Opinion: A City in Full? Not quite yet

Charlie Croker would struggle to fully recognize Atlanta these days.

Even so, Croker, the 60ish developer and former Georgia Tech star, would find some familiar themes: Big dreams persist – they remain eternal, even if they come in smaller batches these days; the unabated thrum of race – but perhaps a more nuanced force now; traffic still sucks.

It has been two decades since Charlie sprouted from the pages of Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full.” My, how we’ve aged.

Wolfe died a couple of weeks ago, months before the 20th anniversary of his second novel’s debut. Interestingly, the flood of obits and remembrances made much of his first novel, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” and little of his second. (Trigger warning for Atlanta’s famous and persistent sense of inferiority.)

Yet, for Atlantans of a certain age; the book abides for the truths it still reveals. It’s set in Buckhead, the metaphysical center of a booming city driven by rapacious good-old-boy developers and opportunistic black politicians. Atlanta was like a baseball, Wolfe observed, a cover of white business power stitched around a core of black political power.

Wolfe lays out “The Atlanta way,” the decades-old accord between black and white elites that helped the city navigate the tempests of the ‘60s and ’70s. He also displayed our crasser sides – whites obsessed over status and possessions; blacks judged on skin tone and folding money.

Status and possessions were very much at risk for Croker as he confronts $800 million in debt he acquired while altering the city’s skyline. For him, a certain kind of ITP purgatory awaits if he loses the heralds of wealth — a plane, plantation and seat at the Piedmont Driving Club.

He symbolized the old-school real estate lions – the John Portmans, the Tom Cousins, the Charlie Ackermans – the masters of Atlanta’s pre-Olympics universe. Men such as these created the Atlanta that Wolfe explored.

Much of Wolfe’s reporting took place at private dinners in Buckhead. He observed, framed his story and listened intently to what people said and how they said it.

The primary host of these dinners helped cement Atlanta as Wolfe’s setting. Mary Rose Taylor, wife of the late mega-developer Mac Taylor. Mary Rose Taylor earlier had worked with Wolfe, who once mentioned that he was thinking of exploring the world of real estate development.

“Why don’t you come visit us?” Mary Rose asked. “Just give me a call.”

Wolfe called and visited. Over dinner in their Buckhead home the Taylors introduced Wolfe to Atlanta’s brahmans. Mary Rose, a former TV journalist, also introduced Wolfe to the South Georgia plantations. Croker therefore owned a 29,000-acre quail hunting plantation, the site of what must be the English language’s most erotic equine lovemaking scene.

It was during one of Wolfe’s reconnaissance visits that he encountered two potent symbols of Olympic-era Atlanta. The Piedmont Driving Club and Freaknik.

As he was promoting the book in Atlanta later, he spoke at a luncheon at the deeply prestigious club, the den of Atlanta’s lions. The room buzzed with apprehension because the book’s frankness struck a nerve in our famously delicate ego. We had to remind ourselves and the rest of the world that it was just a novel.

He recalled the night the Atlanta scions stood on a club terrace and watched the parade of young black college students partying Piedmont Road to a standstill.

”I knew I had to make some literary capital out of this,” Mr. Wolfe said, receiving nervous laughs from the 400 or so well to dos in the audience.

Wolfe expected trouble on his book tour. At an event at the Margaret Mitchell House, he joked that he had half expected to be greeted with a firebomb or at least a blowtorch.

“The novel isn’t pro-Atlanta, it isn’t anti-Atlanta,” he said. “I hope it is Atlanta.”

What has changed? For one thing, Atlanta’s masters of the universe – its developer class in particular – is somewhat depleted and diminished. Big ideas move forward now by consensus building more than edict. Business leaders such as Larry Gellerstedt III work behind the scenes convening stakeholders to work things out. Sure, Arthur Blank, Bill Rogers, Dan Cathy and other big players still matter, but the city is now made more by corporationists than titans.

It’s also less a good old boy place. The Atlanta Chamber, once an instrument of the men like Croker, now is presided over by Hala Moddelmog, the consummate quiet pragmatist.

Moreover, I would argue that no one holds more sway in shaping Atlanta’s image than black leaders such as Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Tyler Perry, Dallas Austin and Donald Glover Jr.

The missing final chapter is the story of Atlanta's black protagonists. Wolfe's black characters, Roger Too White, Mayor Wesley Dobbs Jordan and even Fareek "The Cannon" Fanonin are more about accommodation than ambition. They spin as planets around the good old boy sun.

In my view, this final chapter is key to Atlanta’s aspirations – even if toned down from the late 1990s when we touted ourselves as the “Next Great International City” and the inevitable heir to New York City. Otherwise, Atlanta will never be a city in full.

Even in 1998, Wolfe poked fun at our pretensions. He conceded that Atlanta indeed was destined for international greatness. “I mean I just bought some toothpaste at a global CVS,” he said during an appearance.

And he pinpointed the city’s biggest and eternal challenge: Traffic.

“I was sitting in the middle of your next big challenge this morning,” he said. “And I have no quick cure.”

Bert Roughton, ajcbroughton@gmail.com, retired this year as the AJC’s managing editor and senior editorial director.