ATLANTA — When President Donald Trump swoops into Atlanta for a VIP seat at college football’s biggest game, he’ll enjoy the Southern hospitality of a city he disparaged a year ago as “falling apart” and “crime infested.”
The insults tweeted by Trump a week before his inauguration may seem like ancient history to most Americans who follow the president’s voluminous stream of online invective. But Atlanta hasn’t forgotten.
“It was very personal because we live here and we love it,” said Stephanie Langer, a 40-year-old East Atlanta resident whose anger over the president’s putdowns was rekindled by news of his pending visit.
“I guess it’s just ironic that he’s coming here,” she said. “I guess things must have improved.”
Trump plans to be among 72,000 attending the College Football Playoff Championship game Monday evening between Georgia and Alabama. The game is being held at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new $1.5 billion home field of the Atlanta Falcons.
The stadium sits in the heart of downtown Atlanta, a place Trump targeted in a pair of tweets Jan. 14 last year. He was punching back at Democratic Rep. John Lewis. The Atlanta congressman, a civil rights hero, had said he would skip Trump’s inauguration after allegations of Russian election meddling caused him to doubt Trump “as a legitimate president.”
Trump tweeted : “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results.”
Lewis’ 5th District seat covers most of the city of Atlanta, including downtown. Trump’s attack galvanized residents to post photos of their neighborhoods and other Twitter rebuttals under the hashtag #defendthe5th.
Like many in Atlanta, Josh Calvin is protective of the congressman and of the city. Calvin, 43, can see the new football stadium from the door of Bottle Rocket, a sushi and burger restaurant he owns in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood. Over the 12 years that he’s been there, he said, he’s seen improved crime rates and impressive urban revitalization.
“For him to disparage someone like John Lewis is absolutely ludicrous,” said Calvin, who figures Trump wants to come to the big game for the attention rather than any real interest in football.
Though Atlanta leans Democratic, both Georgia and Alabama are solid “Trump Country” states that strongly backed the president in the 2016 election. In a political sense, at least, there’s no clear favorite for the New Yorker-in-chief to root for at the game.
Lloyd Hawk, a 56-year-old real estate developer and Atlanta native, lives near the stadium. He said he isn’t surprised the president is coming to Atlanta after having disparaged it last year.
“Being consistent in thought has never been one of his strong points,” Hawk said. “Hypocrisy is definitely his second language.”
Hawk said he had heard some snarky remarks from some neighbors about the president’s impending visit. But he doesn’t expect Trump to receive an ungracious welcome.
“We are Southern,” Hawk said, “so we’ll be polite.”
It will be Trump’s second trip to Atlanta since his disparaging remarks. Last April, he addressed the National Rifle Association’s annual convention, which was held in downtown Atlanta a short distance from the football stadium. Lewis spoke at a rally near the convention during Trump’s visit, calling for stricter gun control measures.
The congressman did not return phone and email messages on the president’s upcoming Atlanta visit.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, serving her first week in office, declined through a spokeswoman to revisit Trump’s year-old tweets.
The Georgia Democratic Party weighed in with a statement that invoked Atlanta native Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday the U.S. will celebrate Jan. 15.
“Dr. King called on us to ‘maintain the capacity to forgive,’ so it is in that spirit we encourage Donald Trump to extend his stay in Atlanta,” said Michael Smith, the Georgia Democrats’ spokesman, who suggested the president take time to visit sites dedicated to Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement.
Langer said she doubts Trump will see much of Atlanta as he’s whisked from the airport to the stadium and back, likely snarling the city’s already notorious traffic. But she figures he’ll enjoy himself at the game.
“He’ll be happy about the crowd size, but it won’t be because of him,” she said. “You’re in the South and it’s football.”