America Should Root for the Atlanta Falcons
Super Bowl 51 will feature a surprising underdog versus Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Atlanta native Lang Whitaker argues there's nothing more American than that.
The most impactful moment on television this past year for me came in the season finale of the show Atlanta, when Earnest Marks (Donald Glover) walked home one night from his girlfriend’s place to his temporary spot, a rented storage facility. He slipped headphones over his ears and OutKast’s “Elevators” played, perfectly encapsulating the entire first season of the show while also demonstrating what the city of Atlanta has meant to so many people—a beacon of hope, where just about anyone might be able to make anything happen.
I was watching on my couch at home, and when that beat dropped I raised my hands in the air. It felt like Atlanta had won. It has been a while since something—anything—associated with Atlanta found this kind of success on the national level. As a native ATLien, I felt like it was time we caught it break.
What I didn’t anticipate was that maybe this was just the start. As my friend and fellow ATLien Rembert Browne recently summarized, Atlanta has been having a moment of late. And now all that stands in the Falcons’ way of making Atlanta great again is Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
To be fair, the Pats have had a unparalleled run of success under their perpetually schlubby coach Bill Belichick, winning four of the last fourteen Super Bowls. They’ve also achieved an unparalleled run of discipline from the NFL for various infractions. Many Patriots fans believe their franchise to be victims of a vast NFL conspiracy, which may or may not be true, but it doesn’t make the team any less unlikeable. They have Tom Brady at quarterback, arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time, who is married to arguably the greatest supermodel of all-time. New England may be without party animal tight end Rob Gronkowski, but they have an army of gritty and gutty wide receivers, one of whom also happens to date a supermodel.
At this point we know all there is to know about the Pats. If you aren’t as familiar with the Falcons, I can’t really blame you. This season the Falcons were on primetime television less than Atlanta, making all of two appearances. (And of those two appearances, one went virtually unseen because it was broadcast against the first Trump/Clinton debate. We can only guess what Tom Brady was watching that night.)
The Falcons were not supposed to be as good as they’ve been this season. Dan Quinn has been in charge of all of 35 games as a head coach. Quarterback Matt Ryan has always been above average, although the Falcons haven’t had a winning record in their last four seasons. And historically, the Falcons have mostly been brutal—before 2010, the team had never managed put together back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. The one time that Atlanta did make a Super Bowl was in 1999. The night before the game we discovered safety Eugene Robinson was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, which threw off the locker room’s focus. The Falcons lost that Super Bowl to Denver, 34-19.
That is the sum total of the Falcons competing for an NFL title.
But this year’s Falcons team has been special, as various players have stepped up all season long. The Falcons have two young running backs (Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman) who are relentless, and a collection of interchangeable, sure-handed receivers. Our starting safety, 21-year-old Keanu Neal, is the only person who went to the University of Florida to whom I feel any sort of affection. Vic Beasley had an unremarkable rookie season, then returned this year to lead the NFL with 15.5 sacks.
While Matt Ryan has had a career year, currently leading the race for the NFL’s MVP award, to me the spiritual heart of the Falcons is wide receiver Julio Jones. In many ways, Julio is the culmination of many of Atlanta’s previous sports heroes: He combines the elite athleticism of Dominique Wilkins, the raw power of Henry Aaron, the regional appeal of Chipper Jones, plus an outrageous bounty of supernatural physical gifts like Michael Vick and Herschel Walker. My favorite part of watching Julio is the way he actually seeks out violence, dipping his head into defensive backs, something I don’t really ever remember seeing a wide receiver do previously. During the third quarter against Green Bay, the Falcons sent Jones on a crossing route, and Julio delivered a stiff arm to a hapless Packers DB that dropped that defender. Bless his heart.
As good as I feel about the Falcons chances next weekend, as a lifelong fan of Atlanta sports teams, every instinct in my body tells me not to believe in the Falcons. Atlanta teams don’t win championships, or at least they haven’t. In my lifetime the Hawks, Falcons, and Braves have combined to win all of one championship (the Braves in ‘95). And hey, at least we got one. In that same timespan, the Celtics, Patriots, and Red Sox have combined to win 13 championships. So I get it: It must be really tough to be a Boston sports fan.
And yet, I believe.
Because at some point it has to change, right? There’s been a recent renaissance of historically bad teams finally turning things around. The Cubs won. The Cavaliers won. The Indians almost won. These teams just kept plugging along and finally, eventually found the right formula.
Perhaps it’s misguided optimism, or maybe just plain stupidity on my part, but this run from the Falcons has served as a reminder for why I allow sports into my heart: Because sometimes—not very often, but sometimes—it’s just the best. Sure, there’s also drama and anger and sadness and confusion, but then something like these Falcons comes along and it all makes sense. These Falcons came from nowhere, and have a real chance at affecting history for the team and the city and the fans that have supported them. And man is this fun.
I can report that I have been doing my part. I haven’t shaved since the playoffs began. I’ve listened to Aquemini before every kickoff. I’ve worn the same Deion Sanders T-shirt and Jordan 1.5s to watch every game. People all around my neighborhood have been shouting congratulations at me when I see them in stores or on the corner, and it’s honestly not something with which I am familiar. I feel like I accomplished something, and maybe I did, if you consider suffering through the last forty years of Falcons games an accomplishment. If the Falcons win this Super Bowl, the only way to top it would be if OutKast reunited and dropped a mixtape the next day. At the very least, the Dungeon Family should have a float in the victory parade.
America, you have a choice. You can pull for the dastardly Patriots, the team that has it all, or you can root for the crew that’s just trying to get up, get out and get something. These Falcons are so close to changing the narrative, to winning one for the little guy and returning power from the evil empire to the people. You can root for the team that wears red, white and blue, or you can root for America’s Team.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s finally Atlanta’s time. Our time. I honestly believe these Falcons can, and will, beat the Patriots.
And if not? To quote one of America’s poet laureates, “We ain’t gon’ stop so we just gonna continue.” ■