The sheer volume of news coverage leading up to Georgia’s January 5 runoff—from general election drama and numerous recounts to President Donald Trump’s pressuring of state officials—has been overwhelming. As Georgia flipped blue on Election Day for the first time since 1992, many across the country suddenly became aware of what those of us living here have known for years—Georgia is changing, and it is absolutely a political battleground.
Now that Georgia has captivated national attention, who better to explain this political phenomenon than the residents and journalists who have been living and working here? That was the primary goal of Gaining Ground: The New Georgia, a five-part podcast hosted by Atlanta natives Rembert Browne and Jewel Wicker. The podcast—which chronicles Georgia’s blue flip in the context of the 2018 gubernatorial election, the 2020 presidential election, and the upcoming senate runoff—is a collaboration between two of the biggest names in podcasting: Tenderfoot TV, the Atlanta-based company behind Up and Vanished and Monster, and Crooked Media, best known for Pod Save America. As such, the podcast has a built-in national audience, giving Browne and Wicker a chance to introduce the country to Georgians on the ground—not just A-list names who are already familiar outside the state.
“We actually covered our bases and didn’t just do the things I think the podcast could have been, which was, Let’s find the biggest names we can find, and the shiniest people we can find, and do a very surface-level vanity project because everyone’s looking at Georgia,” Browne says. “I feel like we actually have been super purposeful in the voices that we’re bringing in and the story we’re weaving.”
Since its release on December 17, the podcast has consistently ranked on Apple Podcasts’ top 20 chart and held the No. 1 spot in its “government” category. We chatted last week with Browne—who has written for publications including Grantland, New York, the New York Times, and the Ringer—and Wicker—who has written for GQ, Billboard, Teen Vogue, and is a frequent contributor to this magazine—about how the podcast began, the importance of looking outside Atlanta, and the challenges of reporting a story without a clear ending. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
How did this podcast come together?
Browne: I got a call from [Pod Save America host] Tommy Vietor, who I’ve known for a while. I thought he was calling to just see what’s up. He mentioned that [Crooked Media was] looking to do a podcast with Tenderfoot. I was interested because [Tenderfoot does] true crime but is based in Georgia. Crooked does politics, but has never really focused on Georgia like this. I was staring down the holidays and actually about to take some time off from work, so I was a little hesitant, but then I remembered I had been wanting to do something that, hopefully, was impactful about keeping the energy up [for the] runoff.
When I talked to Donald [Albright, Tenderfoot’s co-founder], the first thing I said was like, Hey, I would love to do this, but I would love it if we could bring in someone else to help with writing and hosting. Jewel was the first person I thought of. Once Jewel was in and [Tenderfoot and Crooked] seemed to be down to really let us have a real say in the direction of the podcast, I was like, Yeah, let’s do it. I feel like [all of that] happened in like 48 hours. It happened a week before episode one came out.
The first episode of the podcast talks a lot about the 2018 gubernatorial race, and the second episode sets up the political atmosphere in 2020, moving to Election Day in episode three, and then to the runoff. The final episode will air one week after the runoff. What has it been like for you to report this story in real time as a weekly podcast?
Browne: I love projects that have a defined, definite end, [but] it is really interesting to know that we really have no idea what that last episode is going to be like, because it’s really dependent on what happens [on January 5]. I’ve never been a part of a project like that. So it’s madness, but it’s also extremely exhilarating, and I think it’s forcing us to really tap into lots of journalistic tools that we’ve been gathering over the years to try to pull this off.
How did you decide whom to feature on the podcast?
Wicker: We only wanted to do this [podcast] if we could make it as local as possible and bring in [as many] Georgia voices as possible. So, let’s not have a [national] pundit when we could have a local reporter who works for the paper, who has been on the ground covering this for years, not just months. And credit to [Albright] and our producers, because they’ve been really great at letting us do that. I think one of the first things we did was make a list of voices that we thought were really important, from reporters to organizers to everyday people. And for the most part, the voices we said were important have been included. I think that’s what has made [the podcast] interesting for people who don’t live in Georgia, but still feel local enough for people who live [here] to feel attached to it.
Browne: We didn’t want it to be, Look at us, look at us. We wanted it to be, Look at everything else. It’s very clear that we want this to be about the people who didn’t just wake up a couple of weeks ago and be like, Oh, we care about Georgia. Our focus has been [on those who have been] really thinking about this and busting their ass for years to get us to a point where we can have a podcast like this.
I think it’s telling, too, that the podcast doesn’t just focus on what is happening in Atlanta, but features interviews with leaders in Savannah and Albany, and reminds folks that the cities and towns outside Atlanta are no less important.
Wicker: I think that was something that was a number one priority for me. A few weeks before I signed on to do this project, I had done another article about Black organizers [in Georgia]. I talked to a young woman who had been organizing in Albany, who talked about organizing for not only the senate runoff, but also for the public service commissioner runoff. She said something that really stood out to me, like, I can’t organize here by saying we want to get the film and TV makers who are big business and all those things. That’s not going to bring people to the polls, because that’s not what people in Albany care about. I have to tailor my message to them. If we were going to talk about Georgia, we couldn’t just make it seem like Atlanta was the only place in Georgia that mattered, or the only place that has Black people, or the only place where these organizers are focusing, because that’s not true. Organizing is very, very different if you’re in a community where there’s low broadband [access]. You have to do things differently. Stacey Abrams had to go on the gospel radio stations to meet fans. I just didn’t think we would be telling the story right if we weren’t encompassing all of that.
Browne: For me, it’s part of an ongoing process of confronting some of my past ignorance and biases. I have, for most of my life, treated Atlanta like the center of the universe, and everything outside of it was like, whatever. It came from a place of pride, but it also can also bleed into ignorance. So much of making this podcast was not falling into very easy traps. And I think [with] the election, there’s this narrative of, Atlanta did it. Atlanta played a huge part in Georgia going blue, but Atlanta didn’t do it on its own. It is possible to still think Atlanta is the greatest place, but also put it on this false pedestal where nothing else outside of Atlanta is important and influential. So, I’m [rethinking] some of the ways I’ve thought in the past and trying to make sure those familiar trappings don’t happen.
Wicker: It’s the same way we in Atlanta don’t like to feel like we’re being “othered,” so why would we do that to communities here in Georgia? I think Rembert is right; sometimes, us Atlantans have to check that tendency to do that and be better about it, and I think this podcast has been a really great opportunity to do that.
What has been the most difficult part of making this podcast so far? What’s been biggest challenge you guys have run into?
Browne: One is, even before an episode goes up, we’re already thinking about the next one. But it’s also really difficult to do [a podcast] like this in Covid. It’s hard to do everything in Covid. There’s lots of situations where it’d be super easy to just roll up on someone and be like, Hey, let’s knock this [interview] out right now. But we might have to do it on Zoom. There are just more things to consider, even down to just getting equipment to [record] the podcast. A lot of things that I wouldn’t have expected are these little hurdles that make things not impossible, but a little harder.
Wicker: Doing a podcast that spans a little over a month would be difficult regardless, but we’re doing this over a holiday break. We’re not even getting true full weeks between episodes because you have to account for Christmas, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve. We’ve been able to navigate around it and get the interviews we need, but it certainly has added a bit of a challenge.
What have been your favorite or most impactful interviews?
Browne: Some of the interviews have been really fun for me because I’ve chatted with folks I’ve known for decades. I’ve known [the New Yorker journalist] Charles Bethea since I was a kid. It’s been great to watch him become a trusted national reporter who actually is local. He didn’t show up in Georgia six months ago and start writing about Georgia. He grew up here, he lives here. It’s very cool for me to do interviews that feel more like conversations.
Wicker: For me, it was the interview I did [in episode two] with [photojournalist] Alyssa Pointer from the AJC. We never worked together [when I was on staff at the AJC], but we had mutual friends. When I saw the news that she had been detained [by police while covering a protest for the AJC this past summer], it really impacted me. I had a hard time with it. I remember being really upset because I knew [Pointer] was the type of person that would brush it off and go right back to work. And I was really worried, not just about her, but the trauma that all of these reporters [in similar encounters nationwide] were dealing with—Black reporters who were going back to work and not having the time to really sit with what had occurred. I was so grateful [to do the interview with Pointer]. It was just such a touching moment. It’s a testament to the character [of these reporters that] they brush it off and go back to work, but it’s kind of sad they feel that they work [in an environment] where they have to be like, Oh well, go back to work, and not really take a second for themselves. That really sucks.
What do you want listeners to take away from this podcast?
Browne: I want this podcast to serve as almost like a time capsule that you can pick up and listen to at any point to find out about the heart and soul of the moment—the nuts and bolts of what happened, but also how it felt and how this moment impacted people. But the thing that also moves me the most is when I think that the voices we’re highlighting in this podcast include a series of people who made very purposeful decisions in their lives—whether it was five years ago, two years ago, whatever—to look at Georgia and want to change it. We started the podcast with [Nse Ufot, the executive director of the New Georgia Project,] telling that story about how she drove from Canada back home to Atlanta because she believed in something. That’s a purposeful position that someone made that literally has impacted an entire state and nation. Yes, there’s Stacey Abrams. [There are] people like Nse. But in order to get here, there were thousands and thousands of people that made little or massive decisions and changes in their lives to push Georgia a little bit.
Where we are now is the sum of a lot of really purposeful, powerful decisions. It’s really beautiful to see [how] a lot of people can come together in a state that [many] don’t really understand, and can really, collectively change the place they live. I just feel honored to be able to give these people some shine.
Wicker: When I think about my role as a reporter, it’s to document these moments and create that time capsule so we can have an accurate depiction of what this [election] looked like and what it means for years to come. That’s why I love that we’re doing this documentary style, because for me, it’s mainly just telling the story of, How did we get here? What happened and what’s become of it? We still don’t know. But being able to tell that story and provide that context is the most important thing for me.