Atlanta basked in the national spotlight Sunday, playing host to Super Bowl LIII. The game showcased the city’s sparkling new $1.5 billion stadium while also tapping its rich civil rights legacy.
The opening coin was tossed by Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., one of several poignant moments.
For the city, months of meticulous preparation paid off. The last Super Bowl held in Atlanta was marred by bad weather and a notorious double homicide involving a now-retired player. This year’s major problem? The Saturday night concert at Centennial Olympic Park had to be shut down because too many people were trying to get in.
For Atlanta, the huge event — 70,081 fans attended the lowest scoring game in Super Bowl history, while an estimated 100 million more watched on television — added new luster to the reputation it honed hosting the the 1996 Olympics and political party conventions.
Atlanta was awash in security. Law enforcement officers from 40 local and state agencies, plus numerous federal agencies, were om hand. Officers were visible throughout the area near Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as well as on downtown streets a few miles away. At press time police reported no significant incidents.
For the game itself, from the opening of the roof during pre-game festivities, there was one special moment after another. Gladys Knight delivered a flawless anthem performance. As did new divas Chole x Halle, who sang “America the Beautiful.”
Joining Bernice King, CEO of the King Center in Atlanta, which works to carry on the work of her father, for the coin toss were Andrew Young and John Lewis.
Moments before, the NFL ran video across the Halo Board of Martin Luther King Jr., along with excepts from his speeches. The video was also included in the live CBS game broadcast.
Lewis, who represents Atlanta in Congress, is known for his role in Civil Rights protests, including the Selma, Ala. voting rights marches. Young, who was an aide to Martin Luther King Jr. , later served as United Nations ambassador during the Jimmy Carter administration, as a member of Congress and as mayor of Atlanta.
The moment resonated inside Mercedes-Benz and beyond.
“Something incredibly unexpected just happened to me,” said Maria Balais, 47, who runs Leadership DeKalb in a Facebook post about the coin toss. “They introduce Rev. King, Congressman John Lewis and Ambassador Andrew Young as living icons of Atlanta, and I burst into tears and am deeply moved. I mean ugly cry. This “game” is not just happening in Atlanta. This is happening in the Cradle of Civil Rights. Human rights.”
It could also be considered a subtle nod toward the ongoing controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49er quarterback who hasn’t played in the league since sparking a protest movement by kneeling during the national anthem. Several performers, including Knight, faced backlash for performing at the game.
Former Atlanta City Council Member Kwanza Hall said it was fitting that Super Bowl LIII was being held in Atlanta with the controversy surrounding Kaepernick still swirling.
“There is still room in this city for us to lead in this conversation that Kaepernick started about justice reform and come to a resolution,” said Hall. “There is a very strong will to come up with something, and I think Atlanta has shown this week that we are up to addressing it.”
Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, said he was impressed with Atlanta’s preparations for the Super Bowl.
Los Angeles will be the next American city to host an Olympics. Atlanta, in 1996 was the last. Garcetti said walking through Centennial Olympic Park gave him chills.
“LA and Atlanta has so much in common, whether it is TV production or sports or the food scene. They should be so proud, because everybody belongs here. Especially when so many other parts of the country is saying you don’t belong here. Everybody belongs in Atlanta. Everybody belongs in Los Angeles,” Garcetti said.
As to be expected, celebrities were all over Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Aside from Knight and Chole X Halle fans in the stadium also got a glimpse of Kevin Hart, Jamie Foxx, Keenan Thompson, Tracy Morgan and tough guy Danny Trejo, who brought his his Trejo’s Tacos truck to the Super Bowl.
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Despite the hand-wringing over the Super Bowl halftime performance, Maroon 5 and guests presented a controversy-free spectacle of pyro, lighted orbs and a tribute to Spongebob Squarepants. A lighted “M” – the band’s logo – glowed as the band, led by heavily inked frontman Adam Levine, kicked into “Harder to Breathe.” Lasers rolled through Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Levine grabbed a guitar and strolled the catwalk for “This Love” before Travis Scott arrived in a ring of fire.
The Maroon 5 singer stripped off an ATLines jacket while baring his tattooed biceps before kneeling in front of fans for melodic “Sugar.”
As it had been all week, MARTA’s bus service was disrupted by labor unrest Sunday. More than 100 drivers called in sick. But MARTA’s rail service – vital for the Super Bowl – was not affected.
Trains were packed hours before the game. But MARTA kept the trains and people moving. And by game time, the Five Points and Dome stations – most affected by the Super Bowl – had quieted down.
On a whole, the week leading up to the Super Bowl went smoothly. Super Bowl Experience at the Georgia World Congress Center attracted more than 100,000 fans of game who reveled in a football theme park spread across 800,000 square feet of space.
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At Centennial Olympic Park, several free concerts entertained locals and out-of-towners alike. Artists including Jermaine Dupri, Goodie Mob and Monica showcased their strong local ties and provided a history lesson on Atlanta’s rich music scene. Thousands attended the shows each night, with focuses on hip-hop, R&B, pop and electronic dance music. The Saturday night lineup – which included throwbacks Brick and Kilo Ali – attracted so many fans that the park closed entry around 7 p.m.
Downtown Atlanta skyscrapers lit up with vast building wraps with BUD LIGHT or the Lombardi Trophy.
Many fans at the game commented on friendly Atlantans, eager to help with directions or strike up a conversation.
The Cariglio couple were particularly struck by the warm hospitality since they arrived on Friday.
“People here are extremely friendly,” said Steve Cariglio, shaking his head in almost disbelief. The couple lives in Massachusetts. “Everyone is just so nice. We are used to the hustle and bustle and everyone in a hurry. We are not used to to this.”
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A weather scare early in the week quickly passed and gave way to mostly blue skies.
Super Bowl XXXIV on Jan. 30, 2000 is most remembered for the ice storm that hit Atlanta Friday before Super Bowl Sunday and shut down parts of the city. It was the second of two chilling storms that struck that week in 2000.
A sheet of ice coated major roads throughout the region, causing massive pile-ups including a 47-car wreck on I-20 west of Atlanta. The rain continued for much of the day Saturday as temperatures hovered near the freezing mark, forming a quarter-inch thick coating of ice on most surfaces. While the cold did not affect the game, many nearby events and vendors suffered as normal Super Bowl activities were curtailed by the frigid temps.
Sunday’s Super Bowl marked a new and welcome story line for Atlanta as a host city.
For Keith Bell of Shrewsbury, England going to the game Sunday represented his first – and likely only – trip to see the Super Bowl in-person a bucket-list moment.
The 58-year-old retired training manager says he has been told he has less than 12 months left to live and treatment has stopped for his cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma. That screwed up their plans to see next year’s Super Bowl in Miami.
“I heard I wouldn’t make it,” he said. So he and his wife Lorraine switched to this year’s game, which coincidentally features his favorite team, the Los Angeles Rams.
He has a word for his attraction to the kind of football more popular in the United States in the United Kingdom. Fanatical, he said. He said for the last two seasons he’s watched every NFL game of every team.
The couple are spending about 20,000 pounds sterling or, he says about $26,000, for the trip.
“We’re having a fantastic time,” he said.
Melissa Ruggieri, Rodney Ho and Matt Kempner contributed to this article