John Lewis saw the signs. It was hard not to. This was in Atlanta a few weeks back, on a transformative weekend where 60,000 convened downtown on Jan. 21 to march for women’s rights and social justice and where a day later the Falcons battered the Packers to advance to the franchise’s second Super Bowl.
At the demonstration, the game and later at pep rallies and airport protests over changes to U.S. immigration policy, many signs sounded the same theme. Often, they simply read, “District 5.” The signs were unusual, but so were the circumstances. That’s the district Lewis represents in Congress. And that’s also the district President Donald Trump described as “in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested)” in a series of Twitter posts last month. The tweets came in response to what Lewis said on Meet the Press—that the Russians’ alleged hack helped Trump win the presidency and therefore Lewis did not consider him a legitimate president.
Trump attacked Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement and the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, on the same weekend as the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. That did not go over well. Especially in Atlanta, hence the signs. Lewis, though, chose not to further engage with Trump. That January weekend, he says, showcased his Atlanta—its citizens, its rich history and its ongoing transformation. The Falcons, he tells SI.com over the phone from Washington, are part of that. Their playoff run united large segments of the community, something Lewis says Americans need more than ever now. “The city is on a high,” he says. “We’re celebrating who we are.”
With Atlanta set to face New England in Super Bowl LI on Sunday, it’s tempting to cast Lewis the actual patriot opposite Trump and his three favorite Patriots—Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. But Lewis isn’t going there. He doesn’t want to discuss Trump. He wants to rave about his city and its football team.
He knows the Falcons’ owner, Arthur Blank, and considers him a friend (Blank is also the co-founder of Home Depot). They run into each other at civic functions and dine together on occasion. In fact, when President Barack Obama presented Lewis with the Congressional Medal of Freedom, Blank was the only person he invited to The White House besides his family. He even offers a kind appraisal of the owner’s post-victory dancing in recent weeks, as the videos went viral. Lewis says Blank has a “special style” and “some rhythm.”
Dance moves aside, the triumph over the Packers marked Atlanta’s final game in the Georgia Dome. Next season, the Falcons will move across the street, into the almost-completed Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a $1.5 billion complex. Lewis flies into Atlanta regularly, and in recent years, he would look out the window, eyes trained downward on the new stadium, checking on the progress of construction. “It was like watching a plant grow,” he says. “You could see it rise up from the ground. That says something about Atlanta. It’s a symbol of what Atlanta is in the process of becoming.”
As for District 5, it’s the home to Turner Field, the country’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International, Coca-Cola’s headquarters and several prominent universities. Lewis notes the high-rises being constructed in Midtown, the homes being renovated elsewhere, the new shopping complexes and restaurants.
Seeing how his District 5 residents have responded to Trump and his polices reminds Lewis of the civil rights movement. “You couldn’t travel south to Georgia or to my native state of Alabama and other places in the South without being arrested, jailed or beaten,” he says. “I would come home to Atlanta, getting away from the constant harassment, the telephone calls, the threat of even death. Atlanta was the city that was too busy to hate.”
Lewis hopes that’s just as true today. He thinks it is. Last weekend, he went to the airport, where thousands of people from all backgrounds gathered to protest Trump’s immigration policy. Here were the grandchildren of immigrants, the children of immigrants, all these disparate backgrounds. “It looked like a world capital,” Lewis says. “People from the Middle East and Africa, from South and Central America, from all over the US. We’re at an interesting time in the world now, and that really made everything that’s going on so real for me.”
When Lewis moved to Atlanta in 1963, he suffered some racial division. Restaurants where he couldn’t eat. Hotels where he couldn’t stay. “Those days are gone,” he says. “There’s a greater sense of hope, a greater sense of optimism about the future—despite what you may have heard.”
Blank told SI.com that Lewis “represents diversity and inclusion and the world needs that more than ever now.” Lewis believes that sports and the local football team can play a role there. “Sports have the capacity to bring people together,” he says. “That’s why you saw so many people at the game crying.”
Lewis even allows himself to dream. He can picture an afternoon in the near future, when the Lombardi Trophy makes its way down Peachtree Street. “I can see the parade,” he says. “Unreal. Glorious. People shouting and dancing in the street. The world watching Atlanta and where we’re headed and who we are.”