ATLANTA — Within the span of eight days, the city of Atlanta celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day at his birthplace, took in a gospel choir at halftime of a Hawks game and fought back against the soon-to-be most powerful man on earth who deemed it “in horrible shape” and “crime infested” despite the fact that it houses six esteemed universities and the world’s busiest airport. It saw a native rap group ascend to the top of the Billboard charts with “Bad and Boujee”, watched its NFL team win a home playoff game and a day later learned it would host the NFC Championship Game for one final contest in the beloved Georgia Dome. And it had a mostly-black TV series named after it win the Golden Globe for Best Television Series—Musical or Comedy.
“I really just want to thank, um, I really want to thank Atlanta. And all the, like, black folks in Atlanta,” said Donald Glover, creator of FX’s show Atlanta and a native of the city. “Like for real. Just for being alive and doing just amazing and being amazing people. I couldn’t be here without Atlanta.”
Inside Atlanta—one of the most diverse and integrated cities in America—sit the Falcons, who are a step away from advancing to their second-ever Super Bowl. Of the four teams who play this weekend, the Falcons are the clear outlier. Unlike the Steelers and Packers, they have not been synonymous with their city. Unlike the Patriots, they are not in the midst of a dynasty.
For so long, the Falcons were decidedly average, and as a result, Atlanta was largely apathetic to them. Then came Michael Vick, a real black quarterback in a Black Mecca, and then… away he went.
In the years between Vick’s conviction for dogfighting in 2007 and the 2016 Falcons, Atlanta, its NFL team and its fans have undergone changes big and small. The demographics of the city have shifted. Meanwhile, Falcons fans have had to reckon with Vick’s undoing and the team’s handling of it, before ultimately finding joy once again in the current offensive juggernaut squad led by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
“I feel like where we’re at now is totally separate than what has happened in the past,” said Grady Jarrett, who grew up watching Vick’s Falcons and is the son of former Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle. “We’re on our own way. We’re not in a position where we’re comparing ourselves to any other era of Falcons.”
Before Arthur Blank bought the team in 2002, the Falcons had made it past the divisional round of the playoffs just once in 37 years. Even their 1998 Super Bowl run—which resulted in a loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII— was unexpected.
“The team was just blasé,” said Doug Stewart, a former Atlanta radio show host who now has a daily podcast. “We never expected the Falcons to win a Super Bowl. When they made it, I don’t think many people around here really expected to win. Sure, die-hard fans from the city may have, but for the most part the team had been average and the brand had been one of the lesser brands in the NFL.”
The first problem, other than not winning, was that the Falcons were competing in a city with the Braves, Hawks, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. And while competing in that pool of fans while delivering below .500 seasons, the Falcons were also located in a city full of transients.
“I joke around and say I’ve met more people from New York in Atlanta than I did when I lived in New York City,” said Deirdre Oakley, a professor of sociology at Georgia State University.
The reason for that can be traced back to the 1970s. A majority-black city, Atlanta became a national and international player shortly after the Civil Rights Movement. The city began renovating and expanding Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in the late ’70s, completing it by the early ’80s under then-mayor Andrew Young. With Georgia’s own Jimmy Carter as president, Young served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from ’77 to ’79, and he brought his international expertise to the mayorship.
He had spent time in Germany as a student and got to know the nation better as ambassador. As mayor, Young, with the help of Atlanta giant Coca-Cola, began recruiting German businesses and estimates he brought in nearly 500 German companies during his eight years as mayor. He seduced foreign companies with the airport, telling them they could reach 80% of the U.S. market within two hours of Hartsfield-Jackson.
With jobs came people, and Young had a pitch for them, too. Sell your house in New York or New Jersey, Cleveland or Detroit, and he’ll get you twice the house for half the money. People and companies bought in, and Atlanta’s metro area boomed with newcomers. The city was viable internationally, and in 1996, Atlanta became only the third U.S. city to host the Summer Olympics.
But as Atlanta grew as a city and the NFL grew as a top sports league, the Falcons did not. There were the Dirty Birds of the ’90s, but that and one Super Bowl appearance weren’t enough win over a fan base.
Then came the Michael Vick Experience.
No one today blinks when a black quarterback is selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. That wasn’t the case in 2001 with Vick.
Vick was a black quarterback in a way never before seen. He was one of the fastest players on the field who could flick the ball 70 yards. He wore cornrows and signature Nike shoes.
“Michael was a rock star playing football,” Falcons president Rich McKay said. “He was iconic, to this fan base and even on the road. You’d go to the hotel and there would just be people all over the place waiting to see Michael.”
When Blank bought the team in 2002, he revamped the gameday experience and emphasized the tailgating scene. Stewart, the radio host, began tailgating games in 2001 and compared the pregame scene to Mardi Gras or more aptly Freaknik, a week of spring break parties for students at Atlanta HBCUs.
Around this same time, Atlanta’s rap scene blossomed. Atlanta’s part in Dirty South rap became mainstream. Following their ’90s albums ATLiens and Aquemini, OutKast put out Stankonia (featuring “So Fresh, So Clean” and “Ms. Jackson”) and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (with “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move”). Atlanta native Usher was dancing on stage with Michael Jackson for a CBS special. And Ludacris burst onto the scene with one of his most memorable rap lyrics. In “What’s Your Fantasy”, Ludacris raps “I wanna get you in the Georgia Dome on the 50-yard line/While the Dirty Birds kick for t’ree.”
“I knew it would take off because I was doing it independent at the time and I had a lot of songs, and that’s the one I believed in the most,” Ludacris said Saturday night before his halftime performance in front of a Georgia Dome crowd that mostly stayed put to hear him. “I put it out and said, this is the one that’s going to make me. And I put it all on the line. ... It sounded like nothing that was going on during that time. The flow, the beat, the melody, every single thing, and I just wanted to make my mark.”
Meanwhile, Vick became the first opposing quarterback to win a postseason game in Lambeau in 2002 and took the Falcons as far as the NFC title game in 2004. Then, in July 2007, he was indicted on federal charges for operating an illegal dogfighting ring. The allegations were bad, but at the time Vick had yet to plead guilty to the charges when the Falcons urged him to take a paid leave.
"Where it pertains to Vick, a lot of people–and particularly a lot of the black fan base in the city—felt that Blank left Vick hanging. That he washed his hands of him too quickly."
“Mike Vick kind of reminded you of a family member if you were black. Like a cousin or an uncle,” Stewart said. “He’s trying to do good, but he just doesn’t do right. He had all those little stories and the weed situation at the airport. It was almost like we were rooting for him to get his stuff straight, and when the dogfighting stuff happened, it was like he really screwed up this time.”
Stewart hosted Two Live Stews with his brother Ryan for a decade, and he and other radio personalities in Atlanta believe that the duo no longer hosts the show in part because of their defense of Vick. They did not feel that nearly two years in federal prison fit the crime, but Stewart also disagreed with how Blank and the Falcons handled it.
“Where it pertains to Vick during that time, a lot of people—and particularly, a lot of the black fan base in this city—felt that he left Vick hanging,” Stewart said. “That he washed his hands of him too quickly.”
McKay can understand that sentiment. He was the general manager of the team at the time, and he and Blank discussed how to deal with the star player getting federally indicted at the start of training camp. They could say with gusto they stand behind him and find out later they were wrong. They could release a pithy statement asking fans to respect the investigation process. Or they could hold a press conference and try to be as truthful as possible.
“It’s very hard when you have a franchise player, and Michael was a franchise player-plus, that was in the situation he was in,” McKay said. “I don’t know that there are any great answers there. Whoever you decide to favor, as far as their perspective goes, you’re going to have some very angry people on the other side of that.”
The Falcons went from Super Bowl contenders to the bottom of the league before the opening kickoff of the 2007 season. They started three different quarterbacks and went 4–12. After 13 games, first-year coach Bobby Petrino left a note at each player’s locker telling them he was quitting.
After amassing an impressive 56-game sellout streak—the Falcons had only sold out two games in the 1998 Super Bowl year—they failed to sell out two games. McKay said the team turned over more than 10,000 season tickets after ’07. Atlanta would draft Matt Ryan the following year and even make the playoffs, but severe damage had been done.
“People want to feel good about their franchise. They’re invested,” McKay said. “And when they feel like you embarrassed them, or they feel like they were put in an awkward spot because of their franchise, they don’t take it well.”
Said Stewart: “If they would have waited until it played itself out, and then moved on without him, I don’t think the animosity that still lingers in this city with the black population and Mike Vick fans would be null and void, but that’s the thing. If anybody tries to tell you why is there this big gap between Vick fans and team fans, it’s that.”
In the time the Falcons rose and fell and rose again, Atlanta began to look different. African-Americans made up more than 61% of Atlanta in 2000 but only 54% 10 years later. Meanwhile, the white population in the city grew significantly from 33.1% to 38.4% in that same time frame.
Though Atlanta has gotten “whiter,” the city has retained its identity, Professor Oakley said. What’s changed Atlanta the most is massive gentrification.
Last year, GoverningMagazine identified Atlanta as the fifth-most gentrified U.S. city behind Portland, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis and Seattle. Neighborhoods like Kirkwood and Old Fourth Ward have been affected greatly by gentrification, and it’s creeping closer to the home of the Falcons today. A planned redevelopment of Atlanta’s Underground, just southwest of the Georgia Dome, will soon reconfigure that largely black area, too.
Next year the Falcons will play next door in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a $1.5 billion stadium that will host the Super Bowl in 2019 and surely drive major events to Atlanta for decades to come. But there are concerns about the state-of-the-art facility gentrifying the black, lower-income neighborhoods separated only by the adjoining Northside Drive.
“The fear is this massive redevelopment is going to spur the real estate market to buy up properties, put up new housing developments, etc., in these neighborhoods so that these neighborhoods become more attractive to a number of people,” Oakley said. “And what that does is drive property taxes up, and when you’re talking about low-to-moderate income home owners, it raises the possibility that they can’t pay their taxes.”
Atlantans already feel spurned by the Braves, who left Turner Field (in a predominately black part of town) after this season to move to the northern suburbs of Cobb County. Now a new football stadium that will bring a Super Bowl, Final Four and college football title game in the next four years could also price out long-time home owners or renters.
Blank, a noted philanthropist, understands this. His foundation opened Westside Works nearly three years ago to help residents in those Westside neighborhoods learn skills for jobs and earn living wages. It’s unclear how much money has or will be put into programs, but as of October, Westside Works had placed more than 350 residents into living-wage jobs.
The Georgia Dome will be torn down, and in its place will rise a hotel and a large park. On gamedays, the area will be used for tailgating, and all other days it will operate as an open public space that will try to connect the neighborhood to more of the city.
“Let’s train them and get them ready with job skills, not just with the stadium but culinary skills, auto, nursing all in this Westside Works program,” McKay said, explaining Blank’s vision. “Let’s invest our money in human capital, getting those people up and running and employed, because that gives the community a much better chance than us going in and doing a mixed-use project just so people can go by and take pictures and say, ‘Look there’s change going on.’”
Young, Atlanta’s former mayor and U.S. ambassador, was friends with the late Dr. King. In fact, he was with King in Memphis in 1968 when King was assassinated.
“Dr. King,” Young said, “used to say, ‘At 11 in the morning may be the most segregated hour of the week, but by one o’clock in the afternoon, the sports stadiums were filled up and integrated.’”
Atlanta, like all cities, has its blemishes, but no NFL city offers as integrated a gameday scene as the Falcons.
“I don’t know of anybody in the league that approaches us in the diversity in our building. We take great pride in it,” McKay said. “That’s why it’s a great place to live. Atlanta is a very diverse—and comfortably diverse—city. There are plenty of other cities in our country that are diverse but not comfortably diverse, and I think Atlanta is.”
And Atlanta rap continues to surge. It’s been 13 years since Usher, Ludacris and Lil Jon collaborated to top the charts with the crunk rap song “Yeah!” Since Thanksgiving, an Atlanta rap group (Migos with “Bad and Boujee” and Rae Sremmurd with “Black Beatles”) has been No. 1, No. 2 or both on Billboard’s Top 100.
“We were always called the Motown of the South. It has a lot to do with southern hospitality,” Ludacris said from his Georgia Dome green room a few feet away from Usher, who was chewing on a cigar. “If you listen to L.A. and New York artists, they say people here work together. I think it really has to do a lot with the love of artists coming together and it just inspires other artists who come out of the fold a little later. We have our little issues from here and there, but everybody works together. Everybody gets on songs together and everyone produces for everyone. It’s like it’s a large pool of people that are like a big-ass family and I think that has a lot to do it. It trickles down to the up-and-coming talent.”
In some ways that’s a microcosm of Atlanta. Rap music emanating from here today wouldn’t be confused for Atlanta rap from the early 2000s just as the city and its demographics have also changed. And the city has come a long way in its symbiotic relationship and struggles among the most disparate Atlantans.
Falcons fans finally have something to cheer for after some dry years in the post-Vick era. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has developed Matt Ryan into a bonafide and the Falcons have outshot the entire NFL this season. Dan Quinn’s messages of brotherhood have resonated throughout the organization. A win against the Packers Sunday and a trip to the Super Bowl would officially open a new era in team history.
The wheels have been moving slowly the past 10 years. The Falcons had to take their playoff lumps—they were a touchdown short of Super Bowl XLVII four years ago—to get here. And the city and fans needed time to heal from the Vick era. The same player who was booed mercilessly at the Dome in 2009 as the Eagles quarterback was cheered at the Dome less than three weeks ago as he rode onto the field during halftime in a black Falcons No. 7 jersey.
And last Saturday in the NFC divisional round, the mood in the crowd was ownership. There’s no longer a need to pipe in crowd noise for Falcons’ home games. The fans can take it from here.
In front of Ludacris in his suite and Usher decked out in Falcons gear from hat to joggers, and in front of Big Boi from OutKast in the stands and the rapper Future in a suite and, yes, even Vick somewhere in the stadium, those fans loudly chanted M-V-P to Ryan and his Falcons three times that night.
The Falcons belong to Atlanta once again, and Atlanta will give a final reminder in the Georgia Dome on Sunday.