Atlantans responded with an incredulous “how dare you!” Saturday after President-elect Donald Trump kicked off the MLK holiday weekend with a twitter rant saying most of Atlanta is in “horrible shape and falling apart” and describing Georgia’s U.S. Rep. John Lewis — a civil rights icon — as “All talk, talk, talk — no action or results.”
A stunned Atlanta, along with admirers of John Lewis from across the country, took to social media to harshly criticize the remarks. They characterized Trump as clueless about everything from Atlanta’s thriving intown neighborhoods to the beating Lewis took years ago as he marched in Alabama for voting rights. Brushing off the accomplishments of Lewis, who is widely revered by many Americans well beyond Georgia, went too far, they said.
“John Lewis is an American hero & a national treasure. Period. Full stop,” tweeted Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed.
Like others, the mayor questioned the timing of Trump’s twitter assault. “That PEOTUS Trump would attack Congressman Lewis on MLK Day weekend for ‘all talk…no action’ when he bled to actually “Make America Great” is why far less than half the country supports him at the dawn of his presidency.”
Lewis had been unabashedly taking on Trump for days. He testified against Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator who is Trump’s attorney general nominee and went on to announce his plans to skip the inauguration. State Sen. Josh McKoon, a Republican, said Lewis’ decision to boycott the inauguration was “petty and dangerous” and that it justified Trump’s ire.
“Regardless of whether you’re on the right or the left, you ought to respect the election. That’s what I did in 2008 when Obama was elected,” said McKoon. “Sure, I was disappointed in the outcome, but I respected it and moved on to the next fight. That’s why it’s really disappointing to me to see Lewis, who has this enormous legacy, say he was not going to attend the inauguration.”
Atlantans understood Saturday that a political fight was playing out. But, the city wondered, did Trump, who once aspired to add his own skyscraper to the city’s skyline, really think Atlanta was a depressing, dangerous place to live? And did he really need to go there on a day that the city was energized with a Falcons playoff game and its annual celebration of Atlanta’s own Martin Luther King Jr.?
Here’s the full text of what Trump had to say early Saturday morning via twitter: “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. All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”
The congressional district that Lewis represents includes many of Atlanta’s crown jewels as well as pockets of poverty. It runs from Buckhead to Decatur, over to Atlanta’s Westside and reaches south to include Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and parts of Clayton County. Georgia went for Trump, but the 5th Congressional District and the city of Atlanta as a whole remain solidly Democratic and supported Hillary Clinton over Trump in November.
The district that Trump described as in “horrible shape” includes Emory University and Morehouse College, as well as Spelman College and Georgia Tech. The Coca-Cola headquarters is just one of that district’s many, high-profile corporate residents. Lewis represents Midtown’s shiny residential high-rises and the pricey Intown neighborhoods filled with renovated homes, the Beltline and Ponce City Market.
The typical cost of a house in the most sought-after neighborhoods within Georgia’s 5th Congressional District ranges from over $500,000 to $1 million, said Bill Adams, whose real estate company has operated in the district’s neighborhoods for years. “Certainly there are major pockets of poverty, but the central core of Atlanta is flourishing — big time,” Adams said. “He’s thinking about a different Atlanta than the one I live and work in.”
Census figures show the median income in the congressional district was $48,017 in 2015 and the poverty rate was 21 percent. That’s less prosperous than the nation as a whole, where the median income was $55,775 and the poverty rate was 14.7 percent. But about 1 in 5 households in the district had annual incomes over $100,000 and over 40 percent had a college degree, compared with the nation as a whole where 19 percent were college grads.
Roger Tutterow, an economics professor at Kennesaw State University, said Georgia’s 5th District was typical of urban congressional districts across the country which tend to be diverse, with some neighborhoods that are affluent and some economically challenged.
And what about Trump’s declaration that Atlanta is crime infested? Crime stats aren’t tallied at the congressional district level. A look at the city of Atlanta’s rankings, which captures a lot of the district, shows that Atlanta ranks 14th nationally for crime, when compared to the nation’s largest cities.
Jason Carter, the 2014 Democratic candidate for governor who represented part of the 5th District in the state Senate, said Trump “clearly doesn’t know anything about the 5th District or Atlanta.”
“It exemplifies what’s great about this country,” Carter said in an interview on Saturday. “The center of business, the center of innovation and the cradle of the civil rights movement and it’s incredibly successful right now.”
When John Lewis is in Atlanta and needs a haircut (or even when he doesn’t) he stops by Vintage Hair Gallery in downtown Atlanta. On Saturday, Trump’s Twitter tirade was all the talk.
“Mr. Lewis is a very good guy, very humble,” said barber Rob Winkfield, who takes care of the congressman and civilrRights hero when he needs a touchup. “Every time he comes in he speaks to everyone, shakes everyone’s hand. For Trump to stoop that low to comment on something Mr. Lewis is right about, that just goes to show you what type of guy really he is. Someone needs to take Trump’s Twitter handle and just get it out of his hands. He has bigger things to worry about.”
Winkfield loves the bustle of downtown, its eclectic mix of residents, amenities and attractions, and says maybe Trump should visit before he casts aspersions on the home of the world’s busiest airport, pro sports teams and world-class cultural institutions.
“It’s a very good place. He needs to come visit and talk to the people,” he said.
Vintage Hair made international headlines last summer when Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps got a trim right before heading to Rio. Even after the Twitter rant blasting Atlanta, Winkfield would be willing to try to improve Trump’s look.
“I could do something with it. That comb-over is really really bad,” he said. “We could do something else, make it look a little more natural. We’ll take care of him.”
Lewis did draw plenty of criticism on social media and there was no shortage of people weighing in with their own disparaging opinions about Atlanta.
Conservative talk show host Erick Erickson responded this way: “Just a reminder that John Lewis thinks Republicans in power are worse than dogs and water hoses in the street.”
But few elected officials spoke out against Lewis. State Rep. Allen Peake, a Macon Republican, likely spoke for many Republicans when he offered his take:
“I’m not sure I would take on a civil rights icon and hero,” he said, “but Donald Trump hasn’t asked me for my advice — and he doesn’t need my advice.”
The pastor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church said Saturday that Trump should learn from Lewis rather than disparage the civil rights icon.
The Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church said Trump “continually demonstrates that he is too small a man for the big responsibility he now assumes.”
“John Lewis has spent his life serving others. Trump has spent his life serving himself,” said Warnock, whose historic Atlanta church is the spiritual home of King’s family. “Rather than sending nasty tweets, he ought to sit at John Lewis’ feet and learn what service, sacrifice and integrity look like.”
After people in Atlanta spent the day debating Trump’s remarks about Lewis and the city, the president-elect ended the evening with yet another comment that may keep the feud going.
“Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.” the president-elect said via Twitter. “I can use all the help I can get!”
Aaron Gould Sheinin, Jennifer Peebles, Leon Stafford, Chris Quinn and Ben Brasch contributed to this report.