Skrissh, skrissh, skrissh . . . The ice skaters glide across the big rink at the Omni International complex near downtown, while prisms in the skylit roof stories above spray little rainbow across the ice and Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop "Till You Get Enough" thumps through a hidden sound system. Some of the skaters are expert, executing spins and jumps at will; others fall down while trying to skate in a straight line. Outside, the lush city simmers in the midday heat of early May.
The The Beautiful Restaurant, a soul food shack out on Atlanta's southwest side, a waitress serves up big portions of spareribs thick with barbeque sauce. Southwest Atlanta, sprouting with spanking-new apartment complexes populated largely by up-and-coming blacks, also is becoming a mecca for black businesses.
At Spelman College, seniors congregate in the Fine Art Building to nibble hors d'oeuvres and view the opening of the senior art show, scheduled to hang for two weeks prior to graduation ceremonies on Sunday. They talk of complicated arrangements for accommodating the parents, grandparents and siblings who will be flocking to town to see the seniors graduate -- an almost sacred ritual at the city's black colleges.
While the nation opens its hearts and pocketbooks to Atlanta because of the murders of 28 blacks youths here in the past two years, life goes on in this metropolitan area of more than two million people. Volumes have been written about the tragic deaths and the miserable circumstances from which the victims came, but Atlanta is much more complicated than that.
It is a Southern city, uniquely so because with its thick foliage and woodframe houses Atlanta resembles an immense grouping of backwater Southern small town more than an urban place in the Northern sense. The old men whiling away the hours on the streetcorners around the city's tradition-bound black colleges, the rich sound of the oratory in the churches, the deliberate pace of live all reinforce the impression.
Like Washington, Atlanta has always been a black mecca. Middle-class blacks from throughout the country, the "talented tenth" that W.E.B. DuBois spoke of when he was a professor at Atlanta University, made the pilgrimage to the schools like AU and Spelman and Morehouse, and many stayed on to become part of the most high-powered black leadership on the South. From DuBois to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, the line was virtually unbroken.
But there is now an unease, especially among the city's low-income blacks who have not shared in the successes of the expanding black middle class. Those feelings have been galvanized to some extent by the most vocal of the mothers of the slain youths, who have complained bitterly that the city's middle-class black power structure, including a black mayor, public safety commissioner and police chief, reacted slowly to the mounting deaths because the children came from poor families.
The dead youth have become a symbol of anxiety and dread in Atlanta's back streets and housing projects. Mainstream Atlanta marches on, but some Atlantans feel they are being marched over.
Marion Green, a heavy-set, middle-aged woman with close-cropped hair, lives in Techwood Homes, a downtown housing project. She worries about being displaced by the decidedly urban economic forces that have made Atlanta the transportation and commerical center of the South and created the gleaming new downtown in the city's midst.
"You see all those new buildings around us?" she asked, pointing to the bulk of Atlanta's skyline to the east, Cocoa-Cola's new buildings to the north and the Omni rising in the south. "We're next. Wouldn't you say?"
Last week, a 14-year-old youth, Eric Thompson, was reported missing but later turned up alive and well. While he was missing, a reporter asked his best friend, Derrick Gordon, what Thompson liked to do. He said that after school his friend liked to "go to the Omni International to hang out."
But Thompson lives with his family in south Atlanta in a broken-down apartment building that has nothing in common with Givenchy or Hermes or the other chic shops that ring the Omni complex, where even a belt can cost $100 or more. The low-income Atlantans who visit the Omni are more likely to confine themselves to the one-dollar movies houses on the ground floor.
Against this backdrop, the slayings take on a different significance. All over the country, and in Atlanta as well, a black infrastructure built up over decades is becoming stretched thinner and thinner. Black lawyers for example, are as likely to go downtown to practice as to stay in the black community. More and more blacks are joining the white mainstream. But among those they leave behind times are tough.
The people in Atlanta's projects are feeling abandonment and loss. The deaths of the children make it worse.