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Super Bowl LIII

Documentary chronicles struggling community around Mercedes-Benz Stadium ahead of Super Bowl

Film shows poverty, gentrification around Martin Luther King Jr.’s old neighborhood near Atlanta stadium

Thousands of football (and non-football) fans are descending on Atlanta this week. They do so to see the city that has been romanticized as the mecca of black culture and black excellence and as hip-hop’s current mecca. And anyone who walks in or about the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, site of Super Bowl LIII, will gaze upon the architectural achievement with wonder.

But few if any will go out of their way to see the neighboring Westside of Atlanta neighborhoods that are the lifeblood of the real Atlanta — a community holding on for dear life in the face of gentrification and economic inequality. That area will be easy to overlook. A new documentary directed by Camille Pendley and Laura Asherman, The Home Team, is looking to change that by spotlighting a community that is battling the impact of a stadium that towers over the place they call home.

Residents walk out of their homes, look outside and see a shrine to sports that cost $1.6 billion to build.

The documentary, which will be screened Thursday at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, shines a light on the Vine City and English Avenue neighborhoods that are underfunded, overlooked and under-resourced. The neighborhoods, once home to Martin Luther King Jr., have historically been known as having the highest crime rates in the city. Half of the homes are vacant. Every day those residents walk out of their homes, look outside and see a shrine to sports that cost $1.6 billion to build. Much of that money could have been used in Westside Atlanta communities that can desperately use the resources.

The Home Team takes an evenhanded approach to the issue, as it does highlight Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s stated commitment to the Westside. The Blank Foundation has donated millions to the area and launched both the Westside Neighborhood Prosperity Fund and a job-training program called Westside Works. Some consider his contributions but a blip on the radar. “Arthur Blank has done a lot for this city,” said William Perry, the executive director of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs. “His philanthropic efforts have been incredible, but he gets a bit too much credit. … Arthur Blank is a businessman, and he will come out on top of this deal.”

The beauty of The Home Team is its holistic approach to the issue of gentrification and lost taxpayer dollars, including intimate looks at the people who make up the Westside — the men and women who are trying to keep their lights on and stay safe. The citizens who want to keep their homes intact as gentrification threatens to price them out and wipe them out of the places in which they grew up.

The film features grandmothers who pray over future generations while trying to help provide warm meals. Preachers who love their congregations and want to make lives better. Community organizers who make the most of their limited funding. Take, for instance, the story of Moonie Dexter. He was arrested for selling drugs as a kid — according to the doc, the Westside was once labeled by the FBI as the biggest open-air drug market in the Southeast — and has since tried to turn his life around. He mows lawns and is a deacon at the local church.

However, his apartment complex burned down a month before the documentary began filming and he was, at the time, homeless. “Sometimes God takes something away from us so we can do better,” he says. According to the film, a month after finding a place to live, he was stopped by police and arrested although they found no contraband on him and didn’t charge him with anything. He had an outstanding probation warrant and was sentenced to a year in jail.

The Atlanta Westside is full of Moonie Dexters. People trying to thrive and survive while surrounded by glamorous Atlanta spoils. However, billionaires and the city of Atlanta would rather allocate citizens’ funds to a stadium that, as the documentary argues, doesn’t give the people much of a return on their investment. That is the story of the Westside and the massive dome that will host thousands of fans who won’t stop to think about the true cost of the game they came to Atlanta to enjoy firsthand. The Home Team is a necessary and essential movie that lays out the ways decks remain stacked against the most vulnerable among us.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.