I didn’t like Atlanta when the Braves moved there in 1966. Far as I knew, it was merely the Deep South putting on a somewhat civilized face for tourists.
This was only a year after Lester Maddox, who wielded a mean pickax-handle, closed down his infamous Pickrick Restaurant, preparatory to his successful run for governor. Charming.
Plus, I resented the city stealing the Braves from Milwaukee. Get your own team.
However, I began to appreciate Atlanta more in the 70s when I was a news reporter, sometimes popping into the Times bureau, getting a broader picture of the area.
After Atlanta somehow acquired the 1996 Summer Games, I visited the city often, still wary.
One day in 1994 or 1995, in an Indian restaurant downtown, I was having lunch with a colleague who had grown up with the King kids in Atlanta. She was assuring me her hometown would come off well in 1996.
During the meal, she nodded discretely at a distinguished Black woman at a nearby table.
“That’s Shirley Franklin,” my friend said. “She’s going to be the mayor of Atlanta one of these years.”
I knew Atlanta hadn’t had a white mayor since the 1970s. During the 1996 Games, the major would be Bill Campbell, who lived next door to an apartment complex in Inman Park, where the Times delegation was quartered. We appreciated seeing his security car parked out in front.
I also got used to Mayor Campbell’s brash style, including his remark during an informal press conference when he nominated our raffish lot of reporters to serve as targets during the Olympic rifle competition. Okay.
As it happened, Atlanta did a fine job in the Games – despite the bomb in Centennial Park one Saturday night that killed a bystander, set off by a white terrorist who would have been right at home in the murderous mob of Jan. 6, 2021. (He is “away” now.)
The highlights of the Games included brave, stricken Muhammad Ali struggling up the stairs bearing the Olympic torch while the world held its breath, and a closing ceremony concert by Stevie Wonder singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Atlanta got a lot of things right in 1996 and has kept on from there. As my friend predicted, Shirley Franklin became the first black female mayor, serving two terms from 2002 to 2010. and recently Keisha Lance Bottoms served as mayor from 2018 to 2022 and is now working in the Biden administration.
But wait. There’s more. Soft-spoken lawyer Stacey Abrams twice ran for governor and has become a national influence on thought and deed. Voters have elected two Democrats to the Senate. And in 2020, Fani T. Willis was elected district attorney of Fulton County, and almost immediately inherited the screaming, stinking mess known as Donald J. Trump and his co-conspirators.
In an excellent profile in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tamar Hallerman tells how Willis is the daughter of a criminal defense lawyer attached to the Black Panthers of the 1960’s. Later, he took his daughter (FAW-nee, Swahali for “prosperous”) to work with him – doing his filing, as a tyke, and watching what he did, and what he cared about. She later went to Howard University and then Emory law school.
Almost from the day she was sworn in, Fani T. Willis has been collecting string on the Trump plot to sabotage the Georgia balloting of 2020. Recently a grand jury indicted the former President (can’t you just hear that petulant whine: “All I want….”) and 18 others in a RICO case.
Willis set a stern tone for the coming trial, putting out a memo to her staff to not respond to the inaccurate racist blather that comes from Trump and his acolytes. To quote Morehouse grad Spike Lee, she told her people: Do the right thing.
Fani Willis does not lack for friends and colleagues and admirers who can explain her, the way former mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms did the other day on tv.
And watchers of MSNBC are familiar with another Willis contemporary, Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, the former district attorney of neighboring DeKalb County, from Rutgers and Emory law school, who more recently worked in the federal government.
Clearly, this is not the Atlanta I first visited in 1966. My two sisters and their families are scattered around the northern suburbs. Our son David got a great break by working at the Journal-Constitution, which prepared him for a tryout at The New York Times, where he now works. If his family had settled down there, I could have seen us living in the piney northern suburbs – at least from fall to spring. I got to like it there.
Atlanta is not the Georgia of Lester Maddox. Instead, it has been threatened by a latter-day terrorist from my childhood corner of Queens, New York, who wields not a pickax handle but the rhetoric of a thief and a racist and an anarchist.
Up north in New York, I give thanks for staunch line of Black female public figures – a lineup as potent as the all-stars on the Atlanta Braves -- leading up to Fani T. Willis, who has been preparing for this moment nearly all her life.