The Atlanta Objective: The Practical Uses of Power

Sen. Raphael Warnock calls Georgia's voting rights fight "an inflection point."

I joked a bit about getting a last-minute invitation to an event Saturday. When I checked through security and toddled into the courtyard at the WADDI gallery, I looked around me a bit in shock. The Indigo Girls were chatting in the corner of the gallery, to perform a bit later. Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Congresswoman Nikema Williams and State Rep. Park Cannon were in the back room.

For six months, crowds of thousands had been mobbing these guys. Saturday, there might have been 50 people present.

“I'm at a thing in Inman Park that smells like white people with money,” I said. “Most are better looking than I am, or old, often both at once. I legitimately do not know what the f—k is going on.”

Ro Lawson — whom I happily note is a Black person with money — saw me on television yesterday morning talking about crime statistics and thought I’d be an interesting addition. And … really, I wasn’t wrong. (For the record, white people with money generally and deliberately smell like nothing at all. File that away.)

Warnock discussed the implications of the voting rights reaction in Georgia, and the threats of a boycott, in historical terms. The country is at an inflection point similar to the moment of the Voting Rights Act, in ways that will define how the world sees Georgia for decades to come, he said.

“The prosperity that we enjoy right now ... and all the prosperity that all of us share as a result of that, that never would have happened on the other side of a segregationist curtain,” Warnock said. “The movement didn’t just liberate Black people. The movement liberated the South. It liberated Georgia and opened up prosperity for all of us.”

It doesn’t take a formal boycott for Georgia to take an economic hit over looking like it wants to punish Black people for voting the wrong way, he said. “They ought to be thinking about the fact that if it weren’t for a kind of openness and not playing games at an inflection point, we wouldn’t even be enjoying the prosperity that we’re enjoying right now.”

It was a hell of a speech, made to a courtyard of dozens.

I’m not important enough to rate this kind of access, generally. I was waiting for the end scenes of Midsommar to play out and a dozen people with masks to emerge from the fence line, athames in hand. "Behold! I have procured a fat journalist for our ritual today. Rejoice! C'thulhu f'taughn!"

I don’t mean to prattle on like some Page Six dips—t from the New York Post talking about high society. What I experienced Saturday was an exercise in power.

About half of the people present were neighborhood stalwarts who have lived there since before it was fashionable. They’re about to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the rescue of their neighborhood from the Presidential Parkway, a federal highway that would have bisected Inman Park. Groups like the Morningside Lenox Park Association and the Inman Park Neighborhood Association exist because of highway revolts that started in the ‘60s, representing decades of political warfare.

I note in passing that John Ossoff’s parents were intimately involved in that fight. “I know it’s hard to see it sometimes,” Ossoff said, “but better days aren’t just coming. Better days are already here.” His parents were in the audience, which may explain a bit about how things came together Saturday.

The pandemic preempted the Inman Park Festival. The annual event is both glorious and one of the traditional coming-out parties for political candidates in Atlanta. There’s no parade from Edgewood to Little Five Points this year for politicians to walk kissing babies along the way. An event like this is designed to send a message: Inman Park is important. Don’t screw with us.

Contrast their successes against the damage done to the Sweet Auburn neighborhood by the construction of the downtown connector. I-20 takes a weird meandering route through the city because it was designed to deliberately separate white and Black neighborhoods.

It’s a lesson that Atlanta’s neighborhood associations and planning units have learned well, which is why getting anything done in the city today requires deep personal relationships and a deep understanding of neighborhood fault lines.

We’re seeing some of that play out in Summerhill. The city’s homeless services provider began using a hotel near the former Turner Field on an emergency basis as a transitional shelter at the start of the pandemic. The program has been wildly successful; more people have been housed permanently over the last 12 months than at any other point on record, partially because the federal government dropped crates of cash on cities for housing and partially because the city has had this hotel to keep people off the street while procuring longer-term solutions.

Some people in Summerhill hate this.

Now, I like Summerhill. I respect Summerhill. But I can attest from the scar over the spot where I used to have a spleen that the neighborhood can be … prickly … about social services issues. The effect of I-20 on Summerhill was a cautionary tale that produced Inman Park’s highway revolt. That, along with the construction of Turner Field and other affronts may as well have been a NIMBY breeding program.

Summerhill’s neighborhood planning unit today can be a bear trap waiting for the wrong politician to step on.

There’s a meeting a week from now to talk about extending the operation of the hotel program. I plan to attend, just to see who is willing to tell Cathryn Marchman to her face that homeless people should go screw.