FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — It was late afternoon in a subdivision an hour north of Atlanta when the chop of one helicopter, then another, began startling neighbors out of their weekday routines.
A man firing up his patio grill realized it wasn’t the usual medevac swooping toward the hospital. A retiree settling down to dinner went out front to see. A woman driving home from work saw the black helicopters from a distance, and as she got closer, realized they were hovering above her very own neighborhood, a huddle of beige houses, trimmed lawns and still-young maples called Saddlebrook.
Soon, homeowners were standing in front yards up and down Horseshoe Creek Lane and Walking Horse Trail, watching as patrol cars, black SUVs and FBI agents surrounded a house on the corner, the one with a shed in the back and a welcome wreath on the front door.
Text messages and phone calls began flying. It was Maria Taheb’s house. It was something involving her 21-year old son, Hasher, who used to speed through the neighborhood. He was being charged with plotting to blow up the White House. A “martyrdom operation,” as he allegedly described it to undercover agents. According to officials, he had been trying to buy grenades and a shoulder-fired antitank rocket when he was arrested in the parking lot of a Lowe’s, 20 minutes away.
Now the neighbors watched in the day’s last light as officers hauled away a computer and other items from the house in boxes and black duffel bags. They watched as the patrol cars drove away, and the helicopters flew off, and as quiet returned to the neighborhood on a Wednesday in January, there were all kinds of questions, including how their middle-class subdivision would react at a moment when American anger seemed to be rising, divisions seemed to be deepening and the fullest range of reactions seemed possible.
The president of the homeowners association, Mickey Norris, was in Florida for business and began getting messages as worry spread about the prospect of co-conspirators, drive-by vigilantes and sinking property values, as well as about Maria, who was in the house alone, the blinds shut, not saying anything about what happened. He decided to schedule a meeting for as soon as he got back, and sent out a message:
“The Board has received numerous calls expressing concern for the unsettling events of this week in our community . . . Deputy Sheriff Beival will join us for a called Neighborhood Watch meeting this weekend . . . Mickey and Allason’s home . . . Wildflower Court, Sunday afternoon, 2 p.m.”
His house was one of 137 arranged on medium-sized lots carved into a swath of maple, oak and sycamore trees in Forsyth County, a place once known for being a rural, whites-only haven policed by the Ku Klux Klan.
Lynchings and other violence drove out nearly every black family from the county in 1912, and the threat of violence kept it almost entirely white into the 1980s, when civil rights marchers faced down white crowds hurling bottles and circling in pickup trucks flying Confederate flags. Meanwhile, the new State Route 400 was delivering Atlanta’s sprawl farther and farther north. By the time ground was broken for Saddlebrook in 2012, the area was known less for its history than for being Exit 14, the latest blank slate in a borderland that was in every way transitioning from one version of the South to whatever was coming next.
Politically it was part of Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, which was mostly white and mostly Republican, though those majorities were slipping. The GOP incumbent who’d won in the past with more than 60 percent of the vote had won by fewer than 500 votes in the 2018 midterm election. Democrats now vying for the seat included a Latina, an Asian American and a daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants.
Geographically, it was 10 minutes from a Target. It was a turn off a shady two-lane road past an old church cemetery and a leftover field with two goats. There was a clubhouse and pool. The houses were light beige or dark beige, grayish beige or greenish beige, 3,000- and 4,000-square-footers with covenant-enforced lawns. The floor plans had names such as Hunter and Packard, Kingston and Gentry. When Mickey and his wife decided to downsize from a gated community nearby, they got a Jefferson.
Theirs was on a little hill on a cul-de-sac, and as Saddlebrook began filling up, Mickey made it a point to meet his neighbors. There were young families, corporate transfers, tech-sector managers and empty nesters. They were from Florida, Indiana, California, New Jersey and a few exits down the highway. Most were white, but Mickey had noticed the demographics shifting. There was an African American couple next door, several Indian American families around and others like Maria, who Mickey guessed was “Middle Eastern,” as he put it, though he did not know from which specific country and could not say he cared as long as the grass stayed cut.
“Almost what you’d call a typical American community,” was how he described Saddlebrook.
Mickey considered himself an independent, the variety of Trump supporter who said he did not like a lot of the president’s rhetoric but liked the unbridled economy. He grew up in a rural, mostly white town in the early stages of suburban Atlanta engulfment. He had a relative he described as a die-hard racist, and he always compared himself favorably to that extreme. He considered himself adaptable to change. The Mickey Norris ideal was a “colorblind” world where racial identities no longer mattered, including his own. He figured the defining feature of his character was not that he was born into a white male majority but that he was born with weak bones, which forced him to overcome constant injuries, which taught him to “deal or cave,” a principle he applied in the egalitarian manner of a person who believed everyone had the same shot in America. The diversity in Saddlebrook was to him the living proof.
He was vice president of sales for a medical software company, and when he wasn’t on the road he worked from home wearing a wireless earbud, troubleshooting client problems as he paced around his living room, looking out at the woods with a sense of well-being.
He was goal-oriented, and had almost accomplished his big one, “retire by age 50.” The other, “spend time improving community,” was a work in progress. He had instituted events such as the annual mulching of the nature trail, and that was how he’d met Maria, who’d also come to the chili cook-off by the pool and other events, always wearing a hijab. Mickey found himself revisiting these interactions as he planned the Sunday meeting.
His wife, Allason, was nervous that holding it at their house might make them a target for troublemakers. Mickey had heard that someone had already called Maria and asked her when she was selling her house. He worried people would say “her culture caused it to happen,” that the whole thing would turn into “white versus nonwhite,” and be “damaging to the community spirit.” And as he began checking his email to see who was planning to attend, he saw a message from Maria, asking if she could come.
After the police had left, George Biscan, a widower and retired steelworker from DeMotte, Ind., went back inside to his dinner. He usually left the front and back porch doors open to get the cross-breeze but now he did something he had hardly ever done since moving to Saddlebrook. He locked them. Then he felt strange for having done so.
He turned on 11Alive news and heard more details. That Maria’s son had gone to local public schools. That undercover FBI agents had been monitoring him and said they finally helped him find a weapons dealer, sell his car to finance the purchase, and rent the car he had allegedly planned to drive to Washington to attack the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and a synagogue.
“That’s how terrorists operate,” George recalled thinking. “They stay here for a long time. They blend in. They don’t go around carrying a flag.”
He scrolled through his mental file of what he knew about Muslims. There was 9/11, which he’d watched on television from a golf resort in Florida. There were TV shows and movies, which were “always negative, like, we got to kill all the infidels and all that stuff.” George had voted for Donald Trump for the same reason he voted for Barack Obama —“not a politician”— and had not always known what to think when he heard Trump say things like “I think Islam hates us.”
He’d regularly worked and played on softball teams with African Americans and Latinos at Inland Steel, and his old subdivision had Croatian and Serbian immigrants. He’d never known any Muslims until he realized he did — Maria. He conjured the few times he’d chatted with her through a car window. He remembered her saying she worked off Exit 11. He noticed that she wore a name tag, and the headscarf. He thought she was a single mom. He remembered seeing her son a few times, speeding past the pool down Horseshoe Creek Lane, all of which led George to another thought, that her son was “just a hotheaded kid talking big whose life is now ruined over some stupid thing he never was going to get away with anyway.”
As he toggled between these thoughts, he began to worry about whether his neighbors were as fair-minded as he considered himself to be. He started making a point of passing by Maria’s house when he was out walking his dog. He checked her front door and the siding to make sure “some yahoo” hadn’t painted it with graffiti. He eyed the windows to make sure “some yo-yo” hadn’t thrown a brick.
Down the street, Jeff LaMore, who had been on his back patio grilling when the helicopters appeared, found his initial alarm mollified as he read the criminal complaint describing how Maria’s son had used code words like “potato” for grenades and “spicy pepper” for an AT-4, and ended some messages with “lol.” It seemed to him a version of juvenile delinquency.
“I just know when I was 21, I did some really dumb s---. Like speeding, or drinking and driving, or getting radicalized by Islam,” he joked.
He was 44 and had moved with his wife, Jamie, and their daughter to Saddlebrook for the good public schools and affordable square footage. They liked to say that their section of Walking Horse Trail was the “secret liberal society,” home to those who embraced the idea of a changing South. In a precinct where Trump won with 65 percent of the vote, they assumed Saddlebrook had Trump-supporting homeowners who felt differently, perhaps emboldened.
“If anyone is going to show their ignorance, it’s going to be now,” Jeff recalled thinking.
Jamie remembered a conversation with a parent from a different neighborhood who said he had dealt with “these people” before, referring to Muslims. She heard a neighbor complain that Saddlebrook was turning into “another Saybrook,” a reference to a nearby subdivision that she said was almost completely nonwhite.
Jeff felt increasingly self-aware that he was a “big, bald white guy who drives a truck in Forsyth County,” as he put it, and that people must assume he supported Trump. In fact, he had reached the point where he was no longer simply repulsed by what he considered the president’s divisive, racist and dishonest character; he was repulsed by people who tolerated it. “It’s gotten to where, well, I judge you now,” he said. He worked at a health care company one cubicle away from a colleague named Mohammed and was always trying to telegraph that he did not “secretly hate him” by chatting about mundane things like TV shows and movies they liked.
When he got Mickey’s message about the meeting, Jeff decided that he would speak up if someone got out of line or tried to recruit him into some unspoken white alliance. “I’ll definitely be the vocal a--hole,” he told himself. Jamie said: “If it goes down, I’m ready.”
It was that kind of edginess that was troubling Tom and Alice Evans, who lived across the street from Maria. He was a retired engineer and self-described “grumpy old man from New Jersey” who spoke a touch of Mandarin and Italian. She was a retired flight attendant from Northern Virginia who described her late father as “very prejudiced,” and who had vowed at a young age, “I’ll never live my life like that, ever.”
After the police had left, they went back inside their house, where the living room was decorated with landscape paintings and the crafts Alice brought back from China, Japan and the other places she used to fly.
They turned on the news, which they rarely watched anymore because it struck them as so “negative,” so “anti-Trump.” They had both voted for Trump, who they saw as a “flawed” president who deep down “truly loves his country and wants the best for it.” By contrast, they considered all the frank talk about race and racism during Obama’s time in office “divisive.” As they saw it, the country had been degenerating ever since into a place where “everything is racial,” and people seemed “angry all the time” and “at each other’s throats” and now they watched the latest report on what had happened in Saddlebrook, which had seemed like a refuge from all that.
They were relieved that no one had been hurt. But soon Tom began worrying about people he called “the Bubbas from rural Georgia” and the “mental midgets.”
“Are we going to have idiots in pickup trucks driving around?” he wondered.
Alice called her two sons to reassure them that the situation wasn’t as scary as the news had probably made it seem. She made banana bread for the reporters staking out Horseshoe Creek Lane. As the days went on, she went back to gardening, babysitting and all the activities she had busied herself with since retiring.
She had been a flight attendant for more than 40 years, including on Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks. She had been working a flight from Germany to the United States, and gotten diverted to Canada, where law enforcement whisked away two passengers as she was consoling everyone else on the flight. Later that day, she learned that two of her dearest colleagues had been on the hijacked flight that crashed in Shanksville, Pa., which still made her cry when she talked about it. She had gone back to work immediately, and life became a blur of courses in self-defense, detecting suspicious packages, and multicultural sensitivities, where she learned not to be alarmed if a Muslim passenger prayed on board. She began working flights to Dubai and Kuwait, and said she never had the time or inclination to become uniformly suspicious of Muslims.
“I thought, ‘Alice, do all Muslims hate America? Are all Catholics against birth control?’ ” and she kept working until she and Tom retired to Saddlebrook, where they liked “the newness.”
“It’s good because you’re alone, and when you’re alone you’re a little vulnerable, and you need someone to talk to,” said Tom, who had met his neighbors from India and their son, Rudra. “They said, ‘People call him Rudy. I said, ‘Well, if his name is Rudra, that’s what I’ll call him.’ I will make the effort, or just let me write it down. I’m a visual learner.”
Alice had met so many neighbors when she was out gardening, including Maria across the street, and now she could not stop thinking about her. Alice had taught Maria how to plant and edge her grass. Maria had donated items for one of Alice’s charity drives. They had chatted at the chili cook-off, when Alice remembered Maria’s “delicious vegetarian version.” Alice knew Maria’s husband had died, and that she had three children, two of whom no longer lived with her. She pictured her alone over there. She pictured her picturing her son in jail.
“I thought, ‘I’m a mother of two boys,’ ” Alice recalled. “I thought, ‘Imagine. Just imagine what she is going through. Imagine a child has been with you for nine months. I don’t know. I don’t know.’”
She had Maria’s phone number. She did not want to be intrusive, but she did not want to be cold. So she texted her — “Maria, our prayers are with you and your family as well” — and thought about what else she could do.
Over on Wildflower Court, Mickey Norris was conferring with the other board members about Maria’s request to attend the meeting. He worried it might descend into a “bash Maria session.” Someone else worried that neighbors would not feel free to ask certain questions if Maria were there, such as whether she had been involved in some way.
Candace Caldwell listened. She was a teacher whose father used to make her debate him across the dinner table, always forcing her to take a position opposite her own opinion. She argued that Maria was a homeowner and had every right to be there.
“It’s not an invitation-only party,” she said. “If we exclude her, what would stop someone from keeping us out next?”
The board agreed, and one afternoon before the meeting, Candace walked the neighborhood passing out fliers reminding people it was happening. At one house, a man standing in his yard told her that he thought Maria should leave Saddlebrook.
“It’s not safe for her,” Candace recalled him saying.
He sounded so confident that she thought he probably assumed she agreed with him.
“She owns the house,” she told him sharply, and kept going, putting fliers in every mailbox including the one belonging to Maria, and when Sunday arrived, Candace said she felt nervous. “Nervous to find out what kind of people we were,” she would explain later.
Mickey set out bottles of water and cookies on the breakfast bar, which opened to the living room, where two windows overlooked the community nature trail.
At 2 p.m., people began arriving. They sat on the couch and the love seat, on the 12 dining chairs and eight card-table chairs Mickey had brought up from the basement and angled toward the fireplace. More people kept arriving, including Maria. Recounting it later, Mickey said she arrived alone. She sat in a high-back chair by the breakfast bar, and as more people came they filled in all the chairs except the one next to her, which Jamie LaMore noticed when she arrived. She made a point of sitting there. Her husband, Jeff, decided to stand in the kitchen so he could see the crowd, reminding himself “don’t get personal” as he imagined what people might say. Candace stood nearby, scanning the faces of neighbors, many of whom did not yet realize the woman in the hijab was Maria because her attendance had not been announced.
Soon, it was standing room only in the living room, kitchen, dining room and all the way past the Norris family photos into the foyer. When George arrived, he posted himself by the front door in case something happened. Outside, three sheriff’s department cars were parking along the cul-de-sac. Once the sheriff and two deputies were inside, Mickey stood in front of the fireplace.
He thanked people for coming. He introduced the sheriff, who said there was only so much he could say about the investigation since everyone in the room was a “potential juror.” He said he was confident Maria’s son was acting alone. He said that Saddlebrook was safe thanks partly to a tip that had come from “the community” and that if anyone saw something, they should say something. And as he and the deputies continued, Maria listened, and Mickey watched her listening, wondering how she must be feeling and whether what he was about to do was a huge mistake.
When the deputies finished, he stood up, thanked everyone for coming and said there was one more speaker.
“Like it or not, all of us are here in this neighborhood together — it’s like you can’t choose your family,” he remembered saying, and gesturing toward Maria.
“Maria is here with us,” he said, and people turned to look at her. She waved. Up to this point, she had not said anything publicly about what had happened. Now Mickey said that she wanted “to say a few words to the community,” and she stood at the front of the room by the fireplace and began talking to her neighbors about her son.
She said he had gotten involved with the wrong crowd. She said he had made poor choices. She said she did not know what to do and that she was “devastated.” She started to suggest that her son may have been entrapped, and as she did Jeff silently hoped she would stop, thinking “no, no, no, not with this crowd,” and Maria said she was not trying to make excuses. She tried to collect herself. She said she was a “good person.” She said she was “lost.” She said “I’m sorry,” and when she was finished, Mickey asked if there were any questions.
Jeff looked around the living room. It was quiet. No one said anything. He noticed a few people were trying not to cry, including Mickey, who stood up and thanked people for coming, deciding there was “nothing left to say.”
People began standing and heading toward the door. Maria gathered herself to leave. And in the moment of transition, Mickey watched a woman walk over to Maria and say something. He watched the woman give Maria a hug. He saw Jeff and Jamie come over and introduce themselves.
“If there’s anything we can do,” Jeff said.
He saw Candace tell Maria how brave she thought she was, and soon there was an informal line of people forming to greet her, including George, who could tell that Maria was having trouble holding herself together. When his turn came, he reminded her that they had met before, and that he had heard she might be a beautician, and that his late wife was a beautician, too. Then he reached out and held her hand, and he felt her squeeze it, and they stayed like that for a moment as more people said hello and lingered a while, eating the cookies and drinking the water they had left untouched until now.
A few months later, another message went out to the residents of Saddlebrook, this time in the form of a sign planted in the grass by the pool: “Pine Straw Day, 10 a.m. Front Entrance. All help any time welcome!!”
The annual spreading of the pine straw was a spring ritual in Saddlebrook, and on a Saturday morning in May, a dozen or so neighbors showed up including Mickey, Tom and Alice, George, Jeff and, for a while, Maria, who was still on the landscaping committee.
It was an overcast day, and she and everyone else helped toss bales off the back of Mickey’s truck. They pitchforked the pine straw around the snapdragons and verbena by the Saddlebrook sign. They fluffed it around the pool, and at this first community gathering since the meeting at Mickey’s house, no one talked about what had happened.
Not Maria, whose son remained jailed without bond on a charge of attempting to damage and destroy a federal building “by means of fire and an explosive.” Not Mickey, who did not have some speech prepared about how the true character of the neighborhood had been revealed.
Privately, though, they’d all been thinking about how well things had gone.
“There was nothing like ‘get the f out of our neighborhood,’ ” Jeff LaMore said one afternoon, still amazed. “I was kind of shocked, knowing we live in a county that has that history.”
“Nothing came out negative,” said George on another afternoon, sitting in his living room, doors open, enjoying a cross-breeze.
“Honestly, I was proud of us,” said Candace, heading to pick up her son from school on a day when the regular routines of suburban life had resumed in Saddlebrook, along with their continuing worries about the world beyond the front entrance.
“I think this neighborhood is an anomaly,” said Jeff one afternoon.
“The whole world is in freakin’ turmoil,” was how Tom still saw things.
George imagined chaos sweeping the country in the coming years.
“I don’t see it being bullets,” he said. “I see it being a mass uprising or something.”
Inside Saddlebrook, though, nothing felt so apocalyptic. The seasonal flags were flapping on front porches, fresh pansies were planted around mailboxes, and it was a good day for the spreading of the pine straw. They all kept at it, chatting about their allergies and whether the rain was going to hold off.
“You’ve got to see my vegetable garden,” George said to a neighbor.
“Good morning, Maria,” Jeff said when he saw her.
Tom wiped sweat off his face. “Mrs. Evans, I’m done,” he said to Alice, who was deep in a flower bed.
“Go home, have a beer, relax,” a neighbor told him.
Mickey checked over the work, making sure the pine straw was evenly distributed around the flowers at the entrance and by the pool, then he stopped for a moment and looked around at what his middle-class American subdivision was becoming.
“We’ve still got to do the far end of the neighborhood — we got the hill and the first house on the left,” he said, and kept working.
When he noticed that the sky looked like rain, he picked up the pace, hauling a few leftover bales down to yards for people to spread around their gardens. He cranked the leaf blower, clearing off the sidewalks and pool deck, and soon, Pine Straw Day 2019 was over. He got back into his truck and drove home, passing six “For Sale” signs along the way, which he said was not unusual for the end of the school year.
He was optimistic that property values would hold, and one Sunday, a steady and diverse stream of people toured an open house down the street, a yellow-beige Heritage.
“This is the dining room, and the formal living room . .. ” the agent told a potential buyer.
“Saddlebrook started around 2013,” she continued.
“Do you know the neighborhood?” she asked.