As he stood in sun-scorched Woodruff Park last Friday afternoon, waiting among thousands of giddy Atlantans for the Olympic torch to pass by, Roy Blount Jr. confessed to feeling disoriented. "I get all these sort of dream recognitions," he said, looking up at the huge office buildings looming around the park. "It looks halfway familiar—but different. The fact that Rich's Department Store is no longer here amazes me."
Blount, an erstwhile SI staffer who is helping us cover the Summer Games, is pretty amazing himself, having performed a one-man off-Broadway show, written a dozen books, logged guest spots with Johnny Carson and David Letterman and appeared often enough on A Prairie Home Companion and Comedy Central to justify comparisons between him and H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain.
Though he now lives in New York City and rural Massachusetts, Blount grew up six miles east of Woodruff Park, in Decatur, Ga., and has a host of memories of the park and its environs. He first worked as a writer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and often ate lunch in the park. He remembers Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral procession on Auburn Avenue, which leads to the park. He recalls the dignitaries who were present, and the fact that people cheered loudest for Wilt Chamberlain, who reached over Richard Nixon's head to shake hands with admirers.
In assessing these Olympics, Blount wondered how the glittering, sponsor-driven Games would rub up against the denizens of the park. "I wanted to find a pocket of the real Atlanta," says Blount, 54, whose story begins on page 66. "I hate Centennial Park and all that corporate shilling. I wanted to find amateurism. If this were Greece, presumably there would be a Greek chorus, too. I wanted to find it." So he spent the week leading up to the Games talking to the rich mix of people who congregate around Woodruff Park. Blount discovered that while the park had been leveled—the hummocks among which the homeless once slept were bulldozed—the spirit of its folk was intact.
Blount has written for 113 publications, from The Atlantic to Organic Gardening, to which he contributed a series of poems on vegetables. His recent work includes the screenplay of Larger Than Life, a movie scheduled for release in October that stars his friend Bill Murray and an elephant named Tai. For now Blount is focusing on the circus that has come to Atlanta. After the torch relay zipped past, he listened sympathetically as a child asked, "That's the whole parade?" As Blount's piece makes clear, though, the Olympics are a lot more than a parade.