Atlanta’s presidential debate means security, traffic challenges

This combination of pictures shows then U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic Presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski and Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

This combination of pictures shows then U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic Presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski and Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Any time the U.S. president hits town, Atlanta drivers know to expect road closures to make way for the motorcade and security entourage.

On Thursday, multiply that by two as both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump arrive for a presidential debate. The event is expected to cause disruptions to Atlanta’s already busy downtown interstates. Plus, law enforcement agencies will converge in town to make sure the day’s events go on without a hitch.

The event will require the “highest level” of security from a variety of law enforcement agencies, according to a former longtime Secret Service agent.

“You not only have the Secret Service protecting the president and his family, but also the former president,” Dave Wilkinson, president of the Atlanta Police Foundation, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This debate coming up, because of the notoriety and the interest, and also because of the vitriol in politics, makes this debate much bigger from a security standpoint than other debates.”

For commuters and others downtown, the day may require a high level of patience: The routes each presidential candidate will take are top-secret, though it’s not hard to guess the major interstates will be involved.

Wilkinson, who previously spent 22 years with the Secret Service, says meticulous planning along with collaboration from other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies will be put to work. Biden and Trump will debate for 90 minutes starting at 9 p.m. at CNN Studios. The network, located in downtown Atlanta for years, is now housed on the Techwood campus in Midtown.

Thursday’s debate is the earliest in modern history for the general election, meaning less time for planning, noted Nicholas Steen, who spent 27 years with the Secret Service.

“I’m sure once it was announced, they really had to scramble to put the plan together,” Steen said.

The Atlanta Police Department, Georgia State Patrol and GBI are among the other agencies working on debate-related security. None would discuss security specifics but the collaborative efforts will be key, Steen said.

“We couldn’t do it without them, honestly,” he said.

Both Trump and Biden have been in Atlanta in recent months, though not at the same time.

In April, Trump’s visit to Atlanta for a fundraiser caused intermittent road and interstate closures when he arrived and again for his departure. And in August, security was high when the former president surrendered at the Fulton County jail on charges of interfering with the 2020 election. Security officials implemented a “hard lockdown” at the facility and its parking lot was cordoned off. Convoys of patrol cars roamed the perimeter, flashing blue lights to clear roads.

On May 19, Biden delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College. The gated campus was highly secured during the event. More than 100 protesters marched to Morehouse, some waving signs reading “Genocide Joe” and chants demanding a cease-fire during his visit. But not major disruptions or problems were reported.

The candidates’ arrival times and routes haven’t been released publicly. The Secret Service will likely have multiple plans for transporting the two, focusing on not only safety but the impact on others in the area.

“There could be a number of things up their sleeves that they have planned,” Steen said.

Presidential debates date back to 1848 when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas held seven three-hour debates in Illinois, according to The Commission on Presidential Debates. Those debates later led to Lincoln’s run for the White House.

President Gerald Ford emphasizes a point during his second debate with Jimmy Carter at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts Theater in 1976.

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Debates were later held in 1948, 1956 and 1960. There was a 16-year gap in holding debates until 1976, when former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford participated in three events leading up to the election, according to the commission.

The Secret Service began protecting major candidates and their spouses after Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, the agency’s website states. The current law also allows for vice presidential candidates and their spouses to be protected.

Both Trump and Biden are very familiar with Secret Service protection. And Atlanta has hosted numerous major events, including the Super Bowl and NCCA basketball championships.

The debate is expected to be an even bigger event from a security perspective. Law enforcement agencies will also be on standby for any protests planned related to the candidates.

Those who live or commute to the city should plan ahead for potential road closures beginning Thursday afternoon. Exact routes and times won’t be publicized as both Biden and Trump travel through the city. Atlanta police and the Georgia State Patrol declined to comment on possible road closures. Late Thursday, drivers should expect additional road closures as the event concludes.

Georgia Tech cautioned students and employees that the debate will impact streets, parking and bus routes on its nearby Atlanta campus as well as bring more police to the area.

Reporters and news media will set up camp in the school’s basketball arena, McCamish Pavilion. That will require the closure of nearby parking lots. Two streets also will be closed, likely starting late Wednesday and continuing throughout Thursday. Tenth Street will be closed from State Street to Spring Street. Fowler Street will be closed from Sixth Street to 14th Street.

The campus bus system will be rerouted Thursday in some areas. A school spokesman said there are no scheduled changes to summer classes, but school officials are “staying watchful and flexible” and classes can move online if the need arises.

Atlanta’s iconic Varsity restaurant will close at 8 p.m. so the famous burger and hotdog eatery doesn’t expect any watch parties or plans associated with the event, according to Vice President of Company Operations Ty Ismailov.

”So, everybody’s going to come out to probably grab some food, you know, get everything to go and then go and watch the debate at home,” he told the AJC. “I would imagine that will be the (case).”

Thousands of soccer fans will also flood downtown for the 6 p.m. CONMEBOL Copa América USA 2024 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Though exact plans and schedules won’t be publicized, Thursday’s debate should be held as planned with minimal issues.

“The Secret Service will leave no stone unturned,” Wilkinson said. “They will have created the most extensive security plan that you could possibly come up with. The key will be attention to detail and the collaboration with the Atlanta Police Department and other agencies.”

— Reporters Vanessa McCray and David Aaro contributed to this story.