OPINION: A stroll through downtown Atlanta amid our new sur-reality

The nearly vacant Underground Atlanta is being used as a movie set for "Serenity Now," the working title for the new Spider-Man flick. Photo by Bill Torpy
The nearly vacant Underground Atlanta is being used as a movie set for "Serenity Now," the working title for the new Spider-Man flick. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

You hear a lot these days about our new reality, a pandemic wrapped in a recession and covered with social unrest and political rancor. What has been laid out in front of us doesn’t seem real but increasingly is. And as humans, we excel at getting used to our surroundings.

A Sunday morning walk through downtown Atlanta brought that home to me. I was headed to the state Capitol to witness the right-wing protests that were supposed to occur there, but I got sidetracked by my curiosity: There were piles of shoveled snow on Upper Alabama Street outside The Underground.

This was confusing. It was chilly but we hadn’t had any snow. I certainly would have heard about that. The whole town would have been engulfed in its normal WMD (Wintry Mix Delirium).

Upon further investigation around the corner on Pryor Street, I discovered an alternate reality — a pretend winter wonderland. Two empty stores were done up with new facades to become a barbershop and a doughnut joint with fake snow sprayed across their windows. It was clear that the mostly dormant Underground, once the heart of downtown, was at least finally being used for something: A movie set for Serenity Now, which is the working title for the new Spider-Man flick.

Moments later, a security guard approached and told me to move on. This was a movie set, he said. Now, they weren’t shooting anything. In fact, he and I were pretty much the only people within sight, other than a passing homeless dude.

This is a public street, I countered, not arguing but just expressing myself as a citizen.

“No, this is a movie set, ya gotta go,” he insisted as I proceeded, not wanting to create my own protest moment.

As I wandered off, I thought maybe these aren’t public streets after all. The city, when selling the Underground a few years ago to a South Carolina developer, tossed in Pryor and Upper Alabama streets as part of the sale. You know, the icing on the real estate cake.

I’m told that the owner of the property hasn’t yet been deeded the street. But the point is that a public street may one day be private and a security guard can chase you away. It’s part of the ever-changing reality that is downtown Atlanta and life in 2021, for that matter.

The Underground has long been a white elephant and is using a movie shoot to help pay the bills. The South Carolinians weren’t able to pull off development at the seemingly snake-bit Underground, so the attraction was sold in November to an unknown 31-year-old immigrant who has made his money through real estate — mainly gas stations and convenience stores throughout Georgia — and a coin-operated gaming company. It’s a classic case of a young, ambitious fellow creating his own reality and tackling the American Dream.

Perhaps a dozen homeless people camp out nightly along MLK Jr. Drive in downtown Atlanta. (Photo by Bill Torpy / AJC)
Perhaps a dozen homeless people camp out nightly along MLK Jr. Drive in downtown Atlanta. (Photo by Bill Torpy / AJC)

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

As I headed east on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive toward the Gold Dome, I encountered perhaps a dozen tents and sleeping bundles along the fence where the World of Coca-Cola museum once stood.

This is another sad reality of downtown. As COVID-19 has closed offices and foot traffic has dwindled, homeless people have become much more visible. As I walked by, one of the bundles stirred and a lady’s head popped out, greeting me with a cheery, “Good morning!”

I suppose it was a good morning. At least it wasn’t raining. I was surprised, though, by the woman’s blithe greeting. Her name is Roe, and I’d seen her before on the long cement ledge across from City Hall.

She said she had been keeping up with the news, showing me her transistor radio that she keeps near her bag of meds. She noted there were a lot of police on the streets, but not as many as were in Washington. It’s always stunning to find people who are cognizant about the news of the world, even though they’re sleeping on a sidewalk.

Cathal Doyle, a director at the Central Night Shelter, which sits across from the Capitol, said the pandemic has forced the facility to close its overnight shelter. They now hand out supplies, blankets, coats and meals to the homeless.

He noted that Roe was given a coat recently but it was quickly stolen from her. (She then got another.) The city has been hooking up homeless individuals with apartments and hotels, but people continually fall between the cracks.

“There’s never been more homeless on the street; it’s way more than I’ve seen,” said Doyle, who has been at it for 12 years. An annual census of the homeless found there were a third more people on the street in 2020. And that survey was conducted before COVID-19 hit.

I must note here that the city of Atlanta or Fulton County or even the state should have a worker or two wander around that area and pick up trash. The litter and debris is a civic embarrassment.

A few steps later, I came upon city dump trucks blocking the intersection in front of the Capitol. The effort is a relatively new strategy, using heavy equipment to stop potential terrorists from running down people at large gatherings.

But on this day, there wasn’t a large gathering, although one had been expected.

Armed National Guard troops guard the state Capitol near statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in downtown Atlanta on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. Armed militias had threated to protest the election of President-Elect Joe Biden ahead of Wednesday's inauguration. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Armed National Guard troops guard the state Capitol near statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in downtown Atlanta on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. Armed militias had threated to protest the election of President-Elect Joe Biden ahead of Wednesday's inauguration. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Word was that an outpouring of armed, pro-Trump protesters were going to throng state Capitols across the country, and the worry was that Georgia might be a hotspot because it was a key state in the election’s “Steal.”

A militia guy from the Georgia Martyrs (a tricky name for recruiting) told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that demonstrators would be out there at 10 a.m. sharp.

However, it turned out to be a time for reporters on one side of the fence and heavily armed security forces on the other side to while away the hours, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did, unless you count the two guys with a shotgun and a hunting rifle who finally showed up to tell the camouflaged National Guard troops that THEY, i.e., members of the military, work for THEM, i.e., pro-Trump protesters.

Given the explosive nature of our world, turning the state Capitol into the Alamo with Humvees blocking all doors — in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue, no less — somehow seemed oddly normal.

It’s our new surreal reality.

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