ATLANTA — In a seldom-used parking lot connected to a long-shuttered discount mall that once boasted of having the city’s largest outdoor flea market, a stage rises.
As Anthony Edwards steps onto the giant, peach-colored dais, walking in the shoes that have his name on them, his old neighborhood’s eyes are transfixed on him. Squinting in the late September sun, he looks down at the crowd gathered around the stage, familiarity washing over him. There are teachers from his old elementary school, coaches who offered a guiding hand or a place to stay when he needed it and dozens of children from the area who look so much like he did back in the day.
He was just like them, shuffling into Finch Elementary in Oakland City, just around the corner from where the stage was erected in a rugged part of town, four miles southwest of downtown Atlanta. Now he is the centerpiece of an ad campaign by Adidas, which is banking on the irrepressible Minnesota Timberwolves guard to help the company make a move in the never-ending sneaker wars.
He used to live in a cramped apartment down the street, sharing clothes with his older brothers while his mother and grandmother tried to make ends meet. Now he is being escorted by a marching band serenading him with Future and Metro Boomin’s “Superhero (Heroes & Villains)” as part of a lavish and joyous launch by Adidas for his AE1 signature shoe.
He used to hoop at the Tracey Wyatt Recreation Complex in nearby College Park. Now that gym is adorned with his logo and children pack the place for his basketball camp, watching him film a commercial for Foot Locker in between drills.
Edwards returned home to Oakland City last month for the kind of celebration he could only dream about when he was a kid in this neighborhood, where he dominated the youth football fields by day and made sure he stayed in his house to avoid the trouble waiting for him at night. He came back for an event designed to set the tone for his arrival as a superstar while also serving as a reminder of how far he has come.
The risk in an event like this is that the commercial motivations supersede the real emotion it is meant to draw upon. Edwards is too authentic, too Atlanta to let that happen. The one they call Ant Man in these parts is as real as they come. He couldn’t fake it if he tried because Oakland City wouldn’t let him.
“The culture is him, the people are him. The city has molded him to become this infatuating kid,” said Timberwolves assistant coach Chris Hines, an Edwards confidante. “He loves the city because it’s bred him to become the man that he is today.”
There are so many eyes on him as the Timberwolves prepare to open the season at Toronto on Wednesday. In Oakland City, where he is a beacon of hope in a community that struggles daily. And in Minneapolis, where a long-suffering fan base feels like it doesn’t have to be embarrassed to root for the Wolves anymore because they have him.
He is 22 and stands as the main character in a tale of two cities. Given everything he has endured to get to this point, Edwards is not flinching as all eyes turn to him. He is not alone on that stage.
“It’s exciting man, to feel like everything is on you,” Edwards said. “Especially when I got a great group of guys like my teammates, man. Like those guys are my brothers. And they got my back at all time.”
The hype surrounding his fourth season in the league has been building for months. He averaged 31.6 points, 5.2 assists and 5.0 rebounds in the NBA playoffs against Denver. He signed a max contract this summer that could be worth more than $260 million. He is coming off of a star turn with Team USA at the World Cup and could not be faulted for eyeing the title of best American-born player in the league. Google “Anthony Edwards” and under the “People Also Ask” section is a question: “Is Anthony Edwards (Michael) Jordan’s son?”
Whether Edwards is in the Deep South or the snowy north, people are drawn to him, to the way he talks and the way he walks. A stroll through his old neighborhood reveals how important he is for residents who need to see one of their own succeed. A scavenger hunt in his new home reveals signs that a city that has long given the NBA the cold shoulder is warming so intensely to such a uniquely magnetic young star.
Atlanta goes by many names. These days it is often called the Hollywood of the South or Black Hollywood, a nod to the number of entertainers and star athletes who call the city home. Many of the biggest names are from the outskirts of town. Women’s basketball legend Maya Moore, rap group Migos and New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara are from Gwinnett County, on the north side of Atlanta.
Jaylen Brown, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Dion Glover all made it to the NBA after playing in Marietta, an affluent suburb about 15 miles to the north.
Edwards is from the heart of ATLanta, the gritty, hard-knock side of town that Outkast and Goodie Mob made famous on their records with the term SWATS — Southwest Atlanta Too Strong.
The deadly voice-over drums, we from ATL
Put SWATS SWATS on yo car
Let’s travel far, the southern star shines
— Outkast, “Ova da Wudz”
There was nothing cushy about Edwards’ upbringing. His mother, Yvette, and grandmother, Shirley, died from cancer months apart when he was only 14. Even after he left the public Therell High for a private school, it still required more than an hour of commute through the notoriously thick Atlanta traffic. He would be so tired from the drive and early morning basketball workouts that he would sleep on his classroom floor during lunch period to make it through the day. But he never succumbed.
“We want to see more and more Anthonys,” said Oakland City Community Organization president Terra Washington. “And if you do come from Oakland City, you can be successful. I mean, he’s not the first. And I pray that he won’t be the last because those kids down there deserve every opportunity to thrive and flourish.”
While Atlanta as a whole has become rather glamorous over the last two decades thanks to the influx of entertainers, Oakland City has been rough and tumble for 130 years. It originally stood on its own two feet when it was incorporated in 1894 until it was annexed by Atlanta in 1910. “The citizens did not come into Atlanta without some protest,” author Franklin M. Garrett wrote in “Atlanta and its Environs: A Chronicle of its People and Events, 1880s-1930s.”
Going back as far as the early 1900s, Oakland City was one of the few areas of Atlanta where Black residents were allowed to live. For years, White Georgia politicians were able to rig a voting process that gave a relatively small number of rural White voters more sway in elections over greater numbers of city dwellers, all but eliminating people of color from the democratic process.
In the 1950s and early ’60s, Atlanta tried to break free of a sordid history filled with disenfranchisement of its Black residents by dubbing itself “The City Too Busy To Hate.” Two elite classes, one White, one Black, formed an alliance of sorts so they could work and govern together. But as the Civil Rights era took hold in the 1960s, White people started to abandon the city for essentially segregated enclaves in the suburbs to the north and west.
In “White Flight,” his seminal examination of racial politics in America, author Kevin Kruse theorizes that suburbanization in Atlanta served as an example for the rest of the country for a similar exodus of White people from cities to outlying areas. In 1960, there were more than 300,000 White people in Atlanta. There were less than half of that by 1980.
Diane Trimble has lived in Oakland City for more than 40 years. She watched as some of the few remaining White folks bailed to the suburbs in the late 1970s and early ’80s, eventually opening the door for an invasion of developers who came in to flip houses while predatory lenders feasted on low-income buyers desperate for affordable housing.
“Investors came in and chopped the houses up. They made three-bedroom houses into four- or five-bedroom units and rented them out,” Trimble said. “And it was poorly done, shoddy work. They came in and just violated us.”
Houses fell into disrepair and laid vacant for years, inviting squatters and casting a pall over the area. The Oakland City Community Organization was founded to turn things around, and it gained a significant victory in 2003 when the Oakland City Historic District was designated on the National Register of Historic Places, which made it much more difficult for real estate investors to commandeer the Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and Craftsmen homes throughout the area. Preservation has become the priority over opportunism.
The OCCO has helped longtime residents make repairs and improvements to their homes, furnished schools with supplies for students and worked with churches to feed seniors and families in need.
“When we talk about community and why Oakland City is becoming so appealing to people, I think a large part of it is because we’ve maintained a certain level of aesthetic with our homes,” Washington said.
Now it is common for houses to go on the market in the area for $600,000 or more. Beautification projects are improving the look and feel of the neighborhood. Film mogul Tyler Perry’s studios are not far away and one of the most well-known houses from his “Madea” movies is located in Oakland City.
There is still much work to be done and many issues to resolve, but even Edwards noticed a difference in his most recent trip back.
“It actually changed a little bit,” Edwards said with a smile. “It wasn’t as bad as when I lived there.”
On Sunday nights in the Edwards household, long after the youth basketball or football games were done for the weekend, the competition was just getting started. Yvette would settle into her bed for a little relaxation before the work week began, turning on the Lifetime channel to catch a movie before getting some shut-eye. The battle for the remaining real estate in mama’s bed was fierce.
“Sometimes we both would be in there and she would be like, ‘OK, one of y’all gon’ have to go,’ ” Antoinette, Anthony’s sister, said. “We would end up sleeping in there together with her.”
Anthony was the youngest of four children. He also was the biggest. His exploits on the football fields of Oakland City and Adamsville are legendary for the ease with which he would get out in the open field and run for touchdowns and the images of Yvette running down the sideline with her boy, cheering him to the end zone.
“If you asked anybody, she was at every game,” Antoinette said. “Every practice, she was there. Like everybody knew my mama’s voice. That’s Ant Man’s mama, that’s Antoinette’s mama, that’s Bubba’s mama. They knew she was gonna be there. She did not play about her kids.”
When the Edwards kids were young, money was tight, but the family was tighter. Yvette and Shirley, Anthony’s maternal grandmother, kept the kids close, putting them in church camps in the summer, lording over them when they got home from school and doing everything they could to keep them from finding the wrong kind of trouble waiting outside their door.
“There were people in the neighborhood that I didn’t want to know,” Trimble said of the neighborhood during that period. “I didn’t sit on my front porch. I didn’t speak to people walking up and down the street.”
When they weren’t at school or playing sports, the Edwards kids were in Shirley’s backyard. Close. Safe. Together. Yvette and Shirley taught the children how to lean on each other, to run toward the struggle and not away from it.
“I feel like they did a great job with raising us and letting us know that everything here is not for free,” Antoinette said. “You’ve got to work for what you want. They just raised us the correct way. And that’s why we act the way we do. We know how to act around people.”
The foundation Yvette and Shirley instilled in the children would serve them in ways no one could have imagined. Yvette died first. When Shirley knew her time was coming, she urged her granddaughter to go down to petition for custody of Anthony and Bubba.
Antoinette was 20 at the time. She got an apartment for her and the three Edwards boys and took charge. It felt like the rest of the city threw its arms around Ant to help him through high school and one season at the University of Georgia.
“Me and my two brothers were like sheets of paper and she was the staple,” Anthony said. “She kept everything together.”
He has always been reluctant to cut open a vein when asked about the hardships he endured. It is not in his nature to seek pity for his trials or to share the hurt that just has to be inside of him.
“You would never guess the things that he’s gone through in his life, just because of how he carries everything,” his business manager, Justin Holland, said. “He is always smiling and just jubilant and full of jokes and full of life.”
Instead, he grieves and emotes in gestures both big and small. His lone tattoo on his arm honors his mother. He changed his jersey number from 1 back to his preferred 5 this summer to honor his mother and grandmother, who both passed away on the fifth day of a month. The first colorway introduced for his AE1 shoe was peach, Shirley’s favorite color. On the back, the Adidas logo is pink, Yvette’s favorite.
“Just keeping that legacy alive and doing the right things,” Holland said.
That is what made the event in Oakland City so emotional for the Edwards clan. A representative of Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens proclaimed that Aug. 5, Edwards’ birthday, would be known as Anthony Edwards Day in Atlanta going forward.
It was so much more than a celebration of Ant’s basketball achievements. It was a tribute to his family’s collective endurance. He stopped by his grandfather’s house to present him with a pair of shoes. At his basketball camp, every one of the hundreds of campers got a pair. His brother Bubba, an up-and-coming rapper who goes by bdifferent, performed on stage, as did fellow Oakland City resident and hip-hop superstar Lil’ Baby, one of Ant’s favorites.
“We used to swap out the same shoes, now you got your own shoes,” Bubba crowed to the crowd. “We’ve come a long way.”
As Eric Wise, Adidas basketball’s global general manager, proclaimed Edwards to be such a major part of the future of the company, he motioned toward a giant curtain covering the side of the Oakland City Market Place discount mall. As it fell to the blacktop, it revealed a sprawling mural, featuring Edwards, Yvette and Shirley smiling wide, together again.
Of all the eyes on Edwards that day, those four meant the most. He took his black White Sox cap off of his head and stood there staring and scratching his hair. His friends and family wondered if this was going to be the day the tears came, but he held it together. “I’m not a big crier,” he said.
“Just to see who he became and who we all have become is just amazing,” Antoinette said. “The mural, it just took over me.”
Toward the end of bdifferent’s set, Ant pulled his big sister onto the stage with his young nephew, and the family basked in the glow of the late afternoon sun. It was a moment of triumph for a family that suffered such devastating losses on the way up. Edwards is not a reflective person by nature. He has a tight circle of friends and family around him who have taken it upon themselves to remind him he needs to stop now and then and soak it up.
“The majority of the time I get caught up in not looking back and just enjoying the moment,” Edwards said. “I never give myself credit for anything that I’ve accomplished. Never. Like my family or my best friends try to tell me. That weekend was like, ‘All right, this is dope.’ ”
Nearly 1,200 miles to the north of Oakland City, another mural illustrates Edwards’ standing in his new home.
Last season the wall in a three-story atrium at Target Center featured Edwards, Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. This season, Edwards has the wall all to himself.
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) September 29, 2023
“The area he is in right now, he has elite talent and he’s an elite person,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said. “That pool of players is so, so small.”
The Timberwolves have advanced out of the first round of the playoffs exactly one time in their existence. This season they are celebrating 35 years of being in the NBA. Their long run of futility and dysfunction has led them to be outcasts in their town, dwarfed by the NFL Vikings, MLB Twins and NHL Wild.
Maybe that’s starting to turn. Something curious has been happening as the NBA season approaches. In what appears to be random locations across town, someone has started to plant little odes to Ant, ornaments to let him and any visitors know where the city’s heart resides.
One is affixed to the Franklin Avenue bridge, a 100-year-old structure spanning the Mississippi River that at one time laid claim to the title of the longest concrete arch in the world. You have to know it’s there to find it, a small depiction of Edwards’ famous dunk on Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent in 2021.
“That’s hard. That’s hard,” Edwards said, beaming when he is shown a photo of the piece of art.
Tucked behind a bench outside of Bogart’s Donut Co. is Edwards soaring toward the rim with the ball cocked back in his left hand. He is wearing the red and black uniform he wore in one season at Georgia.
Not since the prime days of Kevin Garnett nearly 20 years ago have there been real expectations put on the Timberwolves to truly matter on the league’s landscape. Fans have put their hope in so many players and coaches over the years, only to see them come and go without being able to deliver. They want so badly to believe in someone like they believed in KG.
In three short years in Minnesota, Edwards has shown that he has shoulders broad enough to carry the load, and a belief in himself too bright to be dulled by the sports fan jaded by so much losing. The Wolves have made the playoffs two straight seasons for the first time since 2004, and he is tired of the first-round exits that have happened both times. He feels the hunger here and reciprocates it.
“They put it on me and I’m putting it on my team. So it’s a great feeling to have these guys that have my back,” Edwards said. “We’re gonna get it done, man.”
When it is suggested to him that Minnesota is becoming a second home for him, Edwards quickly interjects.
“It’s really like my first home,” he says. “I be here more than anything. So it’s cool to me. I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had, so I’m good.”
If having entire cities and organizations place so many of their hopes on his back is daunting, Edwards is doing a good job of hiding it. If anything, it is emboldening him. He is tired of losing in the first round of the playoffs. He knows the mob is fickle, that the only thing that will hold their attention is turning the Wolves into a winner.
“The main thing is keep giving them a reason to look up to me,” Edwards said. “If I stop working and stop getting better and become complacent, there isn’t going to be no reason to look up to me. So I think the main thing is if I keep getting better, that gives them a reason to look up to me every time.”
That stage in Oakland City will always have a special place in his heart. The memory of that day, with his family, will last a lifetime. Now his focus has shifted. Now there is a bigger stage to chase.
(Illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic; photos: Carol Lee Rose / Getty Images for Adidas Basketball)