Atlanta didn’t get the convention, but the Trump-Biden debate will matter more


                        FILE — A drive-up presidential debate watch party at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Oct. 22, 2020. In a matter of hours, CNN and ABC outmaneuvered their rivals and landed a coveted pair of Biden-Trump prime-time debates. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

FILE — A drive-up presidential debate watch party at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Oct. 22, 2020. In a matter of hours, CNN and ABC outmaneuvered their rivals and landed a coveted pair of Biden-Trump prime-time debates. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

When Democratic organizers picked Chicago over Atlanta as the host for the 2024 Democratic National Convention last year, it felt like Atlanta’s chances for a moment of high influence ahead of the 2024 presidential election had come and gone.

But as Chicago prepares for potentially disruptive protests to go along with the standard convention speeches, word came Wednesday that Atlanta will be in the spotlight after all — when CNN hosts the first presidential debate here in June.

The announcement came after weeks of debate-me taunts from former President Donald Trump, who has begun to tote an empty lectern to his rallies as a prop to represent “Crooked Joe” Biden, who Trump said is either too senile or too afraid to take him on man-to-man.

Biden fired back this week with a video of his own. “Make my day, pal, I’ll even do it twice,” the president said in the video. “So let’s pick the dates, Donald — I hear you’re free on Wednesdays,” alluding to the days Trump is not sitting in a New York court in his hush-money case.

With that Metamucil machismo still thick in the air, CNN announced Wednesday that both Biden and Trump have agreed to debate each other on June 27 at the CNN studios in Atlanta. There will be no studio audience, and the agreement did not specify who would moderate. CNN later announced that anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will referee the event.

It’s also not clear whether Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or other third-party candidates will qualify for the stage. But Trump said he was ready to go all the same. “Let’s get ready to Rumble!!!” he wrote on social media.

Who needs a weeklong convention of pre-scripted speeches when Atlanta now has the first head-to-head matchup between Trump and Biden in nearly four years?

The Fulton County location alone gives both candidates enough material for two debates. They’re likely to face off at CNN’s studios on Techwood Avenue. That’s less than a mile from the Bermuda Triangle of the 2020 elections, which includes the State Farm Arena, where Trump falsely claimed election workers stole the 2020 election and gave it to Biden. Two blocks away sits the Georgia State Capitol, where Biden was certified as the first Democrat to win Georgia since 1992, and where, on the same day, a separate group of Trump electors cast their votes to name him the winner instead.

A block away from there is the Fulton County Courthouse, where District Attorney Fani Willis made Trump the first former president in history to be indicted on felony charges in Georgia, specifically for trying to overturn the state’s election. Also indicted were 18 alleged co-conspirators, including several Trump electors.

For Biden, debating in Atlanta means he’ll be in the place that helped him narrowly win Georgia. It’s also where he promised voters in a 2020 preelection rally that he would put people back to work (he made progress on that) and bring down the cost of housing, health care and basic necessities. That last part hasn’t happened as fast as people in Georgia wanted.

Debating in Georgia also means the two men will be in a state each says he needs to win to return to the White House. A New York Times/ Sienna College poll suggested earlier this week that Trump could have a double-digit lead here if the election were held Wednesday. But talk to any Democratic or Republican operative in the state and you’ll hear that while many believe Trump has a clear advantage, the margin is nowhere near that big.

Even without a studio audience, millions will tune in to the Atlanta debate to see whether Trump signals to far-right militia groups, as he did in a 2020 debate against Biden when he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” And people will be watching to see whether “Sleepy Joe” falls asleep, as Trump’s allies immediately predicted Wednesday afternoon in coordinated email blasts, or whether it’s Trump, who has been spotted snoozing through his New York criminal trial, who nods off instead.

Mostly, voters will finally see both men in action after each refused to debate any of their primary opponents this year. Can they compete four years later? Can they lead? Where will they take the country from here?

With a live event like a debate, anything can happen, and with these two involved, it probably will. And millions will be watching Atlanta to see it all unfold.