expenses. To break even without external funding, MARTA would have to charge $7.27 per ride.

New Year’s Eve is usually the second-busiest day of the year. Independence Day is the busiest. Crushloads are not uncommon on those days. A crushload is a technical term that describes 250 people packed into one car, or 2,000 on an eight-car event train. Controllers help guide the event trains from hidden tunnels called pocket tracks. A pocket track is a rail spur between stations, out of the way of general train traffic. The event train can lurk there until the waning seconds of the fourth quarter of the Falcons game and then roll into the Dome station to pick up eight crushloads of fans in various states of anger and euphoria and inebriation and carry them east to Five Points, where some will get off and go south toward Airport and College Park, the second- and third-busiest stations in the system; and some will go north, through Peachtree Center, the deepest station, 120 feet beneath Downtown; and some will keep going east, toward King Memorial, the highest station at seventy-five feet above the Old Fourth Ward, where you can stand on a clear day and see Stone Mountain.

Photograph by Caroline Kilgore

Pine Street Posse

Late in the spring, after the foreclosure, the Peachtree Pine homeless shelter Downtown was itself in danger of homelessness. Inside the brick walls, where 574 men sleep on an average night, the leaders prepared for a siege. They believed that the city’s most powerful forces were allied against them. Some of the leaders lived in the shelter. They had nowhere else to go. On a gray Tuesday morning, about twenty of these resident volunteers gathered in a second-floor conference room with their executive director, Anita Beaty, age sixty-eight, also known as Mama.

She cleared her throat.

Friends of the shelter form a “human lifeline” around the building as a symbol of their resolve.

Mama You may have noticed that we’ve been visited by officers of many different, I guess, security entities, or police agencies, on fishing expeditions, as you all know. That’s what I call it, when they come here and say they need to come in and meet somebody, or they come to the door and try to browbeat somebody into letting them in. Without any warrant, without any authority. Just come in. And part of it, it seems to me, it tends toward harassment. Particularly now that we are struggling in court, and every single day, to protect our claim to this building. So last week there were [intruders] trying to get in. Under—

A Man False pretenses.

Mama —false pretenses. Exactly. And everybody who confronted them did a stellar job. We do not give names out. We do not even answer questions. Somebody says, “Have you seen this guy?” We don’t answer that. We don’t look at the picture and say, “Yes, he’s here.” But here’s what you can say every single time. “Do you have a warrant?” Ninety times out of ninety-one times, they don’t. “What are you here for?” And don’t let them in!

Man With Baritone Voice We had two police officers did that two weeks ago.

Mama Did they get in?

Baritone Man Nope. I wouldn’t let ’em.

Mama Good.

Baritone Man I told ’em they needed to come by tomorrow morning. Right now, we can’t help you. We have a confidentiality process, and we have to protect our clients. “Can’t we just go in there?” No you cannot, sir.

Mama [softly] Yes.

Baritone Man With all due respect, you cannot.

Mama Yes. That’s exactly the tone to take. And if you need to get Motley, get Motley.

Curtis Motley, head of security If you feel like it’s anyone who’s not familiar, or you think that’s standing out, or you’re not sure of, always come and get somebody, or try to seek and find out. We never know who of our enemies is trying to send someone in here to get some kind of dirt on us. Jerome?

Jerome Baker I just wanted to say, you brought up a valiant point. You know, we have to be mindful and vigilant of everybody who comes in here. Especially when they’re trying to come through that basement door. I was told of a situation where a security officer or a detective was in the building. Now, I don’t know whether that was before I came back or not, but one of the RVs [resident volunteers] asked him, “Do you need something?” And he said he was just lookin’ around. He said, “Who are you?” “I’m a detective.” And showed him his badge. And he was promptly escorted out of the building. All I was saying was, we need to be vigilant and mindful with people who come in, because you can just about tell if a person is homeless when he come through that door.

Mama Can’t always tell if somebody’s homeless or not by looking at them.

Another Man You smell ’em.

[Laughter all around]

Photograph by Caroline Kilgore

The Golden Boy and the Invisible Army

Angela Behnken’s husband John, 27, died suddenly from the H1N1, swine flu, in November 2009. She said she spends more time with his friends now so she can catch some of his sense of humor that she misses so and laugh again. She poses for a portrait outside their home in Johns Creek, Georgia April 22, 2010.

Photograph by Kendrick Brinson

When Angela thinks about viruses, which is every day now, she sees herself at Costco, pushing a shopping cart. They could have swarmed from the handlebar to her fingers as she walked past the cornflakes.

Or maybe they were floating through the ductwork at her office, and when she opened her mouth to yawn—

Or did it happen at the gym, as she furiously pumped the elliptical machine and wiped the sweat from her cheek—

1. Surprise
Influenza is a careless invader, with spikes on its shell like a medieval mace. It hijacks your cells for reproduction and copies itself with blinding speed. The copies are unpredictable. Sometimes they don’t work. But sometimes they work even better than they should. Influenza has a rare talent for profiting from its own production errors.

Maybe your body was immune to the old influenza. It knew what to expect. Its defenses were in place. But one production error can change everything. The body’s defenders are caught by surprise. The battle becomes a massacre.

Ninety-two years ago, at the height of World War I, this exact thing happened. A new kind of flu virus emerged, and humans had no natural defense. It was one of the two deadliest pandemics of all time, with numbers comparable to the Black Death. The average flu strain kills one of every 1,000 people it infects. The Great Influenza of 1918 killed one in forty.

The H5N1 avian flu kills one out of two. You may have heard of it. It was all over the news from 2005 to 2008. It didn’t kill many humans, because it had trouble spreading from one person to the next, but scientists were afraid it might learn how any day. In fact, they’re still worried. No one knows when this virus will stumble upon the solution.

Now for the good news. We are not helpless. In the seventy years since we spied our first virus through an electron microscope, we have dramatically improved our defenses. Smallpox once scarred and blinded untold millions; by 1980 it had been wiped off the face of the earth. Polio used to cripple children all over the world and leave them gasping for breath inside massive iron lungs; today it circulates widely in just seven countries. Seventy years ago malaria left a trail of fever and death across the Southeast. Atlanta was the heart of malaria country, which is why the federal government set up a base here for the disease’s eradication. Workers coated almost 5 million houses with a pesticide called DDT, killing the mosquitoes that spread the parasite. By 1949 malaria was nearly vanquished in the United States, but the agency charged with its removal stayed in Atlanta and took up the fight against other diseases. Today that agency is called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it is the nationwide headquarters in our war with influenza. Somewhere on its campus off Clifton Road, six miles northeast of Downtown, in a locked freezer guarded with a retinal scanner, there is a resurrected copy of the Great Influenza virus that killed as many as 100 million people. Scientists are studying it for clues to the next pandemic.

Everyone thought the next pandemic would come from Asia, in the form of the H5N1 avian flu. The CDC even held war games under a fictional scenario in which a college student caught the virus in Indonesia and shared it with his swim team at Georgetown University. Almost 800 people took part in the practice runs, trying to simulate how the government would respond to this viral invasion. It was probably useful from an administrative standpoint. But here’s the problem: The 280 workers of the Influenza Division have an impossible mandate. They are told to predict the next move of a virus that makes its living by defying predictions. And so it was both stunning and unsurprising when the next pandemic turned out to be not bird flu from Asia but swine flu from Mexico.

It was April 2009, and the objectives in the Influenza Division were clear. Capture and interrogate the invaders. Break their code. Equip other laboratories around the world to do the same. Hurry. If a new virus was in production, the blueprints could be stolen. The defenders could be prepared for the invasion’s next wave.

Thousands of lives could be saved.

2. The Golden Boy
Even if you knew John Behnken well—and if so, you probably loved him—you may have known nothing about the two small holes in his skull, or the white plastic tube that ran through them, hidden under his skin, from his brain to his abdominal cavity. John almost never talked about it. When asked how he was doing, he would say, “I’m aces,” which meant just fine. And he was. He had an IQ close to 150 and a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech. He had an engaging job and an electric guitar. He had a dozen friends who would bleed for him, or at least take him drinking in Vegas, and a wife who would let him ride motorcycles and occasionally call her Chief, the same thing he called everyone else.

Courtesy of Angela Behnken

John’s friends called him the Golden Boy, because everything seemed to go his way. Like when he went to a frat party during rush week at Tech and this one drunken brother was going around picking fights with everyone. John didn’t believe in violence, usually—although he could have, with the thick muscles on his six-foot-two frame. Anyway, this was a special case, because the guy was volatile and dangerous, and John calmly lowered his head like a charging bull and broke the guy’s nose. Now, did the drunk guy find a way to settle the score? No. At some later date he found John, apologized for being a jerk, and shook his hand.

Or the time John had to leave Georgia Tech and go home to Alaska because he couldn’t afford tuition anymore. As it happened, his high school sweetheart had a great-uncle with some money. And the great-uncle liked John. And the great-uncle once had his own college education financed by a generous benefactor who asked nothing in return except this: If you succeed financially, maybe someday you could find some deserving youngster and do the same thing. John was delighted, but he had the presence of mind to ask an important question. What if we break up? The great-uncle said this has nothing to do with that. He even wrote it into the contract. John was serious enough about his girlfriend to go looking at engagement rings. But finally they did break up, and the great-uncle kept his promise. The money kept coming. And John found another girl, Angela, who he thought was out of his league, and he took her to Metalsome Mondays karaoke at 10 High in Virginia-Highland and sang her “Interstate Love Song” by the Stone Temple Pilots, which was a big deal because he hardly ever sang. The Golden Boy had more talents than even his friends realized.

It seemed as if he’d won the genetic lottery. By age three he could read the hands of an old-fashioned clock. A few years later his father took him fishing in an aluminum boat on the Cook Inlet, and young John cast his own line and set his own hook and reeled in something heavy. “Daddy,” he said, “I think you better take this one.” At age six John had caught a forty-pound halibut.

And if his Mensa membership card was impressive, his emotional intelligence stood out even more. “He could read people,” his mother said, “even as a child, like nobody else I ever knew.” When you talked he really listened, instead of waiting for his turn, and when he asked how you were doing he actually wanted to know, and if you were stressed over a final he would buy you breakfast, and if you wanted to drink he would be designated driver, and if you were disappointed about being left out of his wedding party he would buy you the groomsman’s watch for Christmas, and if you were about to pop the question to your girlfriend he would help you find a great deal on a diamond by analyzing the unit price in hundredth-carat increments, just as he did with the ring he gave Angela.

John’s gifts even extended to storytelling, and although he kept the story of the white plastic tube to himself, he wrote short fiction for his own amusement and spun yarns to entertain his friends. They loved hearing about Alaska. They actually called him Alaska, more often than Golden Boy, and played along as he told of killing a polar bear with his bare hands. There were other things he planned to accomplish before he died. He wanted to receive an oversized novelty check like the ones from Publishers Clearing House. He wanted to jump in a river with a knife between his teeth.

The grand finale would come after his death. He told everyone he wanted a Viking funeral. He added fresh details with each new telling. His body would be laid in an open boat, along with his sword and shield. His fellow warriors would push the boat out to sea. Then an archer would shoot the boat with a flaming arrow, and fire would consume everything.

3. Invasion
When it came the scientists were ready, inasmuch as anyone can be ready for the appearance of several billion hostile creatures whose existence was previously unknown. The scientists fastened their lab coats, pulled on their gloves, and took up their battle stations. It was the third week of April 2009, and virus samples were coming in from California and Texas. Flu season should have been ending, but it was just beginning. At other labs they had tried to break the virus, but their tests all came back the same: unsubtypable, which is to say we don’t know what this is.

The scientists in Atlanta could find out. They had the right weapons, sharpened over years of chasing the avian flu. They had machines of unimaginable sophistication. Through tall panes of glass on the outer western corridor a red sun flared against the Downtown skyline, but the scientists paid no attention because they were in white rooms and long, sunless hallways lined with humming freezers that were crusted in white frost. The scientists moved from the clinical specimen room to the reagent setup room to the instrument room, carrying extraction worksheets. They placed tubes of clear liquid in whirling centrifuges and slurped up the liquid with tools that resembled turkey basters. They cut open RNA isolation kits with scissors and fitted them into extractors with barcode scanners and left them there for thirty-eight minutes, through cycles of lysis and bind and wash and elute, black liquid rising and falling and rising again. They subjected virus samples to the five-target real-time PCR assay, amplifying genetic material for closer inspection. What they found was a strange hybrid of a virus, with genes from bird flu and swine flu and human flu all shuffled into one package. No one could tell how dangerous it was. But they knew it was different enough from the seasonal flu to make the current vaccine useless.

This rapid evolution sets influenza apart from other viruses. The CDC recommends eleven separate vaccines for children under six, for immunity from such diseases as measles, tetanus, polio, and diphtheria. The flu vaccine is the only one you have to get every year to be reasonably sure it’s effective. Last year’s vaccine may do nothing against this year’s flu, because even the so-called “seasonal flu” is always changing. To make matters worse, vaccine production is a slow, laborious process that involves growing viruses in hen’s eggs. It can take six months or more.

Two months had already passed since the World Health Organization made its annual recommendation for the specific strains of influenza on which to base the next season’s vaccine. The new virus made that recommendation meaningless. A new six-month clock would have to begin ticking. And so, even though CDC scientists working day and night prepared a seed strain of the new virus for the private vaccine manufacturers in just twelve days—by all accounts a remarkable accomplishment—it would be almost impossible to get the vaccine to everyone who needed it before flu season began again in the fall.

Seasonal flu kills 3,000 Americans in an average month, more than the entire death toll from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But most of the victims are already weakened by sickness or old age. As the new flu virus spread through America in the spring and summer of 2009, scientists discovered a striking feature. It seemed to prefer the young and the healthy.

4. The Better Side of Clean
On April 25, the authorities declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. They had no choice. The virus didn’t look especially deadly, but even the 1918 virus looked weak in its first wave, before it lowered the U.S. life expectancy by twelve years. A false alarm is better than wildfire.

So people covered their faces and drowned their fear in Purell. At one college graduation it was optional to shake hands with the president. At another college they held a separate graduation for students returning from Mexico. Some people came home from Mexico and went straight to the hospital, even though they had no symptoms. They became known as the “worried well.” In Newton County a seventh-grade boy was sent home from school when he refused to take off his mask. In the media there was debate over “swine flu parties,” modeled after chicken pox parties, in which mothers would theoretically gather children for deliberate infection to give them immunity from a more deadly future strain. It was very hard to find anyone who had actually seen one of these parties, but they were fun to talk about.

Meanwhile, away from the cameras, most people went on with their lives. John and Angela Behnken lived in a brick house in the Glastonberry subdivision of Johns Creek with a German shepherd named Riesling and a mongrel that John had renamed Rufus, from Roo, because Rufus sounded more masculine. “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” John told Angela all the time, and he texted her his love during the workday as she managed production at Gwinnett Magazine and he tested new lighting products for electrical stability. They heard about the new flu virus through the media and regarded it with a modicum of caution. They were, as Angela put it, “on the better side of clean.” They washed their hands regularly, if not obsessively, and went to Thursday night bar trivia without wondering what germs were hiding on the ketchup bottle. If John had any health worries, they mainly concerned sodium, which is why they had stopped eating pizza every other night.

As John and Angela understood it, the virus was a threat primarily to babies, small children, and the elderly. This was partially correct. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices met July 29 to decide which population groups should take priority when vaccine became available. The list did not include people over sixty-five, because many of them have some kind of residual immunity from an encounter with a similar virus before 1957. It did include pregnant women, healthcare workers, children, caregivers of young children, and young adults. The virus was killing young adults at more than double the rate of the seasonal flu. What is a young adult? In this case the definition was anyone from nineteen to twenty-four.

John turned twenty-seven in August. Angela was twenty-six.

In October, as vaccine trickled out to the high-priority groups, John’s older brother Steve called him to talk about it. Steve had heard something scary on NPR about the new virus, and he and his wife had a daughter a few weeks old. That put them in a priority group. One afternoon Steve skipped out of work and took his wife to the Kendall County Health Department in Illinois, where they waited more than two hours for a shot in the arm. Then Steve called John to ask him about vaccination plans. John said he and Angela would get vaccinated. Just not right away.

“Other people will need it more,” John said. “We’re healthy. We’re young. If anyone’s got the best chance of beating it, it’s us.”

5. Fiasco
The vaccine is full of captured invaders. They are weakened or killed and then introduced to your body. Your defenders swarm around them and study them and build new armor that will withstand their fire. And when the invasion comes, your defenders are ready for victory. This is how it should work, and usually does. But millions of Americans remain unconvinced.

They have all sorts of reasons. Don’t trust the government. (This includes members of both the right and the left.) Don’t like shots. (A nasal spray is also available.) Don’t like paying for shots. (They’re usually less than $30 and often free.) Don’t like standing in line for shots. (2009 was a special case; usually they’re easy to get.) Don’t think shots will do anything. (The 2009 H1N1 vaccine was up to 90 percent effective in people with strong immune systems.) Don’t think they’re safe. (People worry about a preservative called thimerosal, but thimerosal-free doses are available.) Don’t think the virus is dangerous. (For most people it isn’t. But you never know.) And so forth. Part of the skepticism goes back to a strange national incident from 1976, sometimes called the Swine Flu Affair.

Six and a half years before John Behnken was born, almost seven years before the white plastic tube was placed in his skull, there was a small influenza outbreak at Fort Dix in New Jersey. The virus looked new and scary and deadly. Government officials huddled together and decided this was their chance to save the day. They devised a plan to vaccinate everyone in America.

The ensuing disaster is recounted in Gina Kolata’s book Flu. Every day in America, people catch pneumonia. They faint. They are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. They have strokes and heart attacks. And of course this all happened as usual after they took the vaccine, meaning they could blame the government for a coincidence. And they did. It was a landmark case of products liability. By May 1980 there were nearly 4,000 claims for more than $3.5 billion in damages. Not only that: While the vaccine was generally safe, scientists did uncover an exceedingly rare link—still debated in some circles—to a paralyzing neuromuscular condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome. And here’s the worst part. It was all for nothing. The virus didn’t spread. The epidemic never happened. The CDC director lost his job.

So that’s one reason Americans don’t get vaccinated. In 2009 there was another. They couldn’t get it when they wanted it most. This was nobody’s fault; the virus didn’t grow as well in the eggs as scientists had hoped. They wanted three or four vaccine doses per egg, but the virus yielded fewer than two. Then the vaccines had to be poured into syringes, tested for safety and sterility, put through clinical studies, approved by the government. Any shortcut would have been dangerous. Which meant peak supply never aligned with peak demand.

By September 4, the new influenza virus was officially widespread in Georgia. Five people had died and nearly 200 had been hospitalized. Three more months would pass before the vaccine was available to everyone.

6. The Weekend
It could have happened at Costco, as she pushed the shopping cart; or at the office, in a midafternoon lull; or at the gym, on the elliptical machine. Or anywhere. What Angela knows is that she left the bar with a sore throat after Thursday night trivia October 29 but woke up Friday morning feeling good enough for work. As the day went on, she felt an ache in her back and shoulders. She went home and curled up in bed, where John brought her chicken soup.

On Saturday morning John got up and fed the dogs so Angela could rest a little longer. Then he went to the office for a few hours. There was trouble with a machine called a goniophotometer, which measures the intensity of light. Somehow John got the thing to work, which necessitated a call to his oldest brother David for bragging purposes.

Angela felt dizzy when John got home late that morning, but the feeling passed. She thought it was a cold, and not such a bad one. It was Halloween, and they were having a party that night. They got in her Nissan Sentra to run an errand, and as John was driving they talked about the future. He was in night classes at Georgia Tech, working on his MBA, hoping one day to start his own company. They wanted children. Angela wanted a boy; she wondered what John would look like as a small child.

At Union Diamond they met their friend Pete Mehravari to look at engagement rings for his girlfriend, one of Angela’s sorority sisters. Angela had another dizzy spell, with sweating and hot flashes, and had to sit down. John rubbed her back. Pete followed them home. Angela took a nap while John and Pete went to a pawnshop to look at more diamonds. The proprietor wore a black velour Adidas tracksuit that he claimed was a Halloween costume, but neither John nor Pete believed him.

“Do you have any motorcycles?” John said.

“I got one,” the man said, and he showed them a 1943 white Harley-Davidson in mint condition, which John and Pete admired for a while before going back to John’s house to prepare for the party. John made seven-layer dip, his signature dish, and a bunch of friends came over to watch Georgia Tech demolish Vanderbilt in football. Angela’s sister had made Halloween outfits for the dogs—a ballerina costume for Riesling and a Superman cape for Rufus. One of John’s friends heard that Angela wasn’t feeling well, which made him think of swine flu, and he said maybe she should dress up like a pig. At halftime the guys left for a corner bar called TJ’s to watch the second half. Angela stayed home to rest. John was the only one who wore a costume to the bar. He had borrowed his dog’s Superman cape.

A few hours later, John came home and took off the cape.

“I probably got what you got,” he told Angela. “I’m starting to feel under the weather.”

She woke up feeling fine on Sunday morning. John tried to get up and feed the dogs, but he faltered.

“Sweetie, I’m feeling weak,” he said. “Do you mind?”

Angela fed the dogs, and John went back to sleep. When he woke up, she brought him chicken soup and Oreos. She wiped his face with a cold wet cloth and stayed beside him until midafternoon as he drifted in and out of sleep. Around 2:30 she got hungry again. She kissed his face and got out of bed. In the doorway she turned and saw a drowsy half-smile on his face.

“I love you, baby,” she said, with more than the usual force.

“I love you too,” he said.

Downstairs she played with the dogs and called her mother. She felt well enough to consider going to the gym. Then she heard a strange noise from the bedroom and went upstairs to check on John.

“Hey, baby,” she said.

He seemed to be choking. She grabbed his cell phone and called 911 for an ambulance. There was blood in his nose. The dogs were barking. The operator told her to try CPR. Angela pushed on his chest and put her lips to his lips. She almost beat him up trying to get him breathing again. Nothing worked. The paramedics rushed him to the hospital, but it was too late. It was November 1, 2009, five weeks before the pandemic flu vaccine became available to the general public in Georgia. Angela Behnken was a widow at twenty-six years old, and no matter how many times she was told otherwise, she couldn’t help thinking it was somehow her own fault.

“It is my opinion,” Dr. Michele Stauffenberg of the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office wrote in her autopsy report, “that John Behnken, a 27-year-old white male, died as a result of complications of H1N1 influenza, commonly known as swine flu.” The virus had attacked his airways and filled his lungs with fluid. The manner of death was similar to drowning. No one knows why the virus left Angela alone after forty-eight hours even as it killed her husband. Scientists are still mystified about how the flu chooses its targets, although they suspect a link to genetics. Usually the flu has a coconspirator when it kills—some bacteria or other invader that sneaks in through the open door. This time it did not. Usually, when it proves fatal, it’s because of some preexisting medical condition that weakens its victim—diabetes, morbid obesity, chronic lung disease. John had none of those. Dr. Stauffenberg had done close to 1,600 autopsies, and this was the first time she had seen an otherwise healthy person die from the unaided influenza virus. In life and in death, John Behnken was exceptional. He won the genetic lottery, and then he lost.

The cause of death was not the only surprising thing Dr. Stauffenberg discovered during her examination. It had nothing to do with his death, but it was intriguing nonetheless. In his skull she found a ventricular peritoneal shunt—a white plastic tube.

7. The White Plastic Tube
John was three months old and wouldn’t stop screaming. He arched his back from the pain. The soft spot on top of his skull was bulging. His doctor got on the phone with the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and told them what was wrong, and the Mayo doctor said, “We need him in Rochester first thing on Friday morning.” They lived in eastern Montana. All five Behnkens piled into the car and crossed the prairie in the dark, about 700 miles, and brought him to the hospital. The doctors said he had a bilateral subdural hematoma, a fluid buildup around his brain. They weren’t sure how it happened, but it was very serious. They had to drain the fluid or he could die.

The doctors drilled two small holes in John’s skull and inserted a Y-shaped plastic tube that went down behind his left ear, through his chest, and into his abdominal cavity, where the fluid would drain without hurting anything. John stayed in the hospital for a month, and the tube kept working for about two more months. After that he didn’t need it, but the surgery to remove it would have been more trouble than it was worth. So the tube stayed. John had the brightest eyes his mother ever saw. He was always happy after that. By age three he could read the hands of a clock. By age six he caught a forty-pound halibut.

Medical science saved countless thousands of people from the influenza pandemic of 2009. More than 80 million took the vaccine that was born in a white room off Clifton Road, six miles northeast of Downtown Atlanta. The pandemic turned out to be mild. It crowded out the seasonal flu, but in its first year it killed fewer than half the people the average seasonal flu does. The vaccine is expected to be plentiful when the fall peak rolls around again. The question is this: How many people here will take it? Georgia has one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates, and in March it was leading the nation in hospitalizations for swine flu. Officials at the CDC were worried enough to hold a special news conference. The new virus was still circulating intensely.

Medical science saved John Behnken once, giving him twenty-seven years on earth. It could not save him twice. He never got his oversized novelty check. He never got to jump in a river with a knife between his teeth. But he did get something close to a Viking funeral. His friends made sure. They built a three-foot boat out of kindling wood, painted it brown, and filled it with mementos, including aces from a deck of cards and a figurine of a polar bear. They floated the boat in a kiddie pool in the backyard. At night they set it on fire.

This article originally appeared in our June 2010 issue.

Will This Ever Actually Happen?

During the war, as the Yankees came with their guns and torches, Henry Irby laid his gold in a dishpan and buried it in the clay. So goes the legend. Irby lived at the center of Buckhead—indeed, his famous tavern, with the head of a deer mounted on the front porch, gave Buckhead its name—and he barely survived the fall of the Confederacy. The legend is hazy on the fate of his gold, but circumstances suggest it never resurfaced. Irby fed his family by selling land for five cents an acre and sometimes bartering land for wheat.

©2006 Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates, Inc. and Genesis Studios, Inc.

One hundred and forty-two years later, a man named Ben Carter sank $200 million into the same soft earth. This is a lot of money: larger than the gross domestic product of some countries, enough to buy five tons of pure gold. Carter bought about nine acres across Peachtree Road from the place where Irby’s Tavern once stood. He wanted to turn the old Buckhead Village into Atlanta’s version of Rodeo Drive, and if this sounds like a wild idea now, in the New Age of Austerity, here are two reasons it made sense then: First, it was 2007, when banks were still lending enough to get ambitious projects built; and second, he was Ben Carter, a developer with something close to the golden touch.

What happened next was not the fall of the Confederacy, but it did leave a lot of smoldering wreckage. In Buckhead it left a wound in the soft pink saprolite, two blocks long and up to forty feet deep. This should have been Carter’s masterpiece, but the funding dried up a year ago and he stopped building in the middle of the job. The rules have not changed since 1865. Every developer knows this. Any time you put money in the ground, you risk losing it forever.

But Carter has not lost yet. At this writing, he said he was close to making a deal that would provide enough new capital to finish his masterpiece—another $200 million, enough to buy five more tons of gold.

In a time when some people have stopped buying groceries at Walmart because they’re afraid of wandering to another department and spending $8.88 on a frivolous impulse, it would be easy to call Carter’s plan irrelevant. But hardly anyone would benefit from his failure, other than land scavengers, and nobody wants to see Buckhead with a gaping wound in its heart. Just as the Southeast depends on Atlanta for its economic vitality, Atlanta depends on Buckhead. It contains barely one-fifth of the land and population, but it pays almost half the taxes. A dollar in a cash register on East Paces Ferry might help extinguish a fire in Grant Park.

Given the project’s rough state of incompletion, you may be surprised to learn how much public support Carter still has. People still call him a visionary and a hero. This is partly because his success would make almost everyone in Buckhead more successful, and so by cheering for him they are cheering for themselves. But there is another reason, one that goes back to the history of the land. The same people who call Buckhead Village a ghost town say the ghost town is an improvement. Things used to be even worse.

Aerial shot of Streets of Buckhead site;
photo by Andrea Fremiotti
Atlanta’s ribbon-shaped skyline runs north to south along the Peachtree Ridge, also known as Peachtree Street. If a drop of rain or blood falls on the west side of the ridge, it filters down through the saprolite toward fine-grained black rocks of the Ordovician Period and eventually slips into the Gulf of Mexico. If it falls on the east side of the ridge, it rolls down toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Ten years ago there was blood in the streets of Buckhead, just east of the Peachtree Ridge, on the land Ben Carter had not yet purchased. Originally, the land had been taken from the Muscogee Indians and cut into narrow parcels on which its many new owners set about making their livelihoods. They were grocers, jewelers, bankers, and clothiers, and in 1927 at the Wender & Roberts Drugstore you could buy a Coke with crushed ice for a nickel, the same price Henry Irby once got for an acre of land. This is all recounted in Susan Kessler Barnard’s book Buckhead: A Place for All Time. The Ku Klux Klan had an office nearby, with a hidden room to hold the special wooden-wheeled tricycle they used to initiate new members, and in the thirties they sounded horns and marched around in full robes to clear out the black folks and make way for white shoppers. A Fulton County commissioner took that operation a step further in the forties when he got tired of having black people next to his house, near Pharr Road and Grandview Avenue. He got the other commissioners together and they bought the land and made it a park.

Lenox Square opened in 1959, luring some merchants out of the Village and taking customers from the merchants who stayed. Gradually the mixture shifted. Land was passed from one generation to another, and the new owners seemed to care less about how the property was used and more about how much money it would make them. Landlords found they could double their rents by replacing boutiques with bars or restaurants. City officials relaxed parking and licensing requirements. Nightclubs proliferated.

Buckhead and Atlanta have a long and uneasy symbiotic relationship. Around the time Buckhead was annexed into the city in 1952, unofficial Buckhead mayor Red Dorough buried an effigy of Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield and had the coffin carried down Peachtree Road. Now Atlanta has a black mayor, Kasim Reed, who is paid $147,500 in taxpayer money to govern the city. Buckhead has a white “mayor,” Sam Massell, a former Atlanta mayor who is paid $250,000 in private funds to promote the neighborhood and speak for a powerful group of businesspeople called the Buckhead Coalition. Nevertheless, Atlanta uses Buckhead’s money, and Buckhead uses Atlanta’s international prestige. Whether or not they always get along, most people agree they need each other. One notable exception was Bill Campbell.

In 1994, Campbell became Atlanta’s third black mayor, and he did little to hide his contempt for Buckhead. He called white people “Mr. Charlie,” referring to the notorious white taskmaster of the early twentieth century. It hardly seemed like an accident that Buckhead had only half the police officers it needed. Anarchy crept into the Village.

Today there are people of various stripes who remember the party district with warmth and nostalgia. It was not all bad. Atlanta has seldom had such a lively and diverse haven for nocturnal merriment. But things got too lively. The party spilled into the prim residential neighborhoods that surround the Village. Windshields were smashed, shrubbery desecrated. Cruising lowriders choked off traffic on Peachtree Road. On weekend nights it was hard to sleep with all the honking and shrieking and thundering beats. Then you had the gunfire.

Like many political issues in the history of Atlanta, this one could be seen as a clash between black and white. Robin Loudermilk, CEO of the rent-to-own corporation Aaron’s, which is headquartered in Buckhead Village, tells the story of a well-dressed black man who paid him a visit one day to get neighborhood support for a new nightclub. Loudermilk says he later found out from friends in law enforcement that the same man had been involved in a fatal shooting on East Paces Ferry Road the night before. But Loudermilk also says the miscreants in the Village ran the length of the spectrum: Latino gangs running drugs, Asian hoodlums brandishing shotguns, rough white men on motorcycles. It was a rainbow coalition of criminals. The Village got so dangerous on some nights that Michael Krohngold of Tongue & Groove would pull his doorman inside and lock the front door. In the parking garage one morning, Loudermilk stepped on a hollow-point .38-caliber bullet.

This has got to stop, he said.

Buckhead handled the problem the best way it knew how: with money. Loudermilk convened a meeting of Village stakeholders, and right away they raised nearly $100,000. They installed sixty surveillance cameras around the Village and industrial-strength lighting to flood the dark streets. And when the national media descended in 2000 to cover the story of two men stabbed to death in a street fight that involved the football star Ray Lewis’s entourage, Mayor Campbell could no longer ignore the problem. The city brought down the full weight of its governance on the clubs in the Village. Fire marshals seemed to appear every night, writing citations for the smallest violations. Health inspectors and tax collectors were ubiquitous. To the ethical club owners, it didn’t seem to matter how hard you tried to follow the rules. You were going to get busted for something.

Even then, city officials resisted a proposal that would have forced the bars to close earlier every night. Some said it was a conspiracy to keep black people out of Buckhead. Then, in six months in 2003, four men died in the Village streets. One was stabbed and three were shot. Finally the city hastened last call to 2:30 a.m., tightened its liquor-license restrictions, and required every nightclub serving alcohol to have one parking spot for every seventy-five square feet of floor space—a requirement that was difficult or impossible to meet in the Village. Clubs began shutting down. Tranquility returned, but with it came decay. In 2006, on the other side of the Peachtree Ridge, a man in a third-floor corner office looked out his window at the Village and saw an opportunity. His name was Ben Carter.

When people talk about Carter’s project now, they often mention the unprecedented and unforeseeable confluence of events that pushed him to the brink of failure. But in 2006 it would have been just as easy to examine the relevant factors and forecast massive success.

He was the right man to get things done in the Village. Buckhead still resembles a small Southern town in some ways, with deals based on personal relationships that go back generations. Yankee entrepreneurs are sometimes viewed with suspicion. Carter was no carpetbagger. He grew up roaming Buckhead Village. His father, Frank, helped build the Midtown skyline and presided over the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. No one had to worry that Ben Carter would vanish in the night with work left undone. His life was anchored in Buckhead, and he had a personal interest in finishing the job.

The Village was the right canvas for his masterpiece. Carter first dreamed of building a luxury retail-restaurant-hotel complex in Atlanta back in 1986, but his market research convinced him that the city wasn’t ready. He wanted to build it near the intersection of Northside Parkway and West Paces Ferry in 1999, but neighborhood activists shot it down, partly because they were worried about traffic jams and overflowing sewers. The Village was different. It had a long history of sidewalk commerce, which Carter wanted to continue by lining the streets with luxury storefronts. And after all the sleepless nights with the nightclub district, the neighbors would be thrilled to live near merchants that closed at a respectable hour.

Carter may have been a gambler, but he knew how to win. This was probably the most important point. Even if he had an early advantage because of his father’s connections, Ben Carter had already made his own mark around the Southeast. He had built successful malls in Columbus (Columbus Park Crossing) and Jacksonville (St. Johns Town Center). After Frank Carter died in 1991, Ben left Frank’s old company—where the partners were less adventurous than he wanted to be—to start his own firm and draw the blueprints for the largest mall in Georgia. He studied a map of the metro area, calculating projected population growth and the distances between existing malls, and settled on a remote spot in northern Gwinnett County, thirty-four miles from Downtown Atlanta. It seemed crazy. Only 125,000 people lived within ten miles of the site, half of what the standard formulas usually require. Carter moved forward. He envisioned a complex that combined a shopping mall, a town square, and a public park. He joined forces with D. Scott Hudgens, a veteran mall developer who had been one of his father’s main competitors. They broke ground on the 496-acre site on August 13, 1997, pledging to open exactly two years later. To impress potential tenants at the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas, Carter brought in the Atlanta Rhythm Section to play an exclusive party in the Hard Rock Hotel. At the same convention the next year, he brought in the Temptations. Leases were signed. Newcomers flooded northern Gwinnett. On the morning of August 13, 1999, Carter celebrated the Mall of Georgia’s grand opening with the release of 4,000 monarch butterflies into the on-site nature park. Experts said he had redefined the shopping mall. Georgia Trend magazine named him Georgian of the Year. Money filled the registers.

One morning in 2006, Carter sat down for breakfast at the Corner Cafe on Piedmont Road with Jim Cumming, a land baron who had given Tom Wolfe guidance for his novel A Man in Full, which was also about an Atlanta developer. Cumming and his land partner, George Rohrig, owned a good chunk of Buckhead Village.

“The Buckhead Village is an embarrassment,” Carter said. “And I want to do something about it.” The idea was more than just business to him—it was a chance to reclaim the neighborhood where he grew up. A story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution would later depict him walking the Village streets, reminiscing about the places where he took ballroom-dancing classes, bought his first Emerson, Lake & Palmer album, and had his first kiss.

Cumming liked Carter’s idea, but he thought Carter was seriously underestimating the price he’d have to pay for the land. He suggested building the luxury complex along the Piedmont corridor, where land would be more affordable. Carter didn’t care about that. He wanted to transform the Village, even if it came at great expense. Cumming was impressed with his determination.

Nevertheless, assembling the land would be a monumental task. The largest owners were Rohrig; Cumming; Robin Loudermilk and his father, Charlie Loudermilk; and David Davoudpour, a businessman who was finishing a deal to acquire the entire Shoney’s restaurant chain. The five men had a loose alliance based on the common belief that someone should redevelop the Village. But not all of them were immediately sold on Carter’s idea, and it wouldn’t have been enough if they were. Their combined holdings still resembled a checkerboard. The land had been cut into tiny fragments.

Carter moved forward. He pitched the idea to a variety of financiers, from private investors to CB Richard Ellis and Bank of America, obtaining more than $300 million to spend on the project. He began courting the smaller owners, offering double or triple the land’s appraised value. When the larger landowners saw him buying the smaller pieces, they realized he wasn’t going away. Even though other developers had proposals for the Village, no one but Carter had the will or the means to bring all the land together. But because he needed each individual owner more than they needed him, they had the leverage to demand a king’s ransom. In the end, besides buying twenty-five tenants out of their leases, he bought thirty-seven parcels from eighteen owners for an average of $22 million per acre. No one interviewed for this story could think of a time in Atlanta when anyone paid so much for land.

On August 3, 2007, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 281 points after an executive for Bear Stearns said turmoil in the credit markets was the worst he’d seen in twenty-two years. The Labor Department said unemployment was up slightly, to 4.6 percent, a figure that did not include the recent layoffs of nearly 7,000 employees at American Home Mortgage Investment Corporation. A headline in the Denver Post read, “Is recession already with us?” And that morning, with champagne and chandeliers under an air-conditioned tent, Ben Carter held the groundbreaking for a billion-dollar project called the Streets of Buckhead. The eminent sculptor Frank Stella attended, along with his tangled stainless-steel creation K.3, which Carter had bought for $1 million to put on display at the site. Carter read off a list of French and Italian tenants, many of which were foreign to the dignitaries in the audience. But Mayor Shirley Franklin approved. She had recently gone shopping in Europe at the same boutiques.

“We are excited to bring Milan and New York right here to Buckhead,” she said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Where will people live, shop, eat, and invest? There is no question today that Buckhead is going to be at the top of the list.”

Then everyone walked outside toward the shuttered CJ’s Landing, which once advertised free Texas Hold ’Em on Wednesday nights and three tournament-quality beer pong tables. They watched a front-end loader tear the building apart.

Ben Carter keeps his Learjet at Charlie Brown Field, fifteen minutes from his house in Cobb County. He calls it his Chief Executive Officer. Traveling is his favorite activity, especially when it involves his daughter, Palmer, and his son, Ben Jr., who are his two best friends and who are also two of the twelve vice presidents in his company. Carter would rather do business in person than by phone or e-mail, which is why he keeps the Learjet. His wife, Tricia, goes with him on every business trip. It takes ninety minutes to fly from Charlie Brown to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, which puts him a short drive from Manhattan. He can leave his house at 9 a.m. and be in New York for a meeting by noon. He goes there often, and he goes to many other cities around the world. In the past year or so he met with nearly 125 different people and firms for the same general purpose. He wanted them to put money in the land of Buckhead Village.

He ran out of money in April 2009, twenty months after the groundbreaking, with the project 40 percent completed. Developers rarely start construction without having all the money to finish it. But Carter believed he was covered. Thanks to his own investments and those of his equity partner CB Richard Ellis Investors, he broke ground with nearly half of the financing already in hand. He says several banks expressed interest in providing the rest. One of them was Wachovia, which had financed most of his previous projects. Wachovia did put in some cash. But, Carter says, as the banking crisis worsened, Wachovia pulled out of the deal and demanded its money back. (Wachovia officials declined to comment.) Carter was left to search the world for private capital.

The argument for Carter goes something like this: Within ten miles of the Village, there are 100,000 households with an annual income of $100,000 or more. There are 30,000 with a net worth of $1 million or more. There are many other underserved rich people in Charlotte, Nashville, Birmingham, Knoxville, and Augusta. It doesn’t matter if most of the people in metro Atlanta have never heard of Brioni, or Etro, or Domenico Vacca, or Loro Piana. It doesn’t matter if hardly anyone can properly pronounce Hermès. What matters is that a few can. The sound of these names rings in their ears like a high-frequency whistle that only a dog can hear. And they come running.

They don’t care if you recognize the brand name on that silk scarf or that goatskin handbag. It’s certainly not about conspicuous consumption now—because that would be gauche—but in fact it never was. It was always about quality. They used to fly to New York to get it, and now they won’t have to. In the winter they will go down to the Village and spend $4,000 on a cashmere-lined Italian bomber jacket and $1,750 for a cardigan of high-grade Italian wool. In the summer they will pay $200 for French swim trunks printed with photorealistic red pineapples. They will furnish their mansions off West Paces Ferry with silver flatware from Christofle and mango-wood bowls from Oscar de la Renta. They will buy just enough of these things to let each boutique turn a profit while also rendering back about $100 per square foot per year to the stakeholders in the land, who will eventually recoup their investments and then some. It won’t matter that $100 per square foot per year is nearly quadruple what the bars and restaurants used to pay in Buckhead Village. The boutiques are used to it. At the Bal Harbour Shops in Miami they pay as much as $400 a foot, and in January 2010, after two years of deep recession, the leasing director said they were still making a profit.

“We’re working our asses off,” Carter said the other day, with a touch of exasperation, referring to the eighteen people in his company who are striving against great odds to keep the Streets of Buckhead alive amid the greatest economic crisis in nearly seventy years. All those Learjet flights have made a difference. He says 70 percent of the space has been pre-leased, and three private capital sources are competing to provide the $200 million it would take to finish construction. Here’s the problem. Bank of America laid out about $170 million to help buy the land, and it would like to be paid back first. But the private investors would also like to be paid back first. Last money in, first money out, as the saying goes. This puts Bank of America in a bind. If it lets the private investors take first position, the project may actually get done—but Bank of America will have to wait even longer to get its money back. If the bank holds fast to the first position, the project may never get done—at least not by Ben Carter. The bank could foreclose, but then there’s no telling what would get built there, or when, or by whom.

“That would be a tremendous mistake,” said George Rohrig, who still owns land near the project. “He’s got the vision, and they’ve gotta ride with him.”

Carter is used to keeping his word. He opened the Mall of Georgia exactly two years after he broke ground, on the exact day he promised it would open. The Streets of Buckhead has made him wrong again and again. In August 2007, he said it would open in the fall of 2009. In November 2008, it was March 2010. In July 2009, he said construction would resume in September 2009 and finish in October 2010. In October 2009, after construction did not resume, he said it would be done in early 2011. In January, he told the Wall Street Journal it would be finished in spring 2011. That same month he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he expected to complete a financing agreement within thirty days and resume construction shortly thereafter. Late in February he said he hoped to get the deal done by mid-March, start construction in May, and finish in the fall of 2011. On March 11 he said he hoped to close the deal in May and restart construction in June. Twelve days later he said Bank of America needed to hurry and decide because his tenants were getting impatient and looking elsewhere. If Carter had any regrets about this thing, he would not admit them. He said he could still look in the mirror with pride.

“If it works,” he said, “it’s a compliment to my entire team. And if it doesn’t work, it’s not really our fault.”

The winners are the eighteen landowners who got out of Buckhead Village when Carter showed them the gold. For now, everyone else loses, including the 50,000 drivers who pass the city’s most valuable ground every day and see a rough wooden fence around a hole in the earth. They can see it from half a mile down Peachtree Ridge. Five tower cranes stand motionless, marking the spot like crosses.

A Tea Party in Peachtree City

The president of the South Atlanta Tea Party is a gracious stay-at-home mother named Cindy Fallon, and a few weeks ago she was talking about taxes (especially their inverse variation with job-creating capital), Ponzi schemes (especially the federal government), and the proverbial toilet (toward which her three children’s proverbial futures are sliding). And that got her talking about angry carnivores.

“I think it’s kinda like how the mother bears are all cuddly and fuzzy till you come after their young,” she said gently. “That’s how it is for us right now.”

Us: a nonpartisan group of irate citizens, many of them never previously involved in politics, that the Economist recently called “America’s most vibrant political force.” About sixty of them gathered on a Thursday night in Peachtree City to extol the Constitution and gripe about healthcare. The median age was forty-six, or possibly fifty-one. The median race was white. The median man had a mustache.

“We’re working on a billboard that we want to put on I-85,” SATP board member Claudia Eisenburg told the crowd. “With the economy, the guys offered to rent it to us for 1,250 a month. And there’s a thousand-dollar art fee.” She needed fifty people to pledge $25 a month for three months. Who would appear on the billboard? His name needed no speaking. “It’s the policies that we’re attacking, not the person. I can assure you that this billboard will be very appropriate and very tasteful.”

The featured speaker: Ron Bachman, of Newt Gingrich’s Center for Health Transformation. He asked for a show of hands. How many ex-military? About a quarter. How many connected to a small business? Nearly half. Mothers? Almost a third.

Bachman played a short film about personal responsibility. Two people stood on an escalator in a shiny office building. The escalator stood still. The people stood still.

“Anybody up there?” said a black man in a business suit. “Somebody! Hello! There are two people stuck on an escalator, and we need help! WOULD SOMEBODY PLEASE DO SOMETHING?”

A white woman in a sweater stood a few steps behind him.

“I’m gonna cry,” she said.

The film ended, provoking a sizzling wave of applause.

“I think too many in this country are in this kind of mentality,” Bachman said, “and that’s what the Tea Party is trying to change.”

A toddler whimpered from the back of the room. Ehe-ehe-ehe-ehe. Her mother whisked her away. Bachman laid out a challenge: shifting the movement from irate to ideas, from success to significance.

A woman in a green T-shirt spoke up.

“Why is medication so much cheaper in every country but ours?”

A man with a mustache spoke up.

“I haven’t heard anybody mention tort reform.”

Actually, said State Representative Matt Ramsey, Republican from Peachtree City, who had stopped in for a brief chat, Georgia passed an aggressive tort reform measure in 2005. But it got hung up in court.

“That’s a little ironic,” someone said, and the room rang with sardonic laughter. A man toward the front had an idea for Ramsey.

“Can you, the legislature, remove the judges?”

Ramsey shook his head solemnly.

“No,” he said.

But Bachman saw reason for hope in the 2010 elections—a campaign platform  impervious to liberal attacks.

“There’s no stronger message than, ‘I’m a mom, and I’m worried about my kids’ future,’” he said. “Anybody who’d be against moms, they’re not gonna be around very long.”

Healthcare reform was another matter. At the time of the meeting, in the wake of Scott Brown’s election to the Senate, it seemed to be finished. Bachman still worried. “It’s like a snake,” he said. “You’ve got to keep stepping on it to be sure it’s dead.” He was more right than he knew.

Photograph by Caroline Kilgore


Bound by Silence

We couldn’t talk about the gun, the Ruger 9 mm fired in the dark at the university and then hidden where the police would not find it. We couldn’t talk about the bullets, at least six of them, flying at random through a crowd—one hitting a freshman on his third day of school, burning his right forearm like hot coals until he pulled it out and saved the evidence; another hitting a sophomore from Spelman College, piercing her chest, filling her lungs with blood, leaving her dying on the grass. We couldn’t talk about any of these things because there was still a trial on, the State of Georgia v. Devonni Benton, and we the jury had been forbidden by the judge from discussing the case until after the closing arguments and the final charge. And so we talked about squirrels.

“Squirrels have invaded my house,” a female juror said. “They’re leaving their nuts everywhere. The other morning I was in my powder room and I found an acorn.”

Fourteen of us loitered in the jury room around a salmon-pink conference table, waiting in line for the bathroom. Judge T. Jackson Bedford Jr. had politely ordered us out of Courtroom 4-F so the attorneys could argue a technical point without contaminating us with their rhetoric. Now the jurors—seven women, seven men, four black, ten white, twenties to sixties, a pilot, a graphic designer, a model, three people in the insurance industry, and several others whose lines of work escaped me—were trying not to contaminate each other with premature impressions of innocence or guilt. The case was making headlines across the country. We were forbidden from reading them.

Safe topics: weather, rodent infestations, regional differences in the popular terminology for sweet carbonated beverages. In Chicago they call it pop. Around here everything’s Coke. Some people drop peanuts in their Coke. Old Southern thing, like RC Cola and MoonPies. No kiddin’. You never had boiled peanuts? Mmm, those are good. But you gotta buy ’em raw, and toss ’em in a pot with some Cajun seasoning. Anybody seen that new TV show, Undercover Boss? The boss went undercover and got fired from his own company.

We didn’t know why we’d been chosen. It started with a summons in the mail ordering us to report to the seventh floor of the Fulton County courthouse by 8 a.m. Tuesday, February 16. Then fifty-four of us were herded down to Courtroom 4-F, where we each got a red sheet of corrugated plastic with a number on it. I had #41. Judge Bedford went through a series of questions and instructed us to hold up our numbers if the answer was yes. Do you have a problem with the police? No. Do you personally know the district attorney? No. Do you own a gun? No. Have you been the victim of a crime? I held up #41. The judge asked me to elaborate.

“I was carjacked at gunpoint in Jacksonville,” I said.

The attorneys scribbled some notes, looked us up and down, and quietly made their choices. Mine was the first name called. I would be an alternate, and so would a sixty-year-old woman named Rhonda. We were only there in case something happened to one of the twelve main jurors. We would do everything they did during the trial, and then, before deliberations, if all went according to plan, we would be dismissed.

The trial lasted nearly three days, but we liked each other almost immediately. As much as we complained about the inconvenience—for example, how are fourteen people supposed to take a short bathroom break when they have only two toilets—we understood the importance of our collective work. I hurried to the courthouse every morning, feeling needed. One morning the pilot brought two dozen Dunkin’ Donuts to share, and the model brought a dozen more. She loved the kind with peanuts. The next morning Rhonda brought in a tray of cinnamon pastries. We devoured them.

Risky topics: the gum-chewing habits of various state witnesses. The tired eyes of a bailiff. The tired eyes of a visiting Japanese judge. The merits of the American justice system relative to the rest of the world. One of us was so worried about these topics or similar ones that he or she reported it to Judge Bedford, who issued another stern reminder not to talk about the case.

Even then, a vague paranoia crept into the jury room. One woman sat in the corner and stared out the window, hardly ever talking to us. Another sat at the conference table but swiveled her chair toward the wall to shield herself from anything improper. All the while, we wore out our wrists and our pencils with notes on an unfathomable killing.

After the closing arguments and the charge to the jury, Judge Bedford had special instructions for Rhonda and me. We should go to the jury room, gather our things, and surrender our notebooks. We could leave the courthouse, but we had to be on call in case one of the regular jurors dropped out. What did that mean? We still were not to talk about the case.

By then the silence was almost unbearable. I thought about the events of September 3, 2009, at Clark Atlanta University, the way menacing facial expressions led to menacing words and gestures, and then to a brawl between two groups of friends, and then to the gunshot that killed Jasmine Lynn, who was only there to make peace. I thought of Devonni Benton and the missing Ruger; the parade of undernourished young men with their mumbled lies; the defense attorney’s refrain about catching the real killer; the tear on the prosecutor’s right cheek as she implored us not to let Benton escape.

Benton was a twenty-one-year-old former basketball player from Benjamin Banneker High School and more recently a computer-networking student at ITT Technical Institute. The case against him was not airtight. There was no single piece of irrefutable evidence that proved Benton was the shooter—no DNA, no fingerprints on a gun, no clear video footage, no confession. To convict him, you would have to sift through hours of conflicting witness testimony and decide which parts to believe and which to ignore. I was undecided.

Rhonda gave me a ride to work on her way out of town. We exchanged phone numbers. Later that afternoon, while the jury was still deliberating, she called me.

“I feel empty,” she said.

She called the judge’s office every hour to get updates, which she relayed to me. By 8 p.m. the jury was still out. Rhonda said it felt like reading a novel only to find the last page was gone, or becoming a soldier and then missing the war. I understood what she meant.

On Saturday afternoon, I noticed I had missed a call on my cell phone.

“Mr. Lake,” the voicemail said, “this is Judge Bedford. I’m calling to tell you that you’ve been released.” He went on to say that the jury had found Benton guilty of felony murder, among other crimes, and the sentence was life plus twenty-five years. My heart fluttered. I reminded myself it was out of my hands. It was an excruciating decision I did not have to make.

“I know it’s hard to be an alternate,” the judge said. “So I appreciate your conscientiousness and attention.”

I hung up and called Rhonda. We had a lot to talk about.

AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Vino Wong


Broccoli Is for Parakeets

There is a hidden restaurant near the south end of Grant Park, in a tan-painted aluminum warehouse. No silverware, no tablecloths. If the place had a menu, it would feature colossal rats and quarter-inch crickets.

In the kitchen one morning, a man stood over a red-stained cutting board, slicing beef from raw bones. He stacked the bones in a plastic tub. They would be served without fanfare or seasoning to a party of Asian small-clawed otters for purposes of dental hygiene. This is easier than brushing their teeth.

The man with the knife was Rob Nehra, and otters are only a sideline. His first job is feeding the Zoo Atlanta kitchen’s most difficult customer: the giant panda. Hence his title—bamboo technician.

Imagine living on plywood. Not many calories in plywood. You’d have to eat all day to survive. Pandas basically do this. They eat bamboo all day. So men like Nehra drive all over Georgia collecting the stuff. The zoo has a hotline you can call to donate bamboo (404-624-5884). The technicians cut nearly 500 pounds a day with handsaws and loppers and bring it back for storage in a walk-in refrigerator. Then it’s served in a near-constant stream to the zoo’s three ravenous pandas.

“Everything, human quality,” kitchen manager Rytis Daujotas said, waving at the lettuce and kale and green beans laid out on a stainless steel table in front of me. “Everything is like in a restaurant.”

More than 1,000 animals of more than 200 species depend on this restaurant, which is why the dry storage room contains such a strange assortment of goods. Shredded beet pulp for giraffes. Feed made of ground soybean hulls for tortoises. Popcorn.


“Popcorn is a treat for apes,” Daujotas said. In cold weather and thunderstorms, keepers hide popcorn around the indoor dens so the apes can hunt for treasure.

We walked back to the main kitchen, where I saw a green binder open on a prep table—a guide to the regulars’ favorite foods. Parakeets demand 198 grams of broccoli every day. The crowned crane gets 62 grams of frozen crickets and mealworms, served in a container with peanuts. (Behind me, a nutrition technician was shelling peanuts for this very reason.) Regular-sized crickets are too large an entree for baby frogs; they need pinhead crickets. An old gorilla needs his zucchini boiled. Alligators prefer rabbits; vipers devour rats. When the black rhinoceros needs medicine, his keepers hide it in a peanut butter sandwich. A sunset-colored parrot named Solito requires a particular blend of frozen vegetables.

“Pick out the corn,” the binder said. “He won’t eat it.”

Nutrition technician Sara Lee Kim said guests have no trouble sending their orders back. Language barrier or no, they find ways to express their wishes.

“We used to have a black lemur that hated broccoli so much that if he even saw it he would throw his bowl,” she said.

Photograph courtesy of Zoo Atlanta


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