Religious argument really ought to be an Olympic event, at least
the way it's practiced in the Five Points area of Atlanta. The
day before the Games opened, I watched a pickup disputation
involving a mixed congregation of eight or 10 young male
Muslims, Rastafarians and (I think) Baptists. One of the Rastas
began to spring higher and higher into the air, not in a showy
or ritual way but just with the intensity of the point he was
"No I about it," he cried, leaping with each word. "It is all we."
The Baptist (I think) replied, "I'm saying, I know who my God
is," and as several people quoted Scripture at once--point,
counterpoint and catercounter--the Rasta came to earth in a
high-tensile crouch and froze, his eyes flashing. "Say you do or
do not believe in Ja," he demanded, and though his feet were
touching the pavement, he somehow seemed to hang there the way
Michael Jordan in his youth hung in the air.
The theology got too complex for me to follow after that, but
the body language was something to behold. It was hard to find
amateur competition in the Olympic ring last week but not
impossible. You had to go to Five Points, an area that lies just
to the southeast of the Olympic Center but squarely in the
middle of Atlanta history.
July 28, 1996
Five Points got its name because that was where five of
Atlanta's most important streets--Peachtree, Marietta, Decatur,
Whitehall and Edgewood--intersected. Down along Decatur Street
was where the dead and wounded Confederates once lay stretched
out as if forever, the living ones moaning and begging for help,
in that famous scene in Gone with the Wind in which Scarlett
O'Hara felt she just couldn't stand it anymore.
Five Points was Atlanta's main business district into the '60s.
Rich's, long Atlanta's keystone department store, was here.
Shortly before the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed,
demonstrators confronted counterdemonstrators near Five Points
over the integration of Leb's restaurant. (Comedian Dick Gregory
peeked under a Klansman's hood and asked, "Is dat you, Lawd?")
Vernon Jordan, the future president of the National Urban League
who was working for a regional civil rights organization,
integrated Herren's restaurant one day at lunchtime. Fred
Powledge, then a local newspaper reporter, broke a century of
ignominious decorum by crying out across the room, "Vernon! It's
great to see your black face in here!"
Since then Atlanta's business nexus has dispersed over an ever
broader metropolitan area. Downtown, Rich's, Leb's, Herren's and
any number of former power buildings have been gutted, and Five
Points is an area that many suburban whites have long been loath
to venture into. Now the Olympics have brought the area back
into focus. City, state and private security forces are
everywhere, abandoned buildings have been gussied up and pressed
into service, and $5 million has been plowed into making a
showpiece out of Woodruff Park, a patch of green right at Five
Points' heart. What do you know? Famously amorphous Atlanta does
have a central core of street life.
"Yes, it's hot," chuckles the erect 82-year-old man whose
handwritten nametag says BISHOP CRAIG. He stands where he has
been standing several hours a day, he says, for more than 30
years: on the corner of Peachtree and Alabama, right outside the
Five Points MARTA subway station. Although the temperature is up
in the 90's, Bishop Craig is dressed in a black suit, crisp
white shirt and striped necktie. "But not as hot," he is bound
to remind us, "as Hell will be." What is the Olympic cauldron
compared to "that lake of fire"? Bishop Craig is holding a
hand-lettered sign proclaiming, among other things, GOD WILL
CURE SUGAR CANSOR, TBs and (though the old man is wearing heavy
black leather footwear) PUT OFF YOUR SHOES, FOR THIS GROUND IS
Another man suddenly swoops in and makes as if to grab that sign
away from the Bishop. It's the same man who has been making as
if to grab the sign most every day for years. "A deef-mute," the
Bishop says. "He has a demon." This man too has a ministry,
although his only utterance is sort of a yodel, sort of a groan.
The Bishop is not about to let this man get his sign: "I ain't
afraid of your demon! Give me your hand!"
The man won't let the Bishop have his hand.
"Uhluh-uhl-uhl-uh-uhl," he cries, maybe derisively, may-be
merrily, it's hard to say. His nametag says ELDER/H.
WEBB/CHILDREN/UNITED STATES ARMY. He's wearing a U.S. Marines
T-shirt and an olive-drab military cap and waving a Bible. He
makes a snatching motion toward Bishop Craig's nametag, then
toward his own, then toward my Olympic press credential.
"He'll shake everybody's hand but mine!" cries the Bishop. "He
knows I'll take out that demon! One day I run him all the way
around that MARTA station, but he wouldn't take my hand!"
"He ain't no revund," huffs the Evangelist I. (for Inez) Willis,
who has been preaching on this corner for the last six of her 60
years. She and the Bishop get along, but brother Webb (if that
is really his name) is forever plaguing them. "I'm a prophet,"
says the Evangelist Willis. She shuffles three densely
hand-lettered signs, hard to decipher linearly. The word WOE
stands out, and THE OLYMPICS IS NOT OF GOD.
"Atlanta will be done away!" she says. "I been tellin' 'em for
six years! But people'd rather it snuck up on 'em!"
A young couple bops by, grinning. "That's right, you laughing,"
cries the Evangelist Willis. "I know you ain't praying, 'cause
you got that nekkid gal!" The gal is wearing a scarcely daring
skirt and tank top. The Evangelist Willis is wearing a white
hat, a white sweater with lace trim and a long, high-necked,
flowered dress. She says she has been arrested four times (for
excessive vehemence in criticism of longhaired male and
underdressed female passersby, the Bishop explains).
She gives me a steady look. "God showed me a storm coming down
that street!" she says. "He showed me a jail building blowing
up! He showed me a train climbing steps! A train don't climb
steps!" A couple of stairway levels below us, a MARTA train
"This Olympits is the end," she says. "I know it is. All Atlanta
care about is money! Atlanta with her attitude going to blow up!
I been trying to warn 'em, and they laugh. It tears me up! I
can't stand it!"
The nonverbal man swoops in again, holding up a newspaper
clipping about a Cobb County arts exhibit and pointing to a
figure quoted in the clipping: $229,037. Then he gestures
inclusively toward himself and the Bishop and the Evangelist
Willis and shakes his head. I'm going to say it's merrily. None
of them are getting any of that money.
Nor do they ask their listeners for money. They get by. They
have places to live. Lots of other people in Five Points don't.
For years Woodruff Park has been a bedroom for the homeless.
Twenty-four men and three women were sleeping there during last
Friday night's opening ceremonies. Uncounted others have been
driven away from the downtown area by police (there's a city
ordinance forbidding "acting in a manner not usual for
law-abiding individuals" in a parking lot), by the new sprinkler
system in Woodruff Park and by the demolition of three or four
shelters during Olympic construction. The soup kitchen at St.
Luke's Episcopal church has been converted temporarily to Big
Al's 50's Cafe, which wasn't pulling in its anticipated Olympic
revenues at lunchtime on Saturday. I was the only customer. Nine
dollars for a bad hamburger, a package of potato chips, a pickle
and a cold drink.
Word in the street was that military vans had been rounding up
homeless men and stashing them at Fort McPherson, an Army post
six miles from Five Points, for the duration of the Olympics.
None of the homeless advocates to whom I talked could confirm
that--and an Army spokesperson denies it--but Anita Beaty of
Atlanta's Task Force for the Homeless says the Olympics have
caused a net loss of "hundreds of beds, when we already have
thousands too few."
She also says that 28% to 38% of the people who call her
organization's 24-hour hotline in need of a place to sleep are
working men and women. Many of them have helped build Olympic
venues. But they're being ripped off by temporary "labor pools"
that contract out the work at $11-$14 an hour, then pay the
laborers the minimum wage--less deductions for food and
transportation. "Our modern slavery," says Beaty.
"I didn't want to be in Atlanta," says Anthony Knighton. "I was
extradited [from Detroit, on a drunken driving charge, he
claims]. That's how I lost everything." He does have a place to
sleep, at St. Luke's, and he keeps busy informing other
dispossessed people of their rights. IT'S LEGAL TO BE HOMELESS,
says a flier he carries. It goes on:
Police can't arrest you in a public place if you:
--Talk to yourself.
Police can arrest you in a public place if you:
--Cause a disturbance.
--Obstruct a sidewalk.
--Spit on a sidewalk.
"Georgia will give you food stamps," Knighton says. "But how can
a man use food stamps if he's living in a parking lot? The
concept of that criteria is fundamentally polluted. So he'll
sell the stamps."
"Then if you get on drugs," an affable but vague-eyed young man
told me in Woodruff Park, "then they got you. Atlanta's a nice
town, though. I helped build where they're holding the boxing."
"Folks in our office waiting for shelter watched the opening
ceremony on TV," Beaty says. "They loved it. They're very docile
people. They're used to waiting for a place to sleep. I step
over women and little children on our floor, and I look down the
street and see the new stadium lit up and the fireworks going
off, and I can hardly stand it."
Standing things really ought to be an Olympic event, at least
the way it's practiced around Five Points. It would restore an
element of amateurism--maybe not in its highest form, but
amateurism has always been a function of what people can afford.
A man I talked to in Five Points would be hard to beat in that
competition. He declined to give me his name, partly "for
security reasons" and partly because I had never interviewed
Mike Tyson, "and if Mike don't trust you, why should I? See what
I'm saying?" But he did tell me a story.
"Somebody come after me trying to tell me I owe him money. He's
got a pool cue in each hand. I said, 'Man, I ain't got no money.
Come after me with two pool cues in each hand, I still won't
have no money. Do I look like I got any money? I hate to think
how many pool cues you'd come after me with if I did. But I
ain't ever looked like I had any money. And even if I did look
like I had any money, I still wouldn't have no money. I ain't
never had no money.' I got him to where he gave me one of them
pool cues, finally."