Religious argument really ought to be an Olympic event, at least the way it's practiced in the Five Points area of Atlanta. The day before the Games opened, I watched a pickup disputation involving a mixed congregation of eight or 10 young male Muslims, Rastafarians and (I think) Baptists. One of the Rastas began to spring higher and higher into the air, not in a showy or ritual way but just with the intensity of the point he was making.
"No I about it," he cried, leaping with each word. "It is all we."
The Baptist (I think) replied, "I'm saying, I know who my God is," and as several people quoted Scripture at once—point, counterpoint and catercounter—the Rasta came to earth in a high-tensile crouch and froze, his eyes flashing. "Say you do or do not believe in Ja," he demanded, and though his feet were touching the pavement, he somehow seemed to hang there the way Michael Jordan in his youth hung in the air.
The theology got too complex for me to follow after that, but the body language was something to behold. It was hard to find amateur competition in the Olympic ring last week but not impossible. You had to go to Five Points, an area that lies just to the southeast of the Olympic Center but squarely in the middle of Atlanta history.
Five Points got its name because that was where five of Atlanta's most important streets—Peachtree, Marietta, Decatur, Whitehall and Edgewood—intersected. Down along Decatur Street was where the dead and wounded Confederates once lay stretched out as if forever, the living ones moaning and begging for help, in that famous scene in Gone with the Wind in which Scarlett O'Hara felt she just couldn't stand it anymore.
Five Points was Atlanta's main business district into the '60s. Rich's, long Atlanta's keystone department store, was here. Shortly before the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed, demonstrators confronted counterdemonstrators near Five Points over the integration of Leb's restaurant. (Comedian Dick Gregory peeked under a Klansman's hood and asked, "Is dat you, Lawd?") Vernon Jordan, the future president of the National Urban League who was working for a regional civil rights organization, integrated Herren's restaurant one day at lunchtime. Fred Powledge, then a local newspaper reporter, broke a century of ignominious decorum by crying out across the room, "Vernon! It's great to see your black face in here!"
Since then Atlanta's business nexus has dispersed over an ever broader metropolitan area. Downtown, Rich's, Leb's, Herren's and any number of former power buildings have been gutted, and Five Points is an area that many suburban whites have long been loath to venture into. Now the Olympics have brought the area back into focus. City, state and private security forces are everywhere, abandoned buildings have been gussied up and pressed into service, and $5 million has been plowed into making a showpiece out of Woodruff Park, a patch of green right at Five Points' heart. What do you know? Famously amorphous Atlanta does have a central core of street life.
"Yes, it's hot," chuckles the erect 82-year-old man whose handwritten nametag says BISHOP CRAIG. He stands where he has been standing several hours a day, he says, for more than 30 years: on the corner of Peachtree and Alabama, right outside the Five Points MARTA subway station. Although the temperature is up in the 90's, Bishop Craig is dressed in a black suit, crisp white shirt and striped necktie. "But not as hot," he is bound to remind us, "as Hell will be." What is the Olympic cauldron compared to "that lake of fire"? Bishop Craig is holding a hand-lettered sign proclaiming, among other things, GOD WILL CURE SUGAR CANSOR, TBS and (though the old man is wearing heavy black leather footwear) PUT OFF YOUR SHOES, FOR THIS GROUND IS HOLY GROUND.
Another man suddenly swoops in and makes as if to grab that sign away from the Bishop. It's the same man who has been making as if to grab the sign most every day for years. "A deef-mute," the Bishop says. "He has a demon." This man too has a ministry, although his only utterance is sort of a yodel, sort of a groan. The Bishop is not about to let this man get his sign: "I ain't afraid of your demon! Give me your hand!"
The man won't let the Bishop have his hand. "Uhluh-uhl-uhl-uh-uhl," he cries, maybe derisively, maybe merrily, it's hard to say. His nametag says ELDER/ H. WEBB/CHILDREN/UNITED STATES ARMY. He's wearing a U.S. Marines T-shirt and an olive-drab military cap and waving a Bible. He makes a snatching motion toward Bishop Craig's nametag, then toward his own, then toward my Olympic press credential.