I walked into the cheering section of Bobby Dodd stadium Sunday for the Atlanta United game with Lil’ Yachty on my mind.
Someone brought a flag with a giant Yachty head on it to the last game, a stylized emoji silhouette with the teenage Atlanta rapper’s bright red braids behind goal. I stood, agog, looking at it wave beside one with a Mooninite from Adult Swim’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and another with Samuel Jackson’s face from Pulp Fiction, promising righteous anger and furious vengeance.
Lil’ Yachty bothers me.
I’m also 44 years old and Yachty bothers anyone over 30.
I’ve had a long-running argument about Lil’ Yachty with Rodney Carmichael, Creative Loafing’s former music editor who is now NPR’s man on hip hop. He believes Yachty’s undeniable popularity reveals something about youth culture. I view Lil’ Yachty as the herald for the end of civilization and the descent into the American dystopia William Gibson promised us.
But there his pink head bobbed over the crowd. And his head’s been stuck in mine since.
I went looking for Yachty today, but I found something even more disturbing.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about the Confederate flag rally at Stone Mountain. Among other things, a man was selling a flag with Barack Obama’s profile superimposed over the rebel stars and bars, and I still can’t make heads or tails of what it was supposed to mean. I came away with the sense that the South in general – and Atlanta in particular – are a people in need of new symbols.
Atlanta United has become a proving ground for cultural experimentation in Atlanta symbolism.
ESPN’s Doug McIntyre just described the team’s start as the most successful expansion team in Major League Soccer history, and he may be understating it. It may be the most successful expansion start of any professional sports franchise, ever. Every home game has been sold out. About 44,000 people attended the game Sunday, which almost certainly sets the record for total attendance at soccer games in North America over three home games, and the team hasn’t even taken the field yet in the new Mercedes-Benz stadium.
(As an aside, this team had an unofficial fan club before it had a team. Terminus Legion members would get together in a bar in midtown, drink, watch Premier League games and get angry that Atlanta didn’t have an MLS team. That’s how bad people have wanted soccer in this town. Many of them are friends, which is how I scored tickets.)
For these first three games, fans have been left to stand on the aluminum bleachers of Georgia Tech’s Grant field. Behind the north end goal, a rotating crew of cheer capos with bullhorns works the crowd, leading chants, including the slow, disciplined A-T-L chant that silences the entire stadium in eerie, uncanny anticipation between peals of human thunder.
That the capos can coordinate anything at all is miraculous. Before them stands a gibbering mob.
It’s a nice mob, of course. This is Atlanta after all.
Atlanta United’s fan base is remarkably multicultural and hasn’t priced out the working class fan the way football and — now – baseball teams did here. I heard Mexican-accented Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, German, Amharic and Russian in the stands.
There’s some drinking, but nothing terribly out of control … which may say something more about the vendors than the fans, but still. Most people come wearing team apparel, and many are wearing the official five-stripes kit of black, red and gold.
Nonetheless. A mob. Because everyone is still learning to do Atlanta United.
Crowd chants often aren’t so much led as proposed to the committee for review, in real time.
“We are the A! *clap clap clap clap*
From way down South! *clap clap clap clap*
And we are here! *clap clap clap clap*
Rowdy and proud! *clap clap clap clap*
Sha la la laaaa, sha la la laaa, sha la la laaaa, sha la la laaaa!”
It feels vaguely …. French.
We’re all swishing it around in our mouth, gauging the texture of it, like trying escargot or pâté for the first time. Cheese grits, this is not.
Sometimes it hits. Sometimes it fizzles. Sometimes, the crowd says screw it and does what it wants. When a Chicago Fire player took a dive to draw a penalty last month, the crowd started screaming “bless his heart!” in unison at the top of their lungs, which may be the most authentically, spontaneously Atlanta thing I’ve ever seen expressed.
Notably, the chants are generally not offensive. (We can debate the able-ism of screaming about blind referees.)
The cheering section I was in for last month’s home game unfurled a giant banner called a tifo at the start of the game, saying “Show Racism The Red Card.”
The fan club leaders put a stop to chants of “puto” – Spanish for a male prostitute – after the first game, and the team denounced the chant.
“Atlanta United does not support or condone the use of offensive language,” the statement said. “We strive to foster a positive, enthusiastic and inclusive environment for all fans, and inappropriate chants have no place at our matches. Fans found to be participating in this behavior will be subject to removal from the building.”
The team handled the puto chant authoritatively in part because Atlanta is particularly gay-friendly territory, but it would have been a thing regardless. The team’s rollout has been nearly flawless. Racism, sexism, homophobia – associations with any of that would create a marketing disaster.
That’s part of the reason Yachty’s been on my mind.
Reasonable people can disagree about the value of Lil’ Yachty’s “bubblegum trap” style. I struggle to think of Lil’ Yachty as something other than rap’s musical equivalent to a Kardashian. I think we’re projecting meaning and value on mediocrity.
That said, he’s both relentlessly positive and a politically-unthreatening blank slate. While I think that makes him ready-made for a naked, shameless, vacuous sprint to the cash register with his unearned fame in hand, the better to sell Target advertising, I can see how a city looking for ways to express shared identity would latch on to him as a symbol.
Yachty is fun. And because he annoys older hip-hop heads like me, Yachty is simultaneously punk as hell. KRS-One would roll over in his grave, if he were actually dead.
Even as the capos offer chants to the crowd as a way to build team identity, the crowd is offering the city its own experiments for symbols to represent Atlanta. It’s unstructured, and weird, and glorious.
Atlanta United is riding a tiger. They’re trying to manage culture as an emergent property. It’s glorious, but there are ways that can get away from them. I saw one of those ways today.
I went looking for Yachty’s head today, and didn’t see it. I saw a weird black-and-white grumpy snowman flag that resisted all interpretations by Google before revealing itself on Twitter as an incarnation of Young Jeezy. Yachty’s crew must have stayed home today. A couple of other flags emerged, mostly of the sort one would expect from Resurgence, the official fan club. Safe stuff.
And then I spotted a giant III% Security Force militia flag right in front of the capo stand.
The Atlanta United code of conduct prohibits “political or inciting messages.” The banner of the III% Security Force in Georgia is far from politically neutral. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the group as an extreme antigovernment patriot group.
Chris Hill, a Georgia native also known – I kid you not – as “General BloodAgent,” is a main coordinator of the group. If you watch anti-Muslim politics in Georgia, you may know that Hill led an open carry demonstration in Newton County when a mosque was proposed, claiming that it would become an ISIS training camp – a common refrain in the militia groups in Georgia. They believe wholeheartedly that some gated off property in Commerce is actually an al-Qaida training camp.
I’ve been there looking. It’s not.
Nationally, this group appears to be aligned with the Bundy clan. Members of the militia in other states participated in the Malheur Refuge standoff.
At the Confederate flag rally in Stone Mountain a couple of years ago, Hill brought the PA system.
Somehow, that flag got through the screening process at the stadium, the one that bars women from carrying a purse larger than a box of Pop Tarts into the stadium. That may be because he may be a member of the Resurgence fan club. Photos with the flag at a fan march before the game are circulating through the social media of the fan club, as people try to make sense of it.
The guy with the flag at first said that the group is just a “veteran’s organization.” When I looked him square in the eye and said I knew exactly what they were about, and that this isn’t the place for that kind of flag, he said he’d take it down, but not before everyone had already seen it up on the scoreboard video and broadcast to everyone watching the game at home.
I said “Arthur Blank would not be happy to see that flag on TV.”
I spoke to the capo after the game. He is an extraordinary fan leader. But this sort of thing is beyond his training. “I lead the supporters section and I want everyone to have a good time. If I find out that any racist propaganda is being used, I’ll let Atlanta United know.”
The fellow who brought the flag identified himself in a social media fan forum, said he was in no way associated with right wing groups, apologized for bringing the flag and said he wouldn’t do it again. “I was aware that the flag was a tribute to the three percent of Americans that fought in the Revolutionary War, but I was unaware of any far right wing groups that use it,” he wrote. “I thought since we were playing D.C. United it would be a cool flag to fly.”
I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt for the moment, and leave his name out of this.
Perhaps this flag thing is nothing. I am, however, quite familiar with how the far right of Europe uses soccer hooliganism as a recruiting tool, and the ugly racist history of how groups like the English Defence League emerged from the hooligan firms.
American soccer borrows some of its traditions from Europe, like the capos and the scarves. Even the name Atlanta United was meant to evoke Premiere League naming conventions. Why not the rest?
I have inquiries out to the team.
There’s a difficult balance to strike between allowing fan culture to be an emergent force without being vulnerable to culture-hijacking. So let me lay down a marker.
I’ll leave my Black Lives Matter banner at home. For the next guy who saw that and is getting ideas, leave the III% Security Force flag next to the gun rack.
God help us all, Yachty wins for now, until we find better symbols that speak for all of us here.