I am Atlanta, and this is my story.
I was conceived as a simple railway terminus, and that’s what they called me - Terminus. I wasn’t a glimmering city of the future that set an example for the rest of the country - I was simply the junction of two major railroads and that’s all I would be.
After people settled around my central rail station, they decided to rename me - I would now be known as Marthasville, after the daughter of the state governor. Five years later, the Chief Engineer of the railroads connected at my heart suggested a new name - “Atlantica-Pacifica”. I never really liked that name, and neither did my residents. They opted to shorten it to “Atlanta” and officially incorporate me as a city in the State of Georgia. I was officially born on December 29, 1847.
In the years that followed, I grew. By 1860, what was once a tiny railway station was now a bustling town with more than 9,500 people proudly calling themselves “Atlantans”. How far I had come in only 13 years of life!
But tragedy soon struck. War engulfed my countryside. My railroads were used as major arteries in the South to deliver military supplies and war materiel to the front. I never thought the front would soon come to me.
A strange man clad in navy ordered a siege of me. For four months, my citizens were bombarded by artillery cannons from afar and terrorized by the threat of invasion from the north of town. These men in navy laid waste to my buildings, my homes, and my families. When these strange men in navy invaded my streets after their enemy had retreated far to the south, they tore up my rails and twisted them in knots. They pillaged my stores and stockpiles. They forced my residents to evacuate. And when they were done, they burned me to the ground. All that was left of me was ash and dust.
But like a phoenix, I arose from ash. My residents were determined - they returned after the war subsided and rebuilt me and my railroads. Three years after the war, I became the new state capital of Georgia. Twelve years later, I became the state’s largest city. I was pitched to investors as the pinnacle of the “New South”; every year, I began to see more machinery come in on my railroads and new factories built.
As my fame grew, so did I; within the first thirty years of the 20th century, my citizenry tripled and I began to swallow up nearby suburbs and unincorporated territory. My residents began constructing buildings that scraped the sky and gave me a skyline from afar. I was growing up and evolving, and so did the people that called me home. I invited all types of people to come and make their homes, be they black or white. Sometimes, tensions between my multicultural residents overflowed and they fought on my streets. But still, I continued to take in all comers, and I blossomed.
War soon engulfed the nation again but this time an ocean away. I was the South’s hub for war materiel manufacturing and transportation, and with all the people moving to me to help support the war effort, I grew rapidly. After the war, my residents and some from other cities helped construct a new replacement for the old railroads I was built on top of - “highways”, they called them. Instead of being a terminus for rail, I was now a terminus for the automobile.
Barely 20 years after war had united the country, the nation began to tear itself apart and I had a front-row seat. I watched as my residents lead the struggle for their rights and fought on my streets for liberty. I became the “city too busy to hate”, and my civic leaders helped bring about peace on my streets and make my facilities free and equal for everyone.
But during all this turmoil, city leaders brought me the most important parts of my identity: sports teams. In 1966, the National Football League placed its new franchise, the Falcons, in my care; and Major League Baseball had allowed the Milwaukee Braves to move to my city limits. In 1968 came the final piece of the puzzle: the National Basketball Association approved the St. Louis Hawks relocation to me. I was now a pro sports town, albeit at 119 years old, a tad older than my counterparts when they started out. Four years later, I would add a new National Hockey League franchise: the Flames.
But for most of their years here, my teams were either average, middling, or simply just bad. The Hawks put together talented teams but always fell short in the playoffs. The Braves did not post a winning season between 1970 and 1981, relying instead on Hank Aaron’s home runs to get my residents to old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (and with #755, he made them and me proud). When one of my sons Ted Turner bought both teams in the 1970s, he helped them wade through tough times, keeping them in town, helping draw more fans to games, and spreading the gospel of my sports teams far and wide across the United States.
But my Falcons couldn’t get it together; between 1966 and 1978, the team only posted two winning seasons. In 1978 and 1980, the Falcons went to the playoffs for the first times in franchise history, only to have their dreams crushed in the first round and returning them to the cellar of the NFC West division.
The Flames were a bright spot in these dark times. Between their founding in 1972 and 1980, they made it to the playoffs every year but one. But like the Falcons, they failed to find success in the postseason, only winning two playoff games and not a single playoff series. In 1980, the owners became fed up with sagging attendance and sold the team, which was then relocated to Calgary in Alberta, Canada.
Around America, people confused me for Atlantic City, New Jersey. I wasn’t a hub for gambling and beach tourism; I was the capital of the South, its best city, and I wanted everyone to know it.
My prayers were soon answered. With the century waning and my residents starting to lose faith in their teams, success came to my sports teams. The Hawks acquired Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb, who together propelled the Hawks to 50 wins a season from 1985 to 1989. The Braves overhauled their front office, bringing in John Schuerholz from Kansas City as general manager, re-hiring popular ex-manager Bobby Cox, and drafting Chipper Jones. With a starting rotation of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery, the Braves caught on fire in 1991, going “worst to first” and making it to their first World Series since 1958, when they were in Milwaukee. In 1989, the Falcons drafted Deion Sanders and set the world on fire in his first four years in the NFL, bringing mass media attention to me with his flashy antics and by playing for the Falcons and Braves at the same time. In 1992, my residents opened a brand new stadium for the Falcons to call home, the Georgia Dome. In 1990, I bid for the 1996 Olympic Games and actually won, even when stacked up against Athens, Greece, Melbourne, Australia, and Calgary, Canada (the same city that had taken my Flames).
Alas, I was cursed. Even with Dominique and Spud, the Hawks could never get past the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Falcons drafted future Hall of Famer Brett Favre but traded him to Green Bay, where he later unlocked his potential. They also let “Neon Deion” walk in free agency.
But my Braves were still going strong - they gave my residents hope for a world championship and validation on the national stage. They took the Minnesota Twins to seven games in the 1991 World Series, but fell in one of the greatest World Series ever played. They returned to the World Series again in 1992 against the Toronto Blue Jays, losing again. In 1993, the Braves signed ace pitcher Greg Maddux from the Cahicago Cubs and posted 104 wins in a dramatic division pennant race with the 103-win San Francisco Giants, but fell to the Philadelphia Phillies. The 1994 season was cut short prior to the playoffs because of a player’s strike, but the Braves retooled and tweaked their roster for the 1995 season, playing high quality baseball well into October. With their three previous failures in the World Series, my residents began to wonder if a championship would ever come. Would a parade ever be run on my streets? Would we ever drape banners across my buildings and homes to commemorate reaching the pinnacle of pro sports? Would my suffering and struggle ever be rewarded with a trophy?
I celebrated unlike any city had, because no other city had endured the hardships that I had.
And then the Olympics came to town. My residents got me all gussied up and looking new and shiny to be put on display for the world to see. For two weeks, I played host to the best athletes in the world. I was mocked for an opening ceremony that featured pick-up trucks and cheerleaders, but I didn’t care: that was what I knew; that was what my culture was like.
No one confused me for Atlantic City anymore. I was on the map world-over now. For two years, I was on top of the world, and I savored every single moment.
But the Braves would never win another title. In 1996, they lost the World Series against the New York Yankees in heartbreaking fashion - on a blown save by Mark Wohlers in Game 7. In the 1999 World Series, my residents suffered again: the Yankees swept the Braves four games to none. From 1991 to 2005, the Braves put together 14 consecutive division titles, but only came away with one world championship, consistently putting together great teams, but falling in the Divisional Series.
The Falcons looked to be on rise during the late 90s as well. In 1998, the Falcons escaped Minneapolis with a 30-27 win vs the Minnesota Vikings, clinching the Falcons’ first Super Bowl berth in franchise history. Led by coach Dan Reeves, quarterback Chris Chandler, running back Jamal Anderson, and defensive back Eugene Robinson, the 14-2 NFC West champion “Dirty Birds” were poised to strike again in Super Bowl XXXIII versus defending champs Denver.
But Robinson was arrested early Sunday morning for soliciting a prostitute, distracting the entire team during their pregame preparations. Heartbreak struck again, and the Falcons fell 34-19. Disappointment marked the next two seasons, and the Falcons sputtered to a combined 9-23 record. My citizens, once so enamored with the Falcons, deserted them in their darkest hours.
In 1999, the National Hockey League decided to give me a team again, and the Thrashers were founded, named after our state bird. But the team struggled, posting a combined 342-437-45 record with only one division title and trip to the postseason (both in 2006-07, in which they were swept by the New York Rangers in the conference quarterfinals). Because of poor attendance and financial losses, the ownership decided to sell the team in 2011. Like the Flames, this team was also sold to a Canadian group, which moved the team north - this time to Winnipeg. They stripped the team of its name, rechristening them as the Winnipeg Jets, after a team that had left them in 1996 for Arizona. I was now the only city in America to lose two hockey teams, which wasn’t a label I particularly liked.
But on the football field, light seemed to be on the horizon. The Falcons traded up in the 2001 NFL Draft to select Virginia Tech standout QB Michael Vick, and later that year, the team was purchased by local business executive Arthur Blank. The Falcons began to gain steam with Vick at the helm, posting a 7-9 record in 2001 and a 9-6-1 record in 2002. But Vick broke his leg in the 2003 preseason, sidelining him for 12 games and hamstringing the Falcons offense, which limped to a 5-11 record. But in 2004, with new head coach Jim Mora, Jr. and Vick healthy, the Falcons lit up opposing defenses en route to a 11-5 record and marched to the NFC Championship for only the second time in franchise history. The city was excited; the Falcons had found their groove again.
But sometimes fate has other plans. Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles tore through the hopes and dreams of Falcons fans, defeating the Falcons 27-10. Even with my heart broken at Lincoln Financial Field, I still saw greatness in the team and saw more success in its future.
But it wasn’t meant to be. The Falcons skidded to an 8-8 record in 2005 and a 7-9 record in 2006, firing Mora as head coach and hiring former University of Louisville head football coach Bobby Petrino. Michael Vick pled guilty to charges of dogfighting before the 2007 season began and was cut from the Falcons roster in December. Petrino bolted for the University of Arkansas 13 games into the 2007 season, and the Falcons fell into disarray, posting a 4-12 record that was much, much worse than it looked.
The next ten years saw progress and a return to glory for the Falcons under new head coach Mike Smith and franchise QB Matt Ryan from Boston College, but time and time again, fate found a way to break my heart and my resolve.
But this year was different. This year was the year the Falcons blew out opponent after opponent. This year was the first time the Falcons had a league MVP on the roster. This year was when the Falcons’ defense stepped up and stopped even the best of teams. My citizens’ faith, tarnished and emaciated by the turmoil of the late 00s, returned in full force and my people packed the Georgia Dome for game after game, praying that the tide wouldn’t turn on their Falcons. Their faith was rewarded hundred-fold two weeks ago, when the Falcons clinched only their second NFC Championship in franchise history. I was so proud of my team. I was so proud of my people. We had come so far since the darkest of days only a short decade ago. My citizens had all bought into the Falcons’ success - they were all #InBrotherhood. With the league’s best offense and a defense that had manhandled some of the best teams in the league, the Falcons were poised to win their first Super Bowl and return me to the top again. In 168 combined seasons of pro sports within my city limits, I had only one world championship to my name, and the 2016 Falcons were looking to make it two.
But it wasn’t meant to be - sometimes, it seems like it never is for me. Once again, in a feeling all too familiar, I’m heartbroken, beaten down, and embittered. Far too many times, my heart has been ripped out, stepped on, run over, torn to pieces, duct taped back together, and put back into my chest. Once again, a city that knows success all too well has taken the ultimate prize from me in the most heartbreaking fashion possible.
But the sun will rise again tomorrow and shine upon my glimmering skyline. I will not give up. I will rebuild. I will return. Like the phoenix on my crest, I will rise again.
I am Atlanta, and this is my story.
Author’s note: Thanks for the memories, 2016 Falcons. In a time where most people focus solely on what divides them, you brought this city together. You captivated us at every turn and brought us another trophy. While it may not be the one we all hoped for, we still love you and are proud to wear your logo. You are, and forever will be, one of my favorite sports teams of all time.