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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Andrew Lawrence in Atlanta

Only in Atlanta: the small-town scandal of the Trump-Fani Willis case

woman gestures while speaking at mic in courtroom
Fani Willis speaks during a hearing at the Fulton county courthouse last month. Photograph: Alyssa Pointer/EPA

It’s not you, it’s the appearance of impropriety.

Add that breakup line to the regional lexicon now that the Fulton county district attorney, Fani Willis, has cut ties with Nathan Wade – the lawyer she picked to prosecute Donald Trump for allegedly subverting Georgia’s 2020 election proceedings, and whom she says she later began dating. Last Friday, Judge Scott McAfee ruled that the county’s case could move forward if either Willis or Wade stepped down to eliminate the “appearance of impropriety”. Within hours, Wade tendered his resignation. It’s the end of an affair that had Atlanta written all over it.

Atlanta is a land of contradictions, the place where the old south and the new Black bourgeoisie converge, the backdrop for the epic romances Gone with the Wind and Love & Hip-Hop. It’s a big city, but it has a parochial attitude. (“Stop moving to Atlanta,” goes the unofficial motto, “We full.”) In the wake of McAfee’s ruling, the city is unwinding some of those contradictions in the national spotlight, trying to square the salaciousness of Willis and Wade’s romantic entanglement with its broader implications about race and gender in a political climate that Trump has commandeered. Meanwhile, an appeal of McAfee’s ruling looms, and Trump is publicly exploiting Willis’s relationship with Wade to destroy her credibility.

“Atlanta is just now coming to grips with the fact that it’s a major world city,” says Robert Howard, a political science professor at Georgia State University in the city. “But it’s desperate to remain a small town. This scandal was small town.”

Back in November 2021, when Willis appointed Wade, she, like Atlanta itself, might not have foreseen the attention that would come her way. “The Fulton county DA’s office just doesn’t have the same resources, reputation or experience with scrutiny as the LA DA or Manhattan DA, which is really like a major attorney general’s office,” says Howard. “Atlanta’s a country town where you hire your friends. In her mind, she probably still feels like hiring Wade was no big deal.”

But it was a big deal. Not only is Willis prosecuting a former president, but many believe that of the four criminal cases against him, she has the strongest. She’s the district attorney who commissioned the mugshots that would be seen around the world. In retrospect, many in Atlanta are wondering why Willis didn’t commit herself to living a life above reproach, knowing all that was on the line while she prosecuted the Trump case. For her to risk it all – her career, the 2024 election, the end of the American experiment – and insist that a suitor she evidently wasn’t even that serious about stay on the case, all while paying him more taxpayer money than the other attorneys on her team, seems like a damning indictment of her judgment that had the additional effect of playing into regional cliches. “Look, I get it,” Rebekah Caruthers, of the voting rights group Fair Elections Center, said in a recent appearance on Roland Martin’s daily digital show. “Dating in Atlanta can be very tough. And you find love where you can find love. But this ain’t it.”

“Miss Willis is a Gen Xer who has a particular lens, who represents a cohort that was oftentimes critical of Dr King’s generation for not doing enough,” says Maurice J Hobson, an associate professor of Africana studies at Georgia State. “But now we’re the ones getting put on the grill.”

Atlantans consider her judgment short-sighted at best and cavalier at worst; nonetheless, local residents can agree that the scrutiny Willis has received for her unforced error has been totally disproportionate. As a Black female prosecutor, Willis was allotted the slimmest margin of error in an old south stronghold that remains wary of Black women in power. Keisha Lance Bottoms and Stacey Abrams saw their credibility repeatedly questioned, while serving as Atlanta’s mayor and running for governor of Georgia, respectively. This may have led Willis to select Wade in the first place: you’d think there would be a line of candidates champing at the bit to work alongside Willis, a legal scion who has already distinguished herself using Georgia’s racketeering statute, “but maybe white members of the law profession were not interested in working under a no-nonsense Black woman”, says Maia Hoskin, assistant professor in counseling programs at Loyola Marymount University.

“We have to remember Atlanta is still very southern, and with that comes its gender norms and divisions when it comes racial differences – which I think played a role in her inability to find someone a bit more qualified than Wade,” Hoskin says.

Over the course of the two-week hearing, which saw Willis voluntarily take the stand and deliver a defiant testimony, Atlanta heard far more about her relationship with Wade than anyone ever needed to know: he’s a stereotypical southern alpha male. (“The only thing a woman can do for him,” Willis testified that Wade once told her, “is make him a sandwich.”) She’s the self-possessed woman who goes on dates with at least $200 cash. (“If that man acts up,” she testified, “you can go where you wanna go.”) And yet: the gulf between the two lawyers was nothing that couldn’t be bridged with a bottle of wine in Napa – despite her preference for Grey Goose.

Their “private” (read: not secret) relationship was officially revealed in Wade’s divorce proceedings and publicly confirmed when Willis took her political persecution to the altar of a Black church in Martin Luther King’s old neighborhood. This was all juicy stuff, the kind of piping hot tea that isn’t just savored in this small town-cum-drama capital – AKA Y’allywood – but also exported. As the ESPN anchor Elle Duncan, an Atlanta native, put it on Bomani Jones’s popular podcast: “There’s nothing in Atlanta, even something from the highest institutions, that isn’t ratchet.”

Predictably, the Trump team moved swiftly to weaponize the salaciousness of the scandal, only to reveal their feeble understanding of Black culture in Atlanta. The defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant tried to make a big thing out of Willis’s habit of keeping fistfuls of cash on hand to conduct the bulk of her transactions in an attempt to prove the DA financially benefited from hiring Wade. But the line of questioning might not have resonated with would-be jurors in metro Atlanta (AKA the Black Mecca) in the way Merchant had intended. Willis’s own father, a former Black Panther turned criminal defense attorney, underscored that misfire when he took the stand and called the behavior “a Black thing”.

Hobson, the Georgia State professor, says he remembers “my late grandmother going behind a mattress and pulling out a can of cash from the wall if you ever needed to borrow some money. It was just one of those things that to my ears, as someone who identifies as Black and is steeped in the culture, I was like, ‘I wonder if white folk understand what’s going on here.’ This was a clear case of double consciousness where one looks at one’s self through the eyes of others.”

Even the court reporter Meghann Cuniff, a white woman, recognized Willis’s $200 dating tip as “some honestly really good advice”.

At a rally earlier this month just outside of Atlanta, Trump mocked the Fulton county proceedings. “Corrupt Fani Willis hired her lover Nathan Wade so they could fraudulently make money together,” he said. “‘Let’s see, darling, who can we go after?’” On Monday, his lawyers demanded a review of McAfee’s decision not to disqualify Willis. On Wednesday, McAfee granted them an appeal.

“All of this stuff he does is to discredit her, to defame her, to make her want to shrivel up and be pushed into a corner,” says Hoskin, of Loyola Marymount. “But if Willis were another white man, does he even go that far?”

Of course, it isn’t lost on anyone that the man Willis is prosecuting has been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct and this year was ordered to pay $83m to E Jean Carroll after losing a defamation lawsuit brought by the advice columnist, who had accused Trump of sexually assaulting her at a Manhattan department store. By comparison, Willis and Wade’s personal relationship was far more innocent. But that doesn’t make any less of an embarrassing moment for a small town with outsized pretensions.

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