Saints fans are loud and passionate group

All the landmarks said Atlanta.

The city skyline peeking over the trees was familiar. It was the Chattahoochee River that flowed nearby, not the Mississippi.

But what about these strange symbols and sounds? When did we fall through a rabbit hole and end up at the corner of Canal and Bourbon?

On a clear October Sunday, outside Copeland’s restaurant on Cobb Parkway, a fleur-de-lis ice sculpture slowly bled water. Inside at the bar, cries of, “Who dat! Who dat! Who dat say they gonna beat dem Saints!” rang out enough to flip the stomach of any grammarian eating in the next room.

Two games were being shown.

On the big screen: “Our favorite team — the Saints,” said restaurant managing partner Glen Helmstetter, providing New Orleans-Miami through the miracle of the NFL cable package.

The other, on the secondary little TV off to one side: “Our second favorite team — whoever is playing the Falcons,” Helmstetter said, while gladly witnessing a Dallas dismemberment of Matt Ryan and Associates.

Naturally, when the Falcons play an important one at New Orleans on Monday night, the emotions of most Atlantans will tilt heavily toward the birds.

But there is a strong underground resistance movement among us. Some Saints fans already lived here, joining the usual flow of transplants to this metro magnet. Many more were swept here by Hurricane Katrina beginning in late 2005.

That, combined with the fact the Saints are enjoying a 6-0 start behind a rampaging offense, has made it all the more likely you might see a gold-and-black Saints flag flapping from the car window next to your own.

“There definitely is a lot more [Saints fans] here now,” said Kevin Drawe, co-owner of another New Orleans-inspired watering hole, Smyrna’s Atkins Park. “And with a little success, they’ve all come out of the woodwork. There’s a feeling that this season might be something special.”

Destination Atlanta

There’s a goodly serving of gumbo simmering in Atlanta’s melting pot.

Next to Houston, Atlanta was the top destination for Katrina evacuees. At the height of the evacuation, an estimated 100,000 people headed here after the storm.

An exact number for those who have remained is elusive. According to the latest Federal Emergency Management Agency figures, 25,768 Louisiana households registered for FEMA assistance still report a current Georgia address. That would translate to roughly 64,000 people, but doesn’t include those not receiving FEMA assistance, or those who might have moved again and didn’t update their addresses.

Atlanta was a welcoming port in the storm, and it continues to be a haven for many who chose to leave behind the sodden charms of New Orleans.

Gathering around the Saints success — a rarity for a franchise that has won but two playoff games in its 42-year history — has drawn together a storm-tossed fan base. A winning football team is a tangible link to their former lives back in the Big Easy.

Whenever and however they got here, what a strange racket these people make.

For Saints fans ain’t faint fans these days.

“Boy, we gonna have some Falcon stew Monday night,” predicted Elvin Hernandez as he watched the Saints come back on Miami last Sunday from a barstool at Atkins Park. He’s a New Orleans native who hasn’t lost the accent since moving away 21 years ago.

“We have a family bet with some Falcons fans,” said Adrian Poplus, who came to Atlanta before Katrina but returns often to oversee the rebuilding of property she left behind. “We lose, we wear their [Falcons] jerseys. They lose, they wear our jerseys. We don’t plan on wearing their jerseys.”

This is the rarest kind of meeting between these teams, almost unheard of, really — happening when both are simultaneously competent.

The Falcons-Saints rivalry is the product of regional and historical proximity. The Saints came into being just a year after the Falcons, in 1967, and suffered through the same kind — if not worse — initiation by defeat. Often the teams and their fans had to look for a measure of satisfaction in games against each other.

“We sit in the Superdome with bags on our heads — and we had to pay a dollar for the bag. A lady outside the dome sold them,” laughed Ralph Concentine, a cab driver in New Orleans who relocated to drive cabs here after the hurricane. He is such a vintage Saints fan, he wears an Archie Manning jersey during key games.

The tone of the rivalry has generally been upbeat, almost convivial at times. Drawe is planning a road trip to New Orleans for Monday night’s game, drawing equally from his Falcons- and Saints-leaning regulars at Atkins Park. “We always have a good time,” he said.

Here, deep behind enemy lines, the good times are rolling — or dare we say, laissez les bon temps rouler.

Ask the lost Louisianans what they miss about home and many echo Drawe’s words. “The food, the fun, the festivals, the family,” said the University of New Orleans grad. “All the things we’re trying to re-create here.”

For an afternoon, they can celebrate where their hearts live, no matter where they are getting their mail these days.

Saints fans are “a family, a big family,” Poplus said.

A new beginning

At Smyrna’s Atkins Park, an actual family occupied one corner of the bar. The three Maier boys — Mark, Joel and Josh — tried sticking it out in New Orleans in the Katrina aftermath. One did his time in a FEMA trailer. Another took up construction work, and there was plenty of it. But eventually, all three made their way to Atlanta and a new beginning.

Not without some longing. “This is the first time seeing a team like this. I wish I was down there now,” Josh said.

“I just might move back,” called out Mark, the one wearing the Deuce McAllister Saints jersey. He was laughing in a way indicating that never was going to happen.

These Saints have the power to stir all these old passions from afar. The old hometown team can even reunite old friends.

Ben Willard and Terry Kennard used to play Pop Warner football together back in New Orleans. Both grew up there, both were uprooted by a hurricane, and both found good jobs in Atlanta. In their mid-30s, they had lost track of each other. Until one spotted the other at Copeland’s last Sunday, both drawn there by the Saints game on the big screen.

“How ‘bout that?” Kennard said. “I’ve been talking his ear off . He’s probably tired of me already.”

It seems that being a Saints fan in Atlanta is becoming progressively easier.

Your numbers have exploded.

Your new home is a welcoming place to live.

Your team is kicking booty.

You are from a battered New Orleans, but you are feeling almost lordly now with your team on a roll.

“We kind of look at Atlanta like a little brother,” Kennard said gleefully. “When you’re playing with him, you want to beat him every time. But you wish him well afterwards.”