Atlanta center of US political universe once again with Biden-Trump debate

<span>Illustration: Guardian Design/The Guardian/Getty Images</span>
Illustration: Guardian Design/The Guardian/Getty Images

Joe Biden will debate Donald Trump on Thursday night in an unnerving repeat of the 2020 election cycle, and once again Atlanta is the center of the political universe.

The question is whether the two candidates can influence Atlanta, or if Atlanta, which influences everything in American politics, is beyond their influence.

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Elections in Georgia have been in a state of trench warfare since 2018, the rise of Stacey Abrams and election outcomes predicated more on supercharged turnout than convincing anyone of anything they didn’t already believe. Georgia’s 2020 election was decided by a figurative hair – the infamous 11,780 votes Trump asked the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to find in a “perfect phone call” that led to his indictment here.

Within the state, Atlanta has extra significance this year. The Biden administration has sent Kamala Harris to the city repeatedly this year, a sign of Democratic anxiety about losing Black voters in a historically Black city. Biden himself came last month to give the commencement speech at Morehouse College, a historically Black college, to a generally positive reception.

Trump also has a relationship with Atlanta, of course. It is markedly less positive.

Whether Trump is returning to the scene of the crime is a matter to be decided, eventually, by a Fulton county jury. Trump had his notorious – and lucrative – mug shot taken at the Fulton county jail about two miles north-west of the empty studio he and Biden will debate in, across the street from Centennial Olympic Park downtown.

“All I can see coming out of this is memes,” said Bem Joiner, an Atlanta cultural critic and creative consultant. Joiner doesn’t want to diminish the importance of a presidential debate, and knows there are issues for which the public craves substantive argument, but people have already picked a side, he said.

“I think it is what it is with this race,” Joiner said. “I cannot see questions being answered in a way that changes the mind of anyone at this point, with these two people. You can only, maybe, do something to fuck it up more for you.”

For all the symbolism of a debate in the heart of Atlanta, the format is made largely for the national stage. The two men will be standing in an otherwise-empty room, interrogated by two CNN anchors – Jake Tapper and Dana Bash – who neither live nor work in the city.

Perhaps the spare environment will limit casualties from collateral fire. In the 2020 debates, Trump lied repeatedly and floridly about his performance on the pandemic, race relations and the economy, while interrupting the moderators and Biden. We remember Trump telling Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” and Biden, exasperated by yet another interruption, asking Trump to just shut up for once.

The vitriolic chaos effectively ended the Presidential Commission on Debates as a mechanism for administering the events. This time, Biden is the one defending a presidential record. Trump wants to focus on that record, looking for a wedge to separate Biden from what pliable voters remain in America. Biden is likely to be comfortable explaining the accomplishments of his administration, but will try to use the debate to remind America of the reasons they got rid of Trump in the first place.

CNN’s studios in downtown Atlanta are mostly empty today. The network has been forsaking the CNN Center bit by bit for a decade, accelerating their shift to DC and New York after AT&T sold the building to developers in 2021. The halls are filled with echoes of Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer, abandoned set signs in the walkways and ghosts in the studios. The markers of life, such as the Cartoon Network store in the moribund food court, are gone.

Workers carted away the CNN sign in March. They just call it “the Center” now.

Atlanta itself is thriving, generally, despite the protestations of conservatives like Trump, who has repeatedly attacked its elected leaders and its people over the years. Atlanta also has a flair for expressing its displeasure at such things.

Trump even unloaded on the Atlanta civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis in 2017 after the congressman skipped Trump’s lightly-attended inauguration. “Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the US. I can use all the help I can get,” he tweeted.

Atlanta responded with a barrage of snark under the hashtag #defendthefifth, posting idyllic pictures of children playing in parks or strolling along the BeltLine. Those hashtags were still being used by people standing in line to vote in Atlanta in 2020.

Trump also showed up to the college football championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2018. But the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America projected the words “Fuck Trump” on to the side of the stadium while he was there, and not one soul did a thing to stop them.

What is absolutely true is the Republicans cannot win the White House without Georgia

Stephanie Jackson Ali, the New Georgia Project

Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Trump had to cart in Black supporters for a publicity stunt presented as authentic community support for his campaign two months ago at a Chick-fil-A up the street from the stadium. Even so, Trump claims he’s winning Black voters in record numbers, which – if it were true – might represent the margin of victory in Georgia.

“What is absolutely true is the Republicans cannot win the White House without Georgia,” said Stephanie Jackson Ali, policy director for the New Georgia Project, a voter outreach organization. “Either way, Georgia is going to be critical this year for any side to perform well in.”

“Georgia is also unique in being such a southern state with a large Black population, but also a growing Latino population and API [Asian/Pacific Islands] population. This perfect storm of reasons makes Georgia such a great place to come to, because you can talk to so many people from so many backgrounds, all in one place.”

The New Georgia Project’s political action fund is hosting a watch party, “Vibe and Vote”, at a cigar bar on Peachtree Street on debate night, focusing on Black men and voter turnout. Trump’s reported gains with Black men have prompted a wave of outreach from progressive groups.

Harris, meanwhile, may as well put down a deposit on a Buckhead condo considering all the time she spends in town. She has made a point of discussing the administration’s investments in the Black community generally and Atlanta specifically, like a $158m plan to use infrastructure dollars on a project to build a cap over Atlanta’s most traveled highway, the Downtown Connector.

She again visited Atlanta on Tuesday – her fifth visit to Georgia this year – for a talk with Migos rapper Quavo to discuss gun violence.

Biden and Trump are competing for a vanishingly small portion of the electorate – people who haven’t made up their mind about two people who have been in the public eye for much of the last two decades of American life. Neither is popular. But many people have simply tuned out politics, even here in the center of the political storm.

The first debate is a warning bell for them, that election season is upon us more than ever and it is time to pay attention.