Through thousands of newspaper columns and twenty books, the Georgia-born humorist forged a bond with Southern readers—whether he wrote about football-carrying Dawgs in Athens, the chili variety at the Varsity, or his beloved black Lab, Catfish. At twenty-three the UGA alum became the youngest sports editor in the history of the Atlanta Journal, where he worked alongside his idol Furman Bisher. But when the Atlanta Constitution assigned him to write a column in 1977, Grizzard became a star, syndicated in 450 newspapers and with recurring visits to Johnny Carson’s couch on The Tonight Show. He died from heart failure at age forty-seven. A portion of his ashes was scattered on the fifty-yard line at Sanford Stadium.
A few weeks after Joshua Paul’s death, there was a message on the answering machine for her to call the doctor. And the doctor relayed the news over the phone, as if the message was too difficult to utter in person: Joshua Paul tested positive for HIV, and your whole family needs to be tested.
Whether you flock to Fandango to purchase advance tickets for the latest Madea movie or chortled along with last year’s lacerating parody on Adult Swim’s The Boondocks, one thing is certain: Atlanta filmmaker Perry is the only major Hollywood player dedicated to cranking out hits from his adopted hometown. Only five years after shooting his first film (for one scene, he took a chain saw to a couch inside his own house), he was directing Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg and Grammy winner Janet Jackson in last year’s film adaptation of playwright Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf—partially shot at his sprawling thirty-acre Tyler Perry Studios in southwest Atlanta. At the TPS grand-opening party in 2008, Perry surprised mentors Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Cicely Tyson by dedicating soundstages in their honor as Will Smith beamed and Oprah Winfrey cried her eyelashes off. An awed Tyson said, “I never dreamed I would witness this in my lifetime. What I’ve achieved in my career is minuscule in comparison to this.”
In his eleven years as the Alliance Theatre’s artistic director, Leon pushed its subscribers beyond the safe, feel-good fuzzies of Driving Miss Daisy—the longest-running play there before he took over in 1990—to multiethnic stagings of bold dramas, comedies, and musicals, including the groundbreaking first run of the Elton John–composed Aida. Overall subscriptions may have dropped during that period, but nonwhite subscribers rose from 3 percent to 20 percent, and by his tenure’s end, the Clark Atlanta alum had beefed up the Alliance’s endowment and brought the theater national prominence. He left the Alliance in 2001 and in 2003 started True Colors Theatre Company to stage plays by minorities of all kinds. His commitment to diversity caught the eye of Broadway, and he began commuting to the Great White Way for his 2004 Tony-winning revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Last year the Vinings resident and avid golfer received a Tony Award nomination for best director for his revival of August Wilson’s Fences, starring Denzel Washington. He’s lately moved behind the camera to direct episodes of ABC’s Private Practice. Next up: directing Halle Berry’s Broadway debut in the MLK-themed The Mountaintop.
In 1989 the McKinneys became the first simultaneous father-daughter Georgia reps, and Cynthia went on to become the state’s first African American U.S. congresswoman. Both politicians proved fiery advocates for the poor and disenfranchised. Billy was one of Atlanta’s first black police officers—which didn’t stop him from forming a one-man picket line to demand the city hire more. A firm believer in equal-opportunity offensives, Billy cochaired Sidney Marcus’s (unsuccessful) mayoral campaign against Andy Young in 1981. Cynthia, who literally learned the ropes of civil action upon her father’s shoulders, served six terms in the U.S. House and was the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 2008. She lost credibility over conspiracy theories, such as implying that President Bush had prior knowledge of 9/11 and that, after Katrina, the Department of Defense secretly disposed of 5,000 bodies bearing single gunshots to the head.
I can honestly say that I enjoyed the ten hours I spent mostly listening to him talk, and that I was genuinely moved by much of what he had to say about life, family and (occasionally) financial institutions. The details of his “departure,” as he called it, strained the limits of credulity, but the tears he cried behind bars, when he told me he’d probably never hug his children again, were as real as any I’ve ever seen.