On the day before the January 5 runoff election, I was standing in downtown Atlanta near the Centennial Olympic Park, watching then-president-elect Joe Biden speak to a stadium-sized fleet of cars whose drivers had climbed onto their roofs and were clapping and cheering and waving American flags. Because of COVID-19, the rally was invite-only, meaning those of us not important enough to be invited were separated from the fleet of cars by a metal fence, which was being monitored by people in OSSOFF WARNOCK 2020 t-shirts. On my side of the fence, a man with a receding hairline and a mask that read DON’T DRINK THE BLEACH was peddling an impressive collection of buttons depicting Donald Trump in all manner of humiliating situations: he had T-rex arms, he was being devoured by the blue Twitter bird, he had horns growing out of his combover. The man stood still for a moment and observed, along with me, the upper half of a giant screen rising from a platform several hundred feet ahead of us. On the screen, Biden was wearing his trademark black aviators and was flanked by Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, the two Georgia Senate candidates for whom he was campaigning.
It had been two months since Trump was voted out of office, since friends and family and I, along with much of the country, had been able to get our first good night’s sleep in four years. I was feeling light, breathing easier, but I knew that was naïve. There was, after all, still a lot of work to be done, and many ways in which to be horrified and disappointed by the American imperialist machine. And then there was the messy relief-calculus of who actually deserved to feel relieved, and why, and for how long. What was the appropriate way to react to the deposing of a dictator whose rise to power had been a symptom, not a cause, of a capitalist and white-supremacist superstructure built on a foundation of systematic genocide? Were we at risk now of pretending everything was fine, of sweeping the badness under the rug?
“Honestly, I’m glad Trump was president,” a prison and police abolitionist told me while Biden boomed on. Her hair was styled in thick twists and she was selling JUSTICE FOR GEORGIA t-shirts to raise money for the grieving families of Black boys and men who’d been murdered by the police. “We couldn’t ignore all the white supremacy in the country when he was president. People discovered who the real Nazis and bigots are. White people started waking up and realizing they had to do something about it.”
I bought a shirt from her and she thanked me, and I crossed the street in the direction of Olympic Park, which was closed due to COVID-19. The only thing that wasn’t closed, it seemed, was the giant ferris wheel which gave riders an aerial view of the city. The event must have looked absurd from above: a collection of parked cars pointed at a screen on which the papery face of Joe Biden was projected, his brows furrowed in concern, the movement of his mouth slightly out of sync with the words echoing from the massive speakers affixed to the stage. Those of us outside the fence must have looked even stranger from above, car-less hangers-on hoping to catch a glimpse of history between the stiff shoulders of the event’s security detail.
It struck me how aloof and inaccessible the whole event was, not unlike the Democrats themselves. COVID-19 precautions seemed to have become an excuse for selectivity, and in moments like these it was easy to understand why the right’s populism was appealing to so many. Two days later, the same day Ossoff and Warnock were declared the winners of their hard-fought races, there would be an attempted coup at the US Capitol: Trumpers wearing MAGA hats and hunting goggles and American flags fashioned into capes would flood the chambers of Congress. A man in a Trump beanie would pose carrying Nancy Pelosi’s lectern like he’d just purchased it on the cheap at a garage sale. A woman enraptured by “the storm” (a QAnon conspiracy theory that the siege on the Capitol would trigger the mass execution of Trump’s foes), would be shot in the neck by a police officer. A tattooed man in a buffalo headdress, referring to himself as the “Q Shaman,” would stalk the marble halls. Footage would be posted to Twitter of police officers opening barricades to allow the rioters in, and Missouri senator Josh Hawley would offer the rioters a clenched fist in solidarity. The mood would be anarchic but not in a productive way—threatening, emphasizing that our country was no longer divided between left and right but among micro-factions of the left and right, socialists and liberals and capitalists and conspiracy theorists positioned at virtually every rank of power and influence. There would be no celebrating Ossoff and Warnock’s victories. There’d just be history to live through—hours and days and months of history—with no non-history in sight.
I had realized I wanted top surgery five months before the runoffs, and had been binding ever since. Assigned female at birth and finding myself on the masculine side of nonbinary, I’d been excited for Biden to restore the dignity of the LGBTQ+ community; this was one thing to look forward to, at least, even if the rest of the future was ominously uncertain. I was wearing a binder while listening to Biden condemn conservative malarkey on that cold day in Atlanta, and I felt in that moment that by flattening my chest I could become mannish and invulnerable, moving through the world unquestioned and undisturbed, a foot soldier in the quest for liberation. Biden said he wanted to be a president for everyone—a president even for the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Q Shamans of the world—but I knew better than to buy into ideas of unity. I dreamed of being a dutiful cog in the anti-fascist machine, enabled in my movement by a body whose familiarity would feel somehow new. The idea thrilled me in the way true self-discovery might thrill anyone, and it had nothing to do with the Democrats and their propriety—the blind eyes they were turning to the chaos of the American political situation.
The Secret Service informed us that we needed to move onto the sidewalk, because the rally would be over soon and then there would be a number of SUVs traveling up the street, two of which would be carrying Ossoff and Warnock and one of which would be carrying Biden. We crowded onto a corner of the sidewalk, our view mostly obscured by cars. The DON’T DRINK THE BLEACH man wandered away to peddle his buttons elsewhere, dragging his wagon morosely behind him. Two women in pink fur coats snapped and mhm-ed as Biden spoke, as if we were in a church and he were preaching to us a matter of feet away, as opposed to speechifying at a distance of what felt like miles.
“Reverend Warnock [and Jon Ossoff] see the power of faith to overcome the toughest trials that life can throw at us,” Biden said. “They believe, as I do, in the quote of the German philosopher Kierkegaard, who said, ‘Faith sees best in the dark.’ I know they share with me that deep faith in the American people and this country, a faith that enabled us to overcome adversity, to lift each other up, to be a beacon of light for one another and for the world.”
“Yes!” the fur-coated woman shouted next to me. “Yes, brother Biden!”
Kierkegaard—who was Danish, not German—wrote extensively about faith in the book that quote is taken from, The Gospel of Sufferings. “We are scarcely aware of the fact that it is servitude we are cultivating,” he writes:
We forget it in our zeal to liberate mankind by overthrowing the dictatorships. We are scarcely aware that it is servitude: how could it be that we are slaves in relation to our fellow-men? […] [T]his bondage consists not in one man oppressing men (for then we should be aware of it) but in this, that men as individuals, forgetting their relation to God, in their relations among themselves become afraid of one another.
The Gospel of Sufferings is about what a joy it is to suffer in one’s devotion to God. Kierkegaard was vocal about his Christian faith, and so is Biden. That’s befitting of a president: it remains American to believe in a Christian God, to blur the lines between church and state in everything from the courting of religious constituencies to the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance. That said, one need not be Christian to get something out of Kierkegaard. While the above quote is an appeal to the strength of the individual—a Dane tapping into some seriously American ideology—it’s also an entreaty not to lose oneself in the political melee. We may have overthrown a dictator, but we are still afraid of one another, still subservient to the countless cultural shibboleths of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. The head of state is just the head of state—it’s what’s in the state, the diversity of experience, of histories and joys and tragedies, that has to be accounted for in order to make real progress towards justice. Maybe devoting ourselves to Kierkegaard’s Christian God isn’t quite the solution to this problem.
When the speech ended, the Secret Service pushed us back even further, towards the southernmost edge of the rally. I walked behind the screen and stage, where D-Nice had begun performing for the dispersing crowd. There were sixteen days left until Biden’s inauguration. I felt weak-kneed, uneasy, almost a little nauseated, as people got back in their cars and prepared to drive off. I was wondering whether America had a soul to save.
In his essay “Of the Wings of Atalanta,” W.E.B. Du Bois invokes the Greek myth of Atalanta, who sought to outrun her suitor Hippomenes in a race she was sure she would win. But Hippomenes defeated Atalanta by distracting her with three golden apples positioned along the race course, winning not just the race but Atalanta’s hand. Du Bois saw Atalanta’s “Mammonism” as a metaphor for the industrial South, which was distracting from the cultivation of the Black soul.
This was true of much of the postwar South. The gains Black Southerners made after Reconstruction were quickly undercut by white preoccupation with prosperity. The South was to become a site of commerce worthy of competition with the North—the future was with industry, not with hearts and minds—and Black Southerners were told to turn their attention away from civil rights and towards vocational training. The idea became so pervasive that Booker T. Washington gave a speech about it at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. W.E.B. Du Bois would later dub the speech “The Atlanta Compromise,” condemning its facile endorsement of white opportunism.
The striving opportunist whose success comes at the expense of others is a capitalist phenomenon so familiar it’s become an archetype: J.P. Morgan, Dick Cheney, Jeff Bezos. Cornel West refers to these strivers as “political nihilists.” He writes in Democracy Matters, “A political nihilist is one who is not simply intoxicated with the exercise of power but also obsessed with stifling any criticism of that exercise of power.” In other words, the political nihilist is adept at covering his tracks.
In reaction to political nihilism, West writes, we encounter a public “nihilism of despair,” a general erosion of self-worth and faith in our democratic system at the hands of free-market fundamentalism and political grift. The nihilist of despair can also be described as a realist. She sees beyond the matrix of neoliberal deceit masquerading as equal-opportunity prosperity. She knows what’s really going on.
In 2018, Stacey Abrams, a former minority leader in the Georgia House, lost a gubernatorial election to Republican Brian Kemp by a margin of less than 55,000 votes. The election had a record turnout: 55 percent, up 21 points from the average for Georgia between 1982 and 2014. Abrams conceded the election but maintained that there had been voter suppression. Indeed, Kemp—who served as Georgia’s secretary of state leading up to the election—purged 1.4 million registered voters from the rolls and put 53,000 registrations “on hold.” Under his tenure, 214 polling places were closed. In response, Abrams founded Fair Fight, a PAC designed to combat voter suppression in Georgia and parts of Texas. Fair Fight—and other grassroots organizations led by Black women activists like Nse Ufot, Melanie L. Campbell, LaTosha Brown, and Deborah Scott—registered over 800,000 new voters, paving the way for Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.
Abrams can be thought of as a puller-back of ratty curtains, an exposer of truth. Borrowing from Lacan, in Capitalist Realism political theorist Mark Fisher distinguishes between reality and what he calls “the Real.” “The Real,” he writes, “is what any reality must suppress; indeed, reality constitutes itself through just this repression. The Real is an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality.” In the United States, where it’s widely held that anyone can be afforded wealth and comfort if they work for it, the Real is white supremacy and its suppressor is industry. The lie, written into the US Declaration of Independence, is that every American is free to pursue their happiness. The implication is that happiness is wealth.
People like Abrams are responsible for the cracks and fissures in reality. By registering almost a million disempowered voters, Abrams brought to light the Real, which is the annihilation of Black voters—and Black people themselves—by the American myths of prosperity and freedom. W.E.B. Du Bois’s warning against Hippomenes’s apples seems especially salient here: capitalism, handmaiden to white supremacy, promises opportunities on which it never delivers in order to distract from racist violence, filling the traumatic void created by said violence with more undeliverable promises of opportunity and prosperity. Abrams and organizers doing similar work have what many American politicians don’t—a reliable and robust relationship with the Real.
When I got to Atlanta in late December, the city was bristling with Ossoff and Warnock signs, and the feeling was one of intense hope born of despairing nihilism. That’s a weird genre of hope, different from what we tend to classify as such. People weren’t gunning for material change—though that would have been nice—but for a statewide consensus that the Real exists. Atlantans wanted all of Georgia to catch up with Stacey Abrams. And Ossoff and Warnock seemed to understand the Real. Ossoff is the Jewish son of immigrants. Warnock is a Morehouse grad and a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once held the pulpit. Both claimed to have lived Georgian lives, to know better than Republicans what it’s like to live Georgian lives. Georgia had just elected Biden by a razor-thin margin. The whole country was waiting to see what they’d do next.
As an Illinoisan, I have no idea what it’s like to live a Georgian life. I was in Georgia to write about the runoffs and canvass for Ossoff and Warnock. I wanted, as always, to be a cog in the many-person machine fighting to save democracy. I also wanted to document history being made. “Just make sure people don’t think you’re a carpetbagger,” a native Southerner warned me. I imagined myself in a nineteenth century political cartoon, wearing a beard and pince-nez, sneakily shouldering my carpetbag over the Mason-Dixon line. Like it or not, there was opportunism in my trip: I would go to a place I’m not from and be part of a movement I don’t belong to, in order to write about it from an outsider’s perspective. There were plenty of others like me—the state was swarming with volunteer canvassers, Fair Fight devotees from all corners of the country—but that didn’t remove the sting of the native Southerner’s comment. I wasn’t that bad, was I?
I’d learned my realism secondhand, not by actually suffering the failures of government and capital but by witnessing others suffer them. This makes me a well-meaning empath at best and a virtue-signaler at worst, building a “good” reputation on a foundation of others’ pain. Really, I’m somewhere in between: a human being who wants to do the right thing and feel good about doing it. I ruminated on this as my friend Corley and I walked through Piedmont Park to retrieve our canvassing assignments. My honesty with myself was good, I thought. I had that going for me.
Corley—a Southerner-but-not-Southerner, being from Florida—had driven from Sarasota to accompany me in Georgia. Really, I was accompanying him. The trip to Atlanta to campaign for Ossoff and Warnock had been his idea, and I was a piggybacker. Shaggy-haired, with an athlete’s inexhaustibility and a generous smile, he looked the part of leftist canvasser, and I felt a sense of purpose in his presence, as if by attaching myself to him I was a legitimate political actor, the kind of person who did “grassroots organizing” or something equally noble. He and I are demographically similar, and his despairing nihilism had also given way to an infatuation with the Real.
We confirmed with the field organizers that we were both COVID-free and plugged a set of addresses into a canvassing app in our phones.
“This is a meaty list,” the field organizer warned us. “But between the two of you, you should be able to get it done.”
The neighborhood we had to canvass was full of pillared, multi-story detached houses, all with impeccable lawns, some with little stone paths leading up to the front doors. We began ringing doorbells. First, a teenager whose parents weren’t home. Next, two empty houses. Next, a man who wanted nothing to do with us. Then a string of people who curtly assured us that they were on our side.
“These people are doing well for themselves,” I said, pointing to a BMW in the driveway of a house with Ossoff and Warnock signs in the yard.
“This whole neighborhood is doing well for itself,” Corley said.
The sun started to set, and we still hadn’t finished our list. Sweaty, exhausted, we found the second-to-last house: a Victorian about three stories tall with a brick exterior and a front door inlaid with glass like cut crystal. We rang the doorbell and a girl in her early twenties answered. She wore riding pants and a look of cool inquiry, as if curious how we planned to bore her.
“We’re here with the campaign for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock,” I said. “And we were just wondering if we can count on your vote on the fifth.”
“Yes,” the girl said, too quickly, and then pointed at the bushes to her right, where an eminently missable NO SOLICITORS sign had been driven into the ground.
“And how do you plan to vote?” Corley asked, because we needed to collect this information.
“No solicitors,” the girl said. “Thank you.” She closed the door.
As we drove back to our Airbnb, I wondered what kind of relationship these people could possibly have with the Real. Most of them had voted or planned to vote for Ossoff and Warnock, but they were all a little hostile about it. Tired of being canvassed, maybe. Or tired of feeling guilty. They were, predictably, white and trim, well-dressed, well-groomed, well-educated. Does prosperity preclude realism? Could these people suffer the nihilism of despair if America was really working for them? Or could it be that it’s fashionable to have progressive politics, that these people wanted to claim good-heartedness with a vote and nothing more? In truth, there was no one way to categorize them, other than that they all made me feel bad, both for what I had and what I didn’t have.
The optimist thinks America can (and should) work for them, even when it isn’t (and can’t).
Corley and I attended an event for Kelly Loeffler, Raphael Warnock’s opponent. Like me, Loeffler is an Illinoisan, and unlike me, she is very wealthy. In 2020, Loeffler and her husband reported a combined net worth of $800 million, making Loeffler the richest member of the US Senate. (On January 5, 2021, Loeffler’s husband was reported to have become a billionaire.) She’s well known for boasting her “100 percent voting record” with Trump.
Loeffler held her event in a strip mall a couple hours outside of Atlanta, in a place called Sutton’s American Grill, the sign for which had faded from its former vibrancy to a barely-readable pastel. Sutton’s American Grill had been cleared of its tables and converted into a small auditorium, rows of chairs facing a mini stage that was flanked by an American flag on one side and a Georgia flag on the other. The room was cramped and its occupants were all wearing masks, which surprised me. An elderly man in a MAGA hat and his wife allowed me to snap a photo of them standing next to a banner that read KELLY LOEFFLER GEORGIA CONSERVATIVE US SENATOR.
Waiting for the event to begin, a cop chatted with a portly man whose baseball cap cinched the flesh on either side of his head.
“Are you going to get the vaccine?” the portly man asked.
“Maybe,” the cop said, and coughed. Then he paused, looking over the shoulder of the portly man into Sutton’s American Grill. “Probably not, to be honest.”
Corley decided to wait outside for safety reasons, so I stood, perhaps foolishly, in the doorway. Everyone was white, and people were dressed in the way us ignorant Northerners often expect Southerners to dress: plaid button-downs, big-brimmed hats, overalls. The crowd seemed restless with hope, though it was a different hope from the kind I’d encountered in Atlanta. They were optimistic, both about the present and the future.
Republicans are often taken to be “hold the line” regressives, wishing not just for things to stay the same but for them to go back to how they once were, when white men ruled comfortably and everyone else was expected to fall in line. This isn’t untrue, of course, but what’s often overlooked is the fact that Republicans believe America, with its prosperity-for-all dictum, is working quite well. Or can work quite well, if the country’s being helmed by the right person. The racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism of the MAGA crowd are results of this belief: they allege marginalized people are claiming special status, and that they’re doing this because they aren’t working hard enough, aren’t earning their prosperity honestly, and therefore shouldn’t be seeking handouts that other, more honest Americans aren’t getting.
Even as these people sat in a poorly-ventilated room in their masks and ironed jeans, even as reporters like me and the long-haired Washington Post guy and the chipper Australian photographer crowded in to gawk at them, even as their life savings couldn’t add up to a hair’s breadth of Kelly Loeffler’s net worth, they believed in prosperity. And apparently, they would rather be grifted by the rich white people at the top than acknowledge the humanity of anyone else.
Among the political nihilists, Cornel West identifies the “evangelical nihilists,” whom he describes as “drunk with power and driven by grand delusions of American domination of the world.” Writing in 2004, West was thinking of George W. Bush, whose invasion of Iraq galvanized a wave of jingoism at home and hundreds of thousands of deaths in the name of oil and imperialism abroad. In 2020, Loeffler more than fit the mold of an evangelical nihilist. Months before she addressed the crowd of masked optimists in Sutton’s American Grill, Loeffler was briefed by the Senate Health Committee on the dangers of COVID-19 and proceeded to sell at least $18 million worth of stock in companies likely to be damaged by the pandemic while purchasing stock in companies that stood to benefit.
The room clamored with applause when Loeffler finally assumed her place in between the flags. She was twiglike and blonde, and there was trace evidence of the walleye and pigeon toes she’d cited as justifications for her alleged stick-to-itiveness and good cheer. (“Anything is possible in America,” she’d tweeted. “A shy girl who had braces on her legs and a patch over her eye can someday make it to the US Senate.”) She wore jeans, a work shirt under a quilted vest, and a baseball cap that read USA. The outfit was the kind you’d wear to get dirty in, but Loeffler looked clean-pressed and pristine.
“We’re going to stop socialism in America,” she said. “My opponent Raphael Warnock is a Marxist. Joe Biden is a Marxist. We can’t let them win.”
Applause from the crowd. The Australian photographer snapped a picture. Loeffler went on to encourage her voters to hold the line, to resist the thought police and Big Tech, and to remember that Warnock had once welcomed Fidel Castro to America. (She was referring to Castro’s 1995 visit to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, where Warnock was a 26-year-old youth pastor.)
“Call everyone you know. Your mother, your pastor, your best friend,” she said. “Five calls a day keeps the liberals away.”
The crowd laughed, then started to clap again, and Loeffler waved at them regally, as though she were appearing before a crowd of thousands. When she had disappeared into a back room, the supporters began filing out of Sutton’s American Grill. The air was full of excitement, hope, and idealism—the same cocktail of emotions that had pervaded my college campus on the day Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election. But Obama hadn’t quite delivered on his promises for compassionate leadership and systemic change: he’d held true to the American tradition of vicious imperialism, dropping bombs on Yemen and deporting 2.5 million undocumented people, among many other status-quo policy decisions. And of course Loeffler wouldn’t deliver, either; if elected, she would seal herself off in her mansion and continue accumulating wealth, stoking the fire of Trumpism, leaving these clueless optimists twisting in the wind.
Unless you’re campaigning to be president—which is a process so expensive and a job so freighted with responsibility, both real and symbolic, that most every American wants to know every detail of everything you’ve ever done, said, or eaten—you live your political life as an easy-to-remember set of designators. You are a Jewish son of immigrants. You are a Black pastor who grew up working class. It’s up to your opponent to dig up the dirt that gives you dimensionality. Of course, what David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler “dug up” on Ossoff and Warnock was mostly lies. Perdue, Ossoff’s opponent, even went so far as to enlarge Ossoff’s nose in an attack ad, a truly below-the-belt move that Ossoff described as “the oldest, most obvious, least original anti-Semitic trope in history.” Meanwhile, Ossoff and Warnock had plenty of real and consequential corruption to draw attention to. They publicized Perdue and Loeffler’s insider trading—Perdue, like Loeffler, was briefed on COVID-19 and made some similarly strategic sales and purchases—as well as their unlikeliness, as businesspeople-cum-oligarchs, to know exactly what it’s like to walk in Georgians’ shoes.
While it’s certainly revolutionary for a historically red state to turn blue—and for it to turn blue by electing two people from marginalized groups—Ossoff and Warnock aren’t just a revolutionary combination for their region. Theirs is a partnership-in-politics that’s revolutionary for the entire country, each of them dog-eared by their subject positions as potential targets for hate, and and each of them rising both in spite and because of those subject positions to seats in the United States Senate. But outside of their designators, they’re blue moderates—Warnock voices support for the police, for instance, and Ossoff is opposed to abolishing ICE—and they’ll likely spend their time in the Senate blocking Mitch McConnell from drafting legislation that could quite literally kill people. In other words, they’ll do what Democrats have grown accustomed to doing since Reagan: reacting in the meekest possible way to the outright tyranny of the Republican party.
When Raphael Warnock speaks, he’s both lyrical and persuasive; his words galvanize. He doesn’t fit the commonly-held stereotype of the Baptist preacher—he doesn’t needlessly raise his voice, doesn’t exhort his congregants to adhere to scripture. Instead, projecting a calm moral authority, he presents evidence for loving the world and allows his audience to draw their own conclusions. In a televised sermon, he describes Derek Chauvin, murderer of George Floyd, as having “arrogated [to himself] things that belong to God.”
“George Floyd deserved better than that,” Warnock goes on to say. “Breonna Taylor deserved better than that. Ahmaud Arbery deserved better than that. Sandra Bland deserved better than that. Atatiana Jefferson deserved better than that. Botham Jean deserved better than that. Tamir Rice deserved better than that. Trayvon Martin deserved better than that. Eric Garner deserved better than that. Emmett Till deserved better than that.”
Before I even knew who Raphael Warnock was, I’d watched that sermon on Twitter in an Airbnb on the outskirts of Chicago, where I was staying this past summer to run supplies around the city, which was in a state of chaos as Black Lives Matter protestors were arrested and brutalized by the CPD. I’d shown the sermon to a few of my friends the next day as we sat parked in a South Side neighborhood under siege, waiting for a police caravan to descend upon a group of protestors occupying the street. Onscreen, Warnock closed his eyes and led his congregants in prayer. Next to our car, the police infiltrated the crowd, carrying zip ties and preparing to make arrests. Five more seconds of Warnock’s squeezed-shut eyes and then I turned off my phone and we got out of the car, prepared for—what? A fight? Our arrests? To decide ahead of time would be to arrogate to ourselves things that belonged, if not to God, then to capital-J justice.
Since arriving in Georgia, I’d imagined that attending an event where Warnock was visible and close to the crowd would be much like attending one of his sermons: intimate, intense, spiritually stirring. So Corley and I followed him to a rally in ex-urban Clayton County on January 4. The Clayton County rally was in the parking lot of a failing high school. Like all the Democrats’ events that January, it was “drive-in,” meaning that people were supposed to stay in or stand next to their cars. When Corley and I arrived, it was clear that no one planned to follow drive-in rules. People milled around between two rows of parked cars, dancing to OutKast on the speakers—Warnock’s campaign was particularly OutKast-intensive, with some S.O.S. Band mixed in for older voters—and standing in line to get free ice cream from a Ben n’ Jerry’s pop-up at the edge of the parking lot. (The two flavors were “Banana Ballot-Caster” and “A Change Is Gonna Come Fudge Swirl.”) There appeared to be a one-to-one ratio of attendees to journalists, an elite crowd that included the Washington Post, the Guardian, and NPR, as well as camera-toting millennial cub reporters from Austrian and French news outlets of indeterminate size and reach. Roughly eight TV news stations had set up their cameras and microphones behind the metal barrier that ringed the stage, and the camerapeople were checking their phones and making small talk about the brightness of the sun, which was washing everything out and making a good shot of the stage nearly impossible. A Warnock campaign bus was parked behind the stage, and there was some speculation about whether or not Warnock himself was in the bus or whether he would be arriving later.
Corley encouraged me to “go be a hydrogen molecule,” which was his way of saying “go socialize,” but I found there was no one to socialize with. The Washington Post was interviewing an older couple in matching sweatsuits who were sitting in folding chairs in front of their cars and singing along to OutKast. The Guardian was photographing a young boy in a VOTE WARNOCK t-shirt who had emerged, photo-ready, from the sunroof of his mother’s Honda. NPR and France were both crowded around someone dressed as Superman who was carrying a giant flag that read VOTE. Another young boy began breakdancing, and the Austrians ran to film him. The pattern was obvious: the journalists, all white, were documenting every move of the attendees, all Black. I decided I’d try to refrain from being part of the white panopticon by not interviewing anyone, but I realized I was still part of it just by being there.
The rally began. First, a word from the president of the Clayton County Democrats. Then the superintendent of schools. Then the principal of the high school. Then a school board member. Then a PTA member. There were, all told, eight or ten speakers with varying talents for public speaking. Every time a speaker finished with their five minutes and the music swelled, Corley and I looked at each other with hope, only to roll our eyes when another no-name was announced. Clearly they were buying time for Warnock, who was, according to that day’s schedule of events, making his way back from an early-morning rally in Augusta. When a second WARNOCK FOR SENATE campaign bus finally pulled up behind the first, the crowd seemed to strobe with energy. Here he was at last.
If Ossoff is serving face, then Warnock is serving biceps. His suits are too tight around the shoulders in a way that seems unavoidable: half an inch smaller and he’d be bursting at the seams Clark Kent-style, half an inch larger and he’d look like a used car salesman. He assumed the stage to rock-star-worthy applause and gripped the podium with such authority that I almost expected to hear an organ playing behind him. It took thirty seconds of him smiling at the crowd for the applause to die down.
“I’m not sure the rest of the country saw you coming, Georgia,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this for a while, but I’m not so sure folks believed us.”
“We here!” someone shouted from the crowd.
Resounding mhms. The speech had already taken on a call-and-response format.
“But we’ve got a message to the rest of America,” Warnock continued. “Welcome to the new Georgia! Welcome to the blue Georgia!”
Cheers. Horns honking with traffic jam intensity. The French and the Austrians were both filming their reports in the crowd, their voices barely audible over the noise.
Warnock described a scene from his childhood in which his father woke him up at dawn and told him to put his shoes on. When the young Warnock asked why, his father said that he’d think of a reason later. He just wanted his son to be “ready”—for what, neither of them knew.
The crowd seemed to appreciate the folksy anecdote. Their enthusiasm and horn-honking suggested that they, too, had been awakened at dawn and instructed to put on their shoes, and that they believed this was a good thing, a character-building thing—and that they recognized that Raphael Warnock would not have become Raphael Warnock had he not experienced this.
“The only way this thing goes in the wrong direction is if we become overly confident and give in to the ghosts of complacency and indifference,” he said. “We lose only by the margin of our disengagement.”
We were to vote. We were to call “Lottie, Dottie, and everybody” and tell them to vote. We were to get out there and campaign, do everything we possibly could to make people aware of the fact that Georgia was on the brink of something new, something big, something that could change the country for the better.
Warnock ended his speech with another anecdote about his family, this one about his sharecropper mother. Anyone following his campaign probably knew the story by heart: “The other day, because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.”
The crowd exploded for the fourth time in as many minutes, and the white journalists filtered among them with notepads and cameras, trying to capture their joy. I turned away from the scene and slunk off to the Ben n’ Jerry’s booth for another ice cream.
The man in line behind me was so giddy he could barely contain his need for conversation. We began talking, and he told me that he was from Clayton County and had bought a lot of property in Chicago. He was dressed unassumingly, not at all like the millionaire he probably was, his mask the papery blue kind typically sold in packs of fifty.
“I’m from Chicago,” I said lamely.
“You want to buy a house?” he asked, and then laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. I clearly didn’t look like someone who could afford to buy a house.
He wanted to know what I was doing in Georgia and I told him I’d come down to write about the runoffs.
“Oh yes,” he said. “History’s being made here.”
“Did you see this coming?” I asked.
“Baby, it’s been coming. It’s been coming for years. You just not from around here. You don’t know what’s been happening down here.”
Then he launched into a rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” He had a beautiful singing voice, and I applauded him when he finished.
“Y’all just listen,” he said, gently but firmly. “Y’all just got to sit back and listen.”
Jon Ossoff grew up in Northlake, an unincorporated community just outside of Atlanta. He attended the Paideia School, a K-12 independent school with a special focus on the arts. A source who attended high school with Ossoff reports that he was a “theater nerd.” She remembers him shining in a production of Annie Get Your Gun.
During his Senate campaign, Ossoff was a fierce and energetic debater, having enhanced his cult of celebrity by tearing his opponent to shreds in an October debate. While lumpen-faced Perdue stood pale, moneyed, and wordless at his lectern, Ossoff calmly called him a “crook,” accused him of downplaying the threat of COVID-19, and accurately described Perdue as “looking after [his] own assets” while Georgians were dying in the pandemic. Perdue declined to show up to any subsequent debates—and on December 31st, Perdue’s campaign announced that the senator had been exposed to COVID-19 and was planning to quarantine. This removed Perdue entirely from the political arena, rendering him even more wordless and Jacob Marley-esque than he was in person. He became the election’s Godot, frequently discussed and destined never to make an appearance. For most political candidates in the midst of a hotly-contested and expensive Senate race, this would have been devastating. But Perdue seemed to acquiesce without any qualms. Perhaps he was relieved to have a legitimate excuse not to debate Ossoff.
On January 5, in front of an Atlanta polling place, I stood in a scrum of reporters waiting for Ossoff to arrive. We had been told that he would spend ten minutes answering questions and then another five fist-bumping voters. We were encouraged by a campaign coordinator to stay on the curb and not spill over into the parking lot, because we were already taking up a lot of space that really should be going to voters.
Each news station taped their microphone to the flimsy stand where Ossoff was going to speak. The stand grew top-heavy and threatened to tip over. There was much ado made over New Nation’s microphone, which kept falling out of the hive of microphones and onto the ground, ultimately needing to be secured with duct tape. The reporters exchanged war stories about not having slept for the past 36 hours and subsisting on Krispy Kreme donuts. A few of them began assessing each other’s careers: the Washington Post had been pulled from the DC beat to cover the runoffs, the New York Times had spent five years overseas and had just returned to the States a few days ago. France, the Netherlands, and Germany were all silent, checking their phones. NPR, who was dressed in knee-high boots and a pea coat, remarked that this whole thing was “clearly really important” because there were “reporters from all over the world here.”
In time, a black SUV pulled into the parking lot and Jon Ossoff emerged, surrounded by security personnel. He wore a thin-looking jacket, dark khakis, and loafers, and he walked at a quick clip, like he was trying to catch a bus. The cameras and microphones followed him hungrily but silently; now was not the time to ask questions. Like all celebrities, Ossoff was shorter and larger-headed in life than onscreen, but no less handsome. (My infatuation with Ossoff had begun before the runoffs: I wanted to look like him as much as I wanted to flirt with him. There’s something savagely appealing about how uncool he is.) He assumed his place behind the microphone hive and removed his mask, surveying our semicircle.
“Jon,” said MSNBC, like Ossoff was a friend he’d spotted in a crowded bar. “What does it say that this many media groups from all around the world showed up here in Georgia to pay attention to what’s going on?”
“It shows how much power Georgia voters have right now,” Ossoff said in his measured baritone. “That’s the reason the whole world is watching us in Georgia. That’s the reason everybody needs to get out to the polls and make their voices heard.”
The soft shutter-click of cameras, sneakered feet shifting on the pavement. Ossoff lowered and raised his right fist like Obama as he spoke. Someone asked a question I could barely hear, and Ossoff inclined his face toward the voice.
“I’m going to vote to cut taxes for working class and middle-class families in Georgia,” he said. “And in fact, I spoke with President-Elect Biden yesterday about how swiftly we’re going to act to pass those $2,000 stimulus checks which are currently being blocked by the US Senate.”
The conversation frequently turned to the stimulus checks: Ossoff promising he’d vote for them, reminding that he had borne witness to Georgia’s outcry for financial support and was all too aware of the fiscal damage wrought by the pandemic. A reporter two feet from me changed the subject by asking Ossoff whether the Democratic party was planning on pursuing “middle-of-the-road policies or more liberal ones.” Ossoff seemed unsure whether to address his response directly to the reporter, whose position at the edge of the semicircle would force Ossoff to turn his back on the rest of the assembled.
“Jon, please talk this way,” NBC said, solving the problem.
So Ossoff turned to the apex of the semicircle and spoke about the civil-rights activists who’d marched in Selma for the Black right to vote. He mentioned Stacey Abrams’s tireless work to expose the Real—though he didn’t say it in those terms—and described himself as a “John Lewis Democrat.”
“But what about the divisions in the party?” the reporter persisted. “Do you have thoughts on the divisions between moderates and liberals at all?”
“I’m a civil-rights Democrat,” Ossoff said. “That’s the kind of Democrat that’s running in the South right now.” He enjoined us to consider how incredible it was that the Democratic standard-bearers for Georgia were a young Jewish son of immigrants and a Black pastor who holds Dr. King’s pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church. “That is the new South,” he concluded.
I had first encountered the term “new South” in Maurice J. Hobson’s meticulous and comprehensive The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta. Hobson cited the first appearance of the term in an 1886 speech given by Henry Grady, managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution, to the New England Society of New York. The “new South” would rely on industrial development as a means of repairing its postwar social and economic troubles, Atlanta serving as the region’s bustling capital. Grady was evoking the image of a prosperity-ready South in part to attract Northern investors who were wary of the South’s antebellum past. The term underscored the anti-Black emphasis on industry. (Booker T. Washington’s infamous Atlanta Compromise comes to mind.)
But I had since heard “new South” used in casual conversation to describe the “changing face” of the South: the speaker always seemed to imply that the South was becoming a bluer, more realist, more social-justice-oriented place. The various meanings of new South had begun to confuse me, so I asked organizer and activist Anjali Enjeti about the term. Enjeti is a Georgia Democrat whose many bona fides include membership on the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Democratic Leadership Council, co-foundership and current leadership of the Georgia chapter of They See Blue (an organization for South Asian Democrats), and membership on the 2020 Georgia Biden-Harris AAPI Leadership Council. Enjeti began organizing through AAPI as far back as Ossoff’s 2017 6th district special election; it’s thanks in large part to activists like her that Georgia turned blue in 2020.
“References to Atlanta or Georgia as the ‘new South’—and it should be said that it’s almost always white people from outside of the Deep South who use this term—have always seemed racist to me,” Enjeti told me. “These folks had only ever seen cities and states in the South through gross stereotypes, and then after they’ve spent some time learning more about the area, they suddenly think we’ve changed. Atlanta and Georgia as a whole have, and have always had, a significant Black population. The ‘new South’ moniker is rooted in the white erasure of this reality, as well as the erasure of the long history of both Black and brown people here. Certainly Georgia has seen a tremendous rise in racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. And for decades now, we’ve had a large and visible LGBTQIA+ population in the Atlanta metro area. But we’ve been changing and growing all along, most people just hadn’t paid any attention to us before.”
It’s unclear what exactly Ossoff meant by “new South” when he used it in his response to the reporter in our scrum. As a native Southerner, Ossoff is far more qualified to add descriptors to the word “South” than I am. But when I replayed Ossoff’s response back on my phone, I couldn’t help thinking of what Enjeti said. Did he mean that the South would never before have supported the candidacy of political hopefuls like himself and Warnock? (Then how would you explain John Lewis? Or Stacey Abrams’s ten-year tenure in the Georgia House of Representatives? Or Atlanta’s two Black mayors, Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young? Or all the Black representatives elected during the Reconstruction era?) Was he using “new South” in the wrongheaded way Enjeti describes, hinting at the sudden emergence of demographic diversity that was there all along? Is it even possible for a Southerner—especially a Southerner who has an ostensible relationship with the Real—to use the term “new South” in the wrong way?
Ossoff put his mask back on and thanked us all for coming. Then he placed his hand over his heart, which made him look like the shocked and happy recipient of a surprise party. He walked past the scrum and into the parking lot, where a woman in a faux fur coat and white jeans was about to get some sort of exclusive with him. He and the woman walked through the parking lot and we followed them so closely it would have been impossible to get a clear shot of them without the fleece-vested, sneakered, press-badged anthill of scrum surrounding them.
“Stay on the curb!” the organizer shouted at us, but everyone ignored her.
The fur-coated woman disappeared into the scrum, and a smiling voter in a colorful track suit walked up to Ossoff and fist-bumped him. The fist bump lasted long enough to accommodate several camera flashes from several different angles.
Dalton, the small city in northwest Georgia where Trump held a rally on January 4, lost over 4,600 jobs from 2011 to 2012. Between those years, the nearby sprawl of carpet mills and floor-covering outlets that once employed thousands either closed down or cut back. The median income for Dalton is around $42,000, with nineteen percent of the population living below the poverty line.
Trump held his rally at the Dalton Municipal Airport. Driving from the main road to the airport was impossible due to a barricade of buses. Attendees were instructed to park on the main road and then wait for a bus to drive them to the rally; those who missed the buses had to walk two miles from the main road to the airport. Corley and I missed the buses, but wouldn’t have wanted to make the trip in a bus—or “COVID-19 incubation tube”—anyway. We parked among the pickup trucks and camper vans and embarked on the two-mile journey to the airport on foot.
The road was dark, the silhouettes of trees inky and eldritch against the sky. It was hard to ignore the feeling that we were occupying those moments in a horror movie prior to the first instance of real terror: the debut of the monster, or the discovery of a corpse. We were among a small group of stragglers hurrying to make it to the rally before Trump did; one man ahead of us had taken off his shoes and was speed-walking in his bare feet. A figure materialized out of the fog just ahead, one arm outstretched. I was relieved when I realized that it was just a woman handing out Christian literature.
Overhead, several helicopters announced their arrival with a persistent thwacking against the night air. There appeared to be a fleet of them descending on the airport from all directions, the green lights attached to their propellers’ blades describing the circumferences of neon circles in the sky.
“It’s like an alien invasion,” Corley remarked.
The barefoot man, realizing that Trump had arrived, sped up. We sped up, too, wary of being alone on the road.
“What do we say?” I asked Corley.
“When people look at us—” I made a circular gesture intended to encompass his long hair, my bound chest, our N95 masks “—and ask us why we’re here?”
“We just say, ‘We’re here to see the president,’” he said.
We reached a point of ingress at which five men in baseball caps were sitting under the kind of tents used for tailgating. All five of them were navigating coolers full of beer and soda. At least fifty people streamed off a school bus, past the tents, and through the airport’s gate. No one wore a mask. Corley and I stood back, trying to figure out a way to enter that wouldn’t involve being exposed to COVID-19. We concluded that there was none and walked in anyway.
There were men, mostly Black, hocking TRUMP WON 2020 t-shirts. There was a truck of the kind you’d expect to see at a county fair, selling kettle corn and cotton candy. There was a security checkpoint staffed by irritated Secret Service agents who barked at us to put all our valuables in plastic bins. There was a Trump impersonator trying to keep track of the children running in circles around him—he had the mannerisms of a shopping mall Santa Claus, and posed obligingly with the children when they stopped running long enough for their parents to snap photographs.
It felt like we were at a music festival: a semicircle of port-o-potties, wrecked and muddied grass, giant screens everywhere. On the tarmac people stood shoulder to shoulder, all mask-less, looking ahead at a makeshift stadium, two massive American flags hanging forebodingly behind the attendees, and a pack of press arranged on the bleachers, lenses trained at the podium where Trump was talking, and had likely been talking for half our journey up the forbidding road.
“They wanna turn—the Democrats do—America into Venezuela,” he was saying, “with no jobs, no prosperity, no rights, no future for you and your family.”
The crowd closer to the center booed the Democrats. At the edges, where we were, people made muffled conversation about the stolen election and the deep state. Trump’s face was repeated on a screen to our right. He looked paler than usual, almost seasick beneath his coating of bronzer.
“The Democrats will surrender the entire US manufacturing industry to China!” Trump placed his customary girlish emphasis on China.
A woman behind us sat on the ground, wrapped in a blanket and a hoodie with a giant Q silkscreened on the front. Her child crawled across her lap, complaining that it was cold and that he wanted to go home. The woman hugged him close to her chest so that he, too, was wrapped in the blanket. A Black man in stylish Nikes wandered in front of us, recording the proceedings on his phone. He was nodding and smiling approvingly, letting slip an occasional “Yeah man.” Two teenagers to our right stood on their tiptoes to see above the heads of the crowd.
“They’ll say he just conceded,” Trump boomed. “Well guess what? I haven’t!”
Screams and cheers. The loudest applause I’d heard in days. It struck me how accessible Trump appeared to the masses surrounding him—how approachable and populated and potentially superspreading the whole event was.
The crowd’s optimism was explosive and foul, dangerous. These people weren’t grasping at prosperity; they felt they were owed it, and this entitlement had become almost anarchic in character. Burn everything down unless it belongs to Donald Trump, who will share his prosperity with us. But of course everything already belonged to Donald Trump, and he would never share anything with them.
These were people whose exposure to politics was limited, who lived in areas of the country many Democrats would never consider visiting. They were neglected and entitled evangelical nihilists, who placed faith in Trump because of his ability to think positively. “Thinking positively” can mean a lot of things, but since 2016 it has meant thinking in such a way that makes the country dangerous for all people who aren’t American-born and white—who, in the midst of accusing the marginalized of being entitled, are expressing their own entitlement and hatred. It has meant being completely severed from the Real.
The crowd’s jubilance was threatening: it was hard to read it any other way. But there were still individuals like the QAnon mom—who, over the course of the rally, migrated with her son to stand under a flickering heat lamp and then ultimately abandoned the heat lamp for the kettle corn truck—at the edges of the crowd, withdrawn, big-eyed, silently drinking the whole thing in. Equally as inexplicable as the Trumpian zealot is the Trumpian quiet observer. Could there be chinks in the QAnon mom’s Facebook-and-4Chan armor? Did she have crises of faith? Moments of lucidity? Could the QAnon mom be reached? Her position seemed so unfathomable to me—the kind of thing I would read about and mock online—and yet here she was, both a mother and a conspiracy theorist, a flesh-and-blood person waiting in line for kettle corn. I must have known I’d see people like her at the rally—hundreds of troll avatars brought to life—but I hadn’t been ready to watch them stand huddled under heat lamps or care for their small children.
Perdue was still in quarantine, which was weird considering how little anyone in Trump’s crowd actually cared about quarantining, so the evening’s spotlight shone on Loeffler. She took the podium and announced proudly that she was going to oppose Georgia’s electoral college votes (a position she’d later renege on after the attempted coup at the Capitol). People applauded this, though they seemed a little confused about what it meant, and Trump quickly dismissed Loeffler, whose limbs in yet another pristine cattle-herding outfit looked grasshopper-like from a distance.
Trump had brought Ivanka. He hovered possessively behind her as she called him a “warrior” and “the people’s president.” The crowd reacted well to her, but Corley and I didn’t have time to stay and watch: he gestured to the dirt path leading back to the gate, which was already clogged with people attempting a mass exodus.
“It’s just going to get worse,” he said.
So we ran to squeeze in with them, fearing an even tighter squeeze later, and after seconds of outrageous closeness—the kind that would make Anthony Fauci faint—we were mercifully ejected onto the haunted road, where we proceeded along with a group of bus-less unfortunates back to our cars.
“Nobody noticed us,” I said to Corley, just to say something. “Nobody asked why we were there.”
Corley was quiet, looking down at his feet as he walked.
“It feels like all politics is pretextual,” he said. “I don’t know what the text is anymore. It’s just like…massive, abstract shapes mashing into each other.”
We fell silent, letting ourselves be overtaken by a MAGA-hatted man and two women in matching University of Tennessee hoodies.
“We look like the walking dead!” one of the women exclaimed, and the other laughed.
Corley and I canvassed what felt like most of Atlanta. Although our canvassing apps warned us that we should be as thorough as possible since we were the only ones traveling our assigned routes, many of the people we spoke to had already been canvassed several times, and were not enthusiastic to see us. One woman told me outright that it was “getting annoying talking to you guys all the time.” Others were more restrained, reassuring us that they’d already voted and voted the right way. A few even thanked us for our work. It was hard to tell what impact, if any, we were having in Atlanta.
After over a week of buildup, Election Day registered in my body as a kind of tingling excitement mixed with foreboding—the brief throat-catch you feel before doing something completely reckless. Corley and I decided we would return to Clayton County, where Warnock had held his rally the day before. Instead of receiving our assignments in historic Piedmont Park, we received them in an empty church parking lot from a group of people around our age sitting at a panel of folding tables. They gave us Little Caesars pizza and told us that we’d be canvassing a development of low-income housing five miles away. We had roughly one hundred units to canvass and four hours until the polls closed.
The development was ash-gray, a series of small-town homes crowded together in discrete rows. Some doors had clearly gone unanswered for several canvasses, and were papered with Ossoff and Warnock literature and VOTE NOW stickers, HOW TO REGISTER pamphlets wedged between doors and their frames. Two men stood in one of the driveways, inspecting a car that had seen better days. One of them wore a do-rag, through which he’d begun to sweat, and the other was completely bald. The bald man popped the hood of the car and began to look at the machinery underneath, then sucked his teeth at something that drew the do-rag man’s urgent curiosity.
“Are you two planning on voting?” I asked. “It’s the last day. Polls close in three hours.”
“I already voted,” the do-rag man said, looking us up and down. “I voted for Warnock and the other guy.”
“Ossoff,” the bald man said.
The do-rag man nodded in assent.
“Did you vote?” I asked the bald man.
He shook his head. “I don’t mess with any of that political stuff.”
“It’s an important election,” I said meekly.
The bald man squinted at me. “You from around here?”
Corley and I both admitted that we weren’t. The bald man nodded as if this had proven a point and returned to inspecting the car’s engine.
“Thanks,” the do-rag man said, not unkindly. “Thanks for asking.”
Corley and I decided to split up to cover more territory faster. I took the even units and he took the odd. I was feeling timid that day, burned out from the countless conversations I’d had with savvy Atlantans who were sick of being canvassed. I secretly hoped no one would be home so I could just stick more pieces of literature on doors and select the NH (Not Home) option in the app, counting the unit as canvassed-but-not-canvassed.
But people were home, and for the most part they were kind. A woman who’d wrapped her door in reindeer-patterned wrapping paper told me that she’d voted and was proud to call herself a Georgian. Another man stood at the threshold in his socks and shorts and asked me how I was doing, genuinely interested in my response. A woman whose last name was Shabazz giggled when I told her I liked her shirt—a barcode affixed to a big pink heart—and told me it was time her people reclaimed their power. I floated through the evens, making polite conversation, confirming what I already knew, that everyone who had already voted had voted for Ossoff and Warnock. There was no comparison between this ashen development and the detached homes from our first canvass: there were no slammed doors, no stern requests that we “move along,” no pointing to NO SOLICITORS signs. The people in the development seemed to want to be solicited, to make small talk with a stranger entreating them to elect two (ostensibly) Real-aligned guys. This development was the Real, after all, miles from cosmopolitan Fulton County, miles from the spacious houses of fashionable progressives. Its residents were driven and vital, aware by necessity of the white-supremacist state Stacey Abrams was trying at the very least to dismantle, if not destroy outright.
I knocked on a door and there emerged a bare-faced elderly woman in a green velvet housecoat and a head wrap. She introduced herself as Bea. A sign taped to the wall behind her read PLEASE DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT A MASK. I AM IMMUNOCOMPROMISED. She listened, wide-eyed, as I ran through the script: I was there for Ossoff and Warnock, had she voted, how had she voted, etc.
“I haven’t voted at all,” Bea said, clearly exasperated. “I certainly want to, but I haven’t.”
I checked my phone. The polls closed in an hour. “What’s keeping you from voting?” I asked.
Bea smiled ruefully and told me that she was a cancer survivor, that she was asthmatic and had a bladder infection, and that there was no way she was going to the polling place and risking getting COVID-19.
“I asked for a mail-in ballot and they gave me the wrong one!” she said.
There must have been disbelief in my voice because Bea clucked and said, “I have two advanced degrees, I’m sharp, I know what’s going on,” and then offered to show me the ballot in question.
I stood in Bea’s house while she went upstairs to retrieve the ballot. A kid who must have been twelve, maybe thirteen, sat on a couch watching an infomercial for hairspray on a widescreen TV. Next to him was an aquarium in which a herd of clownfish floated among spires of plastic coral. Books were piled on the coffee table, and two filing cabinets next to the TV were bursting with papers. The kid looked at me and then darted upstairs, neglecting to turn off the TV. Bea appeared at the stairhead.
“That’s my grandson,” she said to me over the banister. “His mother’s in Florida right now.”
I watched TV while Bea rummaged—Dr. Phil was interviewing a teenager about why she had bitten her nails to the literal quick—and when Bea came back downstairs, I adjusted my mask, as if doing so made us somehow safer.
“Look,” she said, handing me the document. “Tell me this isn’t the wrong ballot.”
She was right. The ballot was for an obscure local election and didn’t include Ossoff or Warnock’s names. My face fell and Bea looked at me, both frustrated and vindicated.
“I really wanted to vote,” she said. “I know how important it is.”
“I think you still can,” I said. “I think I can help you.”
Bea looked skeptical, and she was right to be. I had no plan. I got out my phone and FaceTimed the field organizer, a square-faced white guy who kept calling Bea ma’am. She ran through her story again, and the field organizer kept only half-understanding.
“Can your grandson bring the ballot to your polling place?” he asked.
Bea sighed in the manner of someone who’s been forced to navigate bureaucracy her entire life. “He can’t. He’s thirteen. And anyway, it’s the wrong ballot.”
“Can we get her the right ballot?” I asked cluelessly.
“It’s too late for that,” the field organizer said. “Ma’am, are you sure you’re uncomfortable going to your polling place?”
“Yes, it’s the high school, there’s going to be COVID there,” she said. “I can’t die just to cast a vote in this election.”
I pulled up Bea’s profile on the canvassing app, thinking I’d double-check her polling place.
“It’s not the high school,” I said. “It’s the Living Faith Tabernacle Church.”
“It’s the church?” Bea asked incredulously.
“Living Faith,” I said.
She went to the coffee table to retrieve her reading glasses and then joined me in looking at my phone.
“That’s my church,” she said. “I can go there. They only let a few of us in at a time.”
“Everything good?” the field organizer asked, and we told him it was, and I hung up and helped Bea on with her coat.
“I’m going to vote,” Bea said, her voice a mixture of delight and surprise.
“You’re going to vote,” I echoed.
Outside, we elbow-bumped. Bea had thirty minutes before the polls closed, but the church was only five minutes away.
“Thank you!” she said.
We parted ways, she in her car and me on foot, and I went back to canvassing people who either weren’t home or had already voted. In that moment, I wasn’t a despairing nihilist, and it was as if I had never been. Briefly, very briefly, the brutal apparatus of the state fell away, as did COVID-19, as did Trump, as did the NO SOLICITORS signs and our country’s late-capitalist nosedive and bureaucracy and climate change and the white-supremacist police force and fascism. All that mattered was that Bea had gotten in her car and was on her way to the Living Faith Tabernacle Church. All that mattered was that Bea was going to vote.