Home Authors Posts by Tony Rehagen

Tony Rehagen

Rehagen is a writer and journalist. He joined Atlanta magazine as senior editor in 2011. Prior to that, he was staff writer and then senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly. He has been a finalist for City and Regional Magazine Association (CRMA) Writer of the Year in each of the past five years. His April 2012 feature “The Last Trawlers” was included in the anthology Next Wave: America's New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a Missouri native. He lives in Atlanta with his family.

Atlanta’s suburbs are a hotbed for niche sports

Georgia Swarm Lacrosse
The Georgia Swarm (in yellow) battle the Buffalo Bandits in Duluth’s Infinite Energy Arena.

Photograph by Ryan Gibson

It’s Sunday afternoon, about 30 minutes before game time, and a few thousand people are stepping out of an overcast February day and into the Infinite Energy Arena just outside Duluth. A majority of the crowd are families of four and five, with most of the kids wearing their school colors. In the lobby a guitar-and-keyboard duo wail 1980s R&B covers as barkers hawk sweatshirts at $65 a pop. The shirts and other team merchandise read “Georgia Swarm Lacrosse.”

This is just the third home game for the newly christened Georgia Swarm, a team in the professional indoor National Lacrosse League that relocated to Gwinnett County from St. Paul last year. It’s actually one of two new local pro lacrosse teams, the other being the Atlanta Blaze, an expansion team in the outdoor Major League Lacrosse that starts its inaugural season in late April in Kennesaw. “Lacrosse is booming down here,” says Swarm president Andy Arlotta, who co-owns the team with his father.

While Atlanta has long been maligned, often fairly, for lukewarm support of its big league teams—the Braves, Hawks, Falcons, the WNBA’s Dream, and the gone but not forgotten Thrashers—its suburbs have become a hotbed for smaller franchises in niche sports. The Swarm and Blaze join the also brand-new Atlanta Vultures indoor football team that plays in College Park, as well as the longer-tenured Atlanta Gladiators minor league hockey team and the Atlanta Steam “lingerie league” indoor football team, both of which also call the Infinite Energy Arena home.

Georgia Swarm Lacrosse
Photograph by Ryan Gibson

Interestingly, the reason second- and third-tier franchises might succeed here is the same one used to explain why we can’t get behind our top-tier teams: Nearly half of Georgia’s population came from somewhere else. “Atlanta’s transient nature allows for strong connectivity between emerging sports and the passionate fanbases that live here,” says Dan Corso, executive director of the Atlanta Sports Council, an arm of the Metro Atlanta Chamber tasked with recruiting sports franchises and events. Corso also points to the suburbs’ variety of midsized multiuse facilities, like Infinite Energy Arena (originally the Gwinnett Civic Center) and Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw—venues large enough to host team sports but small enough to cozily accommodate a couple of thousand spectators. And there’s also the fact that Atlanta is a top-10 media market, which gives teams a promotional platform for cultivating their fanbases.

Arlotta checks all of those boxes when explaining why he and his father, John, a healthcare industry executive, chose metro Atlanta as a new hive for the Swarm. Here, he hopes to better fill the 13,000-seat Infinite Energy than the cavernous 18,000-capacity rink the team shared with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. The Swarm have already had games replayed on Fox Sports South, and Arlotta says that the large population of transplants from the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, where lacrosse has been popular for decades, provides a built-in pool of rabid fans. Between 2009 and 2013, Georgia saw a 59 percent increase in high school lacrosse participation.

The northern suburbs also are home to a concentration of the affluent families coveted by all sports businesses, major or minor. A central reason for the Braves’ move to Cobb County next year is to be closer to its ticket-buying fanbase.

That’s not to say that metro Atlanta is a get-rich-quick destination for niche sports—for either the owners or players. Semi-pro athletes, by definition, have other jobs. With on-field salaries typically running less than $25,000 a year, Arlotta says, only 20 percent of players in the National Lacrosse League are full-time athletes. The rest are weekend warriors, returning Monday to nine-to-fives as lawyers, businessmen, firefighters, teachers, or coaches. Some Swarm team members also play in the outdoor Major League Lacrosse because the seasons have little overlap. Most play for a devotion to the sport, a drive to compete, and the hope of growing the league to the point where it could be a viable full-time gig.

Often the teams themselves struggle for financial stability. Just ask the Atlanta Silverbacks, a 21-year-old franchise in the second-tier North American Soccer League that folded this past January. Even entire leagues have collapsed, as with Women’s Professional Soccer, which lasted less than five years; the local franchise, the Atlanta Beat, boasted future Women’s World Cup star Carli Lloyd when it was dissolved in 2012. Following the Arlottas’ purchase of the Swarm in 2008, the team reportedly lost $1 million a year for next four years. “We do it for love of the sport,” Arlotta says. “Obviously it’s a business, but most professional sports are not profitable. You just work until the value of the franchise or the league increases.”

Arlotta and his fellow team owners are banking on metro Atlanta and its 5.7 million potential fans to be the catalysts for that growth. That’s why, after the Swarm get swatted by the visiting Buffalo Bandits on this Sunday afternoon, the Georgia captain comes out and personally apologizes to the fans over the PA. It’s also why, after they get dressed, several of the starters run up to a long table to sign autographs for a slowly growing line of kids, some wielding lacrosse sticks, while Mom and Dad hold off on the $65 hoodie until they’re sure this allegiance isn’t just a fad.

Suburban sports
Atlanta’s other teams

Atlanta Blaze

Sport Lacrosse
Plays at Fifth Third Bank Stadium
In Atlanta since 2016

Atlanta Gladiators

Sport Minor league hockey
Plays at Infinite Energy Arena
In Atlanta since 2003

Atlanta Vultures

Sport Indoor football
Plays at Georgia International Convention Center
In Atlanta since 2015

Atlanta Steam

Sport Indoor football
Plays at Infinite Energy Arena
In Atlanta since 2012

Photography credits: Gladiators: Dale Zanine/Atlanta Gladiators; Steam: Jose Rangel; Logos courtesy of their teams

This article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue.

One Square Mile: Bingo Night at American Legion Post 7

American Legion Post 7American Legion Post 7 | Gainesville | 58 miles northeast of Atlanta
No one else sits at Betty Toney’s table. It’s not that she needs all that space. The 73-year-old retired hospital clerk takes up just a quarter of the rectangular surface, where she’s arranged her $27 book of Bingo sheets, her multicolored daubers, and her dinner—egg salad sandwich, plain potato chips, Dr Pepper with ice in a Styrofoam cup, and two M&M’s chocolate chip cookies. And Betty’s not alone because she’s superstitious, like Grace, who would cover the adjoining table with dozens of laminated four-leaf clovers from her yard every Thursday night for 30-some years. She died at 102. And it’s not that Betty is unpopular. She was born and raised in Gainesville and has been a Bingo Night regular since the first number was called back in 1981. No, everyone knows that the three empty chairs are in honor of Betty’s older sisters. Reba introduced her baby sis to the game. For two decades the Toney sisters played four or five times a week—girls’ nights out—starting on Monday at the Cleveland American Legion, Tuesdays in Cumming, Thursdays here, Fridays in Dawsonville, then Saturdays back in Cumming or up in Cherokee, North Carolina, at a hall that boasted a $35,000 blackout jackpot. None of the women ever struck it rich, but they were competitive, especially with each other. Reba died in 2002. Frances followed five years later. Betty and Emma Verlene played on for a decade, until Emma passed in 2014 at age 88. Betty never married, never had kids. On a fixed income, she’s cut back her Bingo to three nights a week. She plays 21 cards at a time. The next ping-pong ball is sucked from the Bingo King Autotronic machine. “O-65,” says the caller. Betty daubs the square with Emma Verlene’s old purple dauber. “Bingo!” she cries. She puts down the marker and places her palms on the table.

This article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue.

Songs for Kids Foundation brings music into the lives of children with serious illnesses

Songs for Kids Foundation Shaky Knees Atlanta
Nicolas Duncan, right, at the 2015 Shaky Knees Festival.

Photograph by Jessica Granger

Nicolas Duncan was just 13 when he opened the Shaky Knees Festival two years ago, playing keyboard and singing his own song alongside Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson. But if you think that took courage, just consider what the kid had already been through.

Three years prior Nicolas was diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoblastic lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that required aggressive chemotherapy treatments. To help him through, his therapists introduced Nicolas to the Songs for Kids Foundation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that pairs local musicians with hospitalized children at their bedsides. “For the kids it’s the most challenging time of their lives,” says Josh Rifkind, a former music manager who founded Songs for Kids in 2007. “You’re trying to brighten it a little bit with music.”

The foundation also provides an outlet for patients to express themselves by composing their own songs. Nicolas penned lyrics about his grueling treatments with the help of Dahlonega guitarist Spencer Durham. The resulting song, “Stars,” is named for the visual disturbances he experienced toward the end of each chemo session. “People are always writing uplifting songs about (cancer), like it’s all going to get better,” says Nicolas, now in remission. “That’s not how it felt [at the time].”

Songs for Kids then put Nicolas and Durham into a studio to record “Stars” and booked the pair, along with four other artist-patient duos, to play at Shaky Knees, where this year children will again warm up the crowd with original works. “I never even knew he could sing,” says Nicolas’s mother, Roya Duncan. “But the kid just flew.”

This article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue under the headline “Healing Harmony.”

Basso Profundo: How a college football standout became an international opera star

Morris Robinson
Photograph by Ben Rollins

Morris Robinson is trying to lay low, something that’s never been easy for him. If anyone failed to see the 6-foot-3, 300-plus-pound vocalist lumbering through the lobby of the Woodruff Arts Center an hour ago in black ostrich-skin boots, tuxedo pants, and untucked maroon T-shirt, they certainly heard his voice. Or rather felt it—a sonorous “Hello! How’s it going?” to the doorman at Symphony Hall that seemed to make the walls, the carpeted concrete floor, even the humid air waver like a tuning fork.

Tonight Robinson’s bass is even deeper thanks to some congestion—the onset of what he fears is a cold. That’s why he spent the afternoon resting alone in a darkened Buckhead hotel room instead of surrounded by family at his home in Tyrone, just 35 minutes south. And it’s why he sequestered himself in a cramped dressing room in the bowels of the Woodruff, where he periodically cleared out his pipes with bursts of la-la-la’s, doh’s, and rolling Italian rrrrr’s that made the white-tied instrumentalists start as they passed. And it’s why now, minutes before showtime, Robinson is backstage pacing, size-15 boots falling heavy on the hardwood to and from the stage door, where he keeps peeking out at the packed house. “I’m going to own the room,” he says to himself. “When I walk out, I’m going to take control.”

The sweat is beading on his shaved head. This is a rare show in Robinson’s hometown, a recital to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, his sixth performance in this building as artist-in-residence for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Many of the people out there are friends and family. Some remember him as DeRhon—his middle name—the boy who sang in church but set aside music to play football, becoming an All-American lineman at the Citadel, before moving north to embark on a career in business. Maybe they’ve heard something about the man who, in his 30s, rediscovered classical music and left the world of corporate sales to become an opera singer.

It’s time. Robinson takes a last swig of lukewarm water and straightens his jacket. He clears his throat one final time and quickly blows a kiss to the sky, to the one lifelong fan who isn’t here—the mother who seemed to know all along that her son’s voice was meant to stir the masses.

Morris Robinson
Robinson performing as Ferrando in Il Trovatore, Cincinnati Opera, 2015

Photograph courtesy of Morris Robinson

Sedora “Louise” Robinson was a housewife who sang in the church choir and made sure that her home in Kings Forest, a middle-class neighborhood in southwestern Atlanta, was full of music. All four of Louise’s children sang and played an instrument. Morris took piano lessons and practiced with the Israel Baptist Church choir, standing on a chair to soak in the applause after a Sunday solo on “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus.” When he was just seven years old, his mother took him to try out for the Atlanta Boy Choir; he made first soprano. But after a couple of years, feeling out of place, he quit. “I was a big black kid from Southwest Atlanta, bigger than most of the boys in the choir,” he says. “And I wasn’t playing football.”

It turned out, though, that he was too big, 130 pounds by age 10, for his age group in organized ball. So he gravitated back to music. He picked up the more socially acceptable drums, which he played for cash in churches all over town. He also played baritone in junior high band, which fed into the prestigious Northside School of the Performing Arts (now North Atlanta). The day after Robinson made the high school band, his mother made him audition for the school choir. By senior year he was touring with the school’s stage show, which, to the young teen’s eternal embarrassment, involved wearing a sequined vest and tights. “Where do you even go to buy tights for a 200-pound dude?” says Derrick Bailey, who grew up two streets away from Robinson and played football at Northside. Not that Robinson suffered much ridicule. “There are easier targets,” says Bailey. “Leave the baritone player alone and go after the guy who plays piccolo.”

During spring of his freshman year, Robinson went out for football. When the band director came looking for him one day, the football coach said, “He won’t be in band anymore.” From then on, the teenager’s life was two-a-days in the sweltering Georgia summer, weekday a.m.’s in the weight room, and plowing lanes for running backs and protecting his QB on autumn Friday nights. And when it came time for college, Robinson was picking between Division 1 football programs instead of conservatories.

Robinson chose a full ride to the Citadel, where he enrolled as a 265-pound cadet. The offensive line coach at the time, Jeff Bleamer, set about addressing the gentle giant’s demeanor. “He was a really nice guy,” Bleamer says. “And he didn’t want to turn that personality off on the field; I gave him vocal lessons, all right, but they weren’t singing.” Bleamer credits Robinson’s extraordinary work ethic in shaping the soft underclassman into a senior All-American who dominated opposing defenses.

Off the field he played piano and directed the gospel choir, which was a refuge and community for the few African American cadets. Music was a way to feel connected to his childhood and God. It was also getting him some national exposure: “The Singing Football Cadet” was featured briefly in Sports Illustrated and on CBS College Football Today. In 1991 he even sang the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game.

Morris Robinson
Robinson (No. 58) played as a lineman for the Citadel, 1990

Photograph courtesy of Morris Robinson

Robinson was scouted by NFL teams, but he was deemed too small. As for music, that didn’t seem like a viable career option either. His English degree ultimately took him to Washington, D.C., where he worked in corporate sales for 3M. En route to a conference, he met a flight attendant named Denise, and the two eventually married. One day his young wife and his mother scheduled a tryout with the Choral Arts Society of Washington, a pro-caliber volunteer chorus. “I had a 1 p.m. audition, and I needed to prepare a song,” says Robinson. He still had “Tuba Mirum” from Mozart’s Requiem memorized from high school. He rushed to the National Cathedral and made the cut.

Still, it wasn’t until Robinson moved to New Hampshire for a sales job with Advanced Elastomer Systems in 1997 that he saw music as anything more than just a hobby. “I knew I had this talent, and I could see that people loved it, but I didn’t know what would afford me the opportunity to do it for a living,” he says. He enrolled in the continuing education program at the New England Conservatory of Music and performed in weekend shows throughout the region. It was at one of these offbeat concerts, playing the devil in a tiny production of Satanella in Salem, Massachusetts, where Robinson caught his break. One night Sharon Daniels, a former Broadway and New York City Opera singer who taught voice at Boston University, was in the audience. When Robinson made his entrance from the back of the hall, Daniels heard all she needed to. “It was chilling,” she says. “After 25 years of professional singing, I knew what that sound was.”

After the show, Daniels approached the devil with a deal. “I asked him if he had ever considered taking his voice seriously,” she says. She couldn’t promise anything more than an audition for the prestigious BU program, which, if he were accepted, would require a full-time commitment; he’d have to quit his corporate job. He took her card and said he’d think about it.

About a week later, Robinson called Daniels to set up an audition.

A shower of applause greets Robinson as his boots pound a path to center stage. He’s standing in front of the conductor and the seated orchestra, wearing a black suit jacket and matching button-down with the collar open. Tonight’s show is a selection of songs, not an opera. Still, Robinson puts his mind in Italy in the 14th century, where Verdi’s opera Simon Boccanegra takes place. Once the crowd settles and the strings sound the ominous, mournful introduction to “Il lacerato spirito” and the horns answer, Robinson inhabits his character, Jacopo Fiesco, who is lamenting the death of his daughter, Maria.

Robinson’s voice rumbles to life as he extends a hand to the audience, as if opening a pit in the middle of the auditorium. Hurling thunderbolts over the crescendoing 72-piece orchestra, Fiesco condemns both the seducer who brought this tragedy upon his family and the Virgin Mary, who allowed it to happen. As he holds the final sorrowful note—steadily, without a hint of congestion—even the patrons who don’t speak the language and haven’t found the translation on page 37 of the program can feel this father’s pain.

Robinson’s command of his voice (not to mention Renaissance Italian) didn’t come to him naturally. When he began studying under Daniels at BU in 1999, he was little more than raw talent. “He didn’t have the musical education,” says Daniels. “He had no sense of style, no vocal technique.”

Robinson spent hours each day learning how to harness his voice’s raw power—to securely access his high range, add more richness and nuance to his lower register, and smooth out the transition between them. He studied Italian, German, and French—the tongues of classical opera—including diction and style as well as comprehension. And he struggled with deportment, moving and singing in period velveteen.

Morris Robinson
Robinson performing as Sarastro in The Magic Flute, Sydney Opera House, 2014;

Photograph courtesy of Morris Robinson

In his spare hours, Robinson worked at Best Buy, but after a stellar debut in 1999 with the Boston Lyric Opera as the King of Egypt in Verdi’s Aida, roles started flooding in: Bartolo in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and other parts in Madama Butterfly, Don Giovanni, Salome. In 2001 he placed third in the New England region of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, which ultimately led to an invitation to audition for the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. He was one of only nine singers accepted from all over the globe. He and his wife moved to New York City, where he made his Met debut in Beethoven’s Fidelio. His mother was in the audience.

Now on a world stage, Robinson worked even harder. He paired with instructor Mark Oswald, a former baritone with the Met, who gave Robinson more than 200 lessons over three years. Oswald worked with Robinson on breathing exercises. His student sang arpeggios in every key, which helped build muscular support for every vowel sound, of which there are about 20 in the combined European languages. Robinson recalls it as a “vocal gym.”

“He had to build his voice note for note, vowel by vowel,” says Oswald. “He needed refinement as he ascended the range. But he had the voice of God on the low notes.”

The roles of gods and titans in Wagner and Verdi soon came to Robinson from opera houses in Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Sydney. To compete against singers who’ve been training since childhood, he simply worked harder. He paid a pianist by the hour to run through the parts with him, recording the session on his phone. After weeks of listening to the recording on repeat and singing a cappella while pacing his home, he gradually absorbed the role.

Morris Robinson
Robinson performing as Joe in Show Boat, San Francisco Opera, 2014, with his son, Miles.

Photograph courtesy of Morris Robinson

Robinson was also approached about roles in musicals. But he was reluctant, for fear of being typecast early in his career. Then, in 2012, he was offered the role of Joe in Show Boat, which meant the classic bass solo “Ol’ Man River.” “Show Boat was a big deal,” he says. “I’d been working my entire career to that point to sing German and Italian repertoire at reputable houses. I sat with that contract in my lap for a while. I asked myself, ‘Have I done enough yet in this business to justify doing this?’ The answer was, ‘I think so.’”

Around that time, Robinson and his family (including his young son) moved into a comfortable six-bedroom Tyrone home near family and good schools. “If they don’t hire me to do it, they’re going to hire another black actor who’s going to make all this money,” he says. “I’ve got a Hummer, an Escalade, and a kid who has to go to college.”

Last November, Robinson’s homecoming was complete when he was selected as the ASO’s second-ever artist-in-residence. In this capacity, Robinson acts as a community advocate, gives recitals and masters classes for music students, appears at ASO outreach events, and of course, performs, as he is tonight in Symphony Hall. The residency runs through October.

As the applause rises and ebbs between songs, Robinson looks out upon the darkened house. No one, including himself, could have imagined he would one day be standing on that stage. No one, of course, except his mother. Just two years after she saw his debut in New York, Louise Robinson died of a stroke. “Mom wanted me to sing more than anything,” he says. “Mom always knows.”

The orchestra starts the next song, a ragtime-style tune with a plucked banjo casually keeping time. Despite Robinson having wiped several times with a gray towel, the sweat still glistens on his brow. The song is written for a baritone, and even without the congestion, it would reach into the loftier parts of his register. It’s also the first time he’s ever performed this number in public. “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” is a song from the second act of Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, a love story between a disabled beggar and a former prostitute in the black tenements of Depression-era Charleston. Porgy is a role that Robinson has intentionally avoided, for the same reasons he avoided Show Boat.

Morris Robinson
Robinson with the ASO, 2016

Photograph by Jeff Roffman

Now, 17 years into his career, Robinson feels like he’s established himself enough as a classical artist in the serious world of opera to take on Porgy’s baritone in a performance at Milan’s legendary La Scala opera house this fall. Robinson’s decision has sparked a bit of controversy among both mainstream classical musicians who don’t accept Gershwin as a true opera and fellow African Americans who consider the stereotype-laden work offensive. “The part that hurts the worst is that it comes from within my demographic,” says Robinson. “Little do they know that the same fire that I developed on the football field, they just ignited it. I don’t usually try to be the best ever; I usually just try to be the best me. But now, I’m fired up.”

There is no strain in Robinson’s voice as he streamlines his operatic bravado into the pop standard on the comforts of having nothing to lose: “Got my gal, got my Lord,” and then the sustained high note on “Got my song.” The audience comes to its feet.

At intermission, well-wishers crowd the backstage, congratulating Robinson. A swarm of friends, family, former teammates and their kids. The instrumentalists scurrying to use the bathroom have to duck and dodge their way through the reunion. People take turns posing for photos beneath his massive outstretched arms. He does his best not to speak beyond a few thank-you’s. His part of the program now over, he’ll skip out on the remainder of the show and sneak back to the Buckhead hotel room to unwind alone in peace. He’s got another performance, an hour-long set of Russian opera here at this same time tomorrow night. And he’s worried he might be getting a cold.

This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue.

One Square Mile: Feather, Fin, and Fur Taxidermy Studio

Feather, Fin, and Fur Taxidermy Studio
Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Feather, Fin, and Fur Taxidermy Studio | Loganville | 37 miles east of Atlanta

Beth Johnson believes that every life has a story. Among the nails, pins, knives, and other tools scattered about her workbench lies the colorful, limp-necked carcass of a parrot. Johnson doesn’t know the bird’s name, but she knows that it was a beloved pet for 22 years, that it died of natural causes, and according to the hand-written and blood-smudged ticket, the bereaved owner wants Johnson to give the animal in death what it rarely took in life—flight. That’s Johnson’s job, as she sees it. To, in a way, honor the creature’s existence. She knows that some people think taxidermy is inhumane or at the very least revolting. With the former, Johnson respectfully disagrees; with the latter . . . well . . . she admits it’s not for the squeamish. Today, as her coworker cleans deer skins with a paring knife, giving the air a sweet, gamey tinge, Johnson slices open the bird’s bright yellow belly, inserts a foam-and-wire form, and stitches birdy back up, skillfully concealing the seam beneath the feathers, which she preens with large tweezers. She began learning the craft 26 years ago when, as a fed-up schoolteacher, she answered a “help wanted” sign in the Lithonia yard of what she later learned was a taxidermist. There she practiced skinning and stuffing what seemed like every creature that once walked, crawled, swam, or flew. She also learned to be a storyteller. “Anyone can hang a deer head on the wall,” she says. She prides herself on researching an animal’s habitat and staging wildlife scenes. Her showroom is a library of vignettes, including a timber wolf leaping over a barbed-wire fence and a bear cub pawing at a beehive, complete with insect exoskeletons dotting the mammal’s snout. Of course, she’ll mount antlers and hog heads for hunters who just want a trophy. She also does pet cremations. But some clients, like this parrot’s owner, want something more. And so Johnson lovingly fluffs the bright blue tail feathers and spreads its lifeless wings.

One Square Mile: A Newton High understudy gets her turn in the spotlight

Newton High School
Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Newton High School | Covington | 34 miles southeast of Atlanta
“Anybody want Throat Coat?!” yells Mrs. Bellamy, holding a spray bottle at the front of the auditorium. Sophomore Nadia Saadein leaps from her seat; sprints slightly pigeon-toed in her 1990s costume of black tights, cutoff denim overalls, and Doc Martens to the drama teacher; and opens wide for a couple squirts of the liquid said to soothe singers’ vocal cords. She resumes her quiet perch on the riser at center stage, legs hanging, ankles crossed and swinging. Her castmates cut up and laugh, buzzing all around her, yet she remains apart. She is 15 years old. “Places!” shouts Mrs. Bellamy, sending Nadia and company scurrying to the darkness backstage. When she was younger, Nadia was fearless. In her kindergarten class’s Christmas play, she stole the show as a little elf. Growing up, she’d dance around her bedroom and sing, sing, sing until her lungs were spent. In high school, she wanted more than anything to play Joanne Jefferson, the Ivy League lawyer and protagonist in Rent, but settled for being the understudy for Maureen Johnson, the outlandish, bisexual performance artist. “She’s loud and slutty,” Nadia says. “I like being someone I’m not.” Nadia’s best friend, Kayla, also auditioned for Maureen. When Kayla got the lead, Nadia was happy for her. Really. But tomorrow night’s performance is Nadia’s turn in the spotlight; Kayla will be the backup. As tonight’s rehearsal begins, Nadia sits in the shadows, chin on her prop drumstick as she pantomimes the words being sung onstage. Toward the end of act one, she gets her cue—Maureen’s solo, “Over the Moon.” Without hesitation, Nadia marches toward center stage and belts out the song in an alto slightly off-key but powerful and free. A voice equal parts confident woman and fearless little girl.

This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.

Emory Center for Ethics director faces some of the most complex—and controversial—issues in medicine

medical ethics
Illustration by Dan Page

The surgeon didn’t know what to do. He was scheduled to perform a risky operation on a 17-year-old patient who was also a Jehovah’s Witness, a religion that forbids blood infusions. Prior to the surgery, the young man’s parents had signed a document refusing blood during the course of the procedure—no matter what might happen. In their presence, the son had verbally agreed.

However, in the days leading up to the operation, with his mom and dad out of the room, the young patient had made a quick, cryptic comment to the surgeon: It is against my religion to receive blood, he had reminded the doctor. But I want you to know that my religion states that if you were to give me blood without my knowledge, it would not imperil my eternal soul.

Was the boy saying that he wanted the doctor to act against the family’s written wishes? The surgeon felt a moral obligation to preserve his patient’s life, having taken a Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” But should he accept the boy’s seemingly tacit permission?

The surgeon turned to a psychiatrist, who referred him to Paul Root Wolpe.

Paul Root Wolpe
Paul Root Wolpe speaks at the BEINGS conference, hosted by the Center for Ethics

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

Wolpe is a bioethicist and the head of Emory University’s Center for Ethics. He studies the complex and often controversial ethical issues brought about by advances in medicine, in fields such as stem cell research, genetic testing, or organ transplants. As the stuff of science fiction becomes a reality, “there are all kinds of questions that are coming up,” Wolpe says. Bioethicists are here to “think through those questions in an informed, logical way.” He stresses that, like a therapist, he’s not there to impose his personal beliefs, but to guide others toward conclusions that fit in with their own ethics and values.

“I don’t actually feel like I have any particularly better purchase from which to make ethical decisions than anyone else has,” Wolpe said last year in a conversation hosted by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. In making bioethics his life’s study, “I just know a lot more about it.”
Part of the job is stumping for more conversations and consensus around ethical standards in medicine. He has even lent his expertise to NASA, helping set their biological research guidelines in increasingly politically charged fields like genetic engineering.

On a more micro level, Wolpe offers counsel to doctors, hospital administrators, patients, and their families: A woman debating whether to end medical care for her father, who remains on a respirator indefinitely. A diabetic man considering a foot amputation, which would dramatically decrease his pain while increasing his family’s caregiving load. A formerly Catholic hospital now grappling with providing contraception or abortion following its takeover by a larger hospital system.

In the case of the Jehovah’s Witness, Wolpe explained to the surgeon that the parents’ written consent legally obligated him to withhold blood. But given the boy’s declaration, Wolpe helped the doctor determine that if the operation took a turn for worse, his own moral imperative to save a life would take precedence.

“Often the problem is that a person’s values are in conflict,” Wolpe says. “I can help them clarify those conflicts so that the answer becomes clear to them.”

The term “bioethics” first appeared in 1970, but in some ways Wolpe was introduced to the field before it even existed. He grew up in Philadelphia, where his father, a rabbi, taught a class at the Hahnemann Medical College about the spiritual and emotional aspects of dying. His father also sat on a state commission that prioritized which patients received access to the limited number of kidney dialysis machines available at the time.

Then in 1986, while Wolpe was completing a Ph.D. in the sociology of medicine at Yale, his mother suffered a stroke. His father was left to look after her, and Wolpe saw the ethical burden of responsibility placed on caregivers when it comes to answering questions about quality of life. “She couldn’t communicate what she wanted,” says Wolpe. “She lost the use of her dominant arm.” His father had to dress her, cut her meat, figure out how to pay for medical care that their insurance wouldn’t cover. There was a constant stream of decisions to be made on his mother’s behalf.

Soon after, Wolpe entered the then little-known field of bioethics, taking a position at the University of Pennsylvania. In the early days, when Wolpe told other people what he did, few knew what it meant. That began to change in the late 1990s, when technological leaps meant that patients could be kept alive longer than ever—and in varied states of consciousness. As a result, more and more families and physicians were confronting the same kinds of questions that Wolpe and his father had faced.

“For the first time, people were making life-and-death decisions about their loved ones: ‘Should we withdraw life support from Grandma?’” says Wolpe. “And for the first time, they were having to make tough ethical decisions about their own treatment,” like whether they were willing to live with significant disabilities.

In the 2000s, with the emergence of cloning and stem cell technology, the debate broadened. It also became more politicized. As legislators frantically try to keep the law on pace with medical progress, partisan politics are increasingly steering much of the public discourse not just on cloning and stem cells, but on issues like end-of-life care, vaccinations, in-vitro fertilization, and decisions about who receives medical treatment—and who pays for it. Nearly 50 years after Wolpe’s father sat on the commission that governed dialysis care, medical rationing became a source of intense political tumult in the wake of the Affordable Care Act, which prompted panic over so-called “death panels.” The debates have dragged bioethicists like Wolpe into the middle of the political culture wars.

“We get involved in those political debates; when the Affordable Care Act was being put together, bioethicists chimed in,” Wolpe says. Still, he maintains the feverish tenor of the discussions often masks people’s real concerns. “People aren’t actually worried about stem cells,” he says. “They’re worried about whether the scientists who work with stem cells are ethical.”

BEINGS conference
Attendees at last spring’s BEINGS conference

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

After years of fielding calls from hospital directors, physicians, and lawmakers, in 2008, Wolpe got a different sort of phone call from Emory. When James Wagner, who would eventually serve as vice chair on Barack Obama’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics Issues, became president of the university in 2003, he made ethical engagement a primary focus. Five years later, after a two-year search, he wanted Wolpe to help elevate the campus’s relatively small Center for Ethics into a global beacon for ethics research across a spectrum of fields, from medicine to art.

“He was already very influential, but in the end, it was Wolpe’s creativity that set him apart,” says Wagner. “You could be a powerful ethicist just reacting to problems. Wolpe has the ability to address issues that exist, but also to search out ethical opportunities and challenges.”

For example, more and more amputees now use robotics-powered prostheses. Should we curb the use of technology that could lead to a human-mechanical hybrid? What about brain imaging technology that could be used to read people’s thoughts? Or genetic advances that would allow scientists to re-create extinct animals in the lab? These are the types of forward-looking, no-easy-answer questions that Wolpe and his team consider.

In the nearly eight years since Wolpe arrived at Emory, the Center for Ethics—which will celebrate its 25th anniversary later this year—has grown exponentially. In 2008 the institute had just four faculty and five staff members. Today there are nine in-house core faculty—scholars who specialize in philosophy, theology, and the ethics of various fields—plus a network of 39 active fellows working from positions in separate schools within Emory. These fellows collaborate with the center on research and outreach, and a few have enrolled in the ethics master’s program.

Located in a stately five-story building on the west side of campus, the center is unique among its national counterparts in that it is not housed within a specific academic department, such as the medical school. This independence enables Wolpe and his staff to work across the university’s departments, studying ethical issues in law, business, agriculture, and more.

Still, the center remains primarily focused on bioethics. The staff helps train future doctors at Emory School of Medicine, and one of the core faculty members sits on Emory Hospital System’s institutional review board, which helps to create rules and standards. Faculty are also involved in large-scale public health initiatives—for example, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where one member recently provided input on the agency’s pandemic flu plan. Drue Barrett, who leads the CDC’s public health ethics unit, says she’s grateful not only for the center’s expertise but also for its advocacy of ethics within public health. “We need scientists to take more responsibility for thinking about the ethics of what they do,” says Wolpe.

It’s a discussion that Emory is driving worldwide. Last May the center hosted 200 scientists, bioethicists, philosophers, and policymakers from 30 countries in a two-day global summit dubbed the BEINGS conference, held at the Tabernacle. The conference featured panel discussions on the ethics surrounding egg donations, bioterrorism, and genetic engineering.

“We didn’t reach a consensus, but that wasn’t the point,” says Arthur Caplan, a panelist at the conference and head of the division of medical ethics at New York University. “It’s about putting these issues out in the public consciousness.” Caplan says the conference was also something of a coming-out party for Emory’s center. “It’s now world-renowned among the big programs,” he says.

Wolpe, too, has stepped out on the world stage, representing Emory as editor in chief of the American Journal of Bioethics and as a past president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. In 2009 he became the first senior bioethicist for NASA, pondering the implications of biological research in outer space and the possibility of a one-way manned mission to Mars.

But even while dealing with complex issues that can veer into the abstract hypothetical, Wolpe remains focused on the person affected, whether it’s an astronaut facing a years-long space flight, a husband caring for an incapacitated wife, or a surgeon wrestling with the constraints of a patient’s religion. “Ethics is rarely about what’s right and wrong,” says Wolpe. “It’s often about two rights in conflict.”

This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue.

One Square Mile: Freddy Cole and Sweet Auburn’s evolution

Freddy Cole
Photograph by Melissa Golden

Sweet Auburn

Freddy Cole sits at a table in a back corner of Sweet Auburn Seafood restaurant. The linens are crisp, the decor modern: shimmering tile, high-backed benches, cream-padded walls—all unmarked by smoke or time. This place is a welcome sign of slow resurgence in this historic part of town. When Cole first moved here from New York in 1972, he’d hear live jazz blasting from doorways and windows up and down Auburn Avenue. Cole himself often played piano across the street at the old Royal Peacock, which once hosted Dizzy Gillespie, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. By then the Connector had already split the neighborhood in two, and people had begun to flee, leaving crime and blight and abandoned storefronts behind. As it did in black communities in cities all over the U.S., the music stopped. Cole played on. The baby brother of Nat “King” kept recording, was nominated for three Grammys, hit the road and hasn’t stopped. Two weeks ago, he was playing in Japan, where they’re wild for American jazz. He returned to a country and a city that is starting to reclaim its birthright. “Black communities are coming back,” he says. “They have self-esteem, and they’re starting to realize that jazz music is black music.” Tonight the restaurant is packed with patrons, black and white, dressed up to mark the business’s one-year anniversary. Cole is celebrating, too: Tomorrow he will turn 84. As evening falls and light fades from the plate-glass windows, Cole’s grandson arrives to escort him to the front of the room. As he passes, each table stops him to say hello, to ask for a photograph. By the time he settles into the seat at the Steinway, his voice is hoarse from all the greetings. But when he pulls the microphone to his lips, a bell-clear baritone rings through the stilled audience. His fingers glide across the keys, tapping out standards: “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening,” “Long, Long Ago,” “I Remember You.” I remember you/You’re the one who made my dreams come true . . . A sound, a person, and a place out of time, yet somehow of the moment.

This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue.

One Square Mile: Falconry near Mason Mill Park

Mason Mill Park
Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Near Mason Mill Park | 8 miles East of Atlanta
“Bird up!” yells Greg Ames across the wooded hill, silent but for the faint wash of distant traffic, as a red-tailed hawk springs from his leather-gloved wrist. The brass bells strapped to the animal’s legs jingle with each wing flap until she finds a perch on a barren limb some 50 feet up. Her name is Bird No. 7. “You start naming your birds and you start to think they like you,” says Ames. “That’s when you get hurt.” Ames points to an eight-year-old talon scar on the temple behind his right eye, which he got when he was handling his first hawk, Barney, and forgot to remove the leather glove before scratching his head. The birds eat from the glove while being trained. And from their perspective, the relationship with the hawker is all about food. That’s why the year-old raptor streaks from branch to branch, following Ames as he and his fellow hawker, Bill Mixon, try to rustle up some prey—a squirrel, a mouse—from the undergrowth. The sexagenarians shuffle their feet among the dead leaves. They pull marbles from their shoulder bags to sling-shot at lofty squirrels’ nests. Then they move to the next tree, bells tailing them from above, a dance that has been occurring between man and bird for more than 4,000 years. While falconry—as this form of hunting, even with hawks, is known—remains popular in the Middle East and in the U.K., Ames and Mixon are two of only 4,000 licensed falconers in the U.S., around 175 in Georgia. Suddenly No. 7 streaks from the air and crashes upon a brush pile. “She’s got something!” shouts Ames. But by the time the two converge to help No. 7 unclench her talons, they find nothing there. In the distance, a squirrel chirps out something like a warning to the neighborhood, and all is still again except for the bells returning to the treetops and two friends, not the least bit dismayed, walking together through the woods.

This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue.

Stacking up the Celebration Bowl and the Peach Bowl

Celebration Bowl Peach Bowl
Illustration by Natalie K. Nelson; Georgia Dome: Gene Phillips/atlantaphotos.com

This December, Christmas comes twice for Atlanta college football fans, when the Georgia Dome hosts two bowl games: the annual New Year’s Eve Peach Bowl and first-ever Celebration Bowl, a matchup between the respective champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Here’s how the two games go head-to-head.

Celebration Bowl
(MEAC vs. SWAC – This year: North Carolina A&T vs. Alcorn State )
When Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015
Sponsor Air Force Reserve. The game is also managed by 100 Black Men of Atlanta, a service organization dedicated to empowering black youths
Inaugural game 2015
Watch it on ABC
Payout $2 million ($1M per participating conference)
Anticipated attendance TBD (it’s the first year, after all)
Most unusual eligible mascot The Delta Devils of Mississippi Valley State (SWAC)
Coolest ancillary event 5th Quarter. After the game, the crowd sticks around for an encore from each school’s marching band—often a bigger attraction than the game itself.

Peach Bowl
(At-large bids from Group of Five conferences plus playoffs – This year: Houston vs. Florida State)
When Saturday, Dec. 31, 2015
Sponsor Chick-fil-A, a corporation dedicated to bombarding you with cow commercials six days a week
Inaugural game 1968
Watch it on ESPN
Payout $8 million ($4M per participating conference)
Anticipated attendance 71,000
Most unusual eligible mascot Horned Frogs of Texas Christian University (Big 12)
Coolest ancillary event Chalk Talk and Football Feud. Before the game, players from the two teams face off in a Family Feud–style quiz show for bragging rights, as the opposing coaches talk shop.

This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue.

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