Atlanta’s not a bad place to live — for a year or two

I came here to Atlanta for two years 25 years ago.

My hometown newspaper, The Chicago Tribune, was having nothing to do with me, so I figured two or three years of seasoning on a far away metro daily might strengthen my resume.

Funny how these things work out. Just after leaving my old paper (a small one in Chicago), I went out with the boys for a going-away party. I came home at dawn to learn that my wife was going to give birth to a Georgian in the near future.

A few days later, July 2, 1990, I arrived at 72 Marietta Street. The newspaper printed on my first day of work described a strange land. There was a fellow named Zell running against guys named Bubba, Roy and Lester to replace a governor with two first names: Joe Frank.

Zell, however, was not really worried about Bubba, Roy or Lester, the latter of whom had been the governor long ago, in a darker, meaner day. Zell was largely concerned about a guy named Andy, a former ambassador and mayor of Atlanta who was the only black candidate in the crowded Democratic primary. He was seen as Zell’s biggest threat. Zell, of course, won.

Incidentally, Andy (Young) was one of only three Atlantans I knew by name before moving here. The others were named Evander and Deion.

In the state Legislature, Republicans threatened to make gains in a state locked down by Democrats since Lincoln’s body went cold. Democrats weren’t terribly concerned about the Republicans in 1990. They were viewed as gnats, pesky creatures that needed to be swatted away.

One story caused me pure, unadulterated culture shock: “God will use fallen television evangelist Jim Bakker’s Christian theme park to ‘train and equip an army to take over the world,’ a Jewish-born Pentecostal evangelist shouted to 4,000 cheering, clapping worshipers who had packed the Atlanta Civic Center on Sunday night.”

And there was controversy about MARTA raising its fare to an entire dollar. Imagine, commuters complained, paying a buck to ride the train!

Well, that’s not so bad, said a former New Yorker, the sort of person I would come to recognize as an Atlanta archetype widely regarded as bothersome and annoying — Yankee transplants.

My job here was to cover growth in the counties to the north and west of Atlanta, and one of my first encounters was an afternoon spent driving around with another southerner with two first names, Joe Mack Wilson.

Joe Mack was a powerful and connected former legislator. Two years earlier, he had gotten tossed from office by a Republican whippersnapper named Earl Ehrhart as the GOP locked down the suburbs.

By 1990, Joe Mack had resurfaced as Marietta’s mayor. We drove around to nearby Civil War battlefields, by the Dobbins Air Force base and to the Chattahoochee River, the body of water he once likened to a moat that kept Atlanta’s blacks out of Cobb County.

Joe Mack talked about how race had a hand in just about every factor in politics, and life, in Georgia. But he was reconsidering his past opposition to MARTA and was advocating for a train to come to Marietta.

He was an enthusiastic gentleman, albeit a bit crusty, and extolled southern life. He ventured that I would never want to leave. To show me how great it was living here, Joe Mack took me to a meat-and-three restaurant.

I came to like the vibe of Atlanta, a place that has no reason for being in this spot other than that railroad tracks crossed each other and people streamed in to make a buck. By 1990 all sorts of carpetbaggers and their families were descending on metro Atlanta’s suburbs like somebody was giving away free lawn tractors.

Every month or so I wrote a story declaring a county “the nation’s fastest growing” or penned some vignette about neighbors fighting a mega-subdivision that was clear-cutting their beloved woods.

Not long after getting here, I wrote that Cherokee County’s population had hit 100,000. Locals were freaking out, because there had been only 37,000 residents in 1980. Today there are 227,000, almost all of whom enter I-575 at the same time.

The 10-county area served by the Atlanta Regional Commission has growth from 2.6 million then to 4.3 million now — with six of those new residents (my wife, me, and four kids) directly attributable to my move.

Gwinnett’s change may be the most drastic. In 1990 there was a bitter, divisive battle brewing over whether MARTA should serve residents there. The county not only said “No!” It said “Hell no!” with 70 percent voting against.

At the time, there were about 355,000 Gwinnettians, 89 percent of them non-Hispanic whites. Today, whites are a minority, just 43 percent of the 844,000 residents. The population is a sociological stew: 24 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic and 13 percent “other races,” mostly Asian.

It represents an ever-changing Georgia. And Gwinnett’s Chamber of Commerce is pushing another MARTA vote, touting a survey that says 63 percent of voters there support it.

Last week, I spoke with former Gov. Roy Barnes, who lost in 1990 but came back to win in 1998. “The Georgia of 25 years ago is as different (from today) as it was 100 years ago,” he said.

My decision to stay was never anything momentous or even conscious. A couple months after I arrived, they announced that the Olympics were coming in 1996, and I thought, “Hey, it would be cool to stick around here for that.”

It wasn’t all warm and fuzzy here at the start. A few months after coming, I got punched in the face at an MLK Day parade just moments after waving to Andy Young. I had the temerity to tell a young guy to stop slapping white people in the crowd. My pregnant wife was terrified.

But later in the year, I was attending a World Series game here, celebrating the worst-to-first Braves and diving into the civic fandom that brought people together.

Then came a mortgage, more kids, schools, friends, roots.

Anyway, 2,736 bylined stories later, I’m still here cranking out copy, immensely glad the Chicago Tribune never paid me any attention.