HomePoliticsAtlanta, center of the American political universe, again with Biden-Trump debate

Atlanta, center of the American political universe, again with Biden-Trump debate

Joe Biden will debate Donald Trump Thursday night in a nail-biting repeat of the 2020 election cycle, and Atlanta is once again the center of the political universe.

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

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Georgia’s elections have been in a state of trench warfare since 2018, the rise of Stacey Abrams and the election results were based more on massive turnout than on convincing anyone of something they didn’t already believe. The 2020 election in Georgia was decided by a figurative hair — the infamous 11,780 votes that Trump asked 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 town repeatedly this year, a sign of Democratic concern about losing Black voters in a historically Black city. Biden himself came to deliver the speech last month at Morehouse College, a historically black college, and received a generally positive reception.

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

Whether Trump returns to the scene of the crime will ultimately be decided by a jury in Fulton County. Trump had his infamous — and lucrative — mugshot taken at the Fulton jail, about two miles northwest of the empty studio in which he and Biden will debate, across the street from downtown’s Centennial Olympic Park.

“The only thing I see coming out of this is memes,” says Bem Joiner, an Atlanta-based cultural critic and creative consultant. Joiner doesn’t want to diminish the importance of a presidential debate, and knows there are issues where the public craves substantive arguments, but people have already chosen a side, he said.

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“I think that’s what it is with this race,” Joiner said. “I can’t see questions being answered in a way that changes anyone’s mind at this point, with these two people. You might just do something to screw it up even more for you.

For all the symbolism of a debate in the heart of Atlanta, the format is largely made for the national stage. The two men will stand in an otherwise empty room, questioned by two CNN anchors – Jake Tapper and Dana Bash – who do not live or work in the city.

Perhaps the free environment will limit the number of casualties from side fire. In the 2016 debates, Trump repeatedly and floridly lied about his achievements 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, irritated by yet another interruption, asking Trump to shut up for once.

The vicious chaos effectively ended the Presidential Commission for Debates as a mechanism for managing 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 America’s pliable voters. Biden will likely feel comfortable explaining his administration’s achievements, but will try to use the debate to remind America of the reasons they threw out Trump in the first place.

CNN’s studios in downtown Atlanta are largely empty these days. The network has been leaving the CNN Center piece by piece for a decade, accelerating their shift to DC and New York after AT&T sold the building to developers in 2021. The hallways are filled with echoes of Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer, abandoned set boards in the walkways and ghosts in the studios. The markers of life, like the Cartoon Network store in the dying food court, are gone.

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Workers removed the CNN sign in March. They now just call it ‘the Center’.

Atlanta itself is generally thriving, despite the protests 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 about such things.

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

Atlanta responded with a barrage of snark under the hashtag #defendthefifth, posting idyllic photos of children playing in parks or strolling along the BeltLine. Those hashtags continued to be used in 2020 by people lining up to vote in Atlanta.

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

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

Stephanie Jackson Ali, The New Georgia Project

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Trump had to bring in black supporters for a publicity stunt that was presented as authentic community support for his campaign two months ago at a Chick-fil-A down the street from the stadium. Still, Trump claims he is winning black voters in record numbers, which — if true — could represent the margin of victory in Georgia.

“What is absolutely true is that Republicans cannot win the White House without Georgia,” said Stephanie Jackson Ali, policy director of the New Georgia Project, a voter advocacy group. “Regardless, Georgia will be crucial for any party to do well this year.”

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“Georgia is also unique because it is 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 go, because you can talk to so many people from so many backgrounds, all in one place.”

The New Georgia Project political action fund is hosting a viewing 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 among black men have led to a wave of support from progressive groups.

Harris, meanwhile, might as well put a down payment on an apartment in Buckhead, considering all the time she’s spending in the city. She has made a point of discussing the government’s investments in the black community in general and Atlanta in particular, such as a $158 million plan to use infrastructure dollars for a project to build a cap over Atlanta’s most traveled highway, the Downtown Connector.

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

Biden and Trump are competing for a vanishingly small share of the electorate — people who haven’t yet made up their minds about two people who have spent much of the last twenty years of American life in the public eye. Neither is popular. But many people have simply ignored politics, even here in the midst of the political storm.

The first debate is a warning bell for them: election season is approaching more than ever and it’s time to pay attention.

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