Atlanta's burning

The city too busy to hate has found plenty of time for violence lately, and nobody knows why.


Mike Alvear
August 3, 1999 5:00PM (UTC)

The city too busy to hate has been making time for mass murder lately. Last Thursday, the country was riveted as Mark Barton, a 44-year-old chemist turned day trader, slaughtered nine people in Atlanta's posh business district just north of downtown, after first murdering his wife and two children in their home.

Less than a month ago, 11-year-old Santonio Lucas was dragged room to room by his mother's boyfriend, and forced to watch as the man shot first his mother, then his aunt, then four young children. The man shot Santonio, but miraculously, the boy lived, hiding in a closet for eight hours, terrified the gunman would kill him. And in May, a young man walked into an Atlanta-area high school, one month to the day after the Columbine killings, and shot at his fellow students, although he lacked either the heart or the marksmanship necessary for mass murder, and wounded a handful of kids.

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Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell seemed as shell-shocked as the rest of Atlanta by the city's latest killing spree. "In the past two weeks," he said with a soft and solemn voice, "we've had two deranged people kill 17 people, perhaps more, in this city. I have no explanation for it."

But if acts like Barton's don't offer easy explanation, they do have a context. There was something peculiarly Southern about the way Barton began his horrific shooting. "He greeted people on the way in," the CEO of All-Tech Investment Group, one of the firms Barton targeted, told the Atlanta Constitution. And when he began shooting, Barton reportedly said, "I hope I'm not upsetting your trading day."

The South does not brook bad manners, even in its killers. Georgia State University historian John Burrison says there's long been an "undercurrent of violence" behind Southern gentility. It began in the 17th century, Burrison says, when the South swelled with three very disparate groups: the English gentry, which became the noble ruling class, the Scots-Irish, who clawed their way up and patented clan feuds in the meantime, and West Africans, whose importation opened the South's eternal wound, slavery. Differences were smoothed over thanks to legendary Southern charm and manners, but the roiling tension and resentment underneath remained. Atlanta has long had one of the nation's highest murder rates, and it has not plummeted there during the '90s nearly as much as it has in other cities.

"The clash of these cultures," said Burrison, "still plays out in Atlanta centuries later." And gives rise to the schisms in the Southern psyche. Live in Atlanta long enough and you'll notice it. Don't ever start a conversation without asking the other person how they're doing. Especially if you don't like them. Don't ever confuse a Southern drawl for stupidity. Especially in business. You'll walk away with less than what you walked in with, but you won't notice till it's too late. And never say what you mean if what you mean is hurtful.

The seeming courtesy with which Barton emptied his 9 mm and .45-caliber weapons is just one detail in a decidedly Southern narrative. He beat his wife and children to death, yet he took the time to cover each body with a blanket, and a note, no less. Modesty is a hard habit to break for some Southerners.

So, apparently, is florid passion, as well as the habit of thinking of people as property: Barton's note repeatedly declared his love for his wife and two children, and insisted they'd be better off dead than having to live with the consequences of his act. With a Faulknerian flourish, he pronounced he couldn't stand to have his son pay for "the sins of the father" -- yet another madman making his delusions the stuff of Greek tragedy.

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It would be easy to make too much of the fact that Barton killed over his day-trading losses. Again, his note railing against "the system" was a way of imposing meaning on what was an act of madness. And yet there's an undercurrent of fury, in Atlanta and beyond, at the way the city has sold its soul to business. Bland and colorless, the downtown area and its nearby business districts are the South's shame. Even 3500 Piedmont Center, in the heart of Atlanta's toniest business district, is a monument to mediocrity. "Atlanta has always compromised its heritage to the interests of business," says prominent local art dealer Bill Lowe.

And yet Atlanta is the most densely forested urban area in America, and its beauty is self-evident, every place but downtown. Beyond the business district, the stately homes, many modeled on those of the landed English gentry, are brushed, combed and landscaped into a forested dreamscape. When it comes to Atlanta's architecture, the traditional Southern pattern -- public gentility masking private ugliness -- is reversed: The city's public face is a sneer; beauty is reserved for the private realm.

The rest of the South looks at the killings as peculiar to Atlanta. But then, the South views Atlanta as the daughter who brought it untold riches by marrying for money, not love: Envy and enmity cannot be separated. They could have been rolling in all that money, other Southerners think, if they'd been willing to hike their skirts up that far. Indeed, one of the prime engines of Atlanta's economic growth, Hartsfield International Airport, was originally meant for Birmingham, Ala. But like good Southerners, Alabamans declined such an ill-conceived intrusion on Southern life. Atlanta took sloppy seconds and never looked back.

And yet the Barton killings had their roots in Alabama, where Barton was the prime suspect in the grisly deaths of his first wife and his mother-in-law. They were hacked to death in a lakeside campground. Alabama police and the district attorney were convinced from the start that Barton did it, but they couldn't prove it. And to top it off, Barton collected on the $600,000 insurance policy he took out on his wife just prior to her death.

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Mayor Bill Campbell was on TV all weekend as the city came to terms with the enormity of Barton's act, and the last three months of killing. "We'll simply have to search our souls,'' he said. "Pray for this city," he said. Some Atlantans saw irony in Campbell's asking for calm and reason, since he recently acted with anything but, in an ugly and personal local battle over affirmative action. After the Southeastern Legal Foundation threatened to sue the city over its affirmative action policies, Campbell held a press conference and urged supporters to picket the homes of the foundation's members. "So when they're having their wonderful debutante balls," he sneered, "the participants will not be able to get by." His ally, state Rep. Billy McKinney, stepped up to the microphone and said, "We have finally hit upon somebody to hate."

Nobody's suggesting McKinney and Campbell's flame-throwing rhetoric had anything to do with Barton's act, of course. But it may be that the violence of the last three months will serve to wake Atlanta up to the fact that while the city may be busy, there's still plenty of time to hate, and Atlanta's biracial commitment to business has not solved its human problems.


Mike Alvear

MORE FROM Mike Alvear

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