Early speculation about the location of the November 20 Democratic presidential candidate debate had focused on some site in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, the newly competitive area where the Democrats picked up one U.S. House seat in 2018 and nearly nabbed another. There is, in fact, a spanking new 1,070-seat event venue called City Springs Theatre smack dab in the center of those suburbs (in Sandy Springs, which used to be nicknamed “the Golden Ghetto” and fought annexation by Atlanta for many years) that looked perfect for a debate.
But instead the Washington Post and MSNBC have decided to hold the fifth candidate debate at Tyler Perry Studios, the actor and mogul’s $250 million complex recently opened on part of the closed Fort McPherson complex on the south side of Atlanta, the traditionally disadvantaged and overwhelmingly African-American part of the city.
The symbolism of the choice reflects the two different avenues generally considered open to Democrats for regaining a majority in this rapidly growing and increasingly diverse state: expanding the party’s mostly African-American base in cities like Atlanta or raiding college-educated white voters in the burbs. That choice is, of course, an oversimplification: Tyler Perry is one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the Empire State of the South, and those burbs are no longer lily-white. Indeed, the new member of Congress from the north Atlanta region, Lucy McBath (locked into a rematch with Karen Handel, whom she defeated in 2018), is African-American. Georgia Democrats need to improve voter registration, base mobilization, and swing-voter persuasion everywhere, simultaneously.
Having said that, the decision to hold the debate in Perry’s huge facility is an appropriate acknowledgment of its importance to both city and state efforts (as bipartisan as anything is in this polarized state) to turn Atlanta and Georgia into major independent entertainment centers. Local Republicans have tried to make the debate-venue choice a matter of Democratic obeisance to godless Hollywood elitism. But as Jim Galloway of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes, that represents a laughable misstatement of what Perry is doing:
After word of the decision leaked out … the person in charge of the Twitter account of the Cobb County GOP tapped out the accusation that “the DNC has chosen a venue that showcases elite Hollywood values.”
In a word, no.
Tyler Perry isn’t Hollywood. He has become the foremost African-American alternative to Hollywood. It is the point of his operation, as he explained at the BET Awards ceremony in June — to an audience frustrated by Hollywood’s on-again, off-again attempt to diversify.
“While everybody else is fighting for a seat at the table, talking about ‘#OscarsSoWhite, #OscarsSoWhite,’ I said, ‘Y’all go ahead and do that. While you’re fighting for a seat at the table, I’ll be down in Atlanta building my own,’” Perry told the crowd. “Because what I know for sure is that if I could just build this table, God will prepare it for me in the presence of my enemies.”
Perry obviously did not join a Hollywood-based boycott of Georgia that developed after the state passed a draconian abortion law, but he did make it clear that he personally “don’t believe any man should be able to tell a woman what she can do with her body or reproductive organs.” That was enough to make his venue all right to Georgia and national Democrats. Don’t be surprised if he’s very present at the debate.