In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week, ALLISON HUTTON, of Georgia Humanities, explores the way Atlanta United Football Club is staking a claim on Atlanta’s future by staking a claim on its past. This is part seven in a series of sports stories in association with Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America, a traveling Smithsonian exhibition sponsored by Georgia Humanities.
By Allison Hutton
This is an origin story. It is the story of Atlanta’s newest hometown team, Atlanta United Football Club, and its supporters. It is the story of how a soccer team and its fans sprung forth from a piece of stone.
The piece of rock in question is Atlanta’s zero mile post. It is one foot square and 42 inches high. Today it stands as a relic inside Underground Atlanta (more specifically, inside the Georgia State University Security Office), but when the post was staked in 1837, it marked the southern boundary of a planned Western and Atlantic Railroad line from Chattanooga, Tennessee; it marked the future.
Around this stone grew a town called Terminus, i.e., “the end” in Latin. In 1843 Terminus changed its name to Marthasville. In 1845 Marthasville became Atlanta. You know the rest of the story: that Atlanta became a transportation hub, that it became a center of global commerce, that it attracted global talent and the eyes of the world. Atlanta United knows this stirring story, and so do its fans.
While Atlanta United is new to the city, soccer itself is not. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, amateurs “played in . . . Piedmont Park as early as 1912, and an amateur league played there in the 1920s and 1930s.” These teams were primarily composed of immigrants from the British Isles, who brought their love for the game with them.
Since that time, the popularity of soccer has expanded, thanks in part to an infusion of immigrants from soccer-loving countries and interest generated by Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Games. Georgia now boasts more than a sampling of youth, college, amateur, and professional teams, among them the Atlanta Beat and the Atlanta Silverbacks.
Following years of planning and negotiations, on March 6, 2017, Atlanta United, a Major League Soccer franchise owned by Arthur Blank, made its highly anticipated debut in a sold-out match against the New York Red Bulls at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. Reportedly, the team drew the fourth-largest crowd in the world that weekend.
Sportswriters attribute supporters’ enthusiasm for the team to a variety of factors, such as novelty, timing, and owner Arthur Blank’s commitment to success. “The United have captured a local civic pride in a region that’s hungry for something to rally around,” wrote Will Leitch for the Chicago Tribune in an article entitled “What is Atlanta United doing so right that the [Chicago] Fire are doing so wrong?”
Leitch is on to something — Atlanta United is doing something very, very right and very, very interesting that has nothing to do with how the team is playing (though wins certainly don’t hurt).
Atlanta United is staking its claim on the city and its future here by staking a claim on the past. Consider the following from the team’s website:
- “Atlanta was born as a railroad town and today is a global hub for travel and commerce. It is in our DNA to connect and unite.”
- “The Atlanta United FC logo was constructed utilizing elements of Atlanta’s rich history and culture, underscoring the city’s progressive and passionate voice.” The circle was “inspired by the city’s seal and the city’s Olympic heritage. It is a symbol of unity and globalization.” The “A” “puts the focus on the enduring strength of Atlanta.” “United” represents Atlanta, a “modern, international city that embraces all its citizens.” The stripes represent the pillars of the team’s character, and are “a nod to Atlanta’s history as a railroad town.” The “FC” acknowledges that as a football club, Atlanta United is more than just a team: “We are the fans, we are the community, we are Atlanta.”
Atlanta United acknowledges the city’s railroad past, too, in a unique post-match ritual wherein the player of the game hammers a golden spike into a rail, “signifying the birth of a movement. The connection to the world. The unity of cultures, generations, and backgrounds.”
“Other cities have gone before us, but that doesn’t bother us. We will not wait any longer to stake our claim. Where history and progress intersect. Where the crossroads of culture, creativity, and commerce thrive,” the team claims. “At the spike, every strike rings true in our hearts. We unite around it.”
One need only look at the supporters’ groups and their missions for proof that the city has indeed rallied around the team and its golden spike. Two groups, Terminus Legion and Resurgence, take their names from Atlanta’s railroad past. Two others, Delta 17 and Footie Mob, acknowledge the city’s more recent points of pride: its diversity and contributions to arts and culture, respectively.
The adoption of Atlanta’s civic rhetoric by the team and its supporters’ groups is so seamless, so complete, so perfectly attuned to the new and exciting, the ancient and revered that one can’t help but wonder: what could any other city possibly have to offer as inspiring as what Atlanta has offered its team and fans? What other team could so cannily claim and utilize a history it never witnessed? What kind of future, other than one of passion and progress, could a team so firmly tethered to Atlanta have in store?
Who else but that great observer of our city, Ralph McGill, mid-20th century editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, could have articulated so well the ongoing zeitgeist into which Atlanta United has tapped? In 1959, in a special edition of the paper honoring the arrival of Atlanta’s one millionth citizen, McGill wrote the following: “Atlanta honors the past, but it does not look backward nor cling to that past. It is a proud and intelligent city. And it moves confidently toward the future.” On and off the soccer pitch.
Interested in sports stories? Check out the other columns that are a part of this series. For the sixth part, about the factors that make an athlete great, click here. For the fifth part, about Spelman College’s traditions of health and wellness, click here. To read the fourth part in this series, the important lesson Bill Curry learned as a young NFL player, click here. To read the third part in this series, the story of the Atlanta coach who trained Olympic athletes, click here. To read the second part in this series, the story of the Ponce de Leon Ballpark magnolia tree, click here. To read the first part in this series, the story of how two Jewish brothers helped integrate sports in Atlanta, click here.
You can experience Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America, a traveling Smithsonian exhibition sponsored by Georgia Humanities, at the Colquitt County Arts Center in Moultrie April 22 through June 3.
Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.