The mayor of this city calls it the most politically divisive issue he has faced in public life, a problem so resistant to solution, the mayor says, it makes the challenges of the homeless, poverty and urban decay seem almost solvable.
To the de facto capital of the South, the city that calls itself America's "Black Mecca" and prides itself on polite racial accommodation -- a city yearning for international stature, poised to host 2 million international visitors at this summer's Olympic Games -- comes Freaknik this weekend.
A raucous annual spring break gathering of the nation's black college students, Freaknik was born in the mid-1980s as a low-key picnic in a city park, attended by a few hundred students from Atlanta's six historically black colleges, many of them District natives part of a group called the DC Metro Club. Now it has become monster Freaknik.
For the last few years, hundreds of thousands of black college students from around the country have poured onto the streets of intown Atlanta, cruising in seemingly aimless circles in tens of thousands of cars, sitting on hoods, blaring hip-hop, ogling the opposite sex, drinking cold beers -- and creating automotive gridlock so impenetrable it would make cement envious.
Like many other cities that have served as roosts for spring break, Atlanta is not especially happy to play host to thousands of whooping, drinking and fun-loving college students blowing off steam. Fort Lauderdale, once the city of choice for many rabble-rousing spring-breakers, had its police crack down on public drinking. So the party moved elsewhere. Virginia Beach clamped down on a Labor Day revelry for black students after it got violent in 1989, and the momentum for a black East Coast annual college gathering shifted to Atlanta.
Now, many in Atlanta simply wish the party would go someplace else.
But because the students are black, the issue has taken on greater significance here, and Atlanta is roiling with lawsuits and rhetoric, by turns ashamed, defensive and angry.
For in ways quite different from the upcoming Olympics, how the leading city of the South deals with Freaknik speaks to Atlanta's still uneasy sense of itself. Because Freaknik is not only about traffic, but race, class, youth and, perhaps most important, image.
Atlanta likes things nice and neat. It likes steering committees and corporate sponsorship. It does not like Freaknik.
"All the other problems have a reasonable solution," said Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell. "This issue does not."
Last year, despite Campbell's attempts to persuade the rolling party to roll to another town, as many as 100,000 young people still took to the streets, where a small percentage -- many of them locals and not enrolled in college -- went on a rampage. There were rapes and assaults. Much public intoxication and urination. And then some stores were looted, including those in Underground Atlanta. Hundreds were arrested.
This year, the mayor did not so much attempt to curtail Freaknik, as to distance himself and the city government from it. He formed a facilitating committee composed of clergy, students, business leaders and neighborhood activists. He repeatedly said the city was "not in the party business" and that the students and promoters must run Freaknik. It has not been easy. Or very successful.
For their part, police plan to block anyone except residents from using many intown neighborhoods, to divert cruising students to one-way streets and to close two freeway ramps, one near Atlanta University Center, a major gathering spot.
"We welcome anybody coming to this event who is law-abiding," said Atlanta Police Chief Beverly Harvard. "We will not tolerate the violation of this city."
Meanwhile, many shop owners have said they will shut down early. Because of traffic and other concerns, organizers of other events have canceled or changed dates. Subway lines and bus routes have been altered. Underground Atlanta, the downtown shopping arcade, first announced it was closing early on Saturday night. When a howl of protest arose, its owners agreed to stay open late. Travel agents report a brisk business -- in people leaving town.
"The vast majority of the white community believes by saying the event should not be in Atlanta, then it will disappear," Campbell said.
But Freaknik, and the college-age high spring spirits it runs off of, may be unstoppable.
Many in the black community are disappointed that Atlanta is not rolling out the welcome mat to the college students, who they say represent the middle-class best of black America. They say the language used by the mayor and his police chief, both of them African Americans, would never be used to welcome a Shriners convention -- to say nothing of the upcoming Olympic throng.
"These students are, supposedly, the future leaders of our nation, and what are they saying, that we're going to loot and pillage the village? It's an atrocity," said Samuel Bell Jr., student body president at Clark Atlanta University.
"I think to treat these young people like this is a sin," said Atlanta council member C.T. Martin, who joined a student news conference held at city hall to protest the administration's refusal to give permits for concerts at city parks.
Originally, at least six concert events were planned. Now there are only two. A group of students who hoped to rent Piedmont Park on Saturday failed to do so because they could not raise the money for permits and insurance. Jonathan Gaines, a senior at Georgia State University who tried to corral the exuberance of Freaknik into something more positive called "Freedom Fest," said he was saddened that the city leaders did not do more to help the students.
"The city is in the party business," Gaines said. "Braves games? The Olympics? That's the party business."
He said last year's looting succeeded in slandering all black college students and that the city's view of college students is highly negative. "It's hypocritical and unfair," Gaines said. "And it's tearing this city up."
The most controversial of venues was the attempt by promoter Steven Muhammad, an organizer for the Million Man March and a member of the Nation of Islam, to stage a concert at Grant Park, a rolling green space in the heart of intown Atlanta, surrounded by a quiet neighborhood of middle-class and mostly white homes, and home to the famed Cyclorama, which depicts the Civil War Battle of Atlanta fought in 1864.
To many, it seemed like the battle was being fought all over again. And that was before rumors spread that Minister Louis Farrakhan, who will be in Atlanta a few days before Freaknik, might stay and address the students.
The Grant Park residents sued the city, arguing that their neighborhood and its park were inappropriate for such a large gathering.
"I don't want to give the impression that the people of Grant Park are against Mr. Farrakhan or black students. This was just a very ill-conceived plan from the start," said Sidney Moore, the neighborhood's attorney. "This isn't a Braves game or the Augusta National."
The city, after initially granting Muhammad a permit, has since revoked it because he had not gotten insurance coverage.
Many black residents and some students, too, said they sympathize with the neighborhoods inconvenienced by Freaknik.
"It started out as a positive thing, but over the years it has become a massive problem," said Kwame Manley, president of the student government association at Morehouse College. Manley spoke of "undesirables of certain cities coming to see what they could get into . . . abusing women and all that lewd unruly behavior." He does not plan to participate this weekend.
Indeed, many of the students said they'd like to see Freaknik returned to a college affair, with access limited to those with valid student IDs. "We don't think it's so much of a race issue as an age issue," said Matu Taylor, president of students at Morris Brown College. "You can play the race card, but I think it's because we're young."
Bell, the student from Clark Atlanta University, is not so sure. "I do say that race plays a role in all this," he said. "Atlanta can play host to 2 million Olympics visitors and it can't handle 200,000 black students? Come on."
Bell believes that Atlanta, by its failure to grant more permits for more events and, in essence, its refusal to "get into the party business" for Freaknik, is only going to make matters worse. There will be hundreds of thousands of students and only two big events to attend -- and some of the black colleges themselves shutting their gates.
"We're setting ourselves up for a disaster," he said. CAPTION: Traffic and celebrants in a typical scene during Freaknik '95 in Atlanta.