You feel it the second you step into the Mercedes-Benz Stadium: THE EMBRACE. A modern southern welcome of "hey y'alls," open grins, "pardon me's," claps on the shoulder, "thank you for coming, honey's." The contagious inclusiveness and easy revelry of the Falcons franchise and their home city of Atlanta, a city coined "too busy to hate."
Long a refuge for Southerners who craved more than their small towns could offer, but who were disinclined to leave the region, Atlanta exudes a rare combination of down-home hospitality and progressive mindset, a city on the move, yet still rooted, thick with history even as it becomes ever more solidly the center of hip-hop, "Y'allywood," nascent tech and myriad other harbingers of a bright, diverse, optimistic future like the kind you see on "Star Trek" and in Target commercials. (Underscoring this, the new Falcons stadium, a space-age marvel of scale and engineering, is designated LEED Platinum, scoring the highest sustainability marks of any sports facility in the world.)
Atlanta has both manners and swag to spare, a vibe that is very much present at every Falcons home game where, just prior to kick off, notable badass, Morehouse alum and former Falcons concessions peddler Samuel L. Jackson appears on the multiple jumbotrons circling the arena, his face emerging from a cloud of red smoke, asking, "Can you hear it, Atlanta? It's the sound that unifies us. The sound that defines us. The call of our family.
"They will know us by our unbreakable bond, and the power of our spirit!" he goes on, soul-deep, bellowing the lines as if from the mount. "Show me what's in your heart!"
The crowd woots and yelps as Jackson continues preaching, various other Atliens (Lil Jon and Zac Brown among them) making onscreen cameos during which they pound a balled fist against their chest, a thunderous BOOM BOOM ricocheting throughout the immense arena. Jackson crescendos, asking, demanding, again and again, "What do Falcons do?" after which every fan hollers, louder and louder, "Rise up! RISE up! RISE UP!"
The slogan, in use since 2010, is outwardly simple, yet the two words act as nesting dolls of meaning. They evoke fight, rights, revolution, church. These days the words vibrate with fresh profundity, a rallying cry that suggests both the problem and the solution. Rise up is a command. Rise up is also an exaltation. It marries the sacred and the profane, which is about as good a definition of the game of football as one could hope.
The NFL is not having a great time of late. There are numerous reasons for this, many of the wounds self-inflicted, others simply the unavoidable fractures and convulsions that come from a culture on the move, dragging its behemoth touchstones behind like so many cans on a newlywed car bumper. Depending on whom you ask, the league is either too political or not political enough, a hot anachronistic mess of patriarchal, plantation mentality or the last bastion of all that is good and right in America. In the end, regardless of where your opinions fall, left, right or center, few folks seem to be having as much fun anymore, outwardly resigned to retreating to our separate corners, hissing like possums. Which is why the Atlanta Falcons are, more than ever, the team America needs right now.
Take shameless dancer and all-around mensch Arthur Blank, the Falcons' owner since 2002, who has said publicly that he wants not just the best football players on his team, but ones who will make him proud, something he has undeniably achieved with high-performing boy scouts Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman and Vic Beasley (players well known for their modesty and chill off the field in addition to their gobsmacking performance stats). Blank also took every Falcons employee -- approximately 300 of them -- to the (ill-fated) 2017 Super Bowl, a class-act gesture estimated to have cost him a cool million. As billionaire executives go, he's one of the "good ones." It was Blank who insisted on the environmental build. He also ensured the concessions at the new stadium would be the lowest cost of any major team franchise, with beers at only $5 and most food less than $6. Sodas, with unlimited refills, are only $2. All of which means a family coming to an Atlanta game can enjoy dinner without having to sell a kidney first.
Then there's Dan Quinn, who, unlike other head coaches, is rarely seen in vein-popping rages, even when plays go pear-shaped, opting instead to empathize with and boost his players. He leads from a place of respect, inculcates an almost Oprah-esque philosophy of gratitude. Quinn doesn't dictate to his team. He listens. As guard Chris Chester recently explained of Quinn's unique style, "There's a sincerity about creating a brotherhood amongst the players." Something on full display at games where, no matter what happens on the field, no player ever acts like a brat. (Bratty behavior is not a value-add in the Falcons franchise.)
That ethos of brotherhood trickles through the entire Falcons enterprise, the notion that everyone is in this game, life, world together, a throwback to old-fashioned notions of sport where it was less a showcase for singular vanity than a place where the greater good is achieved by the sacrifice and effort of folks working collectively. The Falcons have even adopted "In Brotherhood" as a secondary slogan, one that, like "Rise Up," deliberately speaks to issues far larger than those at play on the field.
"It marries the sacred and the profane, which is about as good a definition of the game of football as one could hope."
The messaging resonates. While a handful of sports pundits have mocked the emo, "we are family" maxim, the truth is the motto brings out some much needed, one world Kumbaya. Few other NFL franchises have celebrity fan bases as eclectic as Michael B. Jordan, Jeff Foxworthy, Gucci Mane, Jimmy Carter, Donald Glover, T.I., Zac Brown, Ludacris, Keenan Thompson and Cam Newton. Falcons fans, famous and otherwise, resemble the shifting demographics of wider America, not just one town, and as such, going to a Falcons game feels very different from what I've experienced at, say, a Jaguars or Patriots game. The crowd is decidedly multicultural, which makes for a looser and more good-humored experience. Not that the fans don't care about the final score, they do. But watching the game feels like a gratifying diversion, not life or death. No one is calling the visiting teams "f----ts," for example (something I've heard more than once at non-Falcons games), nor are they shouting other abhorrent epithets at the home team.
Instead, people are convivial, sharing their pizzas, their $5 beers, wrapped up in the game, but not so much that it turns them into aggro creeps, possibly because a diverse audience brings with it a hard-won awareness of what actual life-altering stakes look like.
When Jackson was originally pitched the idea of "Rise Up," what sold him was the notion of the slogan as a movement, as something more than a way to sell T-shirts. "It's kind of incredible to me," he said in an interview with the Falcons' website. "I talk to players around the league who come [to Atlanta] to play and they all stop and watch the 'Rise Up' announcement when it comes on. They say it's the best thing in the NFL."
As usual, Jackson is absolutely right. What's happening in Atlanta is a reminder of what's good about football, about sports, about Americans. The Falcons and their sincere, heartfelt ideology appeal to the better angels of all our natures, show the value of acting right and playing hard, remind us that we are part of a community, not a nation of spoiled children hoarding all the toys.
If you go to a Falcons game, you leave hopeful. Even if they lose. Because for a few hours you are reminded of what America can and should be -- neighborly, proud, accessible, ambitious, well-intentioned, gracious. You feel The Embrace. You feel the promise. You have fun. And before you know it, you rise, in brotherhood.