Atlanta Must Reads for the Week: DNA’s false promise, Georgia’s ‘Hurt Locker,’ and the human cost of elephant tourism

Plus, finding a slice of Atlanta in a Chicago rapper’s mixtape and the hurdle of mandatory employment drug tests
U.S. Air Force - Dobbins EOD unit
The remnants of a Civil War-era cannonball.

U.S. Air Force photo/Don Peek

Matthew Shaer in The Atlantic on the unreliability of DNA testing

Over the past several decades, prosecutors have increasingly relied upon DNA evidence to establish guilt for convictions. Shaer, an Atlanta-based writer (and Atlanta magazine contributor), explores how the forensic technique isn’t always as reliable as it seems:

When Alec Jeffreys devised his DNA-typing technique, in the mid-1980s, this was as far as the science extended: side-by-side comparison tests. Sizable sample against sizable sample. The state of technology at the time mandated it—you couldn’t test the DNA unless you had plenty of biological material (blood, semen, mucus) to work with. But today, most large labs have access to cutting-edge extraction kits capable of obtaining usable DNA from the smallest of samples, like so-called touch DNA (a smeared thumbprint on a window or a speck of spit invisible to the eye), and of identifying individual DNA profiles in complex mixtures, which include genetic material from multiple contributors, as was the case with the vaginal swab in the Sutton case.

These advances have greatly expanded the universe of forensic evidence. But they’ve also made the forensic analyst’s job more difficult. To understand how complex mixtures are analyzed—and how easily those analyses can go wrong—it may be helpful to recall a little bit of high-school biology: We share 99.9 percent of our genes with every other human on the planet. However, in specific locations along each strand of our DNA, the genetic code repeats itself in ways that vary from one individual to the next. Each of those variations, or alleles, is shared with a relatively small portion of the global population. The best way to determine whether a drop of blood belongs to a serial killer or to the president of the United States is to compare alleles at as many locations as possible.

Think of it this way: There are many thousands of paintings with blue backgrounds, but fewer with blue backgrounds and yellow flowers, and fewer still with blue backgrounds, yellow flowers, and a mounted knight in the foreground. When a forensic analyst compares alleles at 13 locations—the standard for most labs—the odds of two unrelated people matching at all of them are less than one in 1 billion. With mixtures, the math gets a lot more complicated: The number of alleles in a sample doubles in the case of two contributors, and triples in the case of three. Now, rather than a painting, the DNA profile is like a stack of transparency films. The analyst must determine how many contributors are involved, and which alleles belong to whom. If the sample is very small or degraded—the two often go hand in hand—alleles might drop out in some locations, or appear to exist where they do not. Suddenly, we are dealing not so much with an objective science as an interpretive art.

Read: The False Promise of DNA Testing

Jackie Calmes in the New York Times on the difficulty of finding drug-free workers

Georgia companies—including Savannah-based manufacturer JCB—are trying to find workers. But they’re struggling, Calmes writes, due to how few of them are able to pass a mandatory drug test during the application process:

A few years back, the heavy-equipment manufacturer JCB held a job fair in the glass foyer of its sprawling headquarters near here, but when a throng of prospective employees learned the next step would be drug testing, an alarming thing happened: About half of them left. That story still circulates within the business community of this historic port city. But the problem has gotten worse.

All over the country, employers say they see a disturbing downside of tighter labor markets as they try to rebuild from the worst recession since the Depression: They are struggling to find workers who can pass a pre-employment drug test. That hurdle partly stems from the growing ubiquity of drug testing, at corporations with big human resources departments, in industries like trucking where testing is mandated by federal law for safety reasons, and increasingly at smaller companies. But data suggest employers’ difficulties also reflect an increase in the use of drugs, especially marijuana—employers’ main gripe—and also heroin and other opioid drugs much in the news.

Read: Hiring Hurdle: Finding Workers Who Can Pass a Drug Test

Tony Rehagen for MEL on Georgia’s Hurt Locker-like bomb squad

Former Atlanta staffer Rehagan spends a day with the U.S. Air Force’s explosive ordnance disposal unit, based out of the Dobbins Air Reserve Base, as they attempt to detonate a military artillery round:

The call comes in around 8 p.m. on Richard Swann’s military-issued flip phone. (“Old school, you know?” he jokes. “The government doesn’t want to buy us any new technology.”) It typically sits silent in its charger for weeks at a time in the living room of Swann’s home in Dallas, Georgia, a small town about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta. Still, Swann is hardwired to answer it, rushing from his 7-year-old daughter’s room, where, on this Thursday night, he’s cut short a debate over bedtime. He knows every call, however infrequent, could be a matter of life or death.

When Air Force Master Sergeant Swann was deployed, as he was for tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, these calls would come in three times a day. A land mine had been hidden in the sand, or an improvised explosive device (IED) had been stashed in the trunk of an abandoned car on the side of the road. His job, and the job of his fellow explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) airmen, was to put on a protective bomb suit and delicately disarm and remove the (sometimes literally) ticking threat—like a stateside version of The Hurt Locker.

Read: ‘The Hurt Locker’ Back at Home

Hilary Cadigan for The Atlantic on the human cost of elephant tourism

Cadigan, an Atlanta writer who once lived in Thailand, reports on the controversial world of elephant tourism—and the misunderstood position of the mahouts who handle the exploited animals:

It should have been a day like any other in Mae Wang, Thailand. But at one elephant camp in this small rural district just outside the tourism hub of Chiang Mai, the elephant handlers, or mahouts, were on edge. Somjai, a five-ton bull decked out with a pair of meter-long ivory tusks, was in musth, a hormonal phase characterized by huge increases in testosterone and aggression.

The mahouts knew Somjai was too volatile to give rides, but they say the camp owner dismissed their warnings, instead pairing him with an unfamiliar mahout named Chai who agreed to handle the elephant in an attempt to appease his boss. The tour buses arrived and the day began as usual. Batch after batch of eager vacationers, some armed with selfie sticks, clambered two or three at a time onto metal chairs strapped to the elephants’ backs. Chained together like a living train, the elephants walked down their well-worn path around the camp, through the jungle, and down to the river. That’s when Somjai snapped, according to reports. He threw Chai to the ground, goring him in the neck and shoulder and trampling him underfoot. Then he took off into the jungle with three Chinese tourists—a mother, father and small child—still strapped to the chair on his back. As Chai lay bleeding, the other mahouts chased Somjai and somehow managed to wrangle both the elephant and the terrified tourists back to camp unharmed. But Chai died, leaving behind a devastated wife and two very young children with no source of income.

Rides resumed as usual the following day. According to volunteers at a nearby eco-resort who witnessed the incident and its aftermath, neither the tour company nor the owner of the elephant camp faced any criminal charges. The other mahouts were given no time off to grieve, or even to attend a Buddhist funeral for their friend. The funeral itself was interrupted by tourists snapping photos.

Read: The Human Cost of Elephant Tourism

Rembert Browne for New York on Chance the Rapper’s new mixtape

To find greater meaning in Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, a new mixtape that captures the essence of his Chicago neighborhood, Browne plays the release on repeat while trying to draw parallels to his hometown of Atlanta:

Atlanta is one of those cities where you can go from one side of town to the other, literally and figuratively, in five minutes. In the time it took to get to Lil Yachty’s verse, I’d already gone from the Eastside to my Westside. And by the time Yachty said “Bitch It’s Boat from the 6,” Spelman College was on the horizon. Lil Yachty’s troll was immaculate, borrowing the term “the 6”—meaning Zone 6, one of Atlanta’s pride-filled neighborhood police zones—from Drake. I’d just left the 6 for southwest Atlanta, a place that, for the early part of my childhood, was America to me.

As I do, I drove through the Atlanta University Center to see the school that molded my mother (Spelman), the school I was supposed to attend (Morehouse), the school where my mother once taught (Clark Atlanta), and the school that my mother tried to save from shutting down (Morris Brown).

“All We Got” was back on as I passed Booker T. Washington High School, where my mother and all of her siblings went to high school. It’s also where my father went to high school, around the corner from where both my parents were raised. Both my parents were in the band—my mother the head majorette, and my father the drum major. With the brass from “All We Got” blaring in my car, I could almost see them marching on that field to the left, that picture of them on the inside cover of their 1967 Washington High yearbook almost coming to life.

Growing up in this neighborhood, we all felt the same, especially in the summers. There was no way to know it wouldn’t always be that way, that simple. Chance saying, “None of my niggas ain’t have no dad, none of my niggas ain’t have no choice” on “Summer Friends” raced to the front of my mind as I made the sharp right on red. That was my burden, but everyone around here had their own issues, that unfair thing that made them stronger. The words throughout “Summer Friends” are hopeful, but they’re also haunting. The black neighborhood is beautiful, but it can also be unforgiving.

Read: Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book Is a Mixtape About His Hometown, So I Listened to It in Mine