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Lassiter High School Band teaches discipline, love for music, and—most important—belonging



“You like Beyoncé?”

It’s a 90-degree Friday night in September, and in front of some 4,000 high school football fans packed into bleachers for homecoming, band director James Thompson is asking what my favorite music is. He calls over to his assistant director on the platform in front of the band and issues a directive. She relays the message to the students via microphone. Within seconds, 28 rows of students swell with the blaring, opening brass riffs of “Crazy in Love.”

In between pop tunes and fight songs, the 165 members of the Lassiter Marching Trojan Band hang out, take selfies, and at one point, do the Macarena. But as the second quarter winds down and the sky darkens, the mood shifts. Adults in matching yellow polo shirts materialize on the sidelines in a buzzing swarm, dragging out xylophones and rearranging extension cords. (These are the roadies, the volunteer parents responsible for the band’s massive amount of equipment. Their motto, emblazoned on the back of those yellow shirts: “We Rack ’Em, Pack ’Em, and Stack ’Em.”)

Shepherded by four drum majors, students file out of the bleachers and down to the field, where they cloister off by section. The brass assemble near the sidelines; percussion congregates in the end zone underneath the goalpost. To the left of the bleachers in front of a chain-link fence, woodwinds huddle.

Lassiter Marching Trojan Band
Band director James Thompson precisely calibrates band members’ movements.

Photograph by Ryan Gibson

With their plum-colored shako caps placed carefully on the ground before them and instruments in hand, the woodwind players go through an eight-minute choreography of body bends, footwork drills, breathing exercises, and scales led by assistant director Kimberly Snyder. No one but Snyder speaks a word; the students are silent, composed, laser-focused.

Looking on, Alfred Watkins, the now-retired band director who led Lassiter’s marching band to two national championships during his 31-year tenure and whose name is now prominently displayed on the building just beyond the football field, turns to me, looks over his spectacles, and gestures toward the group with a smile: “That’s how you win championships.”

Belting out Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” they step onto the field in perfect formation, their oxblood plumes glinting in the stadium floodlights. The band moves seamlessly through a complex, coordinated series of movements like a murmuration of starlings, each half of the field marching sideways in symmetry toward the center, dissipating into tight circles and right angles, and, at one point, sprawling across 70 yards in one perfectly curved arc. After their performance, they stand to the side and play softly as the pastel taffeta ball gowns of the homecoming court swish across the turf. That night, the Lassiter football team lost to Wheeler by 25 points. For the band, it was just a warm-up.

Lassiter Marching Trojan BandOn New Year’s Day this month, the students in the band will run through those same stretches, breathing exercises, and scales—only this time, it won’t be in preparation for stands full of friends and family, nor will it be on the turf of a high school football field. On January 1, the entire band will march the five-and-a-half-mile route of the 130th Tournament of Roses Parade alongside bands from Puerto Rico, Sweden, and Canada as this year’s Grand Marshal, Chaka Khan, leads the charge. Roughly a million people will watch from the sidelines, with many millions more watching on television. The performance will mark yet another accolade in a list of more than 100 earned throughout the band’s 37-year history: two national championships, a dozen regional championships, three appearances in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and soon, five performances before the Tournament of Roses.

“On that day, 40 million people will see us represent Marietta. More people will see you on that day than probably in your entire life.”

Thompson, whose father was a band director in Savannah for 21 years, joined Lassiter as an assistant director under Watkins in 2007 and took over eight years later. He knew the band’s reputation beforehand—in his field, most people do—but was floored by the resources and parental involvement available here. Eighty-three percent of seniors head to four-year colleges, and the curriculum offers some two dozen AP courses. Most students voluntarily pay about $1,100 annually to participate in band. According to U.S. News, only 8 percent of the student body receives free or reduced-price lunches. By contrast, at Thompson’s former school in Savannah, that number is 78 percent.

The total cost of the trip is expected to be about $600,000, a daunting total even in this affluent area of Cobb County. Band parents sell $10 raffle tickets for a Jeep Wrangler from Ed Voyles. There’s also an annual Christmas tree sale, a craft fair in November, and a mattress sale in the band room, not to mention Crowdrise and text message campaigns. Still, families end up paying for the difference.

The Tournament of Roses vets hundreds of applications and selects only 20. Georgia actually has a pretty good record of acceptance. In addition to Lassiter, Lithonia’s Martin Luther King Jr., Cobb’s Walton, and Central-Carroll high schools have all performed in recent years.

But the selection committee had rejected Lassiter’s application the year before, and only two weeks prior, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade had rejected them, too. Snyder, a former Marching Trojan herself, had been in Thompson’s office when the Pasadena area code appeared on his phone. Thompson took the call, put his face in his hands, and slumped into his chair. Did we get it? Snyder whispered. He looked at her and nodded. She began to cry.

Lassiter Marching Trojan Band
Sections such as the woodwinds form tight bonds.

Photograph by Ryan Gibson

Two weeks later, Thompson called the students out of their second-period classes. Prone to philosophizing, he delivered a brief soliloquy about the many thorns—the sweat, the conflict, the fatigue, the failure—one must endure in pursuit of life’s proverbial roses. Four minutes in, he finally said, “I’m here to tell you that the marching band has been selected for the Tournament of Roses Parade for 2019.” The room erupted in cheers. “On that day, 40 million people will see us represent Marietta,” he told the students. “More people will see you on that day than probably in your entire life.”

Two weeks after homecoming and a year after that speech, Thompson is in the band office, where seemingly every available surface is in use: a bookcase practically sagging with three-ring binders of drills and exercises, a bulletin board papered in pep rally schedules and performance calendars. The office door swings open every few minutes: a student meekly hands over an excuse note for missing an upcoming performance; a delivery person drops off garment bags; a Lassiter staffer inquires about the band’s tractor-trailer equipment rig, “T. Rex,” parked just outside of the building. A shaggy-haired kid enters the office, and Thompson pauses our conversation to gently reprimand the student, whose hair no longer fits inside his shako. “You don’t have to cut it. You can use bobby pins, but it can’t be like it was the other night,” Thompson says. “Our product depends on uniformity.”

Lassiter Marching Trojan Band

“Hair should never hang below the shako” is just one line item among a litany of the band’s guidelines spelled out in a 42-page handbook. Pant legs must be hemmed with black thread so that they graze the second eyelet of the shoes without piling or puddling. Students aren’t allowed to wear jewelry or visible makeup when in uniform. Shoes must be polished, and gloves are to be washed after each wear. The handbook even specifies the type of hanger on which to store one’s jacket. (“Heavy duty! Don’t skimp.”)

That level of attention to detail is a high bar, especially considering that band is a no-cut extracurricular: The program is open to anyone enrolled in music classes at Lassiter. “Getting newcomers to understand ‘exact’ is always a challenge,” Thompson says. But that lesson begins on day one. The very first skill members learn is how to stand identically at attention, with feet angled at 45 degrees, chin slightly tilted 10 degrees upward, and hands held in loose fists with middle fingers grazing pant seams. A wedge is used to teach students the precise position of the feet.

Students study the mechanics of a single step: Heel first. Roll through the toes. Cross your ankles on the upbeat (the “and” between beats). During practice, band directors, drum majors, and section leaders monitor players, making minuscule adjustments.

Outside Thompson’s office, kids congregate in the cavernous band room. They come here not just for music courses, but also before school, after school, during lunch, in between classes. Surrounding them on all four walls, reaching up to the 20-foot ceiling, are shelves laden with 552 trophies spanning nearly four decades, their serrated silhouettes looming like skyscrapers.

On this afternoon, students in rumpled hoodies, Converse sneakers, and French braids file in and shrug off their backpacks in the corner. Soon, all eyes are on Thompson as he steps onto the small, raised platform and takes a seat in front of the class, trombone resting in his lap. Before cuing up a scale in Concert F, he instructs them: “Have the concept of what you want to sound like, then manifest it.” Behind him is a tearaway countdown calendar: 78 Days to Pasadena.

Lassiter Marching Trojan Band

Inside Lassiter High School’s $1.5 million Alfred L. Watkins Band Building, it is impossible to ignore the band’s history. The corridor leading into the band room is plastered with plaques, framed competition photos, and proclamations signed by Zell Miller and Joe Frank Harris. Banners, commemorating the band’s appearances in past parades, dangle from the ceiling.

“People will come here, they’ll eat lunch in here, they’ll practice in here, and they come after school, even when there’s not practice,” says Molly Dunn, a soft-spoken senior who plays clarinet and serves as treasurer. She remembers how fortunate she felt to have that kind of home base in the overwhelming first few weeks as a freshman at Lassiter, which has more than 2,000 students enrolled. “Whenever you don’t have anywhere else to go, you can always come back to the band room.”

Lassiter Marching Trojan Band

One could call it the band members’ second home, but truthfully, they spend nearly as much time here as in their actual homes. Students may devote upwards of 20 hours a week rehearsing and performing—surrendering many Saturdays to “9-to-9s,” or 12-hour practice marathons. That’s in addition to the 14- to 16-hour days they put in at band camp during July.

“We spend a majority of our lives here. We’re all at our best and worst together.”

Drills, or formations on the field, involve as many as 100 position changes, known as sets. “That’s a hundred opportunities to fail,” Thompson explains. It can take an entire season to master one show, and Thompson teaches it one movement at a time, over and over again, until each set and the transitions between are perfect, right down to the precise number of steps it takes to get from one hashmark to the next. Only after mastering the moves do they march with their instruments.

Thompson says his goal is to make the band sound perfectly balanced, as though they’re performing in a concert hall. Lassiter’s trademark, he tells me, is the complexity of their shows, both the maneuvers and the music. “We try to play stuff that’s difficult to play when you’re sitting down, much less when you’re on the move,” he says. “If we compete with another group, we might get [the scoring equivalent of] a B-plus, but we’re trying to do AP Calculus, and they’re trying to do general math.”

“We spend a majority of our lives here,” says Olivia Helmly, a tuba player. “We’re all at our best and worst together.” She reckons about 80 percent of her friends are in band. As for the remaining 20? “They support it, but they don’t really, like, get marching band.”

Helmly is also one of the band’s four drum majors, a leadership position earned after an extensive audition process that includes conducting a group piece, performing a solo, and demonstrating teaching and leadership skills. Drum majors arrive before everyone else and stay later. In order to direct fellow students, they carry a metronome on their person at all times, as is spelled out in the drum major audition pamphlet: Keeping steady time is your ultimate responsibility!

Outside these four walls, cultural tropes and misunderstandings of “band kids” persist—and yes, the students are well aware of those stereotypes. (The infamous and R-rated “one time at band camp” bit in American Pie came out before many of the current Lassiter band members were born.) “In the typical high school movies, band kids are seen as big nerds, but I’ve honestly never heard anyone disrespect us,” says Parker Franklin, another drum major. “Mostly I hear people say, ‘I don’t see how you guys do it.’”

Individual sections, which each meet once a week at 7 a.m. for practice in addition to their regular classes and rehearsals, forge their own tight-knit coteries. “A lot of sections tend to stay together,” explains Franklin, who hangs mostly with flutes, clarinets, and tubas.

Lassiter Marching Trojan BandSections have their own T-shirts, wear certain colors to practice on certain days, and celebrate the end of every rehearsal with their own cheers. They also tend to attract, or perhaps cultivate, their own personalities. Helmly informs me that trumpets tend to think they’re always right, flutes are nitpicky perfectionists who “clean a lot,” and trombones like to clown around.

That phenomenon isn’t specific to Lassiter, either, according to Thompson. “It’s fascinating to me how, from program to program, those personalities kind of manifest themselves,” he says. Low brass players, he notices, tend to “go with the flow,” while double reeds are quirky and eccentric. Drummers are often the wild cards—the kids he has to keep an eye on whenever the band travels. As for saxophones? “They’re always cool,” says Thompson. “I mean, they just always are.” (At one point in our conversation, the band office door is left ajar, and I overhear a scrawny freshman in the band room exclaim to another: “Saxophone is lit.”)

In the often perplexing social minefield that is high school, marching band offers an instant tribe. Fellow bandmates are the kids you sit next to in class, partner with for group projects, eat lunch with in the cafeteria. At Alfred Watkins’s retirement party, there were 22 married couples who had met in his band. And when Snyder’s father passed away while she was a freshman flutist, Watkins, along with many of the band officers, attended his funeral.

Football or basketball players practice to become a team, but band members drill to become one player. The bond provides a safe place where adolescents on the brink of adulthood can discover whether they’re a woodwind or a horn, a percussionist, maybe even a saxophone. The product may depend on uniformity, but it’s a fine place to become an individual.

This article appears in our January 2019 issue.

Atlanta’s patron saint of pit bulls


Jason Flatt pets Sarah, whose face was mangled in a dog fight.

The brown puppy has acquired a perpetual, ingratiating, lopsided grin. She recently started to wag her tail and answer to the name June.

A couple of months ago, she was found chained outside DeKalb Animal Control. Half of her face was missing, her ankle was broken, and she had a nasty staph infection. She looked destined for euthanasia. Nobody wants a pit bull mangled in a dogfight, which is precisely why Jason Flatt did want her. An animal control worker had texted him a photo of the pup’s disfigured face.

“I didn’t know what I was looking at, at first,” Flatt says of the dog’s messy wounds. “I can’t say for certain that there was dogfighting involved, but her injuries are consistent with it. I wasn’t sure if she even had a jawbone left, but I knew one thing for sure: I had to save that dog.”

Every morning, Flatt wakes up compelled by that simple mission: He has to save a dog—especially ones that everyone else has given up as lost. June received reconstructive surgery for her injuries and joined the ranks of damaged creatures salvaged by Friends to the Forlorn (FTTF), Flatt’s Dallas, Georgia–based animal rescue operation, which has worked with every canine breed from Chihuahuas to Mastiffs but specializes in pit bulls. He takes on the fighters and the biters, the blind and the deaf, and any other special-needs case rejected by other organizations or sentenced to death row at the pound. One dog had been frozen to the ground during an ice storm; another had more than 60 puncture wounds; one had been tortured with a shock collar. Flatt even offers a sort of hospice care, taking in dying dogs and easing their final days with steak and ice cream.

“The worse shape the dog is in, the more determined I am to fix it,” he says. “Pit bulls are despised. They’re hated and feared and therefore more likely to be abused.”

The world of animal rescue has its own lingo and division of labor. There are the Cross-posters, who share heart-melting photos online; the Transporters, who deliver animals into safe custody; the Rescuers who pull from the shelters; and the Fosters, who take in ailing or traumatized animals like June to heal before they land in a forever home—if they can avoid the dreaded Rainbow Bridge. Flatt plays all of these roles and more, sparing no effort or expense to restore the most hopeless cases to health and happiness. Even among the devoted community of animal welfare activists, he stands out as a zealot, both for his ecumenical, thorough-going approach and for his visually arresting face, which is heavily inked with a variety of tattoos, including life-size paw prints on each cheek that memorialize two of his rescues.

“Quinn came from a fighting ring in Dublin, one of 38 dogs I rescued from that case,” Flatt recalls, indicating the print on the right side of his face. “And Melony was a cruelty and fighting case in DeKalb,” he adds, pointing to the other. “They both were full of scars; they both needed time to trust me. I made a plaster mold of their paws to use as the pattern for my tattoos. By the time I die, I want my body to be covered with paw-print tattoos.” It’s a tribute he reserves for his personal fosters.

Flatt’s countenance also bears short epigraphs, written around his eyes and down his neck: “Look Deep,” “Don’t Sleep,” and “Forlorn.” His back is a canvas for a giant, majestic pit bull with angel wings. A native New Yorker, he talks fast, moves with restless intensity, and warns new acquaintances that he often “drops the f-bomb.” A vegan, he munches on raw broccoli throughout the day. In what little spare time he has, he boxes and writes lugubrious poetry about the alienation of pit bulls (“I’m just a pit bull. . . . I was born out of brutality and cruelty / any act of kindness toward me would be something completely new to me. . . .”). All of which give Flatt the aura of a punk-rock St. Francis of Assisi, the animals’ patron saint who reputedly tamed a marauding wolf.

“We are judged by what we look like and not what we are. We both are expected to fail. I have always had to prove people wrong. So do they. I relate to them.”

“People assume I’ve been in prison,” he says with a shrug. “Women clutch their pocketbooks tighter when I walk by. Children point and stare. I get treated like a freak show.”

No matter; his unconventional presentation is a defiant statement of solidarity with his spirit animal. “Pit bulls and I both are looked down upon without people getting to know us,” he says. “We are judged by what we look like and not what we are. We both are expected to fail. I have always had to prove people wrong. So do they. I relate to them.”

Pit bulls claim a complicated history, as chronicled in the book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey. First, they are not, in the technical sense, a breed. They are a category that comprises the American pit bull terrier (APBT), the American Staffordshire terrier (AmStaff), and the Staffordshire bull terrier, a smaller, English cousin that Britons do not regard as a pit bull. In 2013, the United Kennel Club added one more: the American Bully, a heavier variant of the AmStaff. Dogs from these breeds can weigh anywhere from 25 to 100 pounds and display at least 16 different coat colors and patterns. They all, however, possess a poignant, unassuming kind of beauty, with their blocky heads and wide-set eyes, front legs that often are comically bowed, and skinny hindquarters.

Pit bulls were not always demonized. During the 1920s, they were known as solid, all-American, dependable “Yankee Terriers.” Teddy Roosevelt kept one in the White House, and comic hero Buster Brown’s brindle companion was always by his side. Silent-film star Pal the Wonder Dog appeared in 224 films, traveled with his own valet, and was eventually cast as Pete the Pup, abetting the mischief of the Little Rascals. Yet another pittie listened “for the sound of his master’s voice” from a Victrola.

Jason Flatt pit bulls
According to temperament tests, pit bulls are often better behaved than golden retrievers.

Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

The dog’s reputation started to change in the 1970s and ’80s when a spate of magazines—from Esquire to Sports Illustrated—published harrowing exposés of dogfighting, rife with misinformation that presented pit bulls as hardwired to kill and therefore complicit in the blood sport. One widely circulated Texas Monthly article claimed the dog has “an undershot jaw capable of applying 740 pounds of pressure per square inch”—a figure that over time was exaggerated to 2,600 ppi and never corroborated with science. Other myths made the rounds: The dogs do not feel pain. They never let go. They can bite through steel, concrete, and chain-link fences. And the dogs have locking jaws, double jaws, or jaws that can unhinge like those of a snake. Each article always seemed to use the phrase “ticking time bomb.”

The fact is, their mandibles are like any other mutt’s, and according to the American Temperament Test Society, pit bulls are statistically better behaved than golden retrievers. (Published studies have shown chihuahuas and dachshunds are among the most aggressive toward humans.) The damage was done, though. This Cerberus-like image made the pit bull the ultimate guard dog and status symbol for tough guys, from urban rappers to rural Ku Klux Klansmen. Dogfighting—and overbreeding—increased.

“It’s estimated that, at any given moment, there are 40,000 dog fights with 100,000 spectators,” says Amy Soeldner, animal cruelty liaison officer with the Atlanta Police Department. “In Atlanta, it’s mostly impromptu fights in backyards and basements. The more organized contests take place in rural areas.”

“They’re often starved to the point of emaciation to get down to a certain weight class, and they’re given steroids and narcotics,” says Soeldner. “I’ve seen puppies dragging large bricks with padlocks. The dogs’ ears and tails are often cropped with kitchen shears. I’ve seen children as young as seven at dog fights.”

In all 50 states, dogfighting is a felony—one that sent the Atlanta Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick, who owned 51 pit bulls, to prison for 19 months. But, as a testament to their native temperament, many of his animals were successfully rehabilitated, earning them the nickname “Vicktory pups.”

Flatt curses not only this cult of cruelty but also the public apathy that enables it. “People say, when they hear how these dogs are treated, that they’re ‘outraged,’” he says. “Outraged? Really? Tell me when you’re outraged enough to get up off your fucking ass to do something about it.”

Meet Jason Flatt’s Dogs

Jason Flatt pit bulls

Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

Jason Flatt pit bulls

Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

Jason Flatt pit bulls

Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

Jason Flatt pit bulls

Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

Jason Flatt pit bulls

Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

Jason Flatt pit bulls

Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

Flatt, 45, grew up in Queens, where he dragged home stray dogs and learned “not to take any shit from anybody.” He concedes, “I wasn’t the greatest kid. I got into some stuff, but nothing serious, like getting speeding tickets on my motorcycle.” One positive influence remained a constant in his life, though: Calvin, a pit bull who lived to be 18, bucking all of the stereotypes. “Calvin was regarded as a family member,” he says. “Losing him was hard. That was the first big loss of my life.” Flatt was 12. He dreamed of becoming a veterinarian but ended up, for a time, in a much different field.

Taking in Flatt’s aesthetic today, it is hard to visualize him clad in Brooks Brothers, but for many years, he made a nice living as a commodities broker and then as managing director of an equity research publication on Wall Street. His quick, adrenalized wits served him well in that high-stakes environment. “I was leading a very selfish life, very involved with myself and my career,” he says. “I made good money. I’ll never be that rich again, but I don’t care. What’s important to me now is that I live a decent life, saving dogs.”

At age 32, he faced the second great loss of his life. “On July 22, 2005, I got a phone call that rocked my world,” Flatt says. “My older brother, Evan, who was a federal agent, killed himself. Nothing mattered to me during that time. I plunged into a really bad depression. I was dying on the inside—I died that day along with him.”

Flatt, whose job enabled him to work remotely, opted for a fresh start, a change of scene. A friend had introduced him to Georgia, where there was more elbow room, so he bought some 14 acres of grassy, rolling land. Then, one day, someone gave him a five-week-old, five-pound pit bull puppy. Flatt named him Angelo.

“This little dog literally saved my life by giving me a purpose.”

“He was just what I needed,” Flatt says. “This little dog literally saved my life by giving me a purpose. He was easy to train, would do anything you commanded. He was so attuned to what I needed. He liked other dogs, was gentle with children and cats. I would take him running with me. He was my savior. I couldn’t find peace until I had him. That little dog made me get up in the morning.”

When he went to the pound to get a friend for Angelo, he experienced another life-changing revelation. Almost all of the kennels held a pit bull. For every responsible breeder—the most famous of which is Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, whose southwest Atlanta–based Pitfall Kennels counts Serena Williams, Jermaine Dupri, and Usher among its clients—there are far more opportunistic backyard breeders who have flooded the market and shelters with neglected or mistreated animals.

“At any given time, at least 80 percent, and possibly as high as 90 percent, of our dogs are pit bull types,” says Audrey Shoemaker, director of client services for Fulton County Animal Services. “Because pit bulls make up so much of the population here, they’re the dog most often euthanized.”

Flatt decided to foster a couple of dogs, which he placed in permanent homes, then took on a couple more. “Word got out that I was saving one dog at a time,” he says. “Pretty soon, I had placed 100 dogs in homes.”

Jason Flatt pit bulls
Flatt calls his home the Pit Bull Palace.

Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

He established Friends to the Forlorn in 2009, converting his two-story, eight-bedroom house into what he calls the Pit Bull Palace. Furniture is minimal and covered; there is no television. “The dogs own the house,” he says. “They just let me live here.” But there is no telltale pet odor. Flatt goes through seven loads of laundry a day and several gallons of bleach. Outside, he has constructed eight segmented, grassy yards, with eight-foot high fences and two feet of concrete underground to prevent dogs from digging their way out. The dogs usually get at least a couple of hours of outdoor playtime every day. Security cameras monitor the facility. Often, he says, he gets calls from former dog owners, just sprung from prison, who want to reclaim their money-makers. “Don’t mistake my compassion for weakness,” he warns.

He keeps up to 30 pit bulls on his own property with the help of two full-time employees. Other dogs are farmed out to 47 foster homes across metro Atlanta, where they await adoption. The most aggressive animals are more isolated. “It just depends on the dog, depends on its temperament whether it’s allowed to socialize. We never leave any dog unattended.” He’s only ever been bitten when breaking up dogfights—an inconvenience he shrugs off as an occupational hazard.

So far, his organization, a 501(c)3 with an annual budget of $400,000, has saved 600 dogs and counting.

“Last year, he came to the shelter to temperament-test a group from a cruelty conviction,” Shoemaker says. “He ended up pulling two into FTTF and helped me place a third with another responsible group that he trusted. He saved some great dogs from that case.”

She adds, “I also call Jason when I have strange situations. For example, someone abandoned a couple of donkeys. He took them both in, and now, they live in his pasture.” That would be Brutus and Jenny.

“I had to lose myself to find myself. I’m not saving these pit bulls—they are saving me. I would die for them. I’ve found exactly what I was put on earth to do.”

In the course of tending to so many animals, Flatt has acquired the ad-hoc expertise of a vet tech. “At this point,” says Dr. Clay Leathers, Flatt’s on-call veterinarian, “Jason has a supply of medicine, and he usually doesn’t encounter an injury in the middle of the night he can’t deal with. I work with a lot of rescue groups, but Jason’s is the best because he goes above and beyond. He takes the cases that no one else will touch.”

When Flatt pulls a dog from a shelter, he expects some inevitable challenges. “We know the dog will have issues—parasites, kennel cough, or much worse,” he says. “So, we quarantine him for two weeks to get the health problems taken care of. We do temperament tests. If the dog is aggressive, we respond with lots of love and patience. We take our time with him. It’s very important not to rush a dog or force yourself on him all at once. Let him decide he can trust you, and you will eventually tame him.”

To keep so many animals from ending up incarcerated in the first place, Flatt also works with West Georgia Spay and Neuter, and together, they have fixed more than 6,000 dogs and cats. One bitch and her pups, if left unaltered, can theoretically produce 67,000 dogs in seven years, he says. He also just began helping Paulding County with a trap-neuter-return program for feral cats.

Despite these achievements, Flatt still feels overwhelmed by the beseeching eyes that follow him at the pound. “I can save 140 a year, but it’s a losing business model,” he says. “I could clean out the pound, and it would be full again within another week or two.” He considered adding on to the Palace last year to accommodate more dogs and applied for a zoning variance. Some of his neighbors turned out in protest.

County commissioner Tony Crowe decided to investigate this unusual operation that everyone was buzzing about, so he popped in for an inspection. “The place was very secure and very clean and very professionally handled,” he says. “I was thoroughly impressed. I didn’t understand why anyone would protest something that so clearly is doing so much good. That was baffling. I don’t know if they envisioned a huge pack of dogs just running loose and wild or what, but that is not what Jason is doing. Besides that, he’s saved the county a bunch of money with his spay-neuter program.”

Now, Flatt is dreaming even bigger. Instead of adding on to his current compound, he wants to build a new state-of-the-art treatment center for dogs on property nearby. It would include a furnished apartment so a manager would always be on site, along with a veterinary clinic with high-tech equipment, including hydrotherapy and an underwater treadmill. “We get hundreds of broken legs with our dogs,” he says. “Many of our dogs are hit by cars, so they need full rehab.” So far, FTTF has raised a little more than $500,000 in its capital campaign to drum up $2 million toward this goal. Flatt hopes to break ground within the next three years.

One popular fundraiser is Bully Bingo, which the group coordinates quarterly at Mazzy’s bar in Marietta. Flatt sells a collection of his poetry, Ode to the Forlorn, along with T-shirts and other pit bull merchandise (also available through his website, friendstotheforlorn.org). That event usually brings in around $5,000, and it provides some social bonding time for the organization’s hard-working foster families.

“This is like our Mothers’ Day Out when we can come together as humans and discuss our four-legged children,” says Emily Hite, who is on her eighth dog with FTTF. “We bring each other pee pads for toilet training, and sometimes, Jason will bring us the medicine we need. Our latest dog, Finley, has a severe bacterial infection, so we call him the ‘hot mess express,’ but he is improving.”

Her husband, Greg Hite, a history teacher, adds, “We’re flaming liberals who live in Decatur, and we don’t have any children. We wanted to do more with our lives besides appreciate good wine. So, we fell in love with pit bulls, and it’s been an intense experience, nursing sick ones back to health. To see one that is near death and then, a couple of weeks later, is just a goofy dog chasing a ball or curling up with you on the couch—there’s just no feeling like it.”

Even after logging long hours at the pound or the veterinary clinic with a mauled dog, Flatt comes home to wash out 28 water bowls and mop the floor. He sorts through the 1,500 or so emails he receives each day, most of them slugged “URGENT.” He tries to reply in some way to all of the ones from Georgia. In accordance with his “Don’t Sleep” tattoo, he only snatches a nap at night, but he feels happy and rested. “I haven’t had a vacation in years,” he says. “I was even late for my mother’s funeral. But rescue work saved me,” he says. “I had to lose myself to find myself. I’m not saving these pit bulls—they are saving me. I would die for them. I’ve found exactly what I was put on earth to do.” Lucky dog.

This article appears in our December 2018 issue.

The I-85 fire could have destroyed Basil Eleby’s life. Instead, it may have saved it.

Basil Eleby, I-85 fire
The flames caused a span of I-85 to collapse. Miraculously, there were no injuries.

Photograph by WSB-TV via AP

First came the smoke.

The thick black plumes billowed up from under Interstate 85, two miles northeast from where the Downtown Connector splits, blanketing motorists lurching through rush-hour traffic on March 30, 2017. A wedding planner was the first to call 911. It was 6:12 p.m. Eight minutes later, firefighters arrived near the base of the overpass, where they clamped a hose to a hydrant. But the water wasn’t coming out right. Same luck at a second hydrant. A third finally worked. Firefighters hurled water toward the brilliant orange flames that had grown taller than a four-story building, enshrouding a highway now as empty as a scene from The Walking Dead

More engines were en route, including trucks from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport equipped with oxygen-suppressing foam that could smother 2,000-degree flames. (The trucks got stuck in traffic.) Beneath I-85, the fire was fed by spools of plastic and fiberglass conduit stored there. The overpass above was designed to support more than 400 tons, but the immense heat was dissolving the bond between steel and concrete. At 7:14 p.m., nearly an hour after the first firefighters arrived, a 79-by-92-foot segment of the overpass—roughly the size of a basketball court—collapsed.

From the stairwell of the Intown Suites, roughly 200 yards away, Basil Eleby stared into the smoke enveloping I-85. Eleby was 39, an Atlanta native, and homeless. For years, he’d struggled with drugs and alcohol, cycling between life on the streets and in a cell. Eleby preferred his solitude. But when people got to know him, as some owners of the auto repair shops clustered near the southeastern edge of Buckhead had done, he was easy to talk to. Trustworthy, even. They liked him enough to throw him odd jobs—unloading trucks, detailing cars. The owner of GT Automotive even let Eleby use the shop’s bathroom and sleep in a broken-down Mercedes parked out back. Eleby laid blankets down across the rear seat, placing his clothes and toiletries up front. An extension cord stretching from the shop to the car powered Eleby’s microwave and charged his cell phone.

Basil Eleby, I-85 fire
Eleby in front of the Mercedes where he used to sleep

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

As he would tell me, a year after the fire, his days were broken down into a series of “missions,” as he called them. The goals were simple: food, shelter, or just a fix.

That day, a hot Thursday in early spring, had already been a long one for Eleby. Earlier that afternoon, he’d washed cars at a tire shop off Cheshire Bridge Road. Then he hustled over to the Intown Suites, where rooms typically rented for under $200 a week. Intown Suites, which has since closed, was well-known to Atlanta police, who frequently responded to reports of fighting, theft, drugs—even the occasional shooting. When Eleby had first come here, years ago, it was to buy crack. Sometimes he befriended guests, running errands in exchange for a few dollars or some drugs. That afternoon, he’d later tell police, he’d come for work, to walk Panda, a guest’s dog. Soon after the highway fell, he found himself with a third job. Eleby would get $100, plus free cigarettes and alcohol, to make sure a guest, who was planning to go on a bender, didn’t get robbed. After midnight, Eleby walked 10 minutes north on Piedmont Road, past the firefighters, to GT Automotive, and settled into the Mercedes to sleep.

The next morning Eleby headed back to Intown Suites, looking to walk the dog again for another $20. His path took him down an alley toward Tower Liquors. As he cut across the lot, several arson investigators were looking his way. Are you Basil Eleby? they asked. 

The investigators wanted to know what he could tell them about the fire. I don’t know who started it, he said. They asked him if he’d help ID a potential suspect at the station. He slid into the back of a squad car. The windows were rolled down, which Eleby took as a sign he wasn’t in trouble. But as the car moved closer to APD’s Buckhead precinct, he heard a click. He was locked in.

The morning after the highway collapsed, metro Atlanta was forced to reckon with its longstanding ambivalence—and, at times, resistance—toward any form of transportation that wasn’t the automobile. Now, the region skeptical of buses and trains really needed MARTA. Ticket sales almost doubled their daily weekday average. During his morning commute from North Springs to his office at Lindbergh, Keith Parker, the CEO of MARTA, rode in a standing room only train. Parker increased train frequencies to every six to eight minutes, instead of 10, and extended service hours.

School leaders, remembering the images of children stuck on school buses during SnowJam 2014, had already canceled classes to alleviate traffic. Governor Nathan Deal secured $10 million from the White House to kickstart the rebuilding. The public had to be patient, Russell McMurry, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, told reporters. The damage necessitated closing the highway in both directions. The rebuilding of 700 feet of highway—the span that collapsed plus five other segments that were structurally compromised—could take months. The nearly 250,000 vehicles that daily relied on this stretch of highway would have to find another way.

Meanwhile, Atlanta fire investigators and federal agents fanned out to speak with witnesses. None had seen the fire break out. But one man had noticed a homeless couple leaving the spot where the flames had originated. Lt. Jeffrey Cutrer, a city fire investigator, tracked down the couple, Barry Thomas and Sophia Brauer, at a laundromat near the Lindbergh station.

The couple told investigators they had indeed been under a stretch of I-85 just east of where the overpass crosses Piedmont Road, and had actually planned to sleep there the night of the fire. The parcel beneath that tenth-mile portion of the highway was owned by GDOT, which used the space to store unused materials from abandoned projects. At the time of the fire, there were 76 four-feet tall spools of conduit. Here, as under many of Atlanta’s highway overpasses, the homeless ate, drank, and occasionally built fires to stay warm—even though “no trespassing” signs marked the area as off-limits. Parts of it, though, were so poorly fenced off that skaters had poured concrete to build a makeshift skatepark.

At the MARTA police station, Thomas described what he’d seen before the fire: a man hoisting a worn-out recliner into an abandoned Target shopping cart. The man reached under the cart, flicked a lighter, and held the flame until the chair caught on fire. The flames spread to the massive spools. In a different interview room, Brauer described running into the same man in the Lindbergh Kroger parking lot, about a mile north of the overpass. He looked toward the smoke, said “I did that,” and chuckled. When different investigators asked who the man was, Thomas and Brauer separately provided the same person’s name: Basil Eleby. 

About an hour later, investigators were questioning Eleby inside the Atlanta Police’s Buckhead precinct. Eleby said he knew about the spot under I-85. He often walked a path that cut through GDOT’s property to get from the Mercedes to his jobs. The last time he took that route, he told investigators, it was Thursday afternoon, about two hours before the fire. He’d been on his way to walk Panda and had run into Brauer and Thomas. Sitting among the spools, the couple sipped on beers. Eleby hadn’t lingered long, he told police. Within 10 minutes, he had continued on his way to Intown Suites.

Eleby admitted he had smoked crack—he didn’t have enough for Brauer, who asked if he might share—but insisted he left the scene before the fire started. Even after a federal investigator read Eleby his Miranda rights, he kept talking. He didn’t ask for a lawyer. He drew a crude sketch that showed his recollection of the position of the chair and cart. But based on Brauer and Thomas’s statements, police placed Eleby in handcuffs and put him in the back of a squad car. He was headed for Fulton County Jail, a place he knew well.

That weekend, on websites and social media feeds, thousands saw Eleby’s mugshot—his scraggly hair, his black zip-up jacket, his tired eyes. A WSB-TV segment featured an interview with Brauer, blaming the fire on Eleby. From his South Fulton home, Marcus Coleman was dismayed. The founder of the Atlanta chapter of the National Action Network—Rev. Al Sharpton’s civil rights nonprofit—saw a familiar narrative being played out: the vilification of a homeless man. He feared the arrest would embolden officials to displace homeless people camped under highways, or hasten the closing of Atlanta’s largest homeless shelter, Peachtree-Pine, whose operators were locked in a bitter lawsuit against the city. On Facebook, Coleman messaged several attorneys.

“We need to help this Brotha,” Coleman wrote. 

Basil Eleby, I-85 fire
Mawuli Davis (left) and Eleby in Davis’s law office, where Eleby works part-time

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

One of the attorneys, Mawuli Davis, agreed to join Coleman in assembling a legal team that would include three other criminal defense attorneys: Tiffany Roberts, Gary Spencer, and Lawrence Zimmerman. In early April, Roberts visited Eleby in jail. Roberts found him to be calm and courteous, but overwhelmed. Eleby had a long rap sheet: 19 arrests over 22 years, on charges that included selling drugs, criminal trespassing, and urban camping near I-85. His longest stint in jail—six months in the mid-2000s—came after he sold $20 worth of crack to an undercover officer. Now he was facing felony arson and property charges that could put him in prison until he was in his sixties.

Eleby began telling Roberts about his past. When he was seven, his mother had lost custody; he and his three younger siblings moved into their aunt’s two-story apartment in the English Avenue neighborhood. Drug dealers sold crack nearby. His aunt, who struggled with addiction, bought drugs with money sent by his mother. Eleby spent time in foster care. After his mother regained custody, they moved to Kimberly Courts, a public housing development in southwest Atlanta. The family bounced from house to house, and Eleby never got a high school diploma. When he was 20, a coworker at Wendy’s asked if he wanted to smoke weed after work. Eleby said yes. Other drugs followed, including cocaine. He started selling drugs to pay for his habit. The only times he could stay sober for more than a week was whenever he landed back in jail.

On Good Friday, two weeks after the fire, Eleby’s attorneys arrived for a press conference on the Fulton County courthouse steps. Davis declared Eleby’s arrest a “railroading on steroids.” A group of attorneys and activists urged the public to call a 1-800 number with tips, to purchase $24 Basil Eleby T-shirts to fund his defense, and to pack the courtroom for his bond hearing. Five days later, his lawyers secured Eleby’s release on a $10,000 signature bond, which allows a defendant to be released from jail without putting up any cash. There were conditions: no arrests, no drugs, no witness contact. And he couldn’t set foot within a thousand feet of the I-85 bridge without a lawyer, cutting off Eleby from his old life, including the car where he slept.

The attorneys were the first of dozens of Good Samaritans who would step up to help Eleby, providing the kind of wraparound service that would be the envy of even the most progressive cities. Their efforts also revealed the limits of that kind of approach—that no matter how aggressive and nurturing the efforts, their outcome would ultimately depend on Eleby and Eleby alone. His most immediate need was a roof over his head, which came via a friend of Davis’s, who operated a sober-living residence just south of I-285. Eleby joined seven other residents, who shared everything from the kitchen utensils to copies of the “Big Book,” the Bible for 12-step recovery programs. Eleby was required to wake up at 6:30 a.m. on weekdays, tidying his room and doing chores, such as cleaning the bathroom or wiping down the kitchen. A security camera hung above the front door to document residents’ comings and goings. The counselor who oversaw the treatment facility, a man by the name of Original Michael, had himself overcome drug addiction, and knew how hard it was to break free of crack’s grip.

Eleby’s old routines, scheduled around his next fix, were now gone. His personal relationships, built around the rituals of drug use, were gone. His independence, restricted by the terms of his bond, was effectively gone. Eleby’s recovery hinged on rewiring his very existence. Michael agreed to cover all of Eleby’s healthcare costs and to navigate him through the process of recovery: a psychiatrist (who would diagnose Eleby with PTSD), individual and group counseling, and 12-step meetings. For Eleby, the stakes couldn’t be higher; a relapse could send him to prison.

Russell McMurry, the GDOT commissioner who’d spent decades climbing the agency’s ranks, circled on his calendar the most important day of his career: June 15, 2017. That’s when he had promised to reopen the 10-lane highway. Along the way, workers would have to clear 13 million pounds of debris, fabricate 250 tons of steel, and pour 2,100 cubic yards of concrete. Officials estimated the 250,000 inconvenienced motorists would collectively lose more than half-a-million dollars each day that I-85 remained closed. An Invest Atlanta survey of businesses within a 10-minute drive of the fire site found that more than half lost customers, faced longer delivery times, and had to allow for workers who couldn’t get to their jobs on time. 

Within an hour of the highway collapse, GDOT had retained C.W. Matthews, the Marietta-based construction giant. C.W. Matthews is one of most politically connected firms statewide, completing more than $2 billion in business with the agency since 2008. By the next day, C.W. Matthews had shifted dozens of workers from other projects to focus on the overpass rebuild. They subcontracted with D.H. Griffin, a North Carolina–based demolition company, which helped clear the World Trade Center’s rubble after 9/11, to remove the six damaged spans. In early April, GDOT sweetened the pot: If C.W. Matthews finished by May 15, a month ahead of the date McMurry promised the public, it would get a bonus of $3.1 million. Crews worked around the clock. The total costs would climb to nearly $17 million. 

Engineers ordered 61 beams made of pre-stressed concrete with steel reinforcement, each a different length given the curve of the highway. Within two weeks of the fire, state troopers began escorting a cavalcade of trucks hauling the beams, from plants as far away as Savannah, to the construction site. Cranes lifted the beams, some weighing 120 tons, more than two stories into the sky before gently positioning them. In typical highway building, pouring this much concrete would take 28 days to dry—called ‘curing’—but engineers opted instead for a more expensive composite containing a finer cut of cement, allowing it to cure in approximately 28 hours.

On Friday, May 12, six weeks after the bridge collapsed, GDOT inspectors gave the all-clear. During that evening’s rush hour, as cars crawled along the Downtown Connector, workers tossed the last orange construction cones into the back of a GDOT truck. TV stations streamed live coverage of the highway reopening. With their lights flashing, APD officers steered their blue cruisers north on I-85 toward the rebuilt spans. Around 7 p.m., drivers picked up speed and crossed the overpass, as if it were just another rush hour.

One sweltering Wednesday night in late July, 10 weeks after the highway reopened, Eleby stepped inside Sankofa United Church of Christ, the West End congregation that had supported him since his release. Just a few days earlier, Eleby had relapsed for the first time since the fire, ending a nearly four-month stretch of sobriety. Though relapse is a medical setback common among patients in addiction treatment, his lawyers worried his bond might nevertheless be revoked, further damaging the public perception of him ahead of a trial. Davis had asked the church’s pastor, Derrick Rice, to convene everyone who expressed support for Eleby after the fire. Now, three dozen people had assembled there for a single goal: shower Eleby with love until he could love himself again.

The following month, volunteers bought Eleby groceries and a MARTA card so he could get back and forth from the recovery house to his treatment. Eleby hadn’t had a license for at least six years, so volunteers drove Eleby not only to his many appointments, but to everyday places like libraries, parks, and restaurants. Eleby went on hikes with several health advocates who preached to him about self-care. He attended services at a mosque with Reginald Muhammad, the legal investigator whom Davis had assigned to mentor Eleby. The constant companionship wore on Eleby, who began to see his caretakers as probation officers. He wasn’t wrong: Ken Love, a Sankofa member who coordinated Eleby’s schedule, tracked his movements with an app on his phone.

“I shouldn’t be here, with all the drugs I was doing. I shouldn’t be coherent. I shouldn’t be healthy.”

In late September, Eleby didn’t show for a church event. Love checked his app. Eleby’s cell phone appeared to be off. Love drove around to spots where Eleby said he might go if he were to relapse, including Intown Suites. When Love pulled up, he saw people using and selling drugs, but no Eleby.

Eleby resurfaced the next day. Not long after, he failed a drug test, confirmation of another relapse. At his next court hearing, Judge Constance Russell ordered Eleby to take another drug test. It came back negative. Russell allowed Eleby to stay in treatment, but it was his last chance: “If you flunk a drug test again,” she warned, “your bond will be revoked.”

Just as some had wondered if the I-85 collapse might be a wake-up call to invest more in transit, Mawuli Davis thought Eleby’s story might be an opportunity for the city to confront its checkered history with homelessness. Leading up to the 1996 Olympics, Fulton County officials famously bought homeless people one-way bus tickets out of town, while Atlanta police faced a lawsuit for overaggressive policing of people sleeping on the streets. In the years that followed, mayors shaped their homelessness agendas to capture more federal funding. Mayor Shirley Franklin embraced a strategy that required the homeless to work or stay off drugs before getting shelter; Mayor Kasim Reed, on the other hand, adopted a “housing first” approach that sheltered people first before addressing their employment or medical concerns.

For Davis, the mission was also personal. In 2015, his older brother, Nate, had died at 56, following a decades-long struggle with substance abuse and depression. “I couldn’t save my brother,” Davis told me. “I decided to save another brother.” But despite his hopes that Eleby’s eventual recovery would lead to greater investment in services, homeless citizens seemed even more in the crosshairs, as Coleman had feared. In August, three months after I-85 reopened, Central Atlanta Progress, the civic group that represented downtown business interests, purchased the building that housed Peachtree-Pine for $10 million—a deal that both settled a longstanding lawsuit with the city’s largest emergency homeless shelter and forced its closure. That fall, APD began actively discouraging church and service groups from feeding homeless people without permits. That winter, authorities stopped allowing the homeless to sleep in the atrium of the Atlanta airport—a warm, safe public space that was accessible via MARTA. For his part, Davis, named a member of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s transition team, still hoped Eleby might someday exemplify what happened when Atlanta prioritized building people rather than building buildings.

That, of course, started with Eleby’s defense. Though it wasn’t admissible in court, Eleby had passed a polygraph test. Looking at police records, Davis felt the state’s case was flimsy: no surveillance footage placed Eleby at the scene of I-85’s collapse; investigators had built a case based on the account of a drug user whose criminal trespassing charge had been dropped after she named Eleby. During discovery, the legal team obtained a $258,600 invoice for the construction materials, including conduit that was combustible if exposed to high heat, that had been stored under I-85 since 2012. A federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives report showed the fence around the spools had a hole wide enough for a person to pass through. No matter how the fire was sparked, Davis reasoned, the highway wouldn’t have collapsed if the materials had been stored elsewhere.

Davis thought he could win a jury trial. They’d found a witness who could vouch for Eleby’s alibi on the night of the fire. Prosecutors, for their part, hadn’t objected to Eleby remaining in addiction treatment after his relapses. But his lawyers felt he might be a strong candidate for one of Fulton’s accountability courts, an alternative sentencing program that offers supervised addiction and mental health treatment for 18 months. “Basil needed treatment,” said Lawrence Zimmerman, one of his lawyers. “If the case got dismissed, he wasn’t going to get treatment.” His lawyers and prosecutors struck a deal: If he graduated from the program, the charges would be dropped. But if he didn’t, he’d again be looking at prison time.

On a snowy Friday in December, Eleby straightened his donated red tie, slipped on his coat, and got a ride to the courthouse from Reginald Muhammad, the legal investigator at Davis’s firm. “Go forth and do well,” Judge Russell told Eleby. “Don’t let me read about you.” Outside the courthouse, Eleby urged reporters to focus on those “who still are where I was, out in the cold and out in the rain, and they feel that they just don’t have no way out.”

One morning shortly after Christmas, Muhammad drove to the sober-living house to find out why Eleby had missed the last bus home from the College Park station the night before. He had relapsed again. Muhammad urged Eleby to remember everything at stake, the people counting on his recovery, everybody he could potentially help if he stayed sober. You’re taking the easy way out if you go back to drugs, Muhammad told him. You’ve got to take part in the fight, too.

The week after his third relapse, I drove out to meet Eleby at the Davis Bozeman law offices near the Gallery at South DeKalb mall. I was intrigued by the notion that a fire that could have destroyed his life might now turn out to be his salvation. When I asked what he hoped for, five years from now, he listed four things: a bank account, a truck, a place of his own, and a girlfriend who was also drug-free.

One day in early 2018, we drove around southwest Atlanta, where he showed me where Kimberly Courts had stood before its demolition. It was there, Eleby explained, that he was thrust into being the oldest man of the house, at the age of seven, because his father was absent. We drove past the old site of Job Corps—a free federal vocational training program for young adults ages 16 to 24—where he once aspired to learn electrical engineering, something he had dreamed of as a teenager when he took apart his Walkman to see how it worked. But, he said, he got kicked out for fighting, even though he said he was trying to defend another student who was getting picked on.

Eleby felt the early-life traumas he endured forced him to be self-reliant, but also self-destructive. Perhaps now, though, the things that once seemed unattainable could actually be his if he committed to a sober lifestyle. Maybe the acts of love—the countless car rides, the late-night phone calls, the genuine acceptance at community events—no longer seemed an act.

“I had to create a new me,” Eleby said. As he stepped out of his comfort zone, leaving behind the solitude of his old world, he inched toward doing “normal, everyday things that normal people do.” Instead of going through the motions of recovery, sitting quietly in group counseling sessions, he opened up. Instead of treating human interactions as transactional—taking what he needed to survive on the streets—he asked how people were doing, expressed gratitude, and volunteered for the causes of people who had helped him. He began reading Malcolm X speeches, Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America. Looking at his reflection in the mirror, he’d say out loud: I love myself. I forgive myself.

But the entire process of rebuilding his life moved slowly. Simple tasks like getting a social security card—a requirement to get into his job-training program—could take most of a full day without a car. While he had developed trust with male mentors, he struggled to make meaningful connections with women he liked without the aid of alcohol or drugs. In one of his treatment groups, he befriended a woman. He worked up the courage to invite her to a formal gala. Eleby was all smiles that night, posing for photos with her. But her own struggles—trying to stay sober while tending to her children’s needs—forced her to postpone a second date. In the past, that kind of disappointment might have triggered Eleby to relapse. But he was practicing the art of patience.

“I shouldn’t be here, with all the drugs I was doing,” Eleby told me. “I shouldn’t be coherent. I shouldn’t be healthy. I should be real messed up—well, I mean, I’m still a little bit crazy from the effects. They’re starting to dissipate day by day. I’m coming back more every day.”

One Friday in April, I met Eleby again at Davis’s law firm, where he was organizing old case files, on the payroll. It had been a year since the fire. Since then, he had followed up on job offers, ones from a clothing store and a construction firm, but the weekly demands of accountability court conflicted with regular hours required for those jobs. Now, for $10 an hour, he was getting assignments no one had bothered to tackle in years. He pulled apart the stacks of boxes, deconstructing the disorder, before putting it back together in an orderly fashion.

A few minutes before 6 p.m., Eleby lugged a few last boxes down to Davis’s Lexus and took me up on my offer for a ride back to Atlanta. As we drove west on I-285, he shared with me some of his smaller victories over the past several months. He had finished a round of court-mandated treatment, started working out at a gym, and detailed cars again on the side. 

But despite his progress, he acknowledged, the work would never end. At our destination off Moreland Avenue, he thanked me for the ride, unbuckled his belt, and opened the car door. He walked across the lot, waved to a familiar face, and headed inside for the evening’s 12-step recovery meeting.

Elaine Chao, the U.S. secretary of transportation, called the swift repair of I-85 a “marvel of dedication.” The Atlanta Regional Commission gave engineers an “unsung heroes” award. The Braves presented a framed No. 85 “C.W. Matthews” jersey before a game. Georgia Trend named McMurry “Georgian of the Year.” The state transportation board approved a six-figure raise that increased the commissioner’s salary to $350,000—more than double that of Governor Deal’s.

MARTA’s importance was acknowledged, too: Deal committed $100 million in state money to four MARTA bus interchanges along Ga. 400—a fraction of the $1.8 billion devoted to the highway’s broader expansion. State lawmakers continued to pass on funding rail expansion. Parker, the optimistic transit chief who had hoped to retain those new customers after I-85 reopened, watched ridership revert to the steady decline it had seen since 2002. Late last year, he departed from MARTA, a blow to transit advocates who have struggled to win widespread support for rail expansion along the entire Atlanta BeltLine. The true test of MARTA’s future growth—a referendum next March to bring rail to Gwinnett County—still hangs in the balance.

Similarly, homeless activists like Coleman and Davis never saw their hopes fully materialize. Mayor Reed, along with the United Way’s Regional Commission on Homelessness, pledged to invest $50 million to make homelessness “rare, brief, and nonrecurring” by offering temporary housing and services. That announcement, followed by a city estimate that Atlanta’s homeless population within shelters had dropped to just around 3,000, offered hope that people who were connected to services would break the cycle of homelessness. But a closer look into those figures is disconcerting: The number of people living outside of shelters has actually gone up. Homeless citizens still camp in plain sight, though authorities conduct occasional sweeps under bridges and highways, periodically directing them to services. The Bottoms administration has created One Atlanta—a city office tasked with recommending policies on issues such as homelessness—but has yet to announce major initiatives. 

This spring, the National Transportation and Safety Board concluded that GDOT had neglected the risk of a fire underneath one of Atlanta’s major highways. Even if someone had started a small fire, the report found, GDOT’s construction materials provided fuel for a catastrophe. No individual state employee was ever held responsible for the decision. New state policy is to no longer store construction material under highways.

Basil Eleby, I-85 fire
Basil Eleby

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

One morning in August, Eleby took a final drag on a Newport, flicked the butt toward the street, and grabbed his belongings. The night before, he had packed everything he owned into a mismatched set of backpacks and briefcases. Now, in the light of morning, he slung a pile of donated suits on hangers over his shoulder, walked out the front door of his treatment house, and placed them in Original Michael’s Buick. Eleby was about to end one chapter of his recovery, the one where he achieved the longest stretch of sobriety in his adult life, and enter another chapter, one with greater rewards—and risks.

Near downtown East Point, Michael turned left down a long driveway toward four squat red brick buildings. Michael had secured a scholarship for free transitional housing at Keep It Simple House—a new apartment complex he described as “for addicts, by addicts, that aren’t just addicts.” Like the rest of the 30 or so tenants, Eleby would need to pass routine drug tests and attend a weekly meeting on Sunday nights. But he’d get his own room and could go about his day without checking in with anyone else, so long as he was home by 10 o’clock each evening.

Already that summer, Eleby had taken small steps to prepare for this move toward independence. He completed the first six months of his 18-month treatment program for accountability court. Not only was he working at Davis’s law firm, he was training to become a certified forklift operator, and also had his sights on a driver’s license. Eleby was considering an offer from Michael to get trained as a peer recovery support specialist, coaching others through the early days of sobriety.

The week after July 4, his mother had died suddenly. Instead of seeking out drugs to numb his grief, he found comfort knowing her funeral had brought his brothers and sisters closer together, following years of estrangement that had sprung from his addiction.

When Eleby opened the door to apartment 20, he found a furnished two-bedroom unit with a kitchen, living room, and patio. It was his first apartment in over a decade. He unpacked his bags, filled his closet with shoes and suits, and folded his shirts. He spotted the black zip-up jacket he’d been wearing after his arrest. When he had packed it, memories flooded back of all the risks he took in it to buy crack and get high. He didn’t want to wear it again for a while. But he didn’t want to throw it out, either. Instead, he folded it neatly and set it near his other clothes. There it would stay—a reminder of how far he’d come, and how far he still had to go.

This article appears in our November 2018 issue under the headline “The Fire and Everything After.”

The bittersweet stories of Atlanta’s DACA recipients


Atlanta DreamersAnnounced by then President Barack Obama in the summer of 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy allows renewable two-year respite from deportation for undocumented immigrants who entered the United States before they turned 16. For thousands across Atlanta, the program brought relief and the right to legally drive and obtain Social Security numbers, but the Trump administration’s efforts to rescind DACA and resulting court battles have left recipients in a state of anxious flux.

To qualify for DACA, immigrants must be current students or have earned at least high school diplomas. Recipients cannot have been convicted of any felonies or significant misdemeanors such as DUI. Protection may also be available to veterans or those serving in the military, though there have been recent reports of quiet discharges.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, roughly 680,000 DACA recipients are scattered throughout the United States, with about 21,000 of them in Georgia. No one tracks the number of DACA recipients at county or city levels, but according to David Schaefer, the Latin American Association managing director of advocacy, it’s a safe bet more than 12,000 live in Atlanta and surrounding counties. Here, six metro Atlanta DACA recipients born in countries around the world discuss their dreams, setbacks, achievements, survival, and what it’s been like to skirt federal and state laws in pursuit of better lives in America. Comments have been edited for length and clarity. —as told to Josh Green

Atlanta Dreamers
Yehimi Cambrón

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Yehimi Cambrón
26, Buford Highway corridor
Art teacher and artist, Cross Keys High School

One of the first things I tell my students is that I’m undocumented and I have DACA. I do that because I want them to see someone with DACA in a leadership position, with a career, and for them to be able to connect—if they’re undocumented or not. I want my students to know I am their ally.

[One day], I heard a student crying in the restroom. Another student opened the door for me, and I realized she was translating for a police officer for a family member who didn’t speak English. The officer was asking for someone with a driver’s license to go there and pick up the car because he was arresting this relative who did not have a license. She had made [an illegal] right turn. I was able to leave school to meet them. The officer was great; he gave me directions. When I arrived, the driver was already handcuffed in the back seat. I explained the impact that the arrest could have due to the danger of deportation. The officer asked a lot of questions. Then, he used his discretion to just give her a ticket. Growing up undocumented has given me these survival instincts. I am willing to take a risk to make sure that a student has their parent at home when they leave school, to make sure that they are not in survival mode so that they can learn and have access to an equitable education. It’s about humanity and equity.

“That’s where I learned to see art as a platform for change. I want to help my students find that relief that I found in art. I want to empower people.”

I was able to get special permission to visit Mexico for a teacher conference, and I was able to visit my family. And that came with its own realizations—like, whoa. I was born in a little tiny town in the mountains. My dad was working in the U.S. and returning and building a better home each time: The first house was made of this compressed cardboard; the second was made of wood; the third of concrete. I never realized why we were so poor when my dad was always working. Why did my mom sell tortillas? Why were we always eating lentils and soups? I asked my grandma to take me to the house where we grew up. And I was like, all these years of being a broken family was for this? The house was abandoned; the door was dislodged. It was heartbreaking to see so much sacrifice went into that.

Our plan was to save up and return [to Mexico] after five years. My brothers asked our cousins to take care of their bikes because we were coming back. But your children start growing up here, and they become Americans because they grow up just like the other kids. It’s not until adulthood that you transition into that illegality. We just adapted so well.

Atlanta Dreamers
Yehimi Cambrón

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

My sophomore year in high school, I entered an art contest hosted by the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust. I got third place. I went to the Georgia Capitol for an awards ceremony, where I was supposed to get, like, 50 bucks. They didn’t give me my prize because I didn’t have a Social Security number. I think that was the moment when I realized that being undocumented meant I didn’t have certain things.

My work permit expires in February 2019. I’ve applied for a renewal, but I haven’t heard back. I hate that I have to think about my time in the classroom being limited because I’ve dreamed about this for so long. My high school yearbook says, “I want to be an art teacher when I grow up.” I have this time bomb on my shoulders; I’m worried about what’s going to happen next in this limbo.

I studied art, and I went to Agnes Scott College on a full scholarship from the Goizueta Foundation. That’s where I learned to see art as a platform for change. I want to help my students find that relief that I found in art. I want to empower people.

[On the side of a Buford Highway restaurant] is my first mural. Half is a monarch butterfly; half is an open book. The center is a pencil, and above it, the text reads: “We are all immigrants.” The statement is meant to get people to think about this country’s history of immigration and of their own immigration story (if they have one), even if it’s generations back. As human beings, we would all migrate to other lands if it meant survival and better opportunities for those we love. I don’t think it matters if you’re undocumented, if you have DACA, if your parents are undocumented, or if you’re a fifth-generation immigrant: Everybody can connect with the symbol. It’s such a natural thing to want to bring your children to where they’re going to thrive, to have access to opportunities. I think that’s what the monarch butterfly represents. I can’t wait to paint more murals.

In fact, I was just chosen as a participating artist for Off the Wall, highlighting Atlanta’s civil rights and social justice journey, being led by WonderRoot and the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee. I will use this platform to elevate a narrative that the media and politicians have tried to take away from us by criminalizing our parents—the #OriginalDreamers—and many other immigrants who don’t fit the romanticized “Dreamer” narrative.

Atlanta Dreamers
Seon Ki Jo

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Seon Ki Jo
19, Duluth
Georgia State University student, public policy major

My DACA expires in 2019. I do think about it occasionally. Once DACA expires, I won’t be able to drive, work, maybe not go to school anymore. I know I probably sound very naive in saying this, but I do have faith in this country, that this country will come together to solve this issue before my DACA expires.

Georgia State does allow DACA recipients to go to their school, but they don’t give these students in-state tuition. I am taking out loans and working to afford college.

I feel like fate is calling me to do immigration law. I do foresee myself generally working in politics. Either as a lawyer or midlevel bureaucrat, whatever works to forward the issue. I’m just starting out, and I hope my experience can highlight other young people who are doing good work, too.

“I never really thought of myself as different. I didn’t have an idea of being not American.”

I’d always dreamed, honestly, of going to UGA or Tech or something like that, but after learning about not being documented [in high school], I wondered, what’s the point of doing all the work? It weighed on me heavily. One time, my friends were going on a trip to Mexico and wondered why I couldn’t come. Having to explain why I couldn’t was a little humiliating, even though they were my close friends, telling them I’m different—maybe even lesser—than they are in this country. Not being able to go on those trips was jarring. Not too great for my young, high-school psyche, you know.

I recited the Pledge and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” alongside everyone else. I spoke English most of my life—I’m better at English than Korean, by far. I never really thought of myself as different. I didn’t have an idea of being not American.

It’s not a minor inconvenience. It’s a pressing national issue. I think a lot of the animosity toward DACA recipients and immigration has a lot to do with a lack of information. We’re not criminals, we’re not dealing drugs, not going to prison. We go to college or high school, have jobs, pay taxes—we pretty much are the community. These are your nurses, your teachers, shop owners, friends. That’s what I think a lot of Americans don’t understand: We’re just like you.

My mom actually came on a work visa when I was three or four. She was working at a Korean restaurant—there’s a lot of those in Duluth. The growing Korean presence had a big part in bringing us to the area, and Gwinnett in general has very good education for children.

If there was a need to speak Korean, we would, but most of my friends didn’t really feel the need to connect to our cultural roots when we were younger. For the most part, I grew up in a very supportive and loving community. I never really faced racism or stereotypical discrimination, anything like that, from peers or teachers. My teachers never got my name—Seon ki—wrong because they’re so used to having Koreans in their classes. Honestly, I don’t think I could have asked for anything better.

Atlanta Dreamers
Marie Cruzado-Jeanneau

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Marie Cruzado-Jeanneau
24, Lawrenceville
Bilingual outreach specialist, Agape Youth and Family Center

Coming to Atlanta was my first time on an airplane. I was incredibly emotional because we were leaving my extended family behind in Peru—my aunts, uncles, cousins, a full neighborhood, my pets. Latino families are pretty big, you know. I was asking my mom if we really had to do this. She said that my dad was waiting for us, that it was really important for our well-being that we did this. I moved to Gwinnett County when I was 10. I’d never been anywhere other than Lima and the market down the street, or to a town that was close. Seeing my dad after being apart was very emotional.

In Peru, my dad worked at a bank. He was studying economics, but there was an economic and political crisis, so he was unable to finish his degree and he lost his job. He tried to establish his own business, but that didn’t go well, which prompted him to come to Atlanta. He’s been working at warehouses ever since he settled here. He’s always behind the curtains, you know, either packing something in a box, or carrying something, or cleaning up. It’s not the work I think any immigrant parent expects to do, but it pays the bills, provides for the family, and put me through college.

Sometimes my parents’ phones would die, and I would be waiting at home, wondering why they weren’t there yet. We would hear there was a raid going on down the street. Or that immigration was breaking down doors, taking families. In school [in Norcross], I think it was fifth grade, our counselor came in the class and said, “We know we have a lot of undocumented students here, but we want you to know if ICE ever comes to the school property, we’ll never let them take you.”

“I love Atlanta. I love how diverse it is. I love how—even though Georgia, as a whole, hasn’t been as welcoming—Atlanta has been more open to us.”

I begged my parents to go back, but that was never an option for me. I just felt really disconnected from my community, from my culture. But when I was in middle school, I started to dance folkloric dances from Peru and got involved with volunteering at elementary schools. Getting involved in my community helped me gain more of a sense of my identity. I think that’s when things changed for me a lot.

All of us had come with tourist visas, and we overstayed. My dream had been to go to UGA, but [being undocumented], I had to pursue another route. It was like a slap in the face. But teachers and mentors helped me find solutions, and I was able to attend Oglethorpe University, a private university that doesn’t follow the same procedures. Maybe halfway through my college career, I decided to really devote myself to giving back to my community, to those who have been marginalized, who didn’t have the same opportunities and tools to succeed. I wanted to be the person who would be there to help them, just like I had been guided and given opportunities when I most needed it. At Agape Youth & Family Center, I now work with about 50 students from kindergarten to fifth grade. I provide in-school and after-school support to each of them by identifying areas of growth and being the liaison between the school and the families our center supports.

I love Atlanta. I love how diverse it is. I love how—even though Georgia, as a whole, hasn’t been as welcoming—Atlanta has been more open to us. I think Atlanta provides a lot of opportunities, not only for Dreamers but for those people looking for a new life.

I haven’t been back to Peru in 14 years. I wish. I really wish. It’s very difficult because when you have family that is really close to you die, or when exciting things happen to your family, the only communication we have is through a phone. A text message or video chat is not the same as holding your family members, giving them a hug. But I think the time will come. Don’t you think?

Atlanta Dreamers
Katherine Narvaez

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Katherine Narvaez
24, Norcross
Program coordinator for the Center for Pan Asian Community Services

Our journey to Atlanta took almost a year. I left Guatemala when I was six. I remember being in the capital city. We were doing well until my mother lost her job. Sometimes, my mom and [two] brothers and I, we would only have two eggs to eat. We’d sleep on the floor. I did come from an abusive father. And my mom was like, “Welp, we either stay here or try to get to America and hopefully have a better life.”

We trekked through Mexico by foot or by bus. We had absolutely no money and only clothes to last a week. We went from church to church, asking for shelter, for food. My mom and my brother would work in cafeterias and iron clothes for money. I remember walking through the desert for a few hours and then we got to the river. I remember a coyote [smuggler] threw a life [preserver], and we literally swam across the river. All we had in our possession was a bag, and it contained one dress for me, one for my mom, and a pair of slacks and a shirt for both my brothers. We got to this side [in Texas], and we put our good clothes on. And we walked. And walked.

My mother left my brother and me near Brownsville, in the care of a person from church that she did not know, while she traveled to Houston with my eldest brother. She came back for us later. In Houston, my mother and eldest brother worked in a shrimp factory removing heads from shrimp. They got $2 per gallon of shrimp. We used this money to travel to Georgia. My mother had friends in Atlanta. I think we just took a bus.

“We were uprooted from the country we were born in, planted ourselves in this soil, and America has fed and watered us for decades now…It’s harsh to send us back when our roots are so deep.”

In elementary school, people thought I was dumb because I didn’t respond. I remember I was getting bullied, and I couldn’t say the word “stop.” I knew that I was undocumented, but I didn’t really know what that meant. It wasn’t until I was in high school, and I enrolled in the [U.S. Navy] JROTC program, and I was the top cadet not only at my school but in the Southeast. And my area commander tells me, “If you apply for the Naval scholarship, I will give it to you.” I was really excited—it was a full ride! Then, I started looking at the application. I realized you had to be an American citizen. That’s when it finally hit me. And it was like this ball that just kept hitting me in the face. I started looking [at colleges] outside of Georgia.

Growing up here, I watched my mom struggle to keep afloat. She’d work three or four jobs, cleaning houses, working at Value City and as a bell ringer for Salvation Army. Sometimes, she’d leave for three or four days so she could go clean up fairs. It forced my brothers and me to grow up quickly; we didn’t really enjoy our childhood. I was the youngest, and I think my family just wanted me to make it, you know, to go to college.

I got a full-ride academic scholarship to Mary Baldwin University in Virginia. I double-majored in biomedical sciences and business administration and double-minored in Spanish and leadership studies. I took the MCAT to go to medical school. I’m looking at Emory.

I want to be a reconstructive surgeon but kind of a missionary as well. I want to focus on cranial-facial surgery, so I can help kids born with genetic disorders. Or burn victims.

People are always like, “Why don’t you apply [for citizenship] like everybody else?” It’s really hard. We have people waiting years before they can even submit an application, or they submit an application and wait years to hear back.

With DACA recipients, you are honestly getting the best of the best. No criminal record, kids who are educated, working hard. We’ve been here the majority of our lives. We were uprooted from the country we were born in, planted ourselves in this soil, and America has fed and watered us for decades now. You’ve invested so much in us and allowed us to bloom and flourish. We went through your schools. We work at your nonprofits, alongside you. It’s harsh to send us back when our roots are so deep.

Atlanta Dreamers
Raymond Partolan

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Raymond Partolan
25, Atlanta
Immigration paralegal with Kuck Baxter Immigration

I came to the United States when I was 15 months old, and I have absolutely no recollection of the Philippines. When I was 10, growing up in Macon, our applications for permanent residency, or a green card, were denied. We became undocumented, and I remember my mother telling me we’d just become illegal aliens and that I couldn’t share that with anyone because we could be deported. Being the kid that I was, I went up to my best friend in elementary school and told him I’m an illegal alien. And he just laughed. He said I can’t be because I’m not green and from outer space. I remember thinking that this can’t be that bad.

It wasn’t until I got to high school that I started realizing the implications. When your friends start getting driver’s licenses and jobs and preparing for college, you start to understand what it is to be undocumented. I was at the top of my class, had a 4.0 GPA, graduated as the salutatorian, and spoke at my graduation with thousands of people there. Yet I knew that no matter how hard I worked, there was still this very likely chance that I wasn’t going to be able to go to college. That hung over my head for so long, it just led to my deterioration emotionally.

I actually tried to take my own life because I thought there was no way I was going to be able to accomplish what I wanted. This was the fall of 2009, in my junior year of high school. I swallowed a whole bunch of Tylenol. I had written a suicide note that apologized to my parents and siblings for what I had decided to do. I was lying on the bathroom floor of my parents’ house, and I just thought to myself, Why am I doing this? I have so much to offer. I ran downstairs and told my parents what I had done. They were astounded. They called the Poison Control Center and [got me to vomit] all of the Tylenol. When I survived, that’s when I had my birth as an activist for the immigrant community. I didn’t want anyone else in my situation to feel as alone or trapped as I did. But that suicide attempt actually precluded me from being able to enlist in the U.S. Army, years later. In 2015, they were allowing DACA recipients with certain special skills and language abilities to enlist, but I was barred. There was a questionnaire, and I answered the questions truthfully, not thinking it would be an issue. So, the reason I tried to take my life is I didn’t have a pathway to citizenship, but when I eventually did, I wasn’t able to take that path.

“When I survived, that’s when I had my birth as an activist for the immigrant community. I didn’t want anyone else in my situation to feel as alone or trapped as I did.”

We entered the United States on a skilled worker visa. For my father’s profession at the time—he was a physical therapist—it was required for him to pass a series of English exams in order to qualify for a green card. He passed the reading, writing, and listening sections with flying colors, but the speaking section, he just could not pass, no matter how many times he took it. He would come within mere points of passing, but because he couldn’t, the federal government would no longer allow him to practice physical therapy.

He lost his license to practice physical therapy, and so he was unemployed. My mom had to pick up four jobs to support our family of five. She went from being a paralegal in the Philippines to working at Chick-fil-A and Golden Corral and cleaning hotel rooms and houses. Eventually, my dad found work down in Macon. He went from caring for his patients to moving boxes and loading trucks in a warehouse. We explored [returning to the Philippines] or immigrating to somewhere like Canada, but we decided to stay because this is where we’d begun to build our foundation. My two younger brothers have never been anywhere else. And it was always my parents’ dream to come to the United States and make a life for themselves.

I look at my life, and [after graduating from Mercer University], I work at one of the nation’s best immigration law firms, and I’m a consultant for a national voting rights organization for Asian Americans, and actually, last summer, I was named [by the Georgia Asian Times] one of the top 25 most influential Asian Americans in Georgia. None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for my parents’ sacrifice. I try to remember that every single day. I call them the Original Dreamers.

Atlanta Dreamers
Rigo Rivera

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Rigo Rivera
28, Roswell
Restaurant employee, student organizer with Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance

I started going to college back in 2009, to Georgia Perimeter. But I couldn’t continue my studies because of the cost. I was a low-income student, and [undocumented students] pay out-of-state tuition. I had to help my family with debts and bills, so I had to drop out and continue to work. And I haven’t finished. Currently, no, I’m not taking classes. I hope to study law one day. Right now, I help my parents with a cleaning company, and I work at a restaurant. I’m a prep [cook].

Before DACA, [we only drove] out of necessity. Sometimes I would take a taxi, or I’d carpool with friends. I would avoid driving at night, at all costs. There are more roadblocks, et cetera. Back then, I was thinking if I did any infraction, no matter how small it was, I could end up in deportation proceedings. That was always in my mind. I could have ended up in deportation proceedings for anything—even just calling police to report a crime.

I received DACA in 2013. It was a big relief for me and my family. Here in Georgia, it’s very difficult to live without a Social Security number, driver’s license, or work permit. Getting credit is one of the main things I use my Social Security number for. Another is setting up utilities and many services that are needed just to survive. Even getting an apartment was hard before. Just small things make an immigrant’s life harder.

“I just hope that we can touch [Americans’] hearts and have their opinions change because of the hard work we do here in the state and in the U.S.”

We have been here since we were young, and we don’t know any other countries. And we’re not taking [Americans’] benefits because we don’t qualify, and we’re taking jobs many of them don’t want. We pay our taxes. We don’t have criminal records, because criminals aren’t able to get DACA. We’re paying into Social Security, but we’re not getting any of the money back, ever. We’re actually helping the economy. I just hope that we can touch [Americans’] hearts and have their opinions change because of the hard work we do here in the state and in the U.S.

I was in Tampico, Mexico, until I was nine years old. We were a low-income family. First, my dad immigrated to Chicago back in 1994. When I was nine years old, my parents decided to move to the U.S., to Atlanta. And they left me with my grandma back in Mexico. I stayed until they sent for me. I came with a family member, and I crossed legally, but it wasn’t with my [correct] documents. Back on December 27, 1999, that’s when I crossed the border. That was exactly on my birthday.

From Brownsville, [Texas], we took a Greyhound into Houston. I couldn’t actually believe it, that I was coming to meet my parents. I got to Houston and saw all the buildings—I’d never seen that. Everything was new to me. I saw so many people not like us. It was a big change. Everything was strange to me. The first thing that I had for lunch was McDonald’s. I’d seen commercials about it, and I was like, “Wow, it’s just like on the TV!”

This article appears in our October 2018 issue.

Peace, Love, and Puppets: Why adults may need the Center for Puppetry Arts more than kids do

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta Vincent Anthony Jon Ludwig
Center for Puppetry Arts founder Vincent Anthony, on left, and artistic director Jon Ludwig

Photograph by Ben Rollins

“Puuuuu-pet!” “Puuuuu-pet!” The chant echoes through the halls during the Center for Puppetry Arts’s annual summer camp. “Puh-ah-uh-ah-pet!” belts the leader in an operatic falsetto. “Puuuuh-huh-huh-huh-pettttt!” she cackles like the Wicked Witch of the West. Campers chime into the call-and-response—clapping and shouting that magical word, the reason why everyone is here: “Puppet!”

On this Tuesday afternoon, puppeteer Jeffrey Zwartjes is talking to a roomful of curious tweens about how to invent a character. Half hipster, half camp counselor, he sports thick-rimmed glasses and a thicker beard, a newsboy hat, and a pair of calf-high, striped tube socks that look straight out of Stranger Things. On a whiteboard easel, he sketches different examples, explaining how the shape of a head can convey personality. Square faces are stronger and brawnier; the puppet might be a bully—or a robot. A smaller, round face is happier. He asks the kids for suggestions.

“Draw a chicken nugget person!” exclaims camper Emerson.

“Okay, a chicken nugget person,” Zwartjes plays along. He draws a squiggly oval, then adds facial features suggested by the kids, who are sitting around the room on carpet squares. A crusty mouth that drips sauce. Acne. Big doe eyes.

“It looks like Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” someone murmurs.

Animated junk food isn’t the only thing that the Center for Puppetry Arts has in common with Cartoon Network. Both are Atlanta exclusives. Think about it: Pretty much every major city has universities, professional sports teams, art museums, zoos, ballets, and historic sites, but only Atlanta claims a world-renowned puppetry institution—or Adult Swim. In fact, during the 1996 Olympics, international visitors flocked to the Center because, as administrative director Lisa Rhodes explains, it wasn’t something they could experience back home. Some area attractions actually lost business during the Games, she says, but the Center was overwhelmed, adding midnight performances to accommodate demand. “I felt bad for the other venues,” Rhodes says. “They would call us and ask, ‘Is anybody coming there?’ because they were like crickets. I felt guilty. We were so slammed.”

That was when Newsweek decreed the ensemble “one of the most exciting companies in American theater.” Founded by Vincent Anthony 40 years ago this month, it is the largest nonprofit dedicated to puppetry in the nation and one of only a few such international organizations. It hosts around 17 shows each season on its two stages, about half a dozen of which are original productions. The others are presented by puppeteers from across the United States and around the globe. The Center also houses a museum with a 4,000-piece collection, provides more than 1,600 hours of educational programming annually, hosts well over 100,000 visitors each season, and acts as the U.S. headquarters for UNIMA, the world’s largest puppetry organization.

Serving as a museum, performance space, and education center all rolled into one makes the Center stand out on the world stage. “There is no other place on Earth that makes it as accessible to discover, view, or experience the art of puppetry,” says Paul Robinson, the executive director of Puppeteers of America.

Cheryl Henson, daughter of Muppet inventor Jim Henson and president of her late father’s foundation, says, “There is only one Center for Puppetry Arts in the United States. We are so lucky that it exists.”

For the Center’s 78 full- and part-time staffers
, working here isn’t so much a job as a calling. More than half have been with the Center for five years or longer; a quarter have been employed there at least a decade.

Aretta Baumgartner, who heads up the education department, just celebrated her seventh work anniversary. In front of the campers, she is constantly in motion, jumping and waving with all the enthusiasm and dramatic flair of Oprah unveiling her Favorite Things, her short, merlot-colored locks bobbing, fingernails sparkling with glitter, and her gold necklace flashing PUPPET in block letters.

Baumgartner’s quick timing and spot-on delivery betray her roots as a theater student. Just after graduation from Ashland University in northern Ohio, she reluctantly accepted an internship with a scrappy Cincinnati company, Madcap Puppets. Back then, she was mortified at the thought of becoming a professional puppeteer. “I was a serious actor, right? I wanted to do edgy theater,” she recalls. But her internship quickly convinced her that “puppetry is a serious art form.”

Now, she oversees all of the center’s learning opportunities—eight to 14 weekly puppet-making workshops, outreach programs at venues like schools or libraries, summer day camps, and quieter performances customized for children on the autism spectrum. She also teaches more than a hundred puppet performance and history workshops to high school and college students each year, traveling to Denver, Tampa, and Memphis—even overseas to countries as small as Bahrain and Honduras. It’s not unusual for her to pull 80-hour weeks. Still, she can’t believe she’s lucky enough to work at “the mothership.”

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta Aretta Baumgartner
Education director Aretta Baumgartner shows off a hand-and-rod puppet.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Baumgartner spreads the gospel of puppetry with the passion of an evangelist, referring to the Center’s outreach as an urgent mission. And if you ask why it’s so important to teach new generations, her answer is simple and adamant: “We have no choice.”

“Puppetry is a universal language,” she says. The smaller the world gets—as technology and globalization bring us closer to those who speak different languages, look different, and hold different values—the more important it is to find common ground and the less we can rely on the spoken word to connect. But all humanity, Baumgartner argues, shares a passion for storytelling.

“Before we had written and spoken communication, we used objects,” she says. “It’s in our human DNA to communicate with objects.”

One of the biggest challenges
the Center faces is that, in the U.S., puppetry is often viewed as juvenile entertainment. Baumgartner attributes this partly to the advent of television. When producers in the 1950s and ’60s needed inexpensive family programming, she says, it was easy to hire “a dude or gal with a bunch of puppets.” Not that this was a bad thing: It spawned beloved children’s characters such as Howdy Doody, Lamb Chop, and, eventually, Kermit the Frog. But in many other countries, Baumgartner explains, puppetry is predominantly for adults. “We’re just catching up,” she says. “We’ve got some work to do to respect this art form.”

But attitudes seem to be shifting. Puppets now make regular appearances on Broadway in shows such as War Horse, The Lion King, and Frozen. Jim Henson’s 1982 cult classic, The Dark Crystal, is being revived as a Netflix series. Puppet slams, similar to their poetry counterparts, are cropping up all over the United States.

The Center is producing more adult programming than ever. A couple of classics—vaudevillian Halloween favorite The Ghastly Dreadfuls and the annual Xperimental Puppetry Theater, a variety show of avant-garde media—have been around for more than a decade. However, two newer programs, the annual National Puppet Slam and a costume ball (this year themed after The Dark Crystal), are gaining traction at Dragon Con, which added a puppetry track, run by Center community coordinator Beau Brown in 2012. After long, winding lines outside the original, 150-person­–capacity room at the Marriott Marquis jammed up the hallways, the convention now allocates them more than double the space. And, year-round, the Center has introduced adults-only events such as “Puppets and Pints,” which offers a cash bar and a chance to view the museum without having to maneuver around excited children. That program, plus “Fizz and Foam,” a mimosa and puppet-making brunch, sell out quickly.

Artistic director Jon Ludwig’s adaptation of Rankin/Bass’s stop motion animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, first staged in 2010, has also proved a nostalgic hit with adults and has become as much of a holiday tradition as the Nutcracker ballet. Its message of inclusion—for nonconformists like Hermey, the elf who wanted to become a dentist instead of a toymaker; Charlie, the jack-in-the-box whose name wasn’t Jack; and, of course, Rudolph—still resonates. “They get it,” Ludwig muses, remembering how he felt when he watched the show as a kid. “They get what it’s like to be a misfit.”

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta
The Center’s annual staging of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has become an Atlanta holiday tradition.

Photograph by Clay Walker

Indeed, puppeteers can be misfits. Their art form doesn’t get as much mainstream attention as music, film, or dance. It’s a small but tightly knit community: Baumgartner describes the Puppeteers of America’s regional festivals as “family reunions.” She and Anthony are both self-admitted introverts, attracted to acting because it allowed them to express emotion without having to reveal their authentic selves. Baumgartner says when she performed in her high school band and color guard, the flag and flute were essentially her puppets. “I’ve always been using a thing I can express myself through, because part of me is terrified of sharing myself,” she says. “Being a stand-up comic would scare the heck out of me.”

Like Baumgartner
, Anthony has roots in theater. The Florida native studied acting at New York’s Herbert Berghof Studio, and, in 1964, he answered a classified ad seeking a puppeteer and auditioned for a company called the Nicolo Marionettes.

“I fell in love at the audition,” he says, sitting at the oak conference table that fills much of his office at the Center. A soft-spoken man in a crisp white dress shirt and slacks, he talks slowly, putting care into every word. “They gave me this [marionette], and when I started working it, all the eyes in the room went to it, and it fascinated me. They thought I did a superb job manipulating it, but in reality, I had no idea what I was doing.”

He toured the country with the company’s production of Pinocchio, and in 1966, he moved back to the South to launch his own company in Atlanta, the Vagabond Marionettes. They performed at the Woodruff Arts Center for nearly a decade, and when the Spring Street building—formerly a historic school integrated by the children of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy—became available in the late 1970s, Anthony seized the opportunity for a more permanent performance space.

As president of Puppeteers of America, Anthony had gotten to know Jim Henson, whose television show Sesame Street debuted in 1969, followed by The Muppet Show in 1976, helping take the genre mainstream. When Anthony invited his mentor to the opening celebration in Atlanta, Henson replied, “Well, Kermit will be there, and maybe he’ll bring me along.” On September 23, 1978, Henson and Kermit the Frog cut the ribbon in front of a crowd of about 200 people.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta 1970 JIm Henson
Jim Henson and Kermit at the grand opening in 1978.

Photograph courtesy of the Center for Puppetry Arts

Anthony’s work alongside Henson planning the 1980 World Puppetry Festival truly inspired the Center’s mission. The international festival—based on three core tenets of performance, education, and exhibition—drew artists and puppeteers from 20 different countries to the Kennedy Center, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Smithsonian. Anthony adapted the festival’s principles here in Atlanta and, more importantly, realized his center needed to have a global outlook. After all, puppetry has a wide-reaching history. In India, puppets are mentioned in the epic poem The Mahabharata, the oldest segments of which date back to 400 BC. In England, Punch and Judy, the comedic duo that delighted British audiences in the 1700s, still perform today.

The Center’s Global Collection boasts thousands of artifacts; a tall Sicilian knight named “Orlando” greets visitors at the entrance. Among the oldest in the collection are two clay figures from the Huasteca region of Mexico dated 1200–1500 AD, thought to have been used in ceremonial rituals. There are Vietnamese figures that dance upon the surface of water and would have been operated by puppeteers standing waist-deep in a pool behind a screen. And it takes three puppeteers to operate each 17th-century Japanese bunraku puppet—not to mention the 10 years required to master operating each part.

Because nearly every culture has some form of puppetry, the collection allows visitors to connect with their ancestry in a unique way. “You get to see your origins, and that’s quite important,” Anthony says. “It’s an inherent part of human nature to want to connect to our roots. We all want to explore who we are and where we came from.”

This multicultural perspective was something Anthony and Henson shared. “I think Jim was very proud of the fact that we were focusing globally on puppetry and advancing the art form, because it was his vision to not only create this Muppet empire but to be a part of the global puppetry community,” says Anthony. The two remained close until Henson’s sudden death in 1990. “He was always there when I needed him,” Anthony says. “He would sign little toy Kermits to raffle off. He did two live shows for our 10th anniversary. People around the world paid attention to the art of puppetry because of Jim Henson,” Anthony says. “I think [the Center] is a tribute to Jim’s genius.”

In 2015, the Center underwent its biggest transformation yet
with a $14 million renovation that expanded the museum by 7,500 square feet. The annual budget is now close to $4 million, with major support from the Hensons, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Fulton County, foundations like the Gay and Erskine Love Foundation, and major corporations like Home Depot and Turner. The permanent collection is now split into two sections: one devoted to Henson and his Muppets, the other highlighting global puppetry traditions.

Center for Puppetry Arts AtlantaThe Henson family donated a collection of more than 500 puppets, props, and costumes to the Center in 2007, but a monumental task accompanied the gift: The puppets built for Henson’s TV shows and movies were never designed to be on display, or even to last longer than the initial runs of their performances. As the puppets sat in storage for decades, the foam that shaped their bodies began to deteriorate and crumble.

Enter Russ Vick and Vito Leanza, who in the past four and a half years have painstakingly repaired creatures from The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, Labyrinth, and other Henson favorites.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta Russ Vick
Russ Vick examines urAc, a scribe from The Dark Crystal.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

On one Friday afternoon in June, Vick stands behind a cluttered workbench in his studio at the Center, examining one of the final Henson puppets in need of care. The tabletop in front of him is littered with paintbrushes, napkins, syringes, and plastic bottles with hand-scrawled labels (“Elixer of the DEAD,” one reads). A silicone mat holds what look like tiny, jagged pebbles but are actually pieces of foam that have crumbled from urAc, a scribe from The Dark Crystal. UrAc’s body parts are scattered around the room. Its massive hips, big enough to hold a human puppeteer, sit on a nearby table; a hand lies near the skull. The tail splays across a plastic shelf. The characters that Vick is preparing for the museum’s Dark Crystal special exhibition, which opened on Labor Day weekend, look startlingly real. UrAc’s expression is tired yet wise. Its eyes are sunken, cheeks sagging. Thin white hairs sprout out of tiny pores near its eyebrows and mouth. Near it on the other end of the table, a sinister, birdlike creature called a Skeksis snarls with sharp, curved, yellow teeth, its bloodshot blue eyes locked in a disarming stare.

As a conservationist, Vick uses as little new material as possible to plug cracks and holes. He gathers the crumbled foam latex that stuck to the bubble wrap securing the puppets, collected in the bottom of storage trunks, or even clung to a puppet’s clothing and tries to place the pieces, some as small as a pencil lead, back exactly where they belong. He even fills in some gaps with the degraded foam dust. He maps 3-D models to document the puppet’s inner workings, because, he says, “once this goes together, it’s not coming apart again.” For Vick, the tedious task is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save the very fantastical characters he worshipped at the movie theater when he was growing up in tiny Boston, Georgia. And while conservation of the Center’s Henson collection is nearly complete, he’s likely to keep his unique gig; both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum and the Smithsonian have expressed interest in having him repair their Henson relics.

Across the hall, resident puppet builder Jason Hines is painting a purple moose in watercolor on a large sketchpad, a design for the Center’s upcoming spring debut of Harold and the Purple Crayon. He’s trying to figure out how to turn the two-dimensional line art of the beloved 1955 children’s book into three-dimensional puppets. A sculpture of Harold sits on a shelf near the door, next to a sculpture of Pete the Cat, the Center’s hit adaptation of 2017. At another table, puppet shop manager Carole D’Agostino is resizing a vivid yellow-and-orange lion costume, worn in a production of The Tortoise, the Hare & Other Aesop’s Fables by a 5-foot woman, to fit a 6-foot-6 man. Everything for the Center’s original shows is built in-house. Each puppet is crafted in this shop. Elaborate sets are built in the large scene shop just a few steps over.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta Jason Hines
Jason Hines works on elf hands in the puppet shop.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

D’Agostino and Hines are both graduates of the University of Connecticut’s Puppet Arts program, one of the only schools in the country to offer degrees in puppetry. Founded in the 1960s, it teaches not only the fundamentals of performance but also theatrical components such as set design and costuming. Hines’s thesis, an original show titled The Tragic History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr. Faustus, was performed only once. Hines made Satan’s inferno appear as realistic as possible by torching the entire set at the end.

Of course, very few puppeteers have written a thesis, much less had formal training. Ludwig, the Emmy-nominated mastermind behind dozens of the Center’s original shows, started with the Center only a couple of weeks after it opened, responding to a newspaper ad that said, “puppeteer wanted; will train.” Although he had studied theater at Chicago’s Columbia College, he was never motivated by classic playwrights like Shakespeare or Neil Simon. “It’s already been done, so why do it?” he says. He was more interested in building his own original universe, something puppetry uniquely allows you to do. As Anthony puts it, “You can create an entire world that’s an inch tall or 18 feet tall.”

“That’s the wonderful thing about puppetry,” Ludwig says. “You can do everything. Nobody’s gonna tell you no.”

Back at Puppet Camp
, the kids have moved to a production room, where they’re gathered around square tables to sculpt details onto their characters’ Styrofoam heads with paper clay. Baumgartner nods at the pieces in one camper’s hands. “Is that part of your show?”

“It’s a penguin,” he says.

“Wait, are you serious?” Baumgartner gasps. “Don’t tease me; I love penguins.”

“It’s a penguin. An evil penguin,” he says, giggling. “An evil, man-eating penguin.”

“I could not be more excited,” she exclaims, and you get the sense that, while any adult hams it up around young children, she really is.

Puppets can be especially therapeutic in today’s world of sensory overload, she explains. For children and adults, especially those with focus issues, a puppet can be a “magnet that allows you to breathe.”

Oddly, technology has changed how children react to puppetry. Young kids, accustomed to interacting with screens, don’t always realize performers are physically present. Accustomed to jabbing touchscreens, they sometimes get “accidentally aggressive” with puppets, Baumgartner says. Tech-savvy children are stunned when a show magically comes to life. Ask anyone who’s ever read The Velveteen Rabbit—it’s powerful when toys become real.

“If you go to another art form, theater or dance, you’re looking at a person representing a thing,” Anthony says. “The puppet is the thing.”

Spontaneity is also part of the formula. Midway through day one of camp, kids are handed markers and name tags and told to write down whatever name they want to be called. One camper decided to go by “Car.” Another put a lone question mark on his name tag. When Baumgartner asked him why, he replied, “I’m a man of mystery.”

This playful thread flows into adult workshops, too. Last year, puppeteer Qate Bean hosted one called “Making Things Out of Stuff with Bean & Bear” where she and her puppetry partner, Michael Butler (who indeed performs in a bear costume), demonstrated how to build puppets out of trash collected from around the Center. Says 33-year-old Bean, “I’ve learned it’s invaluable to be able to step into a safe place where you can leave grown-up stuff at the door and just be present in the moment.”

“I don’t think we as adults give ourselves quite enough permission to play,” Baumgartner adds. Psychologists have long recognized the value of play to children’s development, but Baumgartner insists adults need it, too. It’s critical in puppetry, of course—“They’re called ‘plays’ for a reason,” she says—and a sense of fearlessness allows for greater creativity. But it also extends to work and personal relationships.

“To work with others, you have to make yourself humble and take chances,” she says. “We have to express ourselves. We have to say, ‘I’m just gonna put it out there.’ That’s a sense of play, and that’s really critical.”

“I don’t know that we ever lose that childlike wonder, but we mask it,” Anthony says. “When we can reunite with that part of us, it’s wonderful. ‘Oh, I still have that. I can do that still.’”

♦ ♦ ♦

The Center for Puppetry Arts through the years

The Center for Puppetry Arts opens at the Spring Street School. Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog host the ribbon-cutting.

Xperimental Puppetry Theater, an annual showcase of avant-garde puppetry
for adults, begins.

Jon Ludwig pens and directs his first show for the center, Brer Rabbit. He would go on to write dozens of the Center’s award-winning original shows.

The Center celebrates its 10th anniversary with The Muppets Take Atlanta, performed by Jim Henson.

The Downstairs Theater, the Center’s second stage, opens.

The Center becomes the headquarters for UNIMA-USA, the U.S. branch of the largest international puppetry organization.

22,000 people (roughly the population of Acworth) descend upon the Center during the Olympic Arts Festival.

The Center’s research library opens to the public. In 2009, it is rededicated as the Nancy Lohman Staub Puppetry Research Library in honor of the museum collection’s founder.

The Center begins offering its distance learning program, which in the 2016–2017 school year reached more than 11,000 children in 29 states and four countries.

The Ford Foundation awards the Center a $1.25 million grant.

The Center develops a relationship with Camp Kudzu, which serves children with Type 1 diabetes.

Jane Fonda attends the annual String Fling Gala and is given a custom Barbarella marionette built by Jason Hines.

Ludwig is nominated for an Emmy for directing Disney Channel’s The Book of Pooh.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta Ghastly Dreadfuls
The Ghastly Dreadfuls

Photograph by Clay Walker

The Ghastly Dreadfuls, written by Ludwig and Hines, is staged for the first time.

The Henson family announces they will donate more than 500 Muppet artifacts to the Center, the world’s largest collection.

During the recession, the Center provides more than 80,000 free or reduced-price tickets to students.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Photograph by Clay Walker

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer premieres.

The Center hosts its first National Puppet Slam.

Sockly, the Center’s giant sock puppet mascot, makes its debut.

The Worlds of Puppetry Museum opens in November after a $14 million renovation and expansion.

Center for Puppetry Arts Atlanta
The Tiny Door at the Center for Puppetry Arts

Photograph by Myrydd Wells

The Center gets its very own Tiny Door.

The Spring Street School building turns 100 as the Center turns 40.

This article appears in our September 2018 issue.

Confessions of a Cover Band: Yacht Rock Revue croons the hits you love to hate



One night in 2012, a man in a Ronald Reagan mask paused beneath a stop sign in the Old Fourth Ward. Armed with a stencil and a can of white spray paint, he transformed the sign into a tribute to a 1978 hit by a mostly forgotten Canadian pop crooner named Gino Vannelli: “I just wanna STOP & tell you what I feel about you, babe.”

“I Just Wanna Stop” is the kind of song whose words most Americans over 40 know despite never consciously choosing to listen to it. After peaking at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978, the tune never quite disappeared, becoming the aural equivalent of a recurring wart. The song found a second life—an endless one, as it turns out—in the musical nether region where the smooth, soft-rock hits of yesteryear remain in heavy rotation. Yes, that’s “Africa” you’re hearing in the dentist’s office. And “What a Fool Believes” in line at CVS. And that faint melody burrowing into your brain while on hold for the next available customer service agent? That’s “Steal Away.” Songs like these, disparaged by critics in their time then jokingly christened “yacht rock” by a comedy web series in 2005, are now the soundtrack to American tedium.

They’ve also become the source of a very good—if conflicted—living for the man who defaced the stop sign: Nick Niespodziani, the singer, guitarist, and de facto leader of the wildly popular cover band Yacht Rock Revue, which tours the country, headlines 1,000-plus capacity venues, and occasionally even plays with the original artists behind these hits.

At the time of the Vannelli vandalism, Yacht Rock Revue had begun to graduate from a local curiosity to a national one. Niespodziani’s sister videotaped the incident and posted it on YouTube. They then printed T-shirts of the sign and, when Vannelli performed at the Variety Playhouse, they got one to him.

On a gray Monday afternoon not long ago, Niespodziani was standing at this crossroads, looking at the sign, trying to explain the motivation behind the prank. “We had this idea, so we videotaped,” he said. “It was definitely guerrilla marketing.” Also, he was pretty drunk.

The episode seems to capture something ineffable about Yacht Rock Revue—part fandom, part joke, part self-promotion, each element infused with irony. When YRR takes the stage at Venkman’s, an Old Fourth Ward restaurant and nightclub co-owned by Niespodziani and bandmate Pete Olson, the band is fully in character, complete with gaudy shirts and sunglasses. They crack jokes about each other’s moms and theatrically highlight multi-instrumentalist Dave Freeman’s one-note triangle solo during America’s “You Can Do Magic.”

“This music isn’t easy to perform,” Olson says. Yacht rock songs tend to be filled with complicated chord changes. All seven band members are accomplished musicians, and Niespodziani, who trained for a spell as an opera singer, is a rangy vocalist, capable of gliding through the high notes in Hall & Oates’s “Rich Girl,” Michael McDonald’s gruff tenor in “I Keep Forgetting,” and Dolly Parton’s amiable twang in “Islands in the Stream,” without seeming to strain. He, Olson, and drummer Mark Cobb first played together in Y-O-U, a band they formed at Indiana University in the late ’90s. They found scant support for original music there, so they relocated to Atlanta in 2002.

Yacht Rock
Nick Niespodziani, singer, guitarist, and de facto leader

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Yacht Rock
Mark “Monkeyboy” Dannells, guitar and vocals

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Yacht Rock
Mark Cobb, drums and vocals

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Y-O-U built a buzz in Atlanta, thanks to Niespodziani’s catchy, Beatles-esque songs and the group’s playful gimmicks. They performed, straight-faced, as Three Dog Stevens, a sad-sack trio playing what they called “sandal-rock” (a made-up, synth-heavy genre defined by its purveyors’ predilection for wearing sandals with socks); they covered Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” entirely on keyboards while dressed as the Royal Tenenbaums; they created a YouTube mockumentary series about a competitive jump-roping team. “Comedy has always been part of what we do,” Niespodziani said. “We were doing anything to get noticed because we felt we had good songs but just couldn’t break through with them.”

“I said, ‘That sounds like hell on Earth.’ He was like, ‘But you’re going to make a lot of money.’ So we did it.”

In 2008, Y-O-U was booked every Thursday at the 10 High club in Virginia-Highland. They’d stage “Rock Fights,” playing dueling sets of covers by artists like Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, and INXS, or rejigger Y-O-U songs as soul rave-ups with horns and backing singers, or do a standup comedy night. Yacht Rock Revue was just another of these goofs: Put on silly clothes, and play songs everybody knows but nobody really likes—or claims not to. It was Cobb and guitarist Mark Dannells who came up with the idea. Dannells thought about calling it “A.M. Gold” but Cobb had recently seen a viral web series called Yacht Rock and felt like the term would resonate. Niespodziani went along because his friends needed his vocals. Two band members wore wigs to that first show, and, at one point, Niespodziani stripped off his shirt. People loved it. The club’s booker invited them back the next Thursday. The gig sold out. He asked them to do it every Thursday.

“I said, ‘That sounds like hell on Earth,’” Niespodziani recalls. “He was like, ‘But you’re going to make a lot of money.’ So we did it.”

Most cover bands are awful. But because they play well-known songs, they often secure regular, paying gigs that bands playing original music can’t. Even for the good ones, there’s a ceiling. Few ever perform further than 20 miles from wherever they played their first gig. What’s more, performing other people’s music for a living carries a degree of shame. Cobb has heard the mutterings about Yacht Rock Revue: “Why are these guys playing covers? They could write their own songs. They don’t need to hide behind a gimmick.”

Most of the guys in Yacht Rock Revue—which also includes bassist/vocalist Greg Lee and keyboardist/vocalist Mark Bencuya—had already spent half a lifetime dragging gear into dank basement bars to play for a few bucks and even fewer people. They did this in an era when the music business was cratering. The rise of the internet taught a generation of consumers that music is free, devaluing the dream to which musicians dedicate their lives.

Yacht Rock
Greg Lee, bass and vocals

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Yacht Rock
Mark Bencuya, keyboards and vocals

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Yacht Rock
David B. Freeman, sax, keyboards, and vocals

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Yacht Rock
Peter Olson, vocals, percussion, and guitar

Photograph by Mike Colletta

When Yacht Rock Revue started in 2008, Dannells was nearly 40. “It’s not like the world is beating down the door of 40-year-old rock stars,” he says. Today, Yacht Rock is a business, owing its success partially to the corners of the business that haven’t collapsed: live music and merchandising. Besides their public shows, Yacht Rock Revue plays a steady stream of well-paying corporate gigs. They also sell lots of captain’s hats, T-shirts, and other swag. The success of the franchise means it’s been more than five years since any of them had a day job. Niespodziani and Olson created a company, Please Rock, that provides the bandmembers and their families with health insurance, 401Ks, and all the other trappings of comfortable, upper-middle-class stability few musicians ever achieve. All this grants bandmembers some real creative freedoms. “I just released a whole record of orchestral music,” Dannells says. “I don’t care if it sells. I just do it for enjoyment.”

Niespodziani shuttered Y-O-U years ago but still writes elegant power-pop songs for his other band, Indianapolis Jones. But the difference between his two bands’ profiles is stark. Troy Bieser, who has been working on a documentary about Yacht Rock Revue, says he’s seen this in the juxtaposition of the footage he’s compiled. “I’ve seen Nick going through the journey of being thankful for the success but it also feeling ill-fitting,” Bieser says. “That existential dilemma has followed him.”

Niespodziani knows whenever Yacht Rock plays anywhere, that’s a slot a band like Indianapolis Jones can’t get. “We’re a big part of the problem,” he says. As a 39-year-old father of one, who’s worked hard to get what he has, he isn’t about to give it up, but he’s also honest about the compromises he’s made and doesn’t hide from the question that is a natural byproduct of his own success: When a joke becomes your life, how do you keep your life from becoming a joke?

“I never would’ve guessed I’d be doing what I’m doing now,” he says. “The 23-year-old me would punch me in the face and leave me for dead.”

Yacht rock was mostly made in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but the genre wasn’t named until 2005 when JD Ryznar, a writer and actor, created the Yacht Rock web series with a few friends. The video shorts imagined the origins of songs like the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes,” Toto’s “Rosanna,” and Steely Dan’s “FM.” The music, Ryznar says, was well-crafted, like a yacht, and recurring nautical imagery in songs like Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” or on Loggins and Messina’s album Full Sail made the term fit. According to Ryznar, true yacht rock has jazz and R&B influences, is usually produced in California, and frequently involves a rotating group of interconnected studio musicians. The term was never intended to be a pejorative—“we never thought it was silly music,” Ryznar says—but the web series is most definitely comedy, and feelings about the music itself tend to be buried under layers of hipster irony, warm nostalgia, and veiled contempt. Yacht rock songs are finely constructed: They’ve got indelible pop hooks, but they’re decidedly professional, not ragged and cool like punk or early hip-hop, which were canonized among the music of that era.

For the first Yacht Rock Revue gig, much of the set list came from a compilation CD that Cobb had burned titled The Dentist’s Office Mix. It included songs like Player’s “Baby Come Back,” Ambrosia’s “The Biggest Part of Me,” and Rupert Holmes’s “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).” “I’d put it on at parties and just see what the reactions would be,” Cobb says. “It was a weird, guilty pleasure.”

Niespodziani’s initial feelings about the music were uncomplicated. “I wasn’t a fan,” he says. “I was really into music that made people feel something, that had some grit and humanity to it. The ethos I thought was important in rock ’n’ roll was rebellious fun crossed with a heart-on-your-sleeve kind of thing. Yacht rock doesn’t do any of that. It doesn’t rebel.” He found a lot of yacht rock to be technical, clinical, and sterile. “Sophisticated for the sake of being sophisticated.”

Onstage, Niespodziani is the picture of unapproachable retro cool. Tall, with shaggy hair and an angular face, he hides behind large, dark sunglasses and frequently surrenders a thin half-smile. In other words, he personifies the classic, arrogant, coked-up, late-’70s rock frontman. In person, he gives off nearly the opposite impression. Over coffee, he’s thoughtful, earnest, and self-deprecating. His sharp facial features are accentuated by wide-lensed prescription glasses, and, having traded the polyester shirts he favors onstage for a camouflage green hoodie, the vibe Niespodziani exudes is hardcore music geek. Olson, who has known Niespodziani since they were in fourth grade in Columbus, Indiana, says when they met, “Nick was the nerdy kid who was good at math and jump-roping.”

Yacht Rock
The band performing at Buckhead Theatre in March. Yacht Rock Revue will headline the eighth annual Yacht Rock Revival at State Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park on August 25.

Photograph by Emily Butler

Yacht Rock Revue, for Niespodziani, is a part he plays: “I’m almost more an actor than a musician.” He and his bandmates spend hours prowling vintage stores looking for the retro leisure wear that they don onstage—and then a not inconsiderable amount of money getting those old clothes tailored to fit. “It’s a war of attrition,” he says. “You find something that might work, and then it’s itchy or it smells or holes develop because the shirt is older than I am. You have to be shopping at all times.” They once did a gig in street clothes, but it felt wrong. “Polyester,” he says, “is our armor.”

Sometimes that armor hasn’t been enough for Niespodziani. During the band’s first few years, they played weekly at the 10 High. “I would drink a lot and almost sabotage myself, sometimes onstage, and make fun of it,” he says. “People would ask me about the band, and I’d talk down about it and act like I was too cool. I didn’t lash out at people, but it was strange to get well-known for something that didn’t make me feel good about myself. I’d get drunk onstage to deal with it.”

His bandmates certainly noticed, but, for the most part, they let their friend work through it. “He’s been the moodiest about it,” Cobb says. “He just hates Rupert Holmes’s ‘Escape (The Piña Colada Song).’ Hates it. But he knows it goes over well.” So when Niespodziani’s got to play it, he’ll often deadpan an introduction comparing Holmes to da Vinci and Picasso. “By talking about how great it is, it helps me shed that song’s terribleness.”

Niespodziani believes the ironic distance he puts between the guy he is onstage and the guy drinking coffee at Ponce City Market is fundamental to the band’s success. “Because we thought—or at least I thought—I was too cool to be doing this, everything has keyed off what the audience reacts to, whether it’s the clothes we wear, the sidestep dance we do, whatever. The audience has been the head of the snake. We’ve just been following it.” It helps that with more than 500 songs in their repertoire, the band doesnt burn out too badly on any tune. “The only song we have to play is ‘Africa.’” The 1982 hit by Toto, by a band made up of talented but largely anonymous studio musicians, has become something of an Internet meme itself, with multiple think pieces devoted to untangling its allure. “Part of it may be the audacity of the synthesizer sound,” Niespodziani says. “They’re just so cheesy. The chords are fairly complex and pretty unexpected. The way it goes to the minor key in the chorus is kind of a cognitive disconnect. And when you listen to the words, it’s not really about anything. Maybe that’s why it’s so quintessentially yacht rock. It’s not so much what the words are saying, it’s how they make you feel, this combination of pure joy crossed with reminiscing.”

Despite his ambivalence about the music, Niespodziani is first among equals within the band. He sings lead on more songs than anyone else, and it’s his judgment they trust when adding songs to their catalog. He has a system: “Generally, the more a song annoys me, the more likely it makes sorority girls want to eat each other’s brains. Also, almost every song would be an encore for the band we’re covering. So, those are the basics: Does it annoy me? Are girls going to like it? Would it be an encore for the band we’re covering?”

“I’m almost more an actor than a musician.”

Others in the band are more unabashed about the music. “I’ve always loved all this stuff,” says Lee, the bassist. “You have to love it before you can play with it in that comedy sense and do it right.” This ability to walk that line between having fun with the music and making fun of the music has won over many of the original artists. When the band first reached out to guys like Dupree, Gary Wright (“Dream Weaver”), and Player’s Peter Beckett, some artists disdained the term “yacht rock” and feared being treated as a joke. Dupree was an early convert and evangelized about the band to his peers, touting their musicianship and enthusiasm. He says those who eventually performed with Yacht Rock Revue were “staggered that they were playing in front of 4,000 people who knew every word to their songs.”

The genre’s rise as a cultural touchstone—Jimmy Fallon has been a big booster, inviting Dupree, Cross, McDonald, and others to perform on TV, and there’s now a SiriusXM station devoted to it—has benefited these artists. Their Spotify and YouTube streaming numbers have risen noticeably. “It’s made a big impact financially,” Dupree says. “Even the skeptics have seen the power of it.”

For a while, the band had a bit of a good-natured Twitter beef with the creators of the Yacht Rock web series. Ryznar admits he initially felt like the band had hijacked his idea, but now his only real gripe is Yacht Rock Revue’s liberal definition of yacht rock. “Half their set is incredible yacht rock,” Ryznar says. “The other half, they play way too much Eagles, America, and Fleetwood Mac. Those aren’t yacht rock bands.”

The band makes no apologies. As Niespodziani puts it, “Yacht rock is what we say it is now.” That’s not just bravado. Yacht Rock Revue trademarked the term “yacht rock” for live performances, so other acts can’t use it without permission. The maneuver helped snuff out competition from other cover bands but occasionally puts them in conflict with some of the genre’s originators. When Cross’s manager tried to assemble a “Yacht Rock” tour featuring Cross, Orleans, and Firefall, it ran afoul of the trademark.

“We said, ‘If you want to call it Yacht Rock, we’ve got to be the [backing] band,’” Olson says. That compromise collapsed when Cross’s manager “wanted a piece of the trademark and of all our earnings over three years.” Yacht Rock Revue sent a cease-and-desist letter instead.

The band’s set list is anchored in the classic late ’70s, early ’80s yacht-rock era but can stretch to include songs as old as the late ’60s or as recent as the early ’90s. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck: If they go too far afield, they risk becoming just another cover band, but there are other considerations to take into account, too. As Cobb explains, “Nothing about Whitney Houston is in the genre, but when we play ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody,’ the chicks go crazy, everybody orders another round, the bar sells out of Tito’s and Red Bull, and they’re like, ‘When can you come back? You broke alcohol records.’”

The band’s audiences have evolved over time. The earliest shows were heavy on hipsters and fellow musicians. Then, those fans brought their parents. At a Buckhead Theatre gig in March, the crowd leaned toward balding guys in button-down shirts and platinum-blond women wearing expensive-looking jewelry. Niespodziani once called yacht rock “the music of the overprivileged,” which was a joke, but also not. Getting older, wealthier fans out to shows is an impressive accomplishment most artists would envy, but it has changed something fundamental about Yacht Rock’s appeal. “When we started, it was people elbowing each other, laughing at this music,” Niespodziani says. “Now, there’s no irony.”

Yacht Rock

On a night off during a Vegas stand in 2015, the entire band went to see Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band perform at the Pearl Theater in the Palms Casino. Starr began doing these tours in 1989, fronting a band of aging rockers like Gary Wright, Steve Lukather (Toto), and Gregg Rolie (Santana, Journey), whose names and faces you might not recognize but whose songs you certainly would. Just past the midway point in the show at the Pearl, Lukather stepped to the mic, and Starr began beating out a familiar rhythm on the drums. As Lukather picked out the first few notes on the guitar and the synths pumped out the insistent melody, the song was instantly recognizable: “Africa.” In the theater balcony, Cobb recalls looking across at Niespodziani and seeing something change in his friend. “I just watched Nick’s face and, all of a sudden, it was as if this weight lifted off him.”

The Beatles had always been Niespodziani’s favorite band. “Now, I’m watching Ringo Starr, and he has to play fucking ‘Africa’ every night, too,” Niespodziani says. “He was in the Beatles! That was a life-changing moment for me.” Starr and his band were touching many of the same nerves in the audience at the Pearl Theater that Yacht Rock Revue touches all the time. “When we started Yacht Rock, I didn’t like the music we were playing. I didn’t like myself for being in a cover band. I had some dark times. It’s been a journey for me to get okay with it. That was a pretty key moment. Once you get to a certain point in the music business, everybody’s hustling. I’m not going to look down my nose at anybody for doing anything that makes it possible to feed their family by singing songs.”

Seeing Starr go yacht rock was a significant step that’s made enjoying Yacht Rock Revue’s triumphs a little easier. For years, Olson and Niespodziani waited for interest in yacht rock—and their band—to fade. Opening Venkman’s was a hedge against that. But Yacht Rock Revue’s stock continues to rise. Their touring business has grown 375 percent since 2014. “It’s not a fad,” Niespodziani says. “This is going to be our biggest year by far.” They play increasingly larger venues and have recently started booking dates overseas, including this summer in London.

The question is, where else can they take this, literally and figuratively? Back in 2013, the band quietly released a five-song EP: four original songs and a cover of—what else?—“Africa.” They used to occasionally drop an original tune into their shows, sometimes announcing it as a “Hall & Oates B-side.” The crowds were amenable, kind of. “It’s hard when they know every word to every song,” Niespodziani says. “They don’t come for discovery; they come for familiarity.” That’s a truism any band who has ever had a hit knows all too well. The essential appeal of Yacht Rock Revue—and yacht rock—is a combination of nostalgia and escape, a yearning for the simpler, easier time these songs evoke. Yet Niespodziani has been wondering lately if it’s possible to pivot fans to his own songs, either with Yacht Rock Revue or Indianapolis Jones.

“That’s still my dream,” he says, “to have one song that matters to somebody the way ‘Steal Away’ matters to people. No matter what else I do in life, if I don’t ever get over that bar, part of me will feel like I failed at the one thing I wanted. I don’t know if I can ever let go of that. I don’t know if I’m ready to face that darkness.”

In 2013, during a commencement speech at Syracuse University, the author George Saunders told graduates, “Success is like a mountain that keeps growing as you hike up it.” Niespodziani brought this quote up to me while we were having coffee. He knows his life is nothing to complain about. He lives a rarefied existence where he gets paid a lot of money to play music. But clearly, the mountain grows in front of him, and the hike up isn’t always easy. He’s still prone to self-deprecating asides about his band, he still kinda envies the Robbie Duprees of the world—but, hey, he doesn’t need to get drunk onstage anymore, and he doesn’t lose sleep wondering if he’s a force for good or evil in the world. That stop sign at the crossroads in the Old Fourth Ward isn’t an omen or a cautionary tale. It’s simply a funny story that makes people smile. He’s just working on becoming one of them.

“The way I really made peace with it is, it occurred to me that everywhere we went, everyone was so happy to see me,” he says. “These people, it’s the highlight of their week to come sing along with these tunes. If your job is making people happy, that’s a pretty good calling.” He leans back in his chair and smiles. “My job is to make it okay for everybody else to have fun. That’s kind of cool.” He gets quiet for a moment and shrugs.

“I guess.”

This article appears in our July 2018 issue.

A long, strange trip: The oral history of Creative Loafing

Above photo:
Creative Loafing employees brainstorming in the mid-1980s / courtesy of Debby Eason

In its heyday, Creative Loafing told a story of Atlanta different from the one chronicled in the Journal-Constitution, teased on WSB-TV, or splashed across the pages of Atlanta magazine. Here was a weekly paper that championed underdogs, miscreants, punk rockers, garage rockers, boat rockers, beat cops, line cooks, addicts, taggers, inkers, squatters, rappers, strippers. Also, of course, Democrats. And yet, it also reserved column space for conservative pundits such as Neal Boortz and Bob Barr. It was the place where, if you were 24 and your girlfriend had just kicked you out, you found a new apartment and maybe even a new girlfriend. It was the place to discover what bands to see, what restaurants to hit, what politicians to vote for. In the antediluvian age of analog media, it was Atlanta’s cultural (and countercultural) bible. It made you smarter, hungrier, grittier, cooler. And it was free.

Then, the internet came along and . . . well, you know the rest. If daily newspapers like the AJC have found an uneasy toehold in the digital age, alternative weekly papers like Creative Loafing tumbled down the sheer face of the cliff. The poof of smoke when they hit bottom is only now scudding past, and what’s revealed, in Creative Loafing’s case anyway, seems inevitable but also sad, like that feeling when Kodachrome went away. Last year, Ben Eason, the son of the paper’s founders and the scion who had lost the Creative Loafing chain in bankruptcy court in 2009, bought back the Atlanta paper. The business that had once boasted a staff of 70-plus people now has just four. The paper that once routinely published 160 pages weekly is down to 64, published monthly. Eason believes he can resurrect it, sensing an opportunity in the growth of digital ad dollars attracted to CL’s demographic.

Will he be successful? The odds are stacked against him, but if you care even a whit about Atlanta, you’d be churlish not to root for him. As the paper embarks on its most uncertain chapter yet, we talked with the people who built it, who nurtured it, who survived it. One truth became evident right away: Atlanta had never seen anything like it before—and likely never will again. Interviews have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

“We will loaf creatively”

One evening in 1972, Deborah “Debby” Eason, a photographer for Delta Air Lines, and her husband, Chick, a math professor at Georgia State University, went to a GSU lecture by a visiting Russian scholar. Only 25 people showed up. That experience, and other poorly attended events, convinced them Atlanta needed a publication that told the public about all of the city’s cultural happenings—festivals, concerts, Wicca meetings. As the parents of three young children, the couple earned extra money by publishing custom guidebooks for Zoo Atlanta, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, and various corporations. After a trial run of a monthly magazine called P-s-s-t . . . A Guide to Creative Loafing in Atlanta, the Easons decided to launch a weekly free publication titled simply Creative Loafing. The four-person editorial staff operated out of the living and dining rooms of the Easons’ Morningside home; the darkroom was in the basement. The print run of the first edition—all of eight pages—was 12,000 copies.

Debby Eason: We didn’t know beans about journalism. We just knew people wanted to know what was going on in Atlanta. All the art galleries offered to pay us $3 a week [to be included in CL’s listings]. We eventually got the High Museum and the Atlanta Symphony to distribute the papers. We called all the bowling alleys and asked who got strikes. No one was publishing bowling scores!

Chick Eason: I had a buddy in the English department, a professor named Edward Franze. We would get together once a day, just bullshit. “If we are going to loaf, we will loaf creatively.” I was surprised no one had used it.

Ben Eason, the current owner of Creative Loafing, is the son of Debby and Chick. I was seven. My sister, Jennie, is one year older. Our job was to go hand out the paper to everybody that we possibly could. Jennie and I literally worked every job to the point where I had no interest in being involved in any part of the newspaper business.

Debby Eason: Everyone would say, “How can you afford to give it away free?” Nobody thought about how much you could make with advertising. We told the kids in college where to take their dates, what’s the good music, what movies are in the theater.

“We didn’t know beans about journalism. We just knew people wanted to know what was going on in Atlanta.”

After the city zoning department cited the Easons for operating a business out of their house, Creative Loafing relocated in 1973 to a house next to McDonald’s on Cheshire Bridge Road, where it operated for one year before moving to a house on North Highland Avenue.

Leara Rhodes, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia, was the managing editor of Creative Loafing from 1981 to 1982. We didn’t have enough chairs. I went in as editor, and I didn’t have a chair at my desk. I took a decrepit, old, straight-backed chair with me wherever I went in the house.

“This magical partnership”

By 1977, Creative Loafing’s circulation had climbed to 55,000, and the Easons were breaking even. CL’s biggest competitor for readers and advertising dollars was the Atlanta Gazette, which emphasized editorial more than listings. Readers would pick up both free papers, conflating the brands into something Debby Eason began to call “Creative Gazette.” To distinguish their publication, the Easons began charging 25 cents an issue.

It was a poor decision: Circulation dropped to 22,000. Homeless people in Woodruff Park would tip over the newsboxes and shake out the quarters. The following year, the Atlanta Gazette was purchased by Larry Flynt, the owner of Hustler magazine, who added civil rights icon Julian Bond to its contributors. Eason reverted back to the free model, but in 1978, facing insolvency, she ran a faux classified ad on the cover, pleading for investors. Three people, including two engineers who worked at Lockheed Martin, each gave $5,000. Twenty years later, when the paper was first sold, each investor made $1 million, according to Eason.

Debby Eason: The investors and small loans saved the paper. It kept us in business.

In 1979, Eason was introduced to Scott Walsey, then a 20-something owner of a backgammon nightclub located at Piedmont and Peachtree.

Scott Walsey worked at Creative Loafing for 25 years, retiring as publisher in 2004. We sold the backgammon club and opened up a seafood restaurant. I used to barter advertising for meals with Debby. She and I became friendly, and when I lost everything I had in the restaurant business, I went to work for CL as a salesman selling the convention guidebook Pocket Atlanta. In June of 1980, I moved over to Creative Loafing, and that year they did $105,000 worth of business. We never looked back.

Creative Loafing
(From left) Creative Loafing founder Debby Eason, left, with columnist Tom Houck; Scott Walsey, then publisher, in his office in the 1980s; A 1990s-era staff photo outside the Willoughby Way headquarters

Photograph courtesy of Debby Eason

Debby Eason: Scott can sell anything. We had a great product, but none of us knew how to sell. That’s been my problem my whole career; I’m just not a salesman.

Ben Eason: Scott and my mom had just this magical partnership. They were just really good together.

Walsey: I handled the sales and marketing, and she handled the editorial and production. With Debby, it was all about the listings. She would never cut a listing. I don’t care if it was a band listing or a movie listing or some event at the High. “We’re not cutting out that event at the High,” she’d say. “Let’s cut out words or make a picture smaller, because if you’re a High Museum fan, and you go to Creative Loafing and find out that there’s nothing about the High Museum, you’re not coming back to the paper next week.”

“I’m not gonna work in sewage”

Creative Loafing wasn’t the first alternative weekly Atlanta had seen, but over the years, its size and ambitions crowded out competitors—The Great Speckled Bird; Poets, Artists & Madmen; The Sunday Paper. In the mid-1980s, in addition to food and culture coverage, the paper wrote about city scandals, AIDS in Atlanta, and racism in Forsyth County, the latter of which prompted Hosea Williams to organize a protest. As CL grew fat with ads, recent college graduate Ben Eason persuaded his mother and Walsey to expand beyond Atlanta. In 1987, they launched an edition in Charlotte. Sister papers followed in other cities—Tampa, Savannah, Birmingham, and elsewhere. Back in Atlanta, there was money in the suburbs. In 1993, Gwinnett Loaf began covering one of metro Atlanta’s fastest-growing counties. A year later, Topside Loaf, covering north Fulton, Cobb, and Forsyth counties, followed.

Meanwhile, Creative Loafing’s headquarters, after bouncing from Virginia-Highland (where employees could enjoy a meditation room) to Midtown, had settled finally in the Old Fourth Ward at the end of Willoughby Way, a dead-end street in the shadow of Freedom Parkway that was choked with kudzu. This was long before gentrification, before the BeltLine, before the bungalows had been torn down to make way for million-dollar modern homes. The paper’s new office was a former color-photography processing plant that had cost $185,000 and was, by all accounts, a dump. WSB’s 1,075-foot transmission tower loomed overhead.

CB Hackworth, communications director for the Andrew Young Foundation, was a columnist and contributing writer for CL before becoming editor in 1990, a position he held for just over a year. Next door was a big vacant lot. Our newsroom had a couple of windows that looked out there. Cars would come back there with prostitutes. We’d just stand at the windows and watch. They thought it was some private, desolate place.

“I watched the cops pull the body of a dead john out of a car parked in front of our office.”

Mara Shalhoup, deputy editor of Atlanta magazine, spent 10 years at Creative Loafing as a writer and editor, including one as editor-in-chief. She left in 2011. It’s hard to remember that the Old Fourth Ward used to be as sketchy as it was. Not long after I started in 2000, I watched the cops pull the body of a dead john out of a car parked in front of our office. Rigor mortis had already set in, and his pants were down around his ankles. I later found out from the cops that it was his 21st birthday.

Ken Edelstein was senior writer at Creative Loafing from 1996 to 1998, left, and then returned as, effectively, editor-in-chief in late 1998, a position he held until 2008. There was a sewage backflow at a pipe under my desk, and the carpet got drenched. They fixed the pipe but didn’t replace the carpet, and when I complained, they simply cut out that piece. Now, my workstation was on raw concrete. That was their solution. This was an emblem of what drove me out [in 1998]. I would work anywhere, but I’m not gonna work in sewage.

Steve Fennessy, executive editor of Atlanta magazine, was CL’s news editor and senior writer from 2000 to 2005. I’d put a trash bin on the windowsill near my desk to catch the water during storms. One time, I noticed a smell—different from the usual one. Turned out it was a pile of dog crap under my desk. One of the ad designers had brought her pug in and let him run free. No one was shocked he chose my desk.

Michael Wall, director of farmer services at Georgia Organics, was a staff writer from 2000 to 2006. There was fungus that looked like shelled pasta. There were waterfalls where electrical outlets should be. Now, it’s some of the most valuable property on the BeltLine.

More memorable than the building were the workers. Although Eason herself was socially liberal and fiscally conservative—a sign on her desk read, “I can smell a liberal a mile away”—her employees reflected the paper’s readership: young, free-spirited, offbeat.

Edelstein: There was the guy who did work on Debby’s house. He became the maintenance man. He had an eyepatch.

Debby Eason: Bob Williams. Nice man. One-quarter Sioux. He did all the granite in our house.

Carrie Karas, a senior advertising specialist at CL, started as an advertising assistant in 1991. At one time, we had two guys that wore eyepatches. What are the odds? Mud, who was in IT, also wore black leather gloves with the fingertips cut out and a black leather vest and did impersonations.

John F. Sugg moved to Creative Loafing in 2001 from Tampa, where he had worked at Ben Eason’s alt-weekly the Weekly Planet. In Atlanta, he was a staff columnist and editor until 2008. At CL, we had to have an odd number of eyes.

Karas: There were all the guys in bands that would work distributing papers so they could have a van for their gigs at night. There was Harley, who was dating Carley, and they were hardcore bikers. They ran the general maintenance of the building.

Scott Henry was hired in 1998 as the assignment editor of the Topside and Gwinnett Loafs before coming to Creative Loafing in 2001 as a news writer. Every time I saw Debby, she was wearing a muumuu or a caftan. There were all these people who were either on payroll or were hangers-on. An old guy with a white beard would come in wearing flip-flops, collect his mail, and then walk out.

Hackworth: Debby’s tarot card reader once read people’s charts in the office.

Cliff Bostock served two stints as Creative Loafing editor—from 1982 to 1984 and 1986 to 1990 and wrote the “Grazing” and “Headcase” columns for 27 and 20 years, respectively. Every week, on the day the paste-up was being completed, I had to stay at the office and oversee things. The production staff was fond of weed, to say the least. They would go out back and sit in their cars for what seemed like hours. I would go out and slam my hand on their cars, screaming for them to get back to work. It was a nightmare, and I had no real power to force the production manager to do things differently. By the time I got back for my second term, things were better, although Debby would not fire the head of the production department, who still constantly kept things in chaos. She finally [fired him]. The last issue he was in charge of, he went through the Happenings section and put Debby’s phone number on every one of the hundreds of listings.

Debby Eason: That’s true!

Ben Eason: The ’70s and ’80s, it was like Animal House. Nobody smoked dope at their desks. But I think everybody smoked dope as soon as they went out.

Sugg: In 2001, we had been in Atlanta about two weeks, and my wife and I wanted to go to Savannah. We were told the company owned a house in Tybee that had three or four apartments. We get down there, and it was a very boisterous party in that building the whole time. I think there was only person who had worked for CL. I thought this was a pretty weird corporate thing and that there were a lot of hangers-on.

Henry: I came in for my job interview. In the front of the building, where the sales office was located, they had a life-sized cutout of, I’m gonna say Chesty Morgan or Kitten Natividad or one of these characters from a 1970s Russ Meyers film. She was wearing a tiny bikini top. Someone had attached this big ruler thing that went up the cutout where they were charting their sales. And it had a little sign that said, “Every day our business gets bigger and bigger.” And I thought, “I’m home. This is where I was meant to work.”

Greg Land, a reporter at the Daily Report, joined the CL staff in 1989 as a copy editor and worked as a news editor, music columnist, and writer until 2001. The holiday parties were the best ever. One year, we had the Creative Loafing band with Debby on accordion and everyone else on everything. She would play “Roll Out the Barrel.”

Hackworth: Frequently when you walked up front, there were sex workers in the lobby, placing their massage ads.

Although the internet had yet to encroach much on print media, Debby Eason saw the writing on the wall. In the late 1990s, she launched the Creative Loafing Network, an online-only subsidiary.

Suzanne Van Atten, a freelance writer, was associate editor from 1996 to 2006. She was right. The future was the internet. But she didn’t know how to get there.

Ben Eason: I think it was like 60, 70 people working on the internet [side of the business] at the time. It was insane. Creative Loafing was very, very profitable. But it also hit rough patches at the same time because all the money that the newspaper made just went to all these ventures.

Debby Eason: It wasn’t that big. Like, five or six people at the peak.

Henry: It was like a shadow organization that was siphoning money and, from my understanding, not bringing in any revenue. It was an entire workforce, but it didn’t produce anything that got a lot of attention. It was all in beta testing. They had a movie, music, culture website. Scott Walsey realized the paper wouldn’t survive much longer with Debby spending money like that.

Walsey: She was focused more on the whole digital side, and I had to pay the bills.

Through years of sweat equity, Walsey had built up a minority ownership stake in Creative Loafing. Combined with Chick Eason’s share, as well as the other investors’, they had a controlling interest in the company. When offers to buy the paper came in—from Village Voice, but also from the Easons’ son, Ben, and daughters, Jennie and Taylor—Walsey, who had always wanted to retire when he was 50, saw an opportunity.

Walsey: Things were getting tight, and the opportunity was there to sell it. The Village Voice was interested, but they didn’t meet the price that Ben came in at. Chick and I tried to do a peaceful sale. Debby fought it tooth and nail. She hated her husband, she hated me, she hated Ben, hated her daughters, hated everybody because they were putting her out to pasture. It was just time. But in the long run, it was the right thing for everybody.

Ben Eason: I had to outbid the Village Voice guys. I ended up buying Creative Loafing in 2000 with the help of Cox Enterprises [the owner of the AJC]. So, Cox owned 25 percent of Creative Loafing. We ended up paying around $20 million.

At the time, the Creative Loafing chain of newspapers—which consisted of nine weeklies and one monthly—was the third-largest chain of its kind in the nation. Debby Eason, like many staffers and readers, bristled at the idea of Cox owning a piece of the city’s alt-weekly.

Debby Eason: The sale split our family up, for at least a couple of years. We had been talking about selling to [the Village Voice]. I wanted what was best for the company, and I don’t remember [Ben] even asking us about buying it. It was a total shock. I remember Carmelo Pino [CL’s Atlanta-based vice president, who helped oversee sister publications in Charlotte and Tampa] saying, “This is a hostile takeover.” I wasn’t ready to retire. I was 66.

Ben Eason: Mom is a really smart lady, and she’s kind of visionary. She wasn’t wrong. The problem was she couldn’t let up. She could have gone like 80 miles an hour, not 140. But that’s just mom, that’s who she is.

“We’re gonna cover the hell out of the city”

The most significant hire Debby Eason made before she lost control of the company was in 1998, when she coaxed Edelstein to return to CL, this time as managing editor. Two years later, he was named editor-in-chief. Boisterous, hard-charging, and eagle-eyed, Edelstein would assemble a team of journalists who investigated City Hall, covered (finally) the city’s rap artists, and got behind the scenes of pivotal moments in the Gold Dome, like when then governor Roy Barnes changed the state flag (which led to his defeat a year later). Edelstein lured flight attendant and part-time memoirist Hollis Gillespie from competitor Poets, Artists, and Madmen, gave a local photographer and stunt presidential candidate named Andisheh Nouraee a tongue-in-cheek nightlife column, and challenged young reporters to chase stories no other outlet would tell.

Edelstein: There’s a fetish for “balance” that just got stronger and stronger in mainstream journalism throughout the second half of the 20th century. Balance is like the old joke, “you don’t balance the Jewish point of view with the Nazi point of view.” If you’re going to be fair and accurate, then you need perspective. You also have to acknowledge your own point of view. That’s part of alternative journalism.

Wall had been a reporter at the Atlanta Business Chronicle in 2000 when Edelstein lured him to Creative Loafing, where he covered the General Assembly and the environment. He also wrote the first stories about what would become the BeltLine. I was not allowed to use the word “sprawl” at the Business Chronicle. That was frustrating. CL seemed more intellectually honest to me. Ken called me out of the blue. He told me he’d been reading the Chronicle and was impressed. Who knows if that’s true? But it was flattering. What was his pitch? A paycut at a much less reputable newspaper! That shows you how smart I am, ’cause I did it. With Ken, you weren’t just reporting but pursuing a larger story that you hope will one day lead to progress. He said, we’re gonna put together a team and make a difference. We’re gonna cover the hell out of the city.

Edelstein: I was very lucky that I came in at a time when Creative Loafing had grown enough that a certain type of professionalization of the staff was necessary. Creative Loafing had a sort of uneven editorial culture and record. The longer stories could be very good, sort of brilliant essays, but there wasn’t consistent narrative journalism that used multiple sources and verified the accuracy of those sources.

Atlanta was just taking off as this mecca for a new generation of people from both the South and from around the country. They were attracted to Creative Loafing because it was cool and hip. There were a lot of talented writers who saw this as a place where they could really create something and not be cogs in the daily newspaper machine. Each time I went out to hire, I had a larger pool of people to choose from because they were more excited about the kind of journalism that they could do at Creative Loafing. And each time I hired, they tended to stay for a little bit longer as well. The cultural milieu of the different staff members getting a buzz off each other was kind of creating a virtuous cycle.

Creative Loafing, despite its juvenile name, was gaining traction nationally. Politics reporter Kevin Griffis coaxed 2004 presidential candidates Lindsey Graham and Howard Dean to the office for interviews. Griffis also broke stories on the federal investigation into corruption within the Bill Campbell mayoral administration. Henry’s coverage—what he called “the sex beat”—profiled swingers, escorts, and coverage of the Gold Club trial. Fennessy investigated immigration court, animal testing at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and the road rage death of an Iraq war veteran in Midtown.

Shalhoup: With Ken’s support, I spent more than a year working on a three-part serial narrative that started with a seemingly outlandish tip. A young guy who used to deliver Creative Loafing was killed in the parking lot of the Velvet Room by a gunman who belonged to something called the Black Mafia Family. The more I dug in, the crazier it got. The same crew was connected to another high-profile killing, of Sean Combs’s former bodyguard. And there also were ties to a double-homicide, allegedly ordered by Mayor Shirley Franklin’s then son-in-law. There were even ties to a fatal shooting carried out by an up-and-coming rapper named Gucci Mane. A story like that, with so many dots to connect, would never have materialized without a mentor like Ken.

Shalhoup’s reporting would result in the 2011 book BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family.

Doug Monroe is a writer living in Athens. He worked at CL as a senior editor from 2004 to 2006 after a career at UPI, the AJC, and Atlanta magazine. Under Ken, it really flourished and did some great journalism. Ken was a very careful editor. He never ran roughshod over anything, though he could be hell to get along with at the time. He was volatile. Under him, I did some of the best stuff I’ve ever done. I don’t think Ken gets the credit that he should as one of the smartest editors there’s ever been in Atlanta.

Fennessy: Ken had unrelentingly high standards. It made us better reporters, better writers.

Wall: I didn’t know much about longform writing until he put me through his grinder. He’d say, “Give your best ideas the best sentences.”

Fennessy: But he could make you miserable. His tirades could tear the paint from the walls.

Wall: He could make you feel stupid, like the dumbest person in the world. Thank God for therapy.

Edelstein: I often felt caught in between. I wanted to fulfill the vision that Ben had, and, on an analytical high level, I think that he had some great ideas. On the other hand, I wanted to protect my staff from demands that were unreasonable or got in the way of their creativity and happiness. I know that at times I was passionate, and I tried to quell that emotion, somewhat. I know I stupidly lost my temper a couple of times—more than a couple of times—and always admired people who were more cool-headed than me.

Monroe: We were able to jump on politicians in a way that the AJC would not or could not. The AJC had gone soft on telling the truth about what was going on in the Republican party. They were doing that to suck up to the conservatives in the suburbs.

In 1990, CL began a new political tradition: the Golden Sleaze Awards, a scathing review of the General Assembly’s legislative session told through lawmakers’ misdeeds. Some elected officials welcomed the dubious honors; in 2016, state senator Judson Hill, R-Marietta, proudly sported a “Sleaze” button that CL gave to winners.

Nan Orrock was first elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1987 and has served as Democratic state senator since 2007. The Golden Sleaze issue usually landed right around Sine Die, when the General Assembly was winding down. You could see it sitting on desks all over the Senate and the House. If you were on the losing end of battles, it gave you some satisfaction to see the bad guys get nailed to the wall.

Earl Ehrhart is a Republican state representative from Powder Springs and regular recipient of Golden Sleaze Awards. It was always a seminal day when the Golden Sleaze arrived on the desks. The whole House pawed through them. It felt good the first time I got the award. [It meant] I had arrived as a conservative. If I have risen to the level that I’m the sleaze to those who disagree with conservative views, then I’m doing it right. Those that don’t get it have no sense of humor. Look, if you’re wound so tight you can’t take criticism, you don’t last long down there.

After the 9/11 attacks, Edelstein and the staff wondered how they could approach the issues of national security, terrorism, and foreign affairs. Freelance contributor (and later senior writer) Andisheh Nouraee suggested a foreign affairs column with a humorous twist. Hobart Rowland, an editor, suggested the name “Don’t Panic!” The weekly columns helped Nouraee land a book deal in 2007.

Nouraee: Just to give you an idea of how different times—and mortgage requirements—were, writing two freelance columns a week for Creative Loafing, I was able to afford a house. For five years, I had a job where all I had to do was make jokes.

Fennessy: I thought we should get more hot people into our pages, so I floated an idea where readers would submit nominations of service workers they found attractive and wanted to know more about. We’d track them down, photograph them, interview them. Ken said go for it. We called it the Lust List and ran it every Valentine’s Day. Imagine how the AJC would lame-ify that idea.

In September 1998, OutKast released its seminal album, Aquemini. That same week, Roni Sarig joined Creative Loafing as music editor. He was surprised at how little coverage Atlanta’s hip-hop movement was receiving in the city’s alt-weekly, which had already earned the derisive label “Caucasian Loafing.”

Sarig: Here you had this ostensibly liberal paper, but it wasn’t a paper that reflected the diversity of the city. It was more for white liberals. So one of my goals was to have the coverage reflect the actual city and not just the Little Five Points white guys. OutKast was the big story. There was some grumbling from the old-guard writers, who would say, “This is our paper, and you’re only giving me so much space to write about what’s going on at the Star Bar.”

Rodney Carmichael covers hip-hop for NPR. He was CL’s music editor from 2007 until 2012 and senior writer until 2016. I came at a time when Atlanta was planting its flag as a capital of hip-hop. And it felt weird to be at a publication in the city that was very much about arts, culture, and music where I was getting pushback on covering too much hip-hop, or that it was too popular to cover in an alt-weekly. Black culture has been historically marginalized, so what could be more alternative than covering that? It was a culture shock for me coming to CL. Maybe it’s the kind of shock that white people feel when they enter black spaces or come to a city like Atlanta. I grew up in the black suburbs of Atlanta, and my worldview of Atlanta was, this is a black city. All the culture and music is black. So when I came to CL, I got introduced to a side of Atlanta I had no clue about. I didn’t know there was this white Atlanta. I didn’t have a sense there was such a night-and-day cultural parallel or universe like the East Atlanta scene.

Besha Rodell is a restaurant columnist for the New York Times’ Australia bureau. From 2006 to 2012, she was CL’s food editor. I was working in a restaurant up until the point I started at CL. I didn’t come from any money. So, I understood how precious it is for people who go out to eat and don’t have money. You have to think about it in their terms, of people who are going out once a year for a special occasion. I always try to keep that person in mind because I was that person.

Through the Decades

Creative Loafing

Early issues mixed events with occasional news

Creative Loafing

A 1985 preview of the upcoming Braves season

Creative Loafing

A 1992 cover examined race relations post–Rodney King

Creative Loafing

The 2000s saw the biggest investment yet in editorial

Creative Loafing

A cover mocking the AJC’s move to the suburbs

Creative Loafing

A recent CL issue—highlighting Atlanta music

“Every day I went to work, I lost”

After Ben Eason first bought the paper in 2000, he tapped former Tampa-area journalists, financial executives, and civic activists to serve as a kind of college of cardinals. Advisers and a band of consultants began traveling periodically to Atlanta to offer management, journalism, and marketing training. Where Debby Eason had invested profits in digital initiatives, her son invested in consultants.

Walsey: Debby and I had run CL on instinct and on what we felt was right; Ben ran it on the numbers. It was a different company. There was a whole level of upper management that I had to report to. If you worked for me, and you were doing a good job, I never cared what you did. Now, I had to start caring. I had to start getting involved in your bullshit. So, if you had been a salesperson working for me, I didn’t care if you got your nails done at three o’clock on a Friday when you delivered $40,000 a week for me. That all changed. You had to account for your hours.

Ben Eason: At its peak when we were running it, we were making more than $4 million a year in profit.

Fennessy: The paper owned a little bungalow next door to its headquarters on Willoughby Way. That’s where we’d gather to be lectured at by the consultants and advisers. When I think of the hours lost around that table . . .

Walsey: It got to the point where I didn’t fit in. It wasn’t in my personal culture. We were doing a Best of Atlanta event at Paris on Ponce. Ken was there, and we were waiting for everyone to arrive. I said to Ken, “You know what? I’m leaving.” I went home and said to myself, “I’m done.” I had a year left on my contract. I worked ’til Christmas Eve in 2004. That was that.

In the mid-2000s, as legacy media operations began feeling the pinch from the internet, alt-weekly chains, seeking economies of scale, began buying publications in other markets. In July 2007, Creative Loafing Inc., a mini-empire with four papers in three states, purchased two heralded alt-weeklies—the Chicago Reader and the Washington City Paper—and The Straight Dope, a longtime Reader-syndicated column by Cecil Adams. The deal granted CL entry into the third- and eighth-largest media markets in the country, according to Forbes. Eason and company borrowed $40 million to close the deal and settle old debts. Now he oversaw 275 employees. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. The housing market collapse, combined with the continued loss of classified advertising to Craigslist and the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, meant the company could not make loan payments. In September 2008, Eason filed for bankruptcy protection.

“My original ante in the company had grown considerably to six figures. But I lost it all in a flash.”

Ben Eason: From 2004 to 2007, every day I went to work, I lost. You’d see a revenue decline hit all the markets. It would add up to a loss every year of five to 10 percent. And unless you have some strategies or something to bail out an old model that’s dying, then you’re gonna lose value every day, until you’ve lost all the old revenue, and now, you gotta go invent your new stuff.

Sugg: Any financial person would look at the prospectus and say, “this is going to fail.” You’re borrowing far more money than the company’s worth, and revenues are declining. Why in the world would you want to do something like this? Ben had always sworn to the shareholders that we could cash out our shares. Most of it was handshake promises. My original ante in the company had grown considerably to six figures. But I lost it all in a flash.

In November 2008, with the company in bankruptcy proceedings, Eason fired Edelstein, the former editor says, after he protested the company’s push to make additional cuts to the sales and editorial staff rather than its top-heavy executive and operations divisions. Eason said it was a private discussion and declined to comment on the firing but called Edelstein one of CL’s most talented editors.

After nearly a year of bankruptcy court proceedings, a federal judge in Florida took the company away from Eason, awarding it to Atalaya Capital, a New York–based hedge fund and major creditor. Atalaya almost immediately started pumping money back into the Atlanta publication, installing a former St. Petersburg Times top executive as CEO and a team of journalism executives from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times as advisers, along with commissioning a redesign and marketing push. Staffers welcomed the investment but knew the Wall Street executives were fattening the goose for an eventual sale.

Thomas Wheatley,* articles editor at Atlanta magazine, joined CL in 2007 as a staff writer covering urban development, transportation, and the environment and later served as news editor. I felt like we could breathe again, and we had a net. We had ads on bus shelters, a redesigned paper, and did rounds of morning radio shows. It was the golden age of blogs, so our online presence was extremely strong. But we were also running ourselves into the ground.

Shalhoup: It was a relief to be working with these new owners, who we all hoped would be better protectors of the publication. They asked the right questions about how Creative Loafing could grow. I applied for the editor-in-chief position, and I got the job. I remember the CEO, Marty Petty, asking me what my plans were to better “monetize” our content. It was the first time I heard that word in that context—but certainly not the last. When I left the Loaf for the Chicago Reader a year later [that paper was sold by Atalaya one year later to Wrapports, the owner of the Chicago Sun-Times], it wasn’t because I thought CL was in trouble. I thought it was in a really good place and sensed it would only get better.

“I would have stayed there forever”

In March 2012, five months before SouthComm, a Nashville-based media company, purchased Creative Loafing’s Atlanta and Tampa publications from Atalaya Capital, longtime editorial staffers Scott Henry, Besha Rodell, Chante Legon, and Curt Holman were laid off. Debbie Michaud, who started at CL in 2001 as an intern, became editor in chief in October 2012. Despite diminished resources, the paper continued to win local and national awards with pieces on OutKast and the cultural identity of the city, the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods along the BeltLine, and food coverage.

Rodell: One of the small benefits of Ken leaving when he did was that Mara and Debbie got to run the thing. Young women are not usually the people who are running big newspapers in cities. I think it made a difference.

Nouraee: As painful as and as much as I disliked the way Ken was treated, and as much as I disliked not being part of that community anymore, Mara, Debbie, Besha—there were women at the highest level of Creative Loafing. That was really cool. The content, the tone, the perspective of paper—there were women’s perspectives in leadership where there weren’t before. Because of the bankruptcy and dwindling resources, the paper shrank, less stuff was done—but it was amazing. The industry itself recognized that about Creative Loafing. It was racking up well-deserved awards. The great work continued for nearly a decade into that post-bankruptcy period.

Debbie Michaud first came to CL as an intern in 2001. She joined the staff in 2006 as events editor and was named editor-in-chief in 2012: It was my first real job that I was fully invested in, cared about, and wanted to do really well. My desk was across from John Sugg, who was this—I mean, if you read Creative Loafing, he was this booming presence. To see him in the flesh every day with his Dunkin Donuts iceaccino or whatever he drinks. There was just a surrealness to it. I had been a reader for so long, so it’s kind of like when you’re a fan of something and then all the sudden you’re a part of it. We were super, super busy, but there was still this kind of youthful party atmosphere. I think startup culture is the closest thing you could get to that these days.

Ellis Jones, the editor-in-chief of Vice Magazine, interned at CL while in college in the mid-2000s and later freelanced: This was basically my first time writing for any publication, not to mention one that I read every week, so it felt like such a huge opportunity for me. My time there made me realize that I didn’t always have to go searching for a story. I could look at what was happening in my life—the shows I was going to, the changes in Atlanta’s music scene I was noticing—and make those into stories. Rodney Carmichael, the music editor at the time, was really open to anything I wanted to write, which usually focused on happenings in the Atlanta music scene, like covering the Coathangers when they first got together or a Black Lips and Deerhunter show in Brooklyn back in 2008. He even let me start my own column.

Max Blau, a freelance writer, was a CL staff writer from 2012 to 2015: I came to CL from Paste Magazine and it was more of a professional environment. I remember walking in and feeling intimidated on the editorial side of the office. There was this long hallway of super talented people at desks facing the wall. Even though I knew how to write at that point, in the first four or five months I realized how little I knew about complex topics, which I wanted to write about. It was trial-by-fire moment in how to be a local news reporter. I couldn’t ask for a better full-time experience. There was nothing better than to be thrown into council meetings.

A lot of the stories I ultimately gravitated to—and still write to this day—were stories about people who didn’t have power, struggled through addiction or poverty, and by no fault of their own were dealt a card that led them to have less even though they were good people who got caught in bad situations. I studied this in college and understood how income inequality or socioeconomic situations could set people back significantly. Being at an alt-weekly allowed me to tell stories that transcended things that would be considered newsworthy on a daily beat. I learned in other newsrooms how restrictive that can be at times, and I’m still trying to get back to the alt-weekly ethos back in my work. Without the experience of CL, I don’t think I’d be the journalist I am today.

Wheatley: Mara’s and Debbie’s stints as editor were the silver lining of the chaos we endured during the bankruptcy and SouthComm’s largely hands-off approach. When the AJC announced it would stop endorsing candidates, we doubled down and created an editorial board. We were some of the first people to write about affordability issues in the city, the importance of downtown, and police shootings. Op-eds by Joeff Davis [CL’s photo editor from 2006 to 2017] played a role in the state removing a Confederate statue from the grounds of the Georgia Capitol. It felt like every other week there was a protest, and we were out there with the activists. For better or worse, we weren’t afraid to be wonky and occasionally preachy. That didn’t mean we wouldn’t strap a video camera to a cat’s collar for a cover story about pets.

Carmichael: There was so much transition going on in the city that decade I was there, 2007 to beginning of 2017. In the same way that Atlanta was becoming less of what I imagined it to be as a kid, I was becoming more of the writer that I had always hoped I would be. In a lot of ways, it was because I was so interested in how the city was changing and how unreal we were being in talking about it and dealing with it. There was a lot of freedom, and I got the opportunity to unleash.

Blau: I would have stayed there forever. That’s a dream newsroom. The work that came out of that era from CL, for the lack of resources we had, was pretty remarkable. As I became more experienced and had more reason to ask for CL to invest in stories, whether it was travel expenses or open records requests, I saw the limits of what was possible. It became clear that, if I wanted to do stories that required investments, it might not be possible there.

In February 2017, SouthComm sold Creative Loafing for an undisclosed sum to a familiar name: Ben Eason. Almost six months later, he announced the weekly publication would become a monthly and exist primarily as an online presence. Two days after Christmas last year, Eason cut seven staff positions, leaving just one member of the editorial staff, music editor Chad Radford, who had started writing for CL in 1999.

Ben Eason: Creative Loafing’s brand is so unbelievably well-defined. We’ve got a lot of avenues to be able to take that, and, in particular, in the rich, new media environments. We just gotta get the old out of here—the old thinking and the old clinging on to stuff, which I think largely we’re sort of done with. We’re done seeing ourselves as purely a newspaper with a website attached to it.

“I actually cried outside the door”

Sugg: CL is kind of an abbreviated history of newspapers in general. They start, flourish, prosper, someone wants to become a media mogul, and they collapse and fail. There is nothing left of the alternative press.

Nouraee: I mourned the loss of that family for so long. And I felt lonely. I really wanted to figure out a way back in. But there was no way I could do that and make a living.

Fennessy: Before I came to Creative Loafing, I worked at a Gannett newspaper, whose DNA was all about suppressing individuality and creativity. Creative Loafing was a tonic. It didn’t just reward iconoclasm and idiosyncrasy, it demanded them. Sure, it paid crap and worked the hell out of you, but there was an esprit de corps I’ve never felt anywhere else. It was hard to leave, but it was time. My coworkers took me to the Clermont and paid Blondie to give me a lap dance. It was a fitting closure.

“CL is kind of an abbreviated history of newspapers in general. They start, flourish, prosper, someone wants to become a media mogul, and they collapse and fail.”

Blau: There’s no job like that in Atlanta anymore. There were many other people who had that job before me, journalists helping their readers understand what the city means to people who live here. I feel for the generation behind me, even those a couple of years younger, who won’t get that opportunity unless something changes.

Wheatley: I started reading CL when I was in sixth grade and buying band stickers in Little Five Points. I wanted every publication I ever read from that point on to have the same voice. I always wanted to work there and never thought I’d get the chance. The night I left, I actually cried outside the door of the office.

Patrick Hill, a talent buyer for the Bowery Presents, booked bands for 13 years at the Earl. I miss it, but I also can’t say that I regularly picked it up over the last several years. I’m as guilty as anyone of going to the internet and finding out what’s going on. There’s a reason people do that. It was relevant for a long time, and I appreciated its role. I wish there was something that took 30 minutes of my week, and I’d sit there and focus on it, but that’s not how I live my life right now.

*Editor’s note: Yes, Wheatley, the writer of this story, quoted himself.

This article appears in our August 2018 issue.

The Evolution of T.I.



In the spring of 1999, 18-year-old Clifford “Tip” Harris had a choice to make. He could continue to inhabit his comfort zone as a drug dealer on the streets of Atlanta’s west side, or he could enter hostile territory of a different sort—a music industry that, statistically speaking, was all but certain to reject him. He was sitting in his cousin’s East Point living room, across from two men who were lobbying hard for the latter. One of them was Aldrin Davis, a music producer known as DJ Toomp. He’d met Tip two years earlier and was amazed not just by his lyrical skills but by the flocks of women that descended on him in the gritty nightclubs of Bankhead. The camera-ready teenager could rap with the same rhythm and cadence as hip-hop’s East Coast gods—Raekwon, Nas, Notorious B.I.G.—but with a uniquely Southern twang and a sensibility shaped by his neighborhood’s brutalities. As far as Toomp was concerned, there was no artist in Atlanta like him.

Tip’s potential was just as obvious to the other man seated across from him. Jason Geter worked at Patchwerk Recording Studios, where some of the South’s most influential albums had been recorded: Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, OutKast’s Aquemini, Usher’s My Way. Geter was on the hunt for an undiscovered star he might manage, someone who could prove that he had the instincts to compete in Atlanta’s increasingly competitive hip-hop scene. He’d only recently met Tip in a barbershop and had been surprised to learn he was a rapper. The polo shirt Tip wore revealed not a single tattoo, and his smile was gleaming without any gold. The image he projected was a rare mix of clean-cut and street-credible. And he had no problem inhabiting the two facets of his persona.

Toomp and Geter told him they were worried that his drug-dealing, for which he’d already served time, was jeopardizing his chances of success. But Tip needed money now more than ever; he’d just learned his girlfriend was pregnant. He gave Toomp and Geter an ultimatum: “Take me somewhere right now where I can showcase my talent and show people what I can do and have a chance to get signed—and I’ll stop.” Toomp tried to lower the teenager’s expectations; it’s just not possible, he said, not today. Geter interrupted him: “I got somewhere.”

T.I.Geter walked him through the door at Patchwerk and introduced him to the group that was recording that day. One of its members turned to Tip and asked: “Can you rap on this beat?” He replied: “Where the booth?”

His flow of lyrics was instantaneous and impressive—and landed him an audience with an A&R rep at LaFace Records. Tip gave the guy his beeper number, certain that everything was falling into place. But nothing happened. A few weeks later, he decided it was time to return to his comfort zone. He rode his bike up and down Bankhead all through the night and into the morning, as long as there was demand for his supply. Then, one morning, he got a page. He rode to the pay phone and dialed the number. The person who picked up said, “LaFace Records.”

The label invited him to attend the Source Awards in L.A. with Goodie Mob and OutKast. A few weeks later, he was on a tour bus in California and made his first television appearance, on BET’s Rap City, freestyling alongside Goodie Mob’s CeeLo Green.

“And I’m fresh out of the trap!” he recalls on a recent afternoon. “I was trapping days earlier; now, I’m here in Hollywood. And I said, ‘I’m never selling crack again.’”

There’s a reason why a place to buy drugs is called a “trap house” and the act of selling them “trapping”; once you’re in that world, you’re not supposed to get out. But through trap music—a genre that’s now Atlanta’s most significant cultural export, and which Tip claims to have invented—he got out.

T.I. performs onstage during iHeartRadio Live at the iHeartRadio Theater Los Angeles on June 19, 2015.

Photograph by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Nearly 20 years after that trip to L.A., in which time he’s released three consecutive number-one albums, won just as many Grammys, and built a $50 million fortune, the superstar now known as T.I. is comfortably reclined in the dim chill of the back seat of an Escalade, reminiscing on his early days and contemplating his next act. The two are more intertwined than one might think.

The SUV is coasting south on Northside Drive, the part of it that divides two Atlantas: wealthy from poor, bustling from neglected. As it crosses Bankhead Highway—now named Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, but to those who grew up in these parts, it will always be Bankhead—T.I. points to three buildings in a row: black, yellow, and brown. They’re on the outskirts of the open-air drug market known as the Bluff. “I already own the brown building,” he says, “and the black building, I got under contract.” The yellow building belongs to a guy he knows, so nearly all the pieces are in place. The structures are part of his larger initiative to revitalize Bankhead while maintaining its affordability; he’s purchased properties across a large swath of the neighborhood. What does it feel like to literally own a portion of the streets where, 20 years ago, he sold crack rocks on the corner?

“It feels like I’m late,” he says, referencing the real estate opportunities that arose after the market crashed. “I should’ve been doing this like in 2008. But I had other things going on around that time that kinda distracted me.” Those other things included his 2007 arrest for attempting to purchase machine guns as a convicted felon, for which he served a year in prison. He later violated probation when police in L.A. stopped him in his Maybach and found marijuana and ecstasy, sending him back to prison for another 11 months.

T.I.’s certainly not the first artist to struggle with reconciling the demons of his past with the pressures of his present, nor is he the first to channel his street life into ruthless yet celebratory poetry. But few from the South have done it better. His fifth studio album, 2007’s T.I. vs. T.I.P., explicitly explored that very dichotomy, with seven tracks told from the perspective of Tip, the drug dealer; seven from the perspective of T.I., the music mogul; and four channeling the showdown between the two. Or, as he put it on his no. 1 single “Live Your Life” off the album Paper Trail a year later: “I’m the opposite of moderate / Immaculately polished with / The spirit of a hustler / And the swagger of a college kid.”

That was actually his last no. 1 single. In the decade since then, he’s released just three albums and says he intends to make only a few more. These days, his music is an ever smaller portion of his livelihood. In addition to his sizable real estate portfolio on the west side, he owns a record label, a film and television production company, and two clothing lines. He’s acted in a dozen films, including Marvel’s newly released Ant-Man and the Wasp, and is the star of three reality TV shows, including BET’s newly launched The Grand Hustle, his riff on The Apprentice. Then, there are his 37 million social followers across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—roughly the population of California and one of the three largest audiences belonging to any individual in Atlanta. (Only Usher and Ludacris can claim more followers.) T.I. uses the platforms for increasingly political purposes, specifically to draw attention to instances of police brutality and other social injustices.

That’s not to say that he’s steered clear of trouble; exactly one week before this ride through the west side in the Escalade, he was arrested after confronting a security guard who wouldn’t let him into the gated community where he lives southeast of Atlanta. Even at age 37, he’s still working to rehabilitate his image, despite the fact that the industry that brought him fame seems to prefer unrehabilitated ones—which is just a complicated way of suggesting that maybe it’s time for him to come to terms with being a middle-aged man in a young man’s game.

“After I did trap music, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m bigger than this. I can go somewhere else,’” he says. “I’ve been spending time the last few years building the foundation for the next phase of my career, and I have haphazardly stumbled into a lot of different things: activism, politics, real estate. That’s nothing I planned on. That was me responding to the needs within my community. My community helped me become who I am. That was my first audience.”

“I was trapping days earlier; now, I’m here in Hollywood. And I said, ‘I’m never selling crack again.’”

Now, his primary concern is the message he sends to a much smaller—but infinitely more crucial—audience than the one who shaped him two decades earlier: his seven children.

He scoots to the edge of the SUV’s plush rear seat, trying to figure out where he’s supposed to be going. Then, he sinks back to take a phone call. “Exactly where are you?” he says into the phone. “I think I know where you’re talking about. Where am I? There’s a little brick security booth right here.” A pause. “I see you waving. Alright, buddy, coming right in.”

As the driver steps out to open T.I.’s door, a young man approaches the vehicle. He’s dressed in a black-and-white plaid shirt, blue jeans, tan boots. He’s a little taller than T.I., but the likeness is undeniable. Born less than six months after T.I. made his big debut in L.A., he’s the same age now that his father was then.

T.I. slings his arm around his eldest son, Messiah, and they disappear behind a door that reads: “Morehouse College, Office of Admissions and Recruitment.”

•   •   •

When T.I. got his first signing bonus back in 2001, he gave half of it—about $22,000—to his uncle, who wanted to be sure that something good happened with the money. One day, he drove T.I. to a street not far from the one where the rapper grew up, in Bankhead. His uncle pointed out the window and said, “Look, we did that. That’s our house.”

“What do you mean, ‘that’s our house?’”

His uncle had bought the property, torn down the trap house that was on it, and built something better in its place. As T.I.’s career took off, he and his uncle went on to buy dozens of houses in the area. Then, the market crashed, and they got out of the real estate game—until Mercedes-Benz Stadium arrived and, with it, the threat of gentrification.

“I endured all the tough times. I got shot at, ran from the police on the streets of Bankhead, got my bike stole, had to fight. But then, white people decide to come in and say, ‘Well, now this is valuable,’” T.I. says. “I’m going to take it and invest in it to turn it around and make it worth something. I want to build a community in an area that isn’t supposed to have a community.”

Now that the areas flanking Bankhead are changing, he feels like it’s up to him to improve and protect it, as if he owes his neighborhood a debt for allowing him to tell its story through his music. His mission caught the attention of Keisha Lance Bottoms during her run for mayor; after she won, she appointed T.I. to her transition team, tasked in part with preserving and expanding affordable housing. “She’s very, very much aware of the needs of the community, because she’s a product of it,” T.I. says of the mayor, who attended Douglass High School a decade before he did. “That is why I trust her intentions.”

T.I. connects with the crowd at Atlanta Heights Charter School, where he spoke in May to graduating eighth graders.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Bottoms recalls that when she met T.I. last year, the bond they formed over their shared commitment to the west side was instantaneous. “I love him like a brother, and I’m grateful to him,” she says. “If you have someone like Tip who can invest their money anywhere in the world, quite literally, and they are choosing to make this investment on the west side, I think it really speaks to the possibilities.”

She says she continues to be impressed by his devotion to her transition team. It’s hard work that the public doesn’t see—7:30 a.m. meetings, events where he’s the last person to leave. “This is not for show,” she says of his involvement. “This is not for any type of accolade. This is because he cares.”

T.I.’s vision for the west side includes a four-story, mixed-income development on the outskirts of the Bluff. He owns several properties flanking one intersection there, and he wants to tear them down and replace them with new units—75 percent of them affordable (most mixed-income developments are 25 percent affordable). T.I. also owns a nearby abandoned Kmart. And just up the street from that is Bankhead Seafood, the recently shuttered restaurant he bought earlier this year with fellow rapper (and fellow mayoral transition-team member) Killer Mike, of Run the Jewels. His and T.I.’s plan is to demolish it and build a new restaurant in its place.

“I want to build a community in an area that isn’t supposed to have a community.”

“Tip and I just both recognized an opportunity,” Killer Mike says. “It came up for sale, and he hit me and said, ‘Hey, this is what they’re selling it for. Do you want to go half on it?’ And I immediately was like, ‘Hell yeah.’”

Killer Mike grew up eating at Bankhead Seafood. His grandparents ate there. They would stand in line on the weekend for huge, $5 boxes of fish. Like T.I., he now owns properties across the neighborhood and hopes to be able to invest not just in its buildings but in its people.

“You can’t save the whole neighborhood from whatever’s happening in the next 15, 20 years,” Killer Mike says. “But you can make sure your story doesn’t end in a typical gentrification way. You can make sure your story isn’t that of the typical rapper. And you can make sure your story is that two boys from this neighborhood did good, came back, and did the right thing by the neighborhood.”

•   •   •

T.I. coverThe Gathering Spot, an invitation-only private club off North Avenue in the shadow of the Coca-Cola headquarters, has become T.I.’s unofficial office. Populated by film industry types, entrepreneurs, politicians, and techies, it’s a setting engineered for Atlanta’s elite and those on their way to joining their rank. For T.I., it’s the preferred place for carrying out one phase of his next act, over lowballs of Tito’s vodka and orange juice, extra juice on the side.

One evening, a lanky 30-something with a bushy beard and hazel eyes approaches T.I.’s table. Kellon Akeem, co-owner of a fledgling film production company, is working on a movie that T.I. helped conceive; filming is scheduled to start at the end of the year, according to T.I. They catch up on the progress of the script. “We gotta find a way to bridge the gap to bring in the millennials,” Akeem says.

“I got one guy,” T.I says. “I gotta search through my text messages.”

They switch gears to another thing they’re working on, bigger and more mysterious than the first. “I’m not planning on putting my money up,” T.I. says of this project. “Well, actually, I take that back. We’re doing 20 raises at $775,000 apiece, so I’m going to do one of those.” He later reveals a few clues: downtown Atlanta, 275,000 square feet, not a sound stage but a location. Stranger Things was recently filmed there. He wants to turn it into a backlot and tourism destination, like Universal, as well as an incubation hub for tech and music.

“We don’t spread out the wealth and opportunities enough,” T.I. complains of deals like these. “Everybody want to be the one and leave everybody else out. I’m guilty of it too.”

He and Akeem are meeting the next day with at least one potential investor—at the ungodly hour of 10 a.m. “That’s a way to get a quick no out of me,” T.I. half-jokes. But he says he’ll be there. “I’m excited about it. It’s the biggest business deal I believe I’ve ever done.”

In hip-hop, a rap sheet can bring credibility and helps move records. But for the type of deals T.I.’s trying to cut now, an arrest has the opposite effect. As for his arrest the week earlier, his first in eight years, he chalks it up to yet another instance of racial injustice at the hands of police—and complains that it’s getting in the way of business.

T.I. throws a surprise party for his 17-year-old son Domani, with whom he was nominated for a Tony award.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

In the early morning hours of May 16, he arrived at the gate of the Henry County community where he lives. Eagles Landing boasts million-dollar homes, a 27-hole golf course, and “resort-style living.” T.I. is one of its higher-profile residents, but the security guard didn’t recognize him and wouldn’t let him in because he didn’t have his key. Eventually, T.I.’s wife of eight years, the R&B star Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, talked the guard into allowing him through. After he was home, he couldn’t let it go; he decided to walk back to the security booth, where he told the guard, “Come outside so we can deal with this man to man.” The guard called the cops, who arrested T.I. on charges of simple assault, disorderly conduct, and public drunkenness.

“The police officer locked me up because he got tired of hearing this black man talk about how much money he spent on his house,” he says. “He literally said to me, ‘I’m sick of hearing this shit,’ and put my hands behind me. I was telling the two employees of the complex that I paid $3 million for my house, and I paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for homeowners association fees. Where’s my money going? My money pays your salary. You work for me. You must report to me.”

If the same thing had happened to a white resident of Eagle’s Landing, he says, that person would not have been sitting in jail. He says that as a black man, each of your actions, from inconsequential to life-altering, is amplified. And he says that, as a black man who commands an audience as large as his, he’s obligated to draw as much attention as possible to instances of prejudice, to “be the example of what should be done in times of crisis, adversity, and oppression.” According to T.I., too many people fail to speak up. “I refuse to raise children in a world where that is the only type of person that exists.”

•   •   •

In the spring of 2018, 18-year-old Messiah Harris has a choice to make. He could continue to inhabit his comfort zone as a child of privilege living in the shadow of celebrity, or he could submit himself to the rigors of an environment that would challenge those privileges—at a college that would prepare him for the harsh realities he might one day face. He is sitting in a Morehouse conference room, across from two men who are lobbying hard for the latter. One of them is his father. The other is Alvin Darden, associate dean of the first-year experience, who was at Morehouse in 1968 when the body of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. arrived on campus for Dr. Benjamin E. Mays’s eulogy.

Messiah, T.I., and Domani attend the Los Angeles Global Premiere for Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Photograph by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

T.I. and his son have just wrapped up a two-hour private tour of Morehouse, and this sit-down is the grand finale. During the tour, they were schooled in the significance of “the Morehouse Man” (and the related Morehouse Mystique), as well as the Five Wells that the college demands of its students (well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, well-dressed, well-balanced). Morehouse specializes in preparing young black men for success by instilling ethics, building character, establishing a network, and offering a litany of intangibles that equip its students to succeed in a world that’s often hostile toward them. T.I. is well acquainted with those hostilities; his son, less so. That there is an institution devoted to overcoming them—an institution so physically close to the streets that reared him—is mesmerizing to T.I. At Morehouse, all the life lessons he learned the hard way could be instilled in his son more graciously. It’s as close as he can get to a guarantee that his son will replicate his success without duplicating his mistakes.

With each passing hour of the visit, it is clear that T.I. is growing more and more enamored of Morehouse. Later, as the night wears on, he will recount to anyone who will listen—his best friend, his wife, his other children—the most granular details he heard that day, down to the GPA of the undergrad who led the tour, his passion intensifying with each retelling.

But it seems that the greater the father’s conviction, the more entrenched the son’s ambivalence.

“The reason I’m even thinking about going to college is learning about business,” the mostly reticent Messiah explains early in the tour. “I want to know more about being my own boss.”

He’s talking to Keith Hollingsworth, PhD and cochair of Morehouse’s Division of Business Administration, who points out that the lessons Messiah would be taught at Morehouse go far beyond Economics 101. “You need to learn to talk to someone like me: white, middle-aged, and overweight.”

Hollingsworth goes on to explain that part of the Morehouse education is rooted in the classroom. The other part is rooted in a community that’s built to understand the needs, the potential, and the challenges of black men in America. “One class could have the grandson of a Nobel laureate,” Hollingsworth says, “and the son of a felon.”

The slightest of grins crosses T.I.’s face as he nods and lets loose an affirmative “Mmm.”

By the time father and son reach the conference room where Dean Darden is waiting, it seems as if T.I. will be the one signing up for classes. Messiah is all but silent as Darden makes the case that the more sacrifices he’s willing to make now, the more likely he is to find fulfillment later.

Nodding at T.I., Darden notes that though the rapper’s background might be unlike that of the traditional Morehouse Man, the similarities between the two are more profound than the differences. “He got where he is with a disciplined mind,” Darden says.

Turning to Messiah, he says: “I want to ask you two things. What is your passion”—here he allows a long pause before lowering his voice to nearly a whisper—“and what is your purpose?”

“Music is my passion,” Messiah replies. He hesitates over the second question. Darden assures Messiah he doesn’t need to know his purpose quite yet. That’s what Morehouse is for.

A thought occurs to T.I. “The trap house was my Morehouse,” he announces, as if testing a lyric. “It was a group of brothers, and we showed up, challenged each other’s ideas, and supported one another. The ideas might’ve been a bit different”—he breaks into a laugh—“but those things prepared me.” He says the trap taught him that when someone gets in your way, the proper response is: “I’ll tear your head off.”

“You have to have that tenacity,” he adds, “to maximize the potential of your greatness.”

But first, Messiah needs to figure out where to look. “Where are you gonna find your greatness?” T.I. asks his son. “Outside your comfort zone.”

This article appears in our August 2018 issue.

Georgia’s Vanishing Coast: With stronger storms, higher tides, and rising sea levels, how high will the water go?

Georgia's Vanishing Coast

On October 5, 2016, 18 hours prior to Hurricane Matthew’s anticipated arrival in south Georgia, Jeff Adams received an ominous message in his inbox. Adams has a background in extreme climate events; he’s helped Kansans prepare for flash floods and Idahoans for mudslides. As director of community development for St. Marys, Georgia, Adams’s job was to guide the low-lying town as it planned for storm surges and higher seas.

Founded in the late 1700s, the town is laid out on a grid on the north bank of the St. Marys River, which separates Georgia from Florida and empties into the ocean a few miles downstream. The historic district, dotted with live oak trees and hazy with Spanish moss, forms a peninsula. The river meets it at the south, and to the east and west, it’s surrounded by vast expanses of flat, grassy salt marsh, which fill with water twice a day as the tides rise. A century-old hotel looks across St. Marys Street to an active marina, a waterfront park, and the dock for the ferry that brings visitors to Cumberland Island National Seashore.

The PDF that showed up in Adams’s inbox, from the National Hurricane Center, depicted a brightly colored map of the projected storm surge from Matthew—the strongest hurricane to blow through the Caribbean in a generation, which was maintaining a course about 30 miles off the Atlantic coast of Florida and vacillating between a category 3 and a category 4. On the map, most of downtown St. Marys was blanketed in yellow, indicating water levels greater than three feet, with halos of orange for flooding of six feet or more. Patches of red—nine feet of water or higher—ringed the peninsula and formed a straight line running through the center of downtown, a marshy, low-lying area.

Inside his windowless office on Osborne Street, just a few blocks from the water, Adams could immediately visualize the damage: “There’s very little that’s going to be above water if we get hit.”

Matthew wreaked havoc up and down the Georgia coast, but in the end, St. Marys escaped the direst predictions Adams had contemplated. Yet, the town was hardly in the clear. Adams realized that the map, with its bright shock of deep water in the town center, provided a vision of another future, one St. Marys is inexorably approaching. Simply put, it reveals what the town will look like someday—first at high tides, and then, eventually, under regular conditions—as sea levels continue to rise.

Recently, in a conference room next to his office in the St. Marys municipal building, Adams compared maps of rising sea levels to projections of the Hurricane Matthew storm surge. Turning to the rising sea levels map, he said: “We’re not looking at 50 years out. We’re looking at the next storm. It’s almost identical.” Three to six feet is the general range of sea level rise that scientists and city planners anticipate for the Georgia coast by the end of the century, a likelihood that towns like St. Marys are beginning to grapple with. “The historic area,” Adams said, “that’s pretty much gone at six feet.”

On the Georgia coast, which spans 100 miles between Savannah and St. Marys, two things have become apparent during the last decade: Climate change is coming, and it’s already here. Due to natural cycles in the global climate, the planet has been warming for centuries and the seas inching up; what’s more recently apparent is that, as humans release carbon into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, the rate of increase is accelerating. “We’re beginning to realize we were on a real slow linear trend, and over the last two or three decades, all the points are going above that line,” said Dr. Mark Risse, the director of the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “We’re not on a linear path anymore.”

More flooding is afflicting the region, not just during extreme weather but, increasingly, during king tides—high tides that coincide with a full or new moon. These tides can cover the streets of St. Marys, Brunswick, or low-elevation parts of Savannah in otherwise fine weather conditions (the phenomenon is also called sunny-day flooding) with consequences that range from annoying to dangerous. The only road out to Tybee Island—a flat stretch between the Savannah River and the salt marsh—experienced tidal flooding a record 23 times in 2015. It’s projected that with just one foot of sea rise, it will be underwater 100 times annually.

“We’re not looking at 50 years out. We’re looking at the next storm.”

These glimpses of the future are becoming ever more vivid. Matthew was followed last September, less than a year later, by Hurricane Irma, whose outer winds lashed coastal Georgia with the force of a tropical storm. What’s remarkable about Irma is that it wasn’t an especially bad storm; it was just spectacularly ill-timed. Hitting around midday on a Monday, the storm coincided with a king tide, creating close to a five-foot surge in certain places and swells of up to 15 feet. River Street, Savannah’s popular tourist thoroughfare, ended up under several feet of water. Marshes overflowed onto the streets of Tybee.

The surge rose to 18 inches in downtown St. Marys, causing millions of dollars of damage from which the town is still recovering. The storm disabled the Cumberland Island ferry dock and sank or grounded 39 boats.

If the last decade’s increased tidal flooding initiated a conversation about the changing sea, the hurricane double-header of 2016 and 2017 added a couple of exclamation points. But while the effects of storms will be more severe with climate change, Georgia’s vulnerability to them isn’t new—to the surprise of residents of the coast, where a long period of calm had nurtured a belief that those things don’t happen here. Before Matthew hit in 2016, Georgia hadn’t experienced such a storm since the late 19th century. “In the last 50 years of the 1800s, we had more storms than we did in the next 115 years,” said Dr. Clark Alexander, a coastal geologist and the director of the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.

Two punishing storms in the 1890s, in particular, changed the face of the coast both socially and physically. The evidence can be seen on Ossabaw, an uninhabited barrier island just south of Savannah. It was once home to a small community of formerly enslaved people, Gullah-Geechee farmers and fishermen, who were driven to the mainland by hurricanes in 1896 and 1898. They settled the marshside village of Pin Point. The 1898 hurricane was so powerful that it blew into place a long, high sand ridge that still exists on Ossabaw. The landscape was again reshaped by Hurricane Matthew, whose winds pushed the dunes all the way from Bradley Point, on the island’s north end, to a beach on the south, cutting 40 vertical feet of dune down to 10. Of course, on Ossabaw, it makes little difference which way the sands shift. Hardly anyone lives there. But elsewhere, the situation is more complicated.

Georgia's Vanishing Coast - flooding on Tybee Island
A Crab Shack employee maneuvers through the flooding on Tybee Island after Hurricane Matthew.

AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton

On St. Simons Island, Paula Eubanks walked along a wide beach she couldn’t recall from her youth; the sand has built up slowly over time. Eubanks, a St. Simons resident and a retired professor of art education, grew up in nearby Jesup. On Sundays, her family would make the hourlong drive to St. Simons or to Jekyll Island, where they swam or picnicked or caught crabs in the tidal streams. “St. Simons was quaint—little, wooden houses,” she said. “They weren’t air conditioned, and there were a lot of mosquitoes.”

As Eubanks made her way along East Beach, she dodged spring-breakers and surveyed how the land had changed. And how it was about to change. East Beach looks across a small inlet to the private community of Sea Island, the wealthiest zip code in Georgia. From the southernmost end of Sea Island projects a vanishingly narrow sand spit that’s been the subject of contention. After a legal battle with environmentalists, Sea Island recently got the go-ahead to construct a groin: a rock wall perpendicular to the shore that prevents sand from blowing or washing away, thereby preserving the tiny, sea-blasted strip for the construction of eight proposed homes. The empty lots, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, are worth between $3.5 million and $5.5 million.

“There’s something about us as humans that makes us think we’re required to look at the water,” Eubanks said. “Water trumps all the other views. Everybody wants to live on the water. And I get it. I’m just like them.” Eubanks lives near the ocean and looks at the water with a photographer’s eye. She’s worked often as a collagist, scalpeling pieces of pictures apart and putting them back together (formerly by hand and more recently with Photoshop). These days, Eubanks is working on a series that imagines—or predicts—what the water will look like when it has invaded various places along the Georgia coast, mostly historic sites on islands like Cumberland and St. Simons.

When she began making the series a couple of years ago, Eubanks did extensive reading on sea-level rise, poring over reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body that surveys climate research. She later consulted with a friend on St. Simons, a geologist named Jim Renner, to estimate the year at which water will reach the places it does in her artwork. Taking pictures recently at a historic fort in northeast Florida, Eubanks noted how high the water gets now. “I had to stand there and think: About how many feet is that from the floor of this fort? And how will the water get in?” The collages are quietly fantastical works, in which the past and the probable future crash together into what plausibly could be the present. In one piece, the door of a remaining slave cabin on Ossabaw Island opens out to the beach. “Of course, the beach is not right outside,” Eubanks said. “But I don’t think it’s going to take much for the beach to get there.”

The movement of the seas created the Georgia shore—its barrier islands and its marshes that disappear into the horizon. Oceans fall and rise on a natural cycle roughly every 20,000 years; the coastline used to reach Macon and Augusta. Over geologic time, this has created many beachfronts, the contours of which are visible in an aerial view of the uninhabited islands. You see successive ridges where each beach has been; islands like Ossabaw look like the back of a mossy seashell, a series of sandy ridges representing each time the shore settled into a new configuration.

But humans have thrown a couple of wrenches in the works. Further warming the climate with carbon emissions, we’ve, in essence, sped up the cycle. In the 20th century, the sea rose a little more than 3.2 millimeters a year, adding about one foot of water cumulatively, whereas experts who study the Georgia coast forecast at least three times that—one meter of rise—in the 21st century and possibly more. The uncertainty relates to how quickly the world can reduce its reliance on fossil fuels as well as to scientists’ developing understanding of the Antarctic ice sheet, whose collapse could raise average global sea levels 15 meters by 2500. That event would play out slowly in human years but transpire in an instant of geological time, and it would mean nothing less than a redrawing of the map of the planet. A 2017 flood resiliency report created for the town of St. Marys by Georgia Sea Grant cites broad scientific agreement on approximately 3.3 feet of rise in coastal Georgia, while acknowledging the possibility of twice that—6.6 feet—depending on the intermediate future of the ice caps.

Tybee graphicMeanwhile, we’ve placed buildings in—or otherwise gotten in the way of—the ecosystems that might absorb some of the water this warming will bring. Take Lewis Avenue, a pretty street of small homes on the backside of Tybee Island. “Lewis Avenue is the poster child for people in the wrong place,” said Paul Wolff, a former Tybee city councilman. When it was built out in the 1950s, nobody had any inkling of what was to come. The highest point on Tybee is Butler Avenue, the main commercial strip, which runs along an old sand ridge. Lewis Avenue is behind it, at lower elevation and between two marshes. “It’s an isthmus, basically,” Wolff said.

Fran Galloway moved to Lewis Avenue in 2009. Originally from Atlanta, she spent her career in television, working for CMT in Nashville for 13 years. She came to Tybee, semiretired, when it was still possible to believe in the overall placidity of the Georgia coast. She had lived in Savannah in the 1980s while working for WSAV and didn’t remember any particularly bad weather; researching the subject before returning in 2009, she learned the area hadn’t been hit by a hurricane in more than a century. Lewis Avenue is set back from the tourist hubbub that characterizes much of the island. Because so many of its houses are filled with homeowners rather than vacationers, it’s known at Halloween as “Trick or Treat Street” and draws costumers from as far away as Hilton Head. The houses on Lewis are mostly one-story, slab on grade, and built for working people. Galloway’s next-door neighbors have lived in their home for 49 years and “never got a drop” indoors, she said. Until the hurricanes.

Galloway lives across the street from a glimpse of her future: A neighbor’s house is being raised above the floodplain, stacked on wooden pilings that look like giant Jenga blocks. Galloway’s house has been flooded twice—first Matthew, then Irma. The first wasn’t bad, but in the second, the water reached four feet up the walls. Galloway didn’t evacuate during Irma. She went to another neighbor’s home and sat on the second-story porch, where she watched the water come running up both sides of the street—from both marshes. “It was so mesmerizing,” she said. Returning to her house, she found splash marks on the walls where the rising waters met.

Galloway’s house is in an initial batch for which Tybee Island is seeking a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to lift above the floodplain. In her living room, the walls are stripped down to the studs, with insulation packed only into the top half of the frame. Contractors will drive steel beams through the midsection, so everything from four feet on down needs to be bare. Still, Galloway has reinstalled cupboards in the kitchen and plans to put up beadboard on the walls in the rest of the rooms—for her “mental health,” she said. (It’ll be easy to pop off when the time comes.) The house looks so comfortably lived-in now that there’s a sense of industrial chic about it; after a while, you can imagine the bare boards as an affectation rather than a disaster’s aftermath. It could be two years until Galloway’s house is lifted. That’s two hurricane seasons, at least, between now and when she will be safely out of the floodplain. The waiting has created its own vocabulary: “When I’m raised,” she said a couple of times. “I just don’t want to watch the Weather Channel,” Galloway said and laughed. “I’ll pray, and I’ll prepare, and that’s about all I can do. And just wait to be raised. If you’re not raised, you’re just going to have to deal with it all over again.”

In Georgia, Tybee Island has been on the front lines of climate change adaptation planning. In 2016, the city ratified a plan, created with assistance from Georgia Sea Grant, that involves placing tide gates on stormwater outfalls, protecting municipal wellheads from saltwater intrusion, and eventually raising Highway 80. St. Marys followed suit. Its own adaptation planning involves an upgraded municipal sewer system and various projects to help drain off some of the water that inundates the city. “What we’re trying to do is use low-impact or green infrastructure—permeable paving, rain gardens to collect the water—to absorb these inundations,” said Adams, the city planner.

In a coast-long congressional district represented by a Republican who says the science is unclear on fossil fuels and global warming, those advocating for adaptation planning have succeeded by focusing on effects rather than causes. But their success also shows how climate politics tend to get scrambled when the problem literally expresses itself in constituents’ backyards. Former councilman Wolff, whom a friend described as “a silver-haired environmentalist from the old days,” said, “We did our best to depoliticize the whole thing. We said, ‘look, we’re not going to argue about whether climate change is happening or whether we’re accelerating the process. We’re just here to talk about what we see, which is: The road’s underwater more often.’”

Planners agree it’s most productive to think incrementally. Tybee and St. Marys are both peering about a half-century into the future: the most practical time line, and one that stops short of the unimaginable. And later on? “Unless we build a bulkhead around the entire island, which would effectively destroy the beach, we’re just going to have to move inland,” Wolff said. “We will not have an option within 150, 200 years.”

People will have to move landward, and so will entire ecosystems. Higher oceans will push everything up. Saltwater will encroach into freshwater marshes, turning them to salt marshes and nudging the freshwater marshes themselves to higher ground—at least in a vision of the future in which the marshes have time and room to move.

South across the bridge from the small fishing town of Darien, near where the Altamaha River empties into the ocean, the wetlands scientist Christopher Craft has spent the last six years studying what happens when saltwater intrudes on fresh. When he launched SALTex in 2011—it stands for Seawater Addition Long-Term Experiment—Craft created a grid of experimental field plots in a freshwater marsh on the north bank of one of the Altamaha’s distributaries. Almost hidden by the tall marsh grass, a narrow plastic-lumber boardwalk runs alongside 30 2.5-meter plots, separated from one another by siding driven into the mud. Craft’s study site sits in the shadow of Interstate 95, across a dirt road from a series of duck impoundments. If you put on noise-blocking headphones, this would be a deeply peaceful scene; in early spring, the giant cutgrass dominating the ecosystem was a pale yellow-brown, and bony cypress trees on the riverbanks were draped in Spanish moss and just starting to leaf out.

SALTex is part of the University of Georgia Marine Institute’s Long-Term Ecological Research project, funded by the National Science Foundation and housed on nearby Sapelo Island. For four years, three or four times a week, research technician Dontrece Smith would wake at his home on Sapelo, take the ferry to the mainland, and fill a truck with seawater. Then, he would drive to the study site, dilute the saltwater in the truck with freshwater from the river—to mimic brackish conditions—and dump it into the study plots. The idea is to see what effect this would have on soil and plant life in the marsh.

Craft experimented with two treatments, one that he called a press (a year-round brackish assault) and the other a pulse (doses only in September and October). “I use the analogy of, a press is like somebody who smokes two packs a day,” he said. Craft speaks with an amiable North Carolina drawl and did his PhD work in salt-marsh restoration. “A pulse is like somebody who doesn’t smoke except when they go to the bar on Friday night.” The press treatments provide a glimpse of how the marsh will react to saltwater inundation as seas rise; the pulse plots model brief, receding hits, like a hurricane’s storm surge.

“I don’t think climate change is going to be this gradual kind of thing. It’s going to be punctuated.”

About a third of the remaining salt marsh on the U.S. East Coast is in Georgia, whose shoreline—including most of the barrier islands—is largely undeveloped. The islands are separated from the mainland by 368,000 acres of undulating marshes, which act as a nursery for shrimp and crab. Beyond their value to Georgia’s seafood industry, marshes provide a range of environmental benefits, including the ability to store carbon that would otherwise enter the atmosphere. “Wetlands on a per-area basis sequester more carbon than any kind of ecosystem,” Craft said. As seas rise, one question is whether the salt marshes will be able to migrate—whether their sentinel species, spartina alterniflora, will be able to establish itself upland before the ecosystem is drowned. “If you kill the fresh plants, and the brackish plants don’t get there fast enough, you could end up with open water,” Craft said.

In his experiment, he found that plants died in the plots subject to sustained brackish treatment—the press plots. No surprise there. He’s focusing on the less obvious effects, like the nitrogen and phosphorus that dying plants release into the water (which could cause downstream algae blooms) or the loss in soil elevation that occurs as the plants’ roots biodegrade. In Craft’s press plots, the root loss has caused the soil to fall two inches in four years—a condition that, in an uncontrolled site, would further invite the rising sea.

Most barrier islands are held in conservation of some sort, and the salt marshes are protected by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. These physical assets provide a buffer between us and the rising sea. It’s hard to think of a scenario in which climate change will devastate coastal Georgia to the extent it will South Florida, where development extends all the way to the shoreline. Still, this world will shrink. Coastal planners are trying to balance the need to give the marsh room to move with the increasing demands that people are placing on the coast. By 2030, the population of Georgia’s coastal counties is projected to be 50 percent larger than it was in 2000, exacerbating the already considerable pressure on the ecosystem. People who live on waterfront or marshfront property, meanwhile, will be tempted to armor their shorelines against rising tide and increasing erosion. Hitting those walls, the marsh will drown. Charles McMillan, the coastal director of the Georgia Conservancy, said, “From an engineering standpoint, you can raise a road. But there’s a lot more difficult issues when you’re trying to defend an entire landscape.”

Given enough time, the marsh can adjust; it has for millennia, with the inward and outward movement of the shoreline. The extent to which it will be able to make the necessary adjustments in the face of new challenges—the sand-spit development, the coastline armoring, the ocean levels gone off their linear path—is “the million-dollar question,” said Jan Mackinnon, a biologist for the DNR’s Coastal Resources Division in Brunswick. “How exactly will things change? It’s been very impressive, all of the brain power that’s gone in to trying to figure that out. But at the same time, no one really knows.”

Alexander, the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography director, said the marsh’s future “depends on what you think about how far sea level’s going to rise. If you go to two meters by 2100, the marsh is toast.”

Craft’s SALTex sites received their last treatment of saltwater in December, but the experiment will continue for another several years. Now, Craft will focus on how the freshwater marshes recover—which species grow back, for instance, and how quickly. In the pulse plots (the “occasional smokers”), the real-world utility of this knowledge is obvious. Craft is studying how coastal ecosystems respond to changing climate conditions we’re already seeing: periods of drought, or storm surges that are becoming fiercer and more frequent—they push inland, they dump a bunch of saltwater, and then, they’re gone. What happens next? And how will the marsh bounce back if it happens again and again?

“I don’t think climate change is going to be this gradual kind of thing,” Craft said. “It’s going to be punctuated: You have a hurricane like Matthew. And then you get another one like Irma a year later. And maybe you get a third one in the next two years. Then, you’re going to start seeing effects.”

The 2018 hurricane season began June 1. The chances a major storm will hit the U.S. mainland this year, meteorologists figure, are better than average.

This article appears in our June 2018 issue.

U2 in Atlanta: An oral history of the band and the city’s shared journey

They didn’t play there, but Edge, Bono, Mullen, and Clayton (left to right) posed for photos outside the long-shuttered Sans Souci lounge on West Peachtree in 1981.

Photograph by Adrian Boot

On a muggy May evening in 1981, a group of musicians pulled up to the curb across from the Fox Theatre and started lugging their instruments into a nightclub where the Georgian Terrace parking deck now stands. Until 1979, the venue had been known as Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom, and hosted Fleetwood Mac, Patti Smith, and Bruce Springsteen, among others. Its replacement, the Agora Ballroom, was a cavernous room where the four young men from the north side of Dublin—singer Paul “Bono” Hewson; bassist Adam Clayton; guitarist David “The Edge” Evans; and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., none older than 21—introduced Atlanta to their debut album, Boy, a collection of post-punk anthems that contrasted sharply with the New Wave dance beats, soft rock, and soul ballads crowding the Top 40 at the time.

Seven months later, the band was back for a second show. In a 1981 interview with Bono for Muzik! magazine, Atlanta journalist Tony Paris wrote about the frontman’s desire to be heard on mainstream radio and for fans to leave room for his lyrics—about defiance, God, the death of his mother—to “sink in.” British photographer Adrian Boot, who toured with the band that autumn, captured images of U2 members mugging along West Peachtree Street in front of the former Sans Souci club, a jukebox dealership, and an old-school filling station. The next night, the band shook the Agora rafters with the single “I Will Follow” twice during its 60-minute set. Today, listening to a YouTube bootleg of that concert from 37 years ago reveals just how little U2’s core sound and spiritual evocations have changed in almost four decades.

Atlanta, a forgettable stop to less perceptive musicians from across the pond, offered a complicated soul, divided by its Civil War past, civil rights present, and global aspirations. When U2 played the Agora on December 1, 1981, the city was coping with the aftermath of the Atlanta child murders. Later that same month, former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young celebrated his victory in the recent mayoral election runoff; Ted Turner’s fledgling CNN network was revolutionizing international news; the CDC developed the first definitions for a disease it would soon label AIDS; and the roar of jet blasts from the newly expanded Hartsfield airport, which would evolve into the world’s busiest, hummed in the distance. Atlanta went on to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, emerge as a center for global health initiatives, and grow a multibillion dollar film and music industry. For its part, U2 would become one of the biggest acts in rock history. On May 28, the band returns for its 15th concert here (at the Infinite Energy Center) in support of its 14th album, Songs of Experience, a mature counterpoint to the adolescent ruminations of Boy. Today, U2 writes and plays as if America is still there to be conquered, and at age 58, Bono’s lyrics about love and mortality also contemplate the fraught politics of the Trump era.

U2’s intersections with Atlanta over the years have gone beyond the city as a requisite tour stop. For a band from Europe intent on deconstructing the myth of America, Atlanta—its imperfect icons, its musicians, its leaders—has been a specific, if rarely noticed, part of U2’s journey, not only for the city’s social justice movements of the past but for the present, too. In anticipation of U2’s first Atlanta concert in nine years, two generations of Georgians talk about the band.

Early days, Unforgettable fire, and the reach of Live Aid

Between 1981 and 1983, U2 performed four times in Atlanta. In 1984, the band released its fourth studio album, The Unforgettable Fire. The recording contained two songs—“Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “MLK”—about Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy fascinated Bono after a writer at Rolling Stone gifted him a copy of the King biography, Let the Trumpet Sound.

John Lewis was an Atlanta city councilmember at the time.

John Lewis (U.S. congressman; civil rights leader): I don’t remember the exact moment I heard “Pride (In the Name of Love),” but I’m sure it was right after the song came out. I identified with [U2’s songs] because of the similarities I recognized between [situations] in America and in Northern Ireland. They had a Bloody Sunday there, similar to the Bloody Sunday we had in Selma. The struggle for freedom and liberation is universal.

On April 29, 1985, when U2 rolled into the Omni on the Unforgettable Fire tour to play its biggest Atlanta show to date, the city had just hosted the inaugural International AIDS Conference. The band also made a visit to the King Center.

Tony Paris (Freelance writer and former editor of Creative Loafing): By the time U2 played the Omni, the band could command the money it needed to put on a well-conceived show using the latest technology. It was chilling to watch them play “Pride” with photographs of MLK projected behind them. But I had to laugh, remembering what Bono said to me only four years earlier: “Tony, U2 is not a political band.” Maybe not in governmental terms, I thought, but they (or, at least Bono, in his lyrics) were certainly now engaging in what French philosopher Michel Foucault might have called political spirituality.

In the 2005 book, U2 by U2, Bono recalled that he had flown his father, Bob Hewson, from Ireland for the Omni show. When Bono took a limousine to Hartsfield to fetch his father, Bob balked at the vehicle, so they switched to a taxi. Backstage after the show, Bono saw his father approach him. “This is a moment I’ve waited for all my life,” Bono wrote. “My father was going to tell me he loved me. He walked up, put his hand out, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Son, you’re very professional!’”

Eight weeks after the Omni show, on June 22, 1985, U2 played on a bill with Athens band R.E.M. at the Longest Day music festival in Milton Keynes, U.K. Bono would recall meeting Michael Stipe for the first time as “that dance when two contemporaries kind of work around each other.” The friendship grew into what Bono labeled “one of the most important of my life.” On July 6-7, 1985, U2 and R.E.M. played at the Rock Torhout/Rock Werchter festivals in Belgium.

Mike Mills (bassist, R.E.M. cofounder): U2 was big before we were, so they were the festival headliner, and we were playing earlier in the day, but we rode in and out [of the festival site] with them on their bus. Everybody took turns singing songs and Irish folk ballads.

Less than a week later, U2 performed in London on July 13 to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief as part of Live Aid, a televised concert broadcast which reached one-third of the world’s population and launched the band into super stardom.

Michelle Nunn (CEO and president of CARE; former CEO of Points of Light/Hands On Atlanta): In the summer of 1985, I had just finished high school and was preparing for college. The performances at Live Aid [including U2] fit the zeitgeist of the moment. The concert inspired my belief that collective action—literally joining hands—could help change the world. Seeing this activism prompted me to imagine how I could be a part of creating change.

Conspiracy of Hope Tour, Joshua Tree, Zoo TV at the Georgia Dome

U2 returned to Atlanta in 1986 as part of Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope Tour, which supported releasing prisoners of conscience worldwide. U2 was writing its fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree. The day before the show, Amnesty held a press conference at the King Center, attended by Coretta Scott King; that night, Bono and Larry Mullen, Jr. jammed with members of Lou Reed’s and Peter Gabriel’s bands in the hotel bar at the Ramada Plaza downtown.

U2 returned to the Omni in December 1987 for two shows in support of the Joshua Tree. The following year, the band paid homage to the American South as part of the Phil Joanou–directed documentary (and album of the same name), Rattle and Hum. By the time the Berlin-recorded stylistic departure called Achtung Baby was released in 1991 and the band hit the road in North America in 1992, the first Gulf War had come and gone, John Lewis was in his third term as a congressman, Maynard Jackson was Atlanta’s mayor once again, and Bono, behind thick shades and his new alter-egos The Fly, Mirror Ball Man, and MacPhisto, had begun prank calling the White House from the stage most nights during concerts on the “Zoo TV tour.” U2 played the Omni in March 1992 and returned that September to headline the first rock show at the newly built Georgia Dome with opening act Public Enemy and Big Audio Dynamite.

Peter Conlon (president of Live Nation Atlanta): Alex [Cooley] and I wanted to make sure that we booked the first show there, and we wanted it to be special, so we asked U2. 50,000 people. Maybe the biggest show ever in Atlanta at that time, because Fulton County Stadium couldn’t hold those kind of numbers, nor Grant Field. It sold out right away.

Thomas Wheatley (articles editor at Atlanta magazine): I was 12 years old. I was amazed at the stage: I remember cars on cranes, massive video screens, and platforms—all for a four-piece band. My mom let me buy a ridiculous amount of lighters on the off-chance everyone lit them during “One.” They did, so we did. The drunk woman standing in front of us had permed hair, and I accidentally lit a strand on fire. She didn’t notice. I don’t know why, but we left early—we must have had school the next day—while they played “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Walking through the basically empty corridors of the Georgia Dome made me feel like I was in the end credits of a movie.

Chuck D (cofounder of Public Enemy; member of Prophets of Rage): I knew what Bono had to say about King, and he knew what I had to say. We weren’t going to sit around and talk about it. Bono comes along with the crew from Dublin and visits [Dr. King’s] crypt, which was becoming part of the tapestry of Atlanta at that time and almost [an afterthought] for people who already lived there. Anything Bono decided to do, especially as an outsider traveling in the American South at that time, I appreciated his effort. That tour taught Public Enemy so much about how tours should be run, and it was our first engagement with gigantic venues. Plus, we will always get to say we were the first artists to play in the Georgia Dome.

U2 R.E.M
Bono performs with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. in 2002.

Photograph by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

PopMart, friendship with R.E.M., Elevation Tour

As R.E.M. became U2’s rival for the title of “biggest band in the world,” the relationship between the bands strengthened. In 1993, not long before U2 released Zooropa, members of both bands performed at an inaugural ball for Bill Clinton, forming a one-night-only group, Automatic Baby.

Bertis Downs (attorney and advisor to R.E.M.): There had been a late-night hotel bar session a couple of nights before—Michael Stipe really loved the U2 song, “One.” Michael and Mike [Mills] were up late singing it together, and the idea came up of perhaps playing it at the MTV Ball with the two U2 guys in town (bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.). They thought, “We could do this.” The next day, calls were made and a rehearsal was arranged. We wanted to keep it a secret, which was possible before Facebook and Twitter. They performed it at the ball as Automatic Baby [referencing U2’s 1991 album, Achtung Baby, and R.E.M.’s 1992 album, Automatic for the People]. Four minutes, unannounced, and that was it.

In 1997, U2 performed its PopMart tour at the Georgia Dome, with Bono also devoting his time to Jubilee 2000, the campaign for wealthy countries to wipe clean old debts owed to them by poor countries. In its January 2000 issue, Newsweek asked, sarcastically, “Can Bono Save the Third World?” U2 released All That You Can’t Leave Behind that October, eight days before the election of George W. Bush.

U2 played two Elevation Tour shows at Philips Arena in 2001, one in March and one in November, bookending the terrorist attacks of September 11. An allotment of general admission floor tickets meant fans could get up close and personal with the band in a way they hadn’t been able to do since the early 1980s.

Tai Anderson (President of the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy; former bassist for Grammy-winning band Third Day): When U2 came to Atlanta in 2001, I camped out all day long with the other fans so I could get a good spot on the floor “inside the heart” (the stage featured a heart-shaped catwalk). It was ironic, because Third Day had already performed our own shows in front of thousands of people. We would later headline Philips Arena ourselves, but we were fans, too. A few months after their second Philips Arena show that year, U2 played the Super Bowl and scrolled the names of the lives lost on 9/11. In that moment, U2 showed us what America means to the rest of the world.

Mike Mills: U2 had come into town on their night off before the 2001 show. We had a dinner party at my house in Athens. I gave a toast about how great it was to have friends who had walked alongside us on a similar path for all of these years, because we could always look to each other for inspiration. I go see U2 shows, and it makes me want to write a better song or be a better musician. R.E.M. always thought being in a band was like being in your own little gang. Those are the friends you turn to in difficult times, and you always have each other’s backs. U2 and R.E.M. came from the same point of origin in terms of why we were in a band. It was really supportive to have them going through the world at the same time as we did.

U2 Coretta Scott King
Bono kisses Coretta Scott King during a 2004 news conference in Atlanta. Bono was honored by the King Center during their annual Salute to Greatness awards dinner.

Photograph by Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

Salute To Greatness Award, ONE, Vertigo, 360 Tour

In January 2002, Bono and Bobby Shriver founded DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa), funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In March, Bono visited George W. Bush at the White House to discuss AIDS, and the following January, Bush announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a health initiative that would also raise the profile of the Atlanta-based CDC. Bono’s charitable work increasingly intersected with Atlanta leaders.

Helene Gayle (CEO of Chicago Community Trust; former CEO of CARE): Lots of celebrities get involved with philanthropy, but Bono stands out because he goes deep on policy. He knows about storytelling. I talk in wonkish terms, but he taps into the human spirit.

On January 17, 2004, the King Center honored Bono with the Salute to Greatness Award. Bono, in his acceptance speech, spoke of how the Irish “despaired for the lack of vision of the kind Dr. King offered people in the South in their struggle. . . . I wrote ‘Pride (In the Name of Love),’ in a way out of that feeling.” Coretta Scott King died in 2006, but Bernice King, youngest child of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. and CEO of the King Center, says her mother was especially fond of Bono.

Bernice King: There are few people in life [outside of our family] whom my mother took to and saw as a son of sorts. Bono is one of those. She found him fascinating. She was a little giddy. She must have picked something up in his spirit that attracted her.

The King Center hosted Bono, John Lewis, and Chris Tucker in a roundtable with AIDS activists, doctors, and scientists to discuss how to tackle the AIDS epidemic in Africa and rethink the impact of international aid.

David Ray (vice president for policy and advocacy of CARE): At that point, we were coming out of the post-9/11 era, which was a time when the U.S. was still looking inward and the world felt like a place in chaos. There was a group of about nine of us international humanitarian organizations who got together to discuss how the U.S. engages in the world and how to help with the AIDS crisis, poverty, and hunger. [Along with DATA and the Christian advocacy organization Bread for the World], we became part of the framework for Bono’s organization, ONE.

ONE is a nonpartisan organization cofounded by Bono in 2004 which lobbies governments to fund disease eradication and poverty reduction in poor countries. ONE and CARE advocates engaged both John Lewis and Georgia’s U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson in cosponsoring bipartisan legislation around food security and public-private partnerships in Africa. Third Day also became involved with ONE. Since 2004, U2 has released four albums, played two nights at Philips Arena on its 2005 “Vertigo tour” and returned to the Georgia Dome in 2009 with the “360 tour.” On December 1, 2011–thirty years after U2 played its second Atlanta show at the Agora–Coca-Cola announced a partnership with (RED), Bono’s product initiative to fight AIDS. That same day, Bono attended a World AIDS Day event in Washington, D.C. with President Obama alongside CARE’s Helene Gayle, CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, and Coca-Cola’s Muhtar Kent. In 2016, Bono met Jimmy Carter when both men were honored for their humanitarian work.

Tai Anderson: Bono and Jimmy Carter were two of my heroes growing up. Their faith drove them. As Christians, we believe that Jesus taught us to love God and to love our neighbor, and for both Carter and Bono, loving your neighbor has never been determined by lines on a map. Especially in the world we live in today, your neighbor is every human being. Jesus didn’t teach “God and Country,” he taught “God and Neighbor.”

This article appears in our May 2018 issue.

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