ATLANTA — Here, at the Fulton County Courthouse, smack dab in downtown Atlanta, the vibe is decidedly hushed. In the coming months, this 112-year-old courthouse will be aswarm with activity — ground zero in the battle over democracy — when 19 defendants, including a former president, will stand trial for allegedly trying to overturn an election. But that legal reckoning is many months away. Right now, the only evidence of what’s to come are the barricades stretching up and down the block and a battalion of TV trucks camped out across the street, waiting. There is the sense of life put on pause, an anxious sort of calm before the judicial storm.
I’m here, having hopped on a plane from DC, traveling to my hometown to see how the ATL is handling being the site of what is likely to be the political trial of the century. I spent my adolescence here, and I’ve got deep, Old School, Old Guard, Black Atlanta roots. But having absconded from the city many years ago, I’m always amazed at how my once sleepy Southern burg has morphed into the Hollywood of the South, a sprawling metropolis — accounting for nearly half the population of the entire state of Georgia — complete with movie studios, record labels, tech startups and traffic. Lots and lots and lots of traffic.
Back in the day, Atlanta was the cradle of the civil rights movement, home to activist icons like Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Sr., Julian Bond, Rep. John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, a hub of Black exceptionalism. That’s a history the city wears consciously, as evidenced here by the plethora of murals, museums and streets — some named after the parents and grandparents of kids I grew up with. And now Atlanta, the so-called Black Mecca, is the epicenter of a fight over the peaceful transfer of power. As I tool around Atlanta, I encounter Atlantans who are very conscious of the significance of this trial — and of how, once again, their city will play an important role in making American history.
They’re very aware of all of this.
And they’re positively gleeful.
“We’re getting a kick out of Trump getting booked at the Rice Street Jail,” says Eddie Jewell, a 54-year-old Uber driver and lifelong Atlantan, referring to the nickname for the Fulton County Jail.
“We’re loving it,” Jewell says, with a hearty laugh. “For a long time, he’s been recklessly saying things and now he’s being called out. How are you going to call the Secretary of State and ask him to overturn an election?
“John Lewis is smiling,” he says. “Dr. King is smiling. I know [former Mayor] Andy Young in his wheelchair has a big smile on his face. … I think it’s great the birthplace of the civil rights movement is having a big part of this.
“All eyes are on us right now and not for the wrong reason. For a great reason. Dr. King said, ‘We shall overcome.’ And we are definitely overcoming.”
Atlanta prides itself on being “the city too busy to hate,” but tensions burble beneath the surface. There are Black-white tensions, city-state tensions, haves-and-have-nots tensions, and Black-Black tensions, from homegrown rap moguls vs. City Hall, to the the Old School bourgie Black folks who look askance at the New School bourgie Black folks as carpet bagging arrivistes. (Think “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” most of whom are neither housewives nor from Atlanta.)
Folks up North were surprised that Georgia flipped blue in 2020. I wasn’t. This isn’t Newt Gingrich’s Georgia — or even Jimmy Carter’s Georgia. Georgia’s transformation is rooted in its swiftly changing demographics. This is the Georgia of rapid immigration shifts: According to the Migration Policy Institute, between 1990 and 2000, the state’s foreign-born population jumped 233.4 percent; between 2000 and 2020, the immigrant population jumped another 87.6 percent, accounting for 10 percent of the total population in a Jim Crow state that used to define itself along strict, Black-white lines.
Immigrants here hail, in order of their population, from Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Next to English and Spanish, Vietnamese is the most commonly spoken language in the Peach State.
Another factor driving Georgia — and Atlanta’s — massive demographic shifts: In a reversal of the Great Migration of the 20th Century, Black folks are abandoning once-majority Black cities like Chicago and Washington, moving down South in droves. Between 2000 and 2020, the city of Atlanta’s Black population declined somewhat, from 253,564 to 233,018. But during that same period, the Black population in the metro area as a whole skyrocketed 67 percent, as working-, middle- and upper-class Black families spread out to the suburbs.
Education plays a role as well: In 2016, 32.3 percent of Black Atlantans had a college degree, slightly higher than the national average of 30.8 percent for Black Americans. That amount reflects a nearly 10 percent increase from 2000, according to the Education Trust.
“Georgia has always been a barometer of progression in the South,” says political strategist Tharon Johnson, founder and CEO of Paramount Consulting Group in Atlanta.
“We have been trending toward a purple, navy blue state for some while,” Johnson says, thanks to Democratic mobilization efforts, which built a coalition of Black and brown voters — as well as disaffected suburban white women who previously voted Republican. If you’d told Republicans back in 2016, Johnson says, that Donald Trump, who pulled an upset by defeating Hillary Clinton, would lose Georgia in 2020, they wouldn’t have believed it.
So, as Johnson sees it, Trump’s alleged interference with the outcome of the presidential election in Georgia “is an unwillingness to accept that Georgia is no longer this solidly red conservative state.”
At lunchtime, inside the Fulton County Courthouse, the halls are eerily quiet. The hush is deeper than any other courtroom I’ve encountered, both in my reporting duties and for jury duty. On one wall, a television screen projects a slow scrawl of mug shots, men and women facing hard time for aggravated child molestation, kidnapping, false imprisonment, rape, murder.
I stroll by the courtroom of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, the young conservative judge who’ll be presiding over the trial. If, that is, the dozen-plus defendants that Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis has charged with racketeering fail to get the case moved to federal court.
But court isn’t in session.
It’s always quiet here, says a middle-aged security guard. “Sometimes people show out,” she says, “but usually it’s quiet.”
Has it been any different since Trump was indicted?
“Nope,” she says. “Quiet.”
As she talks, a Black man, still dressed in his judicial robes and walking a large Labrador retriever, makes for the exit. Sixty-plus years ago, you wouldn’t have seen a Black judge in these halls. For that matter, you wouldn’t have seen a Black woman (that would be Willis) indicting a president. But times bring about a change.
“Done for the day?” the security guard asks.
The judge just smiles and waves, keeping it moving.
Just a few minutes away from the courthouse is Sweet Auburn Avenue, home of a once-prosperous Black business district Fortune magazine called “the richest Negro street in the world.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on this street, in a large, Queen Anne house with a wraparound porch.
Today, his birthplace is a museum, part of the National Park Service’s Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, Atlanta’s top tourist attraction.
Against the backdrop of Atlanta’s storied skyline, a multiracial contingent of tourists queue up for a tour of the King family home. Around the corner, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where King and his bride, Coretta Scott King are entombed, his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech — which turns 60 this month — blasts through the speakers.
We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: for whites only.
We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream….
A block or so away, at the Slutty Vegan, a Black-owned fast-food joint that serves “bangin’, plant-based” fare, rap music rattles the room. Customers line up, ordering veggie meals with snappy names like “Super Slut,” “Side Heaux” and “Fussy Hussy.”
It’s been a busy, busy week, says Freddie Ellis, a wiry 44-year-old who looks younger than his years. As he stands behind the merchandising counter, where you can buy bottled hot sauce, T-shirts and “Slut Dust,” a seasoning blend, he recounts the week’s events: Monday was the Beyonce concert and her fans flocked en masse to Slutty Vegan. (Thanks to the Beehive, Slutty Vegan made tens of thousands on that day alone, he says.) Tuesday was Trump’s indictment. And Wednesday, the Atlanta Braves spanked the New York Yankees, 2 to 0.
What did he think of Trump’s indictment?
“They say no one’s above the law,” Ellis says. “But this’ll make him an icon to his supporters. I think what he did was wrong, but this’ll make him look like a superhero.
“He’s going to use this to his advantage.”
Ellis tells me he didn’t like what happened on Jan. 6, not one bit, especially the way insurrectionists were waving the Confederate flag. “It don’t get no more racist than that,” Ellis says. “I’m from Alabama.” But he doesn’t not like Trump. Though he’s a lifelong Democrat, he’s not ruling out voting for the man in 2024. His wallet was a little fatter during the Trump presidency, particularly during lockdown, thanks to PPE loans and stimulus checks. That counts for a lot in his book.
“I don’t have a reason not to like him,” Ellis says. “I could relate to him in some ways in that he doesn’t mind speaking his mind. Sometimes his mouth gets him into trouble.
“I can relate to that.”
Roughly 15 minutes away from the county courthouse, on Rice Street in Northwest Atlanta, is the Fulton County Jail, affectionately — or perhaps contemptuously — called the Rice Street Jail. Police have blocked off the entrance to the jail, which, from a distance, looks like a college campus with its sprawling grounds and lush green lawns.
This is where Trump and his 18 co-defendants, including Rudy Giuliani and and Kan… — ahem — Ye’s former publicist, Trevian Kutti, will turn themselves in to be booked and processed. But will they arrive through the front entrance? Or sneak through the back? There’s no way to know, and so, to be on the safe side, TV crews erect tents outside both entrances, where they wait in the heat, practicing the time-honored art of the stakeout.
Next to the back entrance is the Jefferson Place Transitional House, a treatment center for men who’re down on their luck. A cluster of men gather outside, some in wheelchairs, sunning themselves in the Georgia heat.
They talk about Trump’s indictment with a sense of marvel: That the former president could be booked and fingerprinted in the same place where so many Black men have been locked up — including Gunna, the rapper who in December pled guilty to racketeering charges — is nothing short of amazing to them.
“He claimed to be untouchable,” says Michael Addah, a sweet-faced 30-year-old with baby dreadlocks. “But God — you know what I’m saying?— is the God of the Impossible. And Trump was able to be touched. He’s no different from anyone else. He needs to humble himself.”
“I figure he’s getting his karma about all the things he was belligerent about. It’s a big smack in the face.”
Perez, sitting next to Addah in a Tupac T-shirt, says he can’t vote, thanks to his criminal record. But if he could vote, he says, he would’ve voted for Trump.
“He’s a big man,” Perez, 42, says. Still, he wasn’t happy with the January 6 shenanigans. “It was too much drama,” he says. “People were jumping over the walls” to get into the U.S. Capitol.
Meanwhile, by the front entrance, two young white women walk by slowly, holding up their phones, shooting video. They live right up the street, and they can’t believe the drama that’s unfolding in their front yards.
“Do you think he’s going to come?” says Annelise Rempe, 21, who attends college in Denver. “I’m curious.”
She means Trump, of course.
“We think he deserves it,” says her friend, Gillian Schuh, 21, who attends college at Parsons in New York City. “He needs to be treated like everyone else.”
“I was really surprised he was being treated like a regular civilian,” Rempe says.
“Famous rappers have been here to get booked, like Gunna,” Schuh adds.
“It’s crazy,” Rempe says.
“He hasn’t been kind to minorities,” Schuh says.
Rempe nods in agreement. “I don’t think he’s going to be very popular…” she says, cutting herself off.
She stops, putting up her hands and peering through them at the jail’s entrance, looking like a film director framing a shot.
“Whoa,” Rempe says, shaking her head in amazement.
“I’m just taking it all in.”