Two memories from second or third grade: the fall of ’91, when the Braves swelled our little hearts with their miraculous “worst-to-first” season, and the morning the year before that we’d gathered in the school auditorium before a television rolled in on a cart, to watch the International Olympic Committee make its fateful announcement of the site of the ’96 games: “It’s Atlanta!” Thereafter the Braves and the Olympics hovered over my Atlanta childhood like helicopters, these buzzing presences that were always up there, flying awkwardly but flying nonetheless. They gave me the illusion that I lived in a big-deal city, which is precisely the illusion that Atlanta’s city fathers have been striving to generate in residents and observers alike for over a century, whether through Henry Grady’s paeans to the New South or Mayor Hartsfield’s encomiums to “The City Too Busy to Hate.”
Well, it’s no longer Atlanta for the Atlanta Braves, or so it seems. Today the Braves announced a move from Turner Field — the downtown stadium, built for the Olympics, that the team inherited after the games were over — to suburban Cobb County. Although I guess we’ll have to wait and see the details of the deal, and whether it holds up, I was weirdly mad to learn about it — weirdly because I don’t care that much about baseball anymore, and because I didn’t think I cared that much about the Braves anymore, although I was a minor fan as a small kid, back in their “worst” days, when you could sit up high in the sparsely occupied blue plastic seats at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and cheer for the wholesome Dale Murphy and his various journeymen teammates with their proto-hipster facial hair, and a really big fan for a short-lived couple of years in the Bobby Cox/Tom Glavine/Jon Smoltz heyday of the ’90s, before the Braves got frustrating and I, for whatever vicissitudes of getting older, got way less interested in sports. (Don’t worry, my family are sports nuts exceeding any family’s reasonable quota of sports nuttery and so the cosmic balance of sports fandom remained wholly undiminished by my withdrawal.)
In other words, I understand why diehard Braves fans from the city would be mad, such as my brother, but why would I be mad? As someone with the good academic liberal’s generally disapproving skepticism towards the political economy of professional sports I always find it idly offensive when, for instance, I hear talk of the Oakland A’s moving to San Jose, but I don’t get viscerally angry about it. So the only explanation I can think of for my different response to this latest news is that although I don’t live in Atlanta anymore, I yet retain some of that city’s bitter ire toward its suburbs, that sense of alienation you can’t help but feel when your congressman is John Lewis and the nation broadly thinks of where you’re from as a place represented by Newt Gingrich.
For indeed, Newt Gingrich was sent to Congress by Cobb County, the future home of the Braves. What would be most comical about this shameful episode, if it weren’t so sad, is that the Braves suits are justifying the move with laments that Turner Field simply poses “insurmountable” transit issues for the team’s largely suburban fan base. In 1965, at the height of white flight into its fast-developing former farmlands, Cobb County was the first of Atlanta’s surrounding jurisdictions to withdraw from MARTA, which was supposed to have been a wide-ranging metropolitan mass transit system, thereby dooming MARTA’s light rail to consist of a sad little cross that is helpful if you happen to be going to one of the handful of places it goes, not that helpful if you’re going anywhere in between them, and not helpful at all if you need to get out to the suburbs — or, for that matter, into the city from the suburbs. Say, to a baseball game. As historian Kevin Kruse explains in White Flight, an essential guide to postwar Atlanta and the politics of “suburban secession” from cities (and visions of collective municipal investment generally) that it pioneered, Cobb County’s new arrivals rejected MARTA largely because of barely-veiled racial anxieties, fears that a rail line would make it too easy for scary “urban” people to follow them out to the places where they thought they’d escaped them. (That said, in addition to racism one should also not underestimate Atlantans’ pathological attachment to the automobile.) One Cobb County supervisor said he would “stock the Chattahoochee with piranha” rather than allow MARTA into his constituents’ backyards (quoted in Kruse, p. 249).
But upon further reflection, I’m not sure that the city-suburb divide can really be the full explanation for my anger. Tempting though it would be to blame this all on the suburbs, the City of Atlanta is no pure victim here. Though Mayor Kasim Reed says he won’t fight to keep the Braves, he’s presiding over a similarly needless project to build a new Falcons stadium at $200 million of city expense. And Atlanta’s suburbs aren’t, of course, some monolithic Newt Gingrich Fan Club; the modal Cobb County baseball dad is probably a corporate transplant from Minneapolis or somewhere and anyway like all suburbs Atlanta’s are increasingly diverse. To be sure, on Twitter and in online comments today one could find plenty of unfortunate rhetoric from Cobb County residents excited that the Braves are finally moving out of that “dangerous neighborhood” (e.g.) but I am sure that those sentiments are not unanimous.
So maybe my anger at this whole situation is just my good academic liberal’s generally disapproving skepticism towards the political economy of professional sports, after all, albeit here imbued with the passion of hometown familiarity. Whether a new stadium for the Braves or the Falcons, this neurotic cycle of random lavish investments in sports facilities, notwithstanding that the old ones remain perfectly serviceable and notwithstanding that Georgia tax dollars might be more equitably used to provide health care or pay teachers, is quite representative of what I think of as the Atlanta way: near-fraudulent insistence on the part of the New South’s real estate developers and hucksters that you can make a city great not by actually having a great city but by tricking your civic audience with ever-updated simulacra of such. In this faith, Atlanta’s boosters are actually less Southern than quintessentially Sunbelt or maybe just quintessentially American, viewing cities not dissimilarly from the way that I imagine theme park developers view their theme parks.
One thing that is true: traffic is inevitably terrible around Turner Field on game days and so, if they want to pay $450 million for the privilege, the residents of Cobb County are welcome to take that burden off of Atlantans’ hands, at least until the next county offering $450 million comes along. May they enjoy many years of standstill traffic jams in the shadow of their gleaming new stadium.