Some names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy. The summer in question was the summer of 2014.
It’s one of those classic Georgia nights, where the only thing higher than the temperature is the humidity; sounds are stifled so badly that everything that’s not the buzzing of skeeters scarcely registers above a whisper. Nate Exeter has picked me up, and we’re headed to the literal city limits. It’s time for some minor league soccer. The Atlanta Silverbacks, who play in the North American Soccer League, are taking on Pele’s old team, the New York Cosmos. The game doesn’t start for a couple hours, but here we are, parked on an artificial turf field (in case it wasn’t hot enough already), sitting and shooting the shit with the Ultras.
Nate is wearing his black Bayern Munich jersey; his curly hair is cropped tight several inches above his collar. A wavy strand falls across his forehead, just higher than his Greek nose with the small mole on the top left of it. He hadn’t shaved that morning, as evidenced by the five o’clock shadow spreading across his teenage face, his body’s ability to produce facial hair in two shakes of a lamb’s tail the only other hint of his maternal side’s ethnic origins. He has paid the $20 dues to join the 101’s, the Silverbacks’ Ultras, and over the summer he and I have been standing in the section with them when he’s not interning at a prominent investment bank in the city. At this point, it’s mid-August, and we know ‘em pretty well. There’s Tony Ribbit, a former marine, and addict, turning his life around. He works as a welder pretty far south of the city, and he’s usually shirtless at these games.
Between his military air, shaved head, and indecipherable tattoos, he fits the mold of the neo-Nazi hooligan. That is until you hear him clarify that “we’re anti-fassimistos, anti-political in that all non-absolutist partisans are allowed.” He’s holding the biracial daughter of Nick Church, one of his best friends and his co-leader of the 101’s, buying her sweets against her father’s wishes. Nick is standing nearby, helping sew up some flags that ripped; he’s several inches taller than Tony, with close-cropped black hair hidden under a tan cap. A tattoo peeks out from the sleeve of his black shirt, becoming more visible when he raises his arms to lead the Ultras as they sing “We’re the Ultras from Atlanta/And we’re hated everywhere.” These guys may have fallen under Tom Wolfe’s definition of a southern Good Old Boy, but, to everyone’s relief, they certainly don’t fit the Atlanta definition of Good Ole’ Boy.
Here’s their friend, a kindly 55-year-old kindergarten teacher with long, greying hair and wrinkles around her eyes. She’s not the only teacher in the group—there’s also her friend, a blonde 30-something who teaches third graders. It’s an odd sight, all of them sweating under the sweltering summer sun with Nate and me. Nate, who at the time was driving his dad’s “old” Range Rover. Me, who the first time I went to a game missed the blackout memo and wore a plaid shirt involving light pink, green, and blue—who didn’t play competitive soccer past about age six because I was on the golf course or baseball diamond.
The tailgate ends, and we all make our way down to section 101 to set up. From the turf parking lot above it, the stands in Silverbacks’ Park look like Chuck Close rendered a kaleidoscope. The seat colors include tan, yellow, blue, and black, among others, all in no discernable pattern. The single level of seating runs fifteen rows deep, down both flanks of the pitch. Trees surround the stadium on all sides—you almost forget that you’re five hundred yards from two major interstate highways.
Section 101 is in the back corner, on the opposite side from the players. During the match, it’s barely visible to the rest of the stadium, just a haze of red smoke chanting “I’m sure I am/ Atlanta till I die!” Once we get to the 101, each person has a part, hanging banners with zip ties, carrying instruments, and unfurling flags. Clouds are gathering on the horizon, promising us the cooling cleanse of rain. The game hasn’t started yet, but the chants have. Eventually the ref blows his whistle, and we take it up a gear. The cheers are split evenly between Atlanta pride and insults about New York—as timeless and simple as “Fuck New York” to things so topical and borderline offensive as to warrant exclusion here. Nearby, a man wearing what can only be described as a NYC retiree’s floral shirt is getting more and more animated. I get a push notification that the Braves game, 15 miles to the south, is experiencing rain delays.
Atlanta Silverbacks’ Park, home of the eponymous team, sits several hundred feet past Spaghetti Junction, the intersection of I-85 and I-285. Better known as The Perimeter, I-285 is a circular interstate highway with a circumference of over 63 miles that surrounds the City of Atlanta. This, however, is like describing 2001: A Space Odyssey as a movie about going to Jupiter. In a city whose metro area is about the size of Massachusetts and contains over 5.5 million people—while fewer than 600,000 live within its official limits—any easily recognizable border between the city and her surrounding counties will have huge cultural cache. In terms of connotations attached to it, Inside the Beltway has nothing on ITP in Atlanta.
Those inside the perimeter see OTP-ers as white collar leeches, a mix of older folks who left during White Flight, country wannabees, and ex-pats from The North —in other words, people who benefit from living “in” a global city while not paying taxes for its maintenance, clogging up the highways, and crippling public transportation for nebulous reasons that are usually chalked up to “fear of black people.” According to city dwellers, suburbia is overwhelmingly white, homogeneous, and Republican. If you go to Phillips Arena or Turner Field with someone from the city proper when a New York, Boston, or Chicago team is in town, you’ll notice that half the stadium seems to be wearing opposing colors. Listen closely, and you’ll probably hear your friend mutter something about those “OTP [unprintable] [unprintable] [unprintables], bless their hearts.” (Atlanta still is The South, after all).
OTP-ers have their own feelings about their city-dwelling neighbors. They think we’re stubborn assholes who feel a false sense of moral superiority because we live in smaller spaces and patronize “locally sourced” restaurants with fewer seats than chefs; that we consider the everything outside the perimeter to be a haven for the modern segregationist while living in neighborhoods that only have one race. They might mutter something about “textbook examples of bourgeois pretension, a castle made of sand.” They’re not necessarily wrong.
The border between the two cultures is where I spent most Friday nights in the summer of 2014. At a certain point, it became a routine. Nate would pull into our circular driveway around 3:15, the green-ish grey of the Range Rover reflecting the hot summer sun. The neighborhood I lived in, Ansley Park, was built over a century ago as Atlanta’s first suburb—its sweeping, curvilinear streets were meant to give ample room for carriages. Over the years, the city moved north, and the suburb got swallowed up, eventually falling into some disrepair before being revitalized in the 1980’s. Now, it’s a surreal in-town oasis of old oak trees, traditional southern homes, and modern architecture, none more than two blocks from a park, in the middle of a global hub, with skyscrapers scratching at its edges.
We’d pull out, hop on the highway, and head northeast toward the perimeter. Though the stadium was just past I-285, we’d get off the exit before, driving by a mini-soccer field, trees, kudzu, and nondescript brick buildings advertising mattresses and “A Special Money,” whatever that is. Once we were on the turf field the Silverbacks used for parking, we’d spill out of the car and greet those already there. As we hopped down from the car, the little bits of recycled rubber that seeded the turf would jump up, slipping into our loafers and under our feet. I’d stand slightly behind and askew of Nate (the universal position of the shyer friend), probably wearing a Bravery T-shirt that was two sizes too small, my only black tee at the time. My hair would be parted on the right, swept across my head in what would, were I balding, be considered a comb-over. Nick and Tony would be the first to greet us, motioning to the tent under which everyone was sitting.
We’d grab a couple of beers from a cooler someone brought and sit down, hopefully in the shade. As the fruity front of the IPA’s, our favorite style of beer, dissipated and left only the lingering bitterness, I’d begin to open up, chiming in on Nate’s conversations. Often, they centered on biking, schools, or neighborhoods—topics on which everyone had something to say.
After the game, we’d pack up and clamor back into the car and head toward the center of the city. I’d drive us back down I-85—passing the oversized REI, the boxy Guitar Center, and the Regal megaplex as we accelerated on the highway—merging right to cut left as we approached Buckhead, the home of executives from SunTrust, Georgia Pacific, Delta, and Home Depot. Before turning into the driveway, we’d drive around my neighborhood, checking on the progress of the historic house being moved from Buckhead brick by brick and shaking our heads at the demolition of Anthony Ames’ postmodern icon a block over; destroyed to build a bastardized version of a “traditional modern” dwelling.
One time, as Nate sat in the idling car, I hopped out, walked past the “Garrett Group Construction” signs and ducked under the red and black no trespassing warning. The light from the city made it feel earlier than it was, and the humidity silenced the neighborhood. Everything was still: no breeze to sway the trees in the park across the street, no fathers and sons playing catch, no dogs communicating across fences. I stood where the garage was, staring at the remaining rubble. I noticed the white brick of the minimalist masterpiece was only painted on one side; Ames never expected the house to spill its guts. I picked up a fragment. It looked and felt like Georgia red clay, the skeleton of the city.
The NASL, the league in which the Silverbacks play, is considered the second tier of professional American soccer, just behind MLS. Unlike Europe, the U.S. (which shares the NASL and MLS with Canada) has no relegation system, which would allow teams in the lower tiers to move up and teams in the top tier to fall. Ostensibly, the reason for this is the same reason that MLS has restricted free agency and player salaries: fear of league-wide collapse. The MLS claims that most teams don’t turn a profit and that allowing free agency and higher maximum salaries would thus drive teams into bankruptcy. There is, however, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which allows teams from multiple tiers to compete against each other in a knockout tournament.
In 2014, the Silverbacks tied as the farthest-reaching NASL team in the Open, beating two MLS teams including Real Salt Lake, who reached the conference semi-finals in the MLS play-offs that year. The Silverbacks eventually fell to the Chicago Fire in a hard-fought quarterfinal that saw Atlanta missing several players and coaches to suspension. In that same tournament, the Cosmos, apparently unaware that its heyday was supposed to have been 40 years before, beat the New York Red Bulls, New York City’s MLS team. This season, MLS has another team in New York: NYC FC.
When they made their cup run, the Silverbacks knew the annual tournament would be their only chance to play MLS teams for the foreseeable future. In April 2014, years of rumors were confirmed: MLS announced that, after extensive negotiations with Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta would receive an MLS team in 2017. The team will share a stadium (currently under construction) with the Falcons. In making room for the new arena, the city tore down Friendship Baptist Church, the city’s oldest African-American Baptist church. Former slaves founded the congregation during the Civil War, and the building itself was from 1880.
The Silverbacks planned to continue in the NASL, though financial difficulties have now pushed them into dropping down into the National Premier Soccer League, or NPSL. The team’s press release on the announcement was congratulatory. The other Silverbacks fan group, Terminus Legion—considered more family-friendly with their bright colors, free gear, and seats near the concession stand—talked with Blank and the then-owner of the Silverbacks, and a deal of some sort was worked out. Now, Legion is the fan group dedicated to growing “Atlanta soccer at the highest level.”
The 101’s were never approached, the snub sending a deliberate message to the group that embraces its working-class roots: you’re not wanted. Not that they’d leave their team just because another showed up. While the Legion are now downtown, wearing the five stripes and hammering golden spikes, the 101’s are still out on the cusp of the city, dressed in black and singing one of their 60-plus odes to Atlanta.
Atlantans (or ATLiens, derived from the OutKast song of the same name) view their city as one ready for a position on the global stage, on par with Chicago or the Bay, and certainly more important than the smaller Boston or Detroit. After all, it’s the cultural capital of the Southeast, with its world-class art museum, a bevy of Fortune 500 headquarters, well-respected sports teams, and all the other amenities of a major city.
It’s just as widely recognized, however, that the rest of the U.S. doesn’t see the city like this. Much of the blame for this is put on our perceived lack of history, especially in comparison to Philly or Boston. As it happens, the slow ascension to the place in the American psyche that Atlantans believe we deserve has coincided with people moving back into the city proper, “revitalizing” long-forgotten neighborhoods—realizing that a short but dense history is not necessarily inferior to one spread across centuries.
That the entire nation, Atlanta included, believes the city has no history has allowed it to create the myth of “The Empire State of the South.” This is the belief that Atlanta is, and always was, a town built on the hospitality, finance, and service industries, not blue-collar endeavors. Certainly, this is true in comparison to Pittsburgh or Detroit. But to fully believe it requires more than just a willful ignorance of Ford factory that operated on the Southside until 2006 and the Lockheed Martin factory just north of the city. It requires ignoring the hip homes on the Beltline walking path, all 20th-century former factories.
It requires denying that the railroad industry, what the city was built upon, was often backbreaking work. It requires not knowing that construction is one of Atlanta’s largest industries. And it requires refusing to recognize that the city’s most profitable business is Home Depot, a chain created to sell building tools. Along with dismissing an entire swath of the city’s history, this myth has allowed people such as Blank, founder of Home Depot and owner of the Falcons and Atlanta United, to push the idea that the key to Atlanta’s growth is increasing corporatization.
In 1999, Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel wrote a masters’ thesis proposing turning the railroads that surround central Atlanta into multipurpose paths. His idea eventually became a reality, under the name the Atlanta BeltLine. Though incomplete, the project will eventually encompass thirty-three miles of multi-use trails, as well as parks and a public transit element. One of the sections of the trail that has been completed runs from Piedmont Park in Midtown through the Poncey-Highland, the Old Fourth Ward, and Edgewood neighborhoods on the east side. This has caused a cascade of development in the three east side neighborhoods.
The Poncey-Highland Kroger, affectionately known as “Murder Kroger” due to a series of shootings, went through a rebranding. Its back, which faces the beltline, was painted with a mural of children biking, laughing, and playing what appears to be a lute. After the rebranding, the Kroger Corporation publically took offense with those who used its colloquial name, insisting long time residents use the company-imposed moniker “BeltLine Kroger.” In 2016, it was announced the store would be demolished and replaced with a mixed-used development, one of three under construction within a three-block radius. Murder Kroger no longer exists, a victim of the city’s demand for development.
Across the Beltline from Murder Kroger sits what used to be called City Hall East, an oversized brick building that was originally a Sears Roebuck regional office. In 2011, a private equity firm bought the building and rechristened it “Ponce City Market.” It would have apartments, restaurants, gardens, and retail space. The owners promised local businesses would be included, and its first tenant was an Atlanta coffee shop, Dancing Goats Coffee. When renovations finished in 2014, it was revealed Binders, General Assembly, Williams Sonoma, West Elm, J. Crew, Lululemon, Frye Boots, and Athenahealth would join Dancing Goats. None are from Atlanta.
If you cut southeast from City Hall East, you’ll eventually hit two places that Atlantans figured couldn’t get any more corporate. Turner Field, home of the Braves, was named after former owner of the Braves and founder of Turner broadcasting, Ted Turner. Now, the Braves are just north of the city, playing in SunTrust Stadium—partially developed by Comcast, who occupy an attached office building. The tour of bland goes straight south from the Ted, ending at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. For fifteen years, a mural of African-American children greeted passengers. In the center, a pre-pubescent girl in cornrows stood in Centennial Olympic Park with her arms open, welcoming travellers. The mural’s name was Spirit of Atlanta. Without announcement, the city replaced the photo with a massive ad for Porsche cars. It planned to put a 70-foot advertising screen in its place by June 2016. After protests, the City agreed to a compromise—the screen exists, but alternates the image of the girl with photos of various celebrities and politicians welcoming travelers to Atlanta.
There was a selfish reason Nate and I would steer the conversations toward neighborhoods: it was one of the few places where we didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Sure, Nate’s maternal grandfather was a Greek immigrant and Delta’s chief mechanic, and mine was the son of a store owner in rural Alabama who had to skip college to support the store and ended up becoming a car mechanic. And yes, Nate’s dad worked as a UPS driver after getting his MBA. But we had grown up in a world of political functions and limited liability companies; of wine tastings and graduate school degrees. With neighborhoods, we blended in because no one stuck out. Nate lived in College Park, a small town just inside the perimeter, while Tony lived in Forest Park, just across the highway from him. My great grandfather’s bowling alley sat between where the two now live. Another Ultra lived in Decatur, a few miles east from where I grew up.
A different one lived in Brookhaven, a neighborhood filled with my close friends. It was also where a different great-grandfather lived before he died. We had people who lived north in Marietta and south in Peachtree City. We even had one guy who made the hellish two-hour drive from Columbus, GA, every week. As we talked about these places, we’d all slip into and out of the accents of Southern gentry, accentuating an “a” here, dropping a “t” there, though none of us could make anything near a legitimate claim at that title. A few would go straight from the lower-class twang to the drawl to accentless. A multitude of histories, vacillating between the old vernacular of the oppressor and the bland, weightless idiom imposed by outsiders—unable to fully express ourselves through either.
Floral shirt is now yelling at us to “shut the hell up.” This is not uncommon. Parents often get angry that their children are exposed to the Ultras’ semi-rowdy language, despite the existence of 4,000 seats in the 5,000 person stadium where you can’t hear us. Floral shirt’s angry about something else, though. It can’t be the New York City insults; the other New Yorkers there understand. Besides, it turns out he lives in Atlanta, though you can’t tell from how he talks.
He’s in khaki shorts, and if he weren’t yelling, “shut the fuck up assholes” while being restrained by his wife and grandchild, he’d seem as bland and harmless as a Monsanto ad. He’s the father of the Cosmos’ goalie (who used to play for the Silverbacks), and a few of the Ultras are laughing. Tony asks, “excuse me?” expressing the group’s confusion. Even security, usually quick to assign blame on the Ultras for anything, is stuck as stone due to the absurdity of the scenario. Nate goads him a bit—something about his son playing for a team whose heyday occurred when Nixon was in office. Floral Print nearly rushes Nate, and I give him a thumbs up, which I claim is “we’re cool, chill, man,” though admittedly it’s at least partially “Bless your heart, but how stupid are you? None of this is serious.” He’s not amused, and he turns his ire toward me. I kindly remind my new best friend that yelling, “you want to fucking fight, huh? Shut the hell up!” ain’t exactly setting a fine example for his grandson.
Eventually, security does their job, escorting him to a separate part of the stadium, warning him not to disturb us, then telling the Ultras to “knock the insults off unless we want more bans.” We agree, and we begin serenading our city. Soon, the rain begins, dropping the mercury mark. It beats down harder and harder, driving us under the catwalk and the players off the field. Kids from all parts of the stadium run onto recycled plastic turf, laughing and playing in the cooler atmosphere. The Ultras are huddled under the stands, still singing Atlanta’s praises. Floral shirt is gone, at least temporarily unable to threaten. By the time the game restarts, Nate and I are at Waffle House, that grimy Southern symbol hidden among the skyscrapers barely older than us. The Silverbacks lose, 2-1, stonewalled by the Cosmo’s keeper.
By Miles Taylor.