My parents had this house up in Kennesaw in 1996. Kennesaw is 20 miles or so out of Atlanta, so we had to drive into the city to see anything that wasn't rowing or white water rafting, and this meant the adventure of descending from the tame burbs into the city, this big, murderous, decaying pile of parking garages, tall buildings, and homeless people. The Walking Dead films in Atlanta all the time without changing a thing. It remains one of America's leading pre-zombified cities.
Driving into town we had on the Moog Cookbook, covers of popular songs from the 1990s done on ancient Moog synths. The skyline had all this extra filigree: red, blue and white neon along the borders of buildings, massive new billboards everywhere, a sheen of fresh paint and Olympic shine covering everything. The song "Black Hole Sun" came on, a bleepy bloopy remake that took any drama whatsoever out of the song. It became a bossa nova song from a space station. I was doing 85 down the connector and it felt like Atlanta had somehow bought a ticket to the end of history, a place where we all wore PVC pants, listened to arty but accessible techno music, and took Ecstasy without adverse side effects.
Then someone set off a bomb because they hated abortion and the gays, someone broke into your car, and you noticed the crack addicts selling t-shirts too crappy for Freaknik in the middle of the sanitized corporate thoroughfares. The night Eric Rudolph dropped off a backpack full of nails and explosives, I was driving up with my girlfriend from the University of Florida. We were listening to WGST when it went off, and in the background it sounded like nothing more than a transformer popping in the summer heat. A few anguished screams followed. Then, chaos.
And because you are young and stupid, of course you think your family is close by, and of course you assume that because they said they were going to the park that night that they must have been sitting on the bench over the bomb. So you drive 100 miles an hour up to Kennesaw, not calling because it is 1996 and you do not have a cellphone yet, to pull in the driveway and find them: my mother and father, still relatively happy and married, my sister, my brother, the hound who will later survive being hit by an SUV and hobble around on three good legs and one useless piece of flesh that used to be its right leg. They were fine. Later, my wife will take a conditioning class with a former Israeli commando whose husband was badly injured by the bomb. Eric Rudolph is a dick.
We got high in a port-o-let before the Australia/Nicaragua baseball game. It was my girlfriend's idea--the getting high part, not the Australia/Nicaragua baseball part. Tickets were either very easy to get, or impossible. International baseball was one of the easier ones. This is because international baseball is horrible and bad to watch. We decided to get high to properly enjoy Australians playing baseball. The people we were with told us the little vent at the top looked like a miniature factory stack belching smoke into the air. Someone clapped when we exited. It was all very subtle.
Australians playing baseball looked as bad as you might imagine. The outfielders chased balls with the determination and glacial speed of RBI baseball outfielders. If one had just gotten to the wall at an awkward angle and just stood there, legs pumping away but going nowhere, I would not have been surprised. At the plate they looked like a team of pitchers, and on the mound they looked like a team of DHs. The mercy rule ended the game sometime in the fourth inning, but being high meant it took a few minutes for us to realize that.
Me: What the hell is this?
Girlfriend: Are y'all just out there hugging and shaking hands?
Me: This is like a cuddle break.
Girlfriend: More sports need cuddle breaks.
Me: Could complicate boxing.
Girlfriend: How so?
Me: Like, what if you liked hugging him? You're all like, "Well, he smelled so good, and now I have feelings for him. This is awkward, right?"
Girlfriend: It might help, though. You could punch him for being so handsome.
Me: You're brilliant.
Girlfriend: No, YOU'RE brilliant.
We also got high in front of a cop with an AR-15 who didn't care what we did leaning against the walls of All Saints' church on North Avenue, so some of my memories may be less than pinpoint accurate.
At a convenience store on Spring Street, I watched two squat fireplug North Korean wrestlers in red sweat suits with "DPRK" emblazoned on the back walk in, each grab one Natural Light each, and then cautiously shove money into the cashier's bulletproof fishtank before opening the beers, pausing, and then downing the beers in one long chug where they stood. I don't know if they breathed; instead, it look like they opened a hatch in their stomach and just poured the beer in, standing and letting gravity do the work for them. They finished, and then walked out beaming with more happiness than I've ever seen on any other North Korean's face I've ever seen.* I've met at least three other North Koreans, so this is not an entirely meaningless statement. It looked like they'd tasted freedom, or at least some watered-down, Natural Light-scented off-brand variation of it.
*No really, I have met more than one North Korean. Three, in fact.
I was fourteen years old when the Olympics came to the American South, and the U.S. and Swiss national rowing teams were training all summer on the lake less than a mile from my childhood home. (Did you know you're never too young to develop a marked and predatory proclivity for overdeveloped calves?) That was as close as I was going to get to any official Olympics-related activity, and it was entirely because of the traffic.
Growing up in Tennessee, we spent a lot of time in Atlanta, because it was the closest place Broadway shows and touring bands of any import would dare alight. But I didn't see a single IOC-sanctioned competition that summer, because the three-hour jaunt on a map didn't account for the attendant hours we'd have to spend at an idle standstill on I-75 to get there, and neither did any of my friends. Oh, the traffic, our mothers would murmur faintly while clutching at the collars of their summer turtlenecks. The Centennial Park bombing, when it happened, was a convenient after-the-fact excuse. It's just not safe. You never know. And the traffic, you know.
Even in ninth grade, I remember liking the old Atlanta better. New Atlanta was all beige and Buckhead. I can't decide whether this makes me an anti-advocate for Olympics on American soil, but something about dividing the past five years of my life between L.A. and ATL has given me a pathological aversion to anything that might further cripple anybody's daily commute. I can remember so clearly that palpable, crystalline relief when Chicago's latest bid for the Games was denied: Thank goodness. Where were they all going to park?
In my senior year of high school, some friends and I took a trip to a camp deep in the hills of western North Carolina. While hauling down a long dirt highway, we took a wrong turn at one point, finding ourselves grill-to-grill with a black pickup blocking the one-way road. Two mustachioed faces with sunglasses glared down at us from within and nodded, that down-and-return nod that informs you this interaction is now over.
We waved sorry as we backtracked. There's nothing more unsettling than men who look like cops but definitely aren't cops.
If the faces in haunted house paintings wore aviators, they might actually be scary. "Are those guys watching us?" is way worse than "Those guys are watching us." We joked about what they must be hiding. Never thought of that moment again until three years later, when Eric Rudolph was caught just a few miles away from that road after somehow evading the feds for most of a decade.
You never really know how close you were.
On May 31, 2003, my most vivid memory of 1996 in Atlanta was provided by watching coverage of Centennial Olympic Park bomber Rudolph's arrest. Over the past 15 years, though, I usually think of the Games when complaining about that decaying, two-story Olympic torch next to the Varsity that didn't ever appear to have belonged to anybody. Earlier this year it was finally re-painted.
Centennial is now used for concerts and Herman Cain rallies and College GameDay. It won't be long before children born to parents who were themselves born after 1996 play in the park's ring-shaped fountains, and I wonder whether it will register with any of them just how insane it is that the 100th Olympic games were granted to the capital of the Southeastern United States.
The world's most prestigious international archery and tennis competitions were held on the site of a mountain that welcomed Ku Klux Klan rallies until 1981 and remains adorned with a giant mural of Confederate generals. And you know what? Muhammad Ali lit the torch to begin the Games anyway.
But contrary to legend, the canoeing venue was not the same river around which Deliverance was filmed.
And we're talking about the heart of college football hosting Judo and water polo championships. You'll find Georgia Bulldogs fans -- hey, at least we have an Athens! -- who complain to this day that Sanford Stadium's hedges were cut to make way for Olympic soccer. You'll also run into newcomers who think Atlanta Braves fans should be really concerned that a baseball team can't fill an Olympic track and field stadium every night, but whatever.
From the chromed-out Ford trucks full of cheerleaders at our opening ceremonies to our extremely diplomatic homeless people to the unending Coca-Cola logos that forever turned Atlanta's scenery into that of a website's sidebar -- seriously, when the revolution comes, don't be surprised if the South doesn't even notice, since everybody here already has guns and the dollar has already been replaced by Chick-fil-A coupons -- to, yeah, a terrorist attack over abortion, the Peach State was on full display, and the world was very, very puzzled.
Every town has rednecks, but not every town is aware of it. Sports gave the world the chance to neatly diagnose our ills from afar.
Juan Antonio Samaranch famously snubbed Atlanta by failing to proclaim its Games the best ever, as he'd done every four years before and after. From traffic to Coke logos hovering like Death Stars to that tacky-ass opening ceremony to Atlanta's failure to shoo all its poor people under a carpet so company wouldn't see them to ... yeah, again, a terrorist bombing, the 100th had done plenty to offend.
None of this stopped me from wearing gold-and-white Nikes all through my freshman year in honor of Michael Johnson, the world's fastest man save Deion Sanders. I still have a Dream Team II Alonzo Mourning jersey. Our dachshund-beagle mix is named Izzy, because what the f--- is a dachshund-beagle mix?
OutKast's ATLiens came out three weeks after closing ceremonies, and the Games had given me enough sense of place to prepare me for the fact that hey, hey, the South did have something to say. I'd been raised an Atlanta Falcons and Georgia Tech fan, but resented the Braves bandwagonery in 1991. Until the summer of 1996, my musical taste had teenage me thinking of myself as a wayward Yankee. Cobb County, Georgia's only KRS-One fan.
It didn't really hit me until after I'd had a child just how few people in the world can claim even the smallest piece of Olympic history, since nothing ever really hits anybody until after parenthood. Though the city of Atlanta may one day no longer be able to keep those fountains at Centennial alive without getting Arthur Blank to buy two or three of them, my hometown was the center of the world for one summer.
You never really know how close you were to the hot, violent, spectacular center of the world until enough time has passed.
The XXVI Olympiad was a hurricane, and I don’t mean that in the sense that it destroyed or otherwise transformed everything it encountered, although that is somewhat true. I mean it in the sense that the very center of it -- the Games themselves -- wasn’t much to speak of when considered alongside everything around it, everything it inspired.
When my family moved to Atlanta in 1992, I was nine years old, and I wasn’t used to being older than buildings. In fact, I was older than my new house and most buildings within two miles of it. The weird red Georgia dirt was covered by even weirder rolled-out swatches of Bermuda grass. Scrap fires and tarped-over pallets of carpenters’ miscellanea were everywhere. I couldn’t sit outside for longer than 10 minutes without hearing a hammer or jackhammer. When it rained, the water dissolved the ubiquitous bits of Sheetrock chalk on the street and bleached the asphalt as it trickled down the hill. I lived in the middle of a construction site that was visible from the Moon.
This explosion of suburban/exurban development wasn’t solely, or perhaps even significantly, a function of the impending Olympics, but it felt that way. Between the success of the Braves, the emergence of Deion Sanders as a two-sport star, the new Georgia Dome, and the Super Bowl coming to town, Atlanta was already satiated with exciting sports happenings.
And yet, between the local media and overheard conversations among adults, I received the impression that the Olympics were the only reason anyone ever did anything, and if something happened, it was somehow a function of the Games.
My 9-to-14-year-old self wondered what the big deal was, and my adult self has few answers. We were building structures with such frequency and fervency, as though they were missile bays constructed for the purpose of blowing an approaching meteor off course. Nope! 17 days of sports.
The idea of "uniting the world" or "celebrating peace" didn’t, and doesn’t, compel me either. The nations’ athletes aren’t working together, they’re competing. Are we to be congratulated for not crossing the chalk and shoving the Russian into a hurdle? Is that something to celebrate or to take for granted?
I’m afraid the Games themselves offered me no memories of significant interest. My dad, my brother and I took a shuttle that took us to another shuttle that took us to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where we watched Italy and Nicaragua play baseball. It was pretty neat. It was like going to the zoo: "pretty neat." I can’t give it higher marks without lying.
The memories of the verbs and nouns the Olympics inspired, though, are a different matter altogether. My family and I moved away not long after the Games concluded, and so I remember Atlanta only as a manic, weird, sprawling metropolis building and bettering itself to the point of exhaustion.
If one probably-inaccurate but compelling illustration presents the Olympic Games as causing the explosion in Atlanta’s development, another is of a city in the South, a city of the WCW and TBS and Jerry Glanville and the ordinary and familiar, as ordinary and familiar as a microwave dinner, suddenly informed that it is to be the next Barcelona, and dressing itself up accordingly. 15 years later, I am bewildered: how were the Olympic Games ever held in Atlanta? It seems less unbelievable for Prince William to maintain and visit a summer home in Indianapolis.
I felt the desperation as the hull of the city creaked and labored under the strain of its growth. My brother’s classroom was a hastily-repurposed janitor’s closet. My fourth-grade class was in an ancient trailer in which rainwater always managed to drop from the ceiling and leak onto whatever I was writing. We were issued first-grade math workbooks for a time, because there were no others. It wasn’t poverty, it was simply a city trying and failing to keep up with itself.
I love the Atlanta of the 1990s for its exciting strangeness, and I love the 1996 Olympic Games for shoveling fuel into the stove like an engineer gone mad. Fifteen years later, it makes no more sense, and that is just fine.
Title photo: eschipul/Creative Commons