Clayton County's tribulations 

Dunderheads, dumb growth and race in the southern suburbs

It's a Tuesday night in early July in Jonesboro, and Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell is still smarting from a weekend dalliance with a pistol.

Bell's left thumb is wrapped in a cartoon-sized bandage, a reminder of yet another newsworthy moment that made people scratch their heads over the embattled county. Bell – a 33-year police officer and ordained minister who looks and acts decades younger than his 73 years – "burned his thumb" while attempting to fire a .50-caliber handgun at a Fourth of July party at the Butts County compound of strip-club impresario Jack Galardi.

Bell sits on the dais alongside his colleagues, his collar button undone, his red tie tugged loose, his tight, dark curls mussed. Stubble sprouts from his chin and his vivid blue eyes look haggard. It's 8:30 and Bell's night is long from over.

Bad news in Clayton ranges from the bizarre to the sordid. Aside from Bell's self-inflicted wound, word came this morning that another lawsuit had been filed against Victor Hill, the controversial sheriff. This one, a discrimination suit filed by a white employee, contains explosive allegations that Hill misused funds seized from drug busts and vending machines he operated in the department's headquarters and jail. The suit alleges that he used the money to purchase provocative artwork for his office that depicted "African American cowboys" and "a lynch mob scene portraying Caucasian people with shotguns."

It's just another day in the headlines for Clayton County. The schools are on the verge of losing accreditation. The district attorney is a barrister who had little experience with criminal cases when she was elected. The sheriff fired 27 deputies on his first day in office, under the watch of snipers he'd dispatched to rooftops. And there's the irony that Bell was at a party thrown by Galardi, who had successfully sued the sheriff for setting up roadblocks almost every weekend near the newly opened Pink Pony South.

The clock is ticking toward 9 p.m., but Bell lingers with a small group of residents because he wants to reassure them. In a circle of five they gather and yield to the chairman when he speaks. He does so with a minister's flair, telling them Clayton is the victim of a political divide inside the black community, with one faction led, in part, by Lee Scott, who is challenging Bell for the county's top elected position.

"We came out of an era as separate but unequal, creating greed among ourselves," Bell says. He references the fact that Africans once sold rival tribesmen into slavery. "Remember who sold who into slavery. We are no different now than we were then, just a bit more sophisticated. Isn't it ironic amongst our own community, [people] came out and said, 'They got theirs, and now I want mine.' And they want it without the effort that goes with it."

The conversation veers from topic to topic. One person asks how Clayton will deal with an expected influx of residents from the remaining Atlanta Housing Authority projects, which are set to meet the wrecking ball within the next year.

Someone else asks about impact fees. Another brings up the controversial sheriff. Then conversation drifts to the deterioration of the nuclear family in black society. "Education is something we Americans are willing to pay for, but not get," Bell says. "It means we put a half a billion dollars into the Clayton County public schools, and half our children won't go; 72 percent of our people who get married are getting divorced, and they're leaving our kids behind."

He's still there in the hallway as midnight approaches, long after the lights are turned out in the main commission room. "Go ahead," he says to one person who itches to discuss the invasion of thug mentality into suburbia.

"Let me help you with that," he says to another, who struggles for words to convey the disappointment he has for African-American men.

As he listens to each question, you can see the intellectual spark and then the idea ready to burst. To no one in particular, Bell quickly whispers, "Watch this, watch this, watch this."

He waits like a boxer for an opening. Every problem has a solution, he says, and so does every conundrum posed by the people who stayed after the meeting. But there's one point Bell makes over and over: He believes in Clayton County. Now, Clayton County has to learn to believe in itself.

Nestled in a right-angle nook below Fulton County sits the little county that couldn't.

Its shape resembles a torch – wide at the top, funneling down into a southern strip referred to as "the Panhandle." The seal that hangs in the commission meeting room plays off the likeness. A combination of Fulton and DeKalb forms a metaphorical flame, surrounded by beams of light. Everything appears to shine except for Clayton.

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