How the Atlanta Spa shooting – the victims, the survivors – tells a story of America
Woodstock today enjoys a median family income of $76,191 and is nearly 80% white. It is the birthplace of at least two notable personalities: Dean Rusk and Eugene Booth. Rusk, who later became Secretary of State, was responsible for dividing the Korean Peninsula into two using a fold-out map from a copy of National Geographic. The line “didn’t make sense economically or geographically”, he later admitted, but it allowed US occupation forces to take control of Seoul, a move that would divide families for generations. Booth was a nuclear physicist and a central member of the Manhattan Project, which led to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, killing up to 250,000 civilians, according to some estimates. Woodstock is proud of its native sons, naming a college after Rusk.
VIII. THE SUSPECT
The distance between where the workers lived and where the suspect is from is no more than 20 miles, but no major highway connects the two communities. You have to drive on hilly country roads to get from one to the other. The suspect was born on April 6, 1999, to a father who ran a lawn care business in the area and a mother involved with Crabapple First Baptist Church, which the family attended every Sunday. He grew up in a house in Woodstock, 30 miles north of Atlanta; attended high school eight kilometers north of Canton, which comes from the Portuguese word for the Chinese port city of Guangzhou: Cantão—Canton in English; and attended the church at Milton, five miles to the south. Shortly before March 16, the suspect’s parents kicked him out for watching porn. He moved in with a friend from church. On the morning of March 16, he stayed home from landscaping work – bad weather – and watched porn. The church friend confronted him and the suspect left the house in shame.
When the suspect arrived at Big Woods Goods, an employee immediately performed a background check. The suspect had no criminal record. A few minutes later, he came out with a 9mm handgun.
He was a typical mass shooter in that he was white and masculine. He was unusual at his age – 21; the average is 33 – and in the fact that, unlike 60% of American mass shooters, he doesn’t appear to have a violent history, or prior convictions, at least none in public records. There had also been no known childhood trauma.
He was a product of his social world, including the Cherokee County School District, which he attended from K-5 and then 7-12, graduating from Sequoyah High School in 2017, though no one called him back with any type of ringing. clarity or enthusiasm.
Former Sequoyah student Sydney Rosant, class of 19, says her school’s defining trait is its “culture of intolerance”. At football games and rallies, a senior student with the most school spirit—seemingly always a white girl—is elected to dress up as the Native American chief. Class of 19 Trey Brown, who now works at Chili’s Grill & Bar in Brookhaven, remembers the Confederate flag being everywhere: on backpacks, belt buckles, car stickers. In 2020, the school district issued a statement addressed to students not to display Confederate flags at school and this also applied to the dress code. Rosant and Brown, who are black, do not recall being taught how the school got its name or the history of violence in the area. All they were taught about race in America, Brown recalled, was that “MLK did this and that and that and now the racism is gone.”
One Saturday afternoon in June, I drove to the suspect’s parents’ home, a late ’70s slate gray one-story house surrounded by maples, red oaks and white pines, in the early a dead end road. Three months have passed since the shooting, before the suspect pleaded guilty to the first four murders and before he pleaded not guilty to the other four, charges for which he is still awaiting trial. The plea deal allows the suspect to avoid the death penalty, which continues to be pursued on the remaining charges. The DA called the killings a hate crime — acts that have further fueled a well-founded fear among Asian Americans. The suspect told authorities he was motivated, in his own words, by a sex addiction.
I rang the family doorbell. Nobody answered. Before I could decide what to do, a police car showed up. An officer who identified himself as Sergeant Clément explained that the neighbors – several people – had called to report “suspicious activity”.
“The only good thing about Cherokee County,” he told me, “is that we take care of each other. It’s like the 70s.”
I asked Clément what exactly the neighbors were worried about. “To be honest,” he said, “what worries them is…they’re afraid of revenge.”
report in this community, I was considered an emissary from the other world. But of course, I didn’t belong to the other world either. Beyond certain biological characteristics, I had nothing in common with the women I wrote about. And yet, just as on one side of the river I had encountered an inexplicable animosity, on the other side was an opposite sense of proximal affinity. People I spoke with in the Korean and Chinese communities sometimes didn’t see me as a journalist. Some of them called me by my Korean name, pronouncing each syllable correctly – and this unexpected grace delighted me. They asked me to translate for them, give them a job, pick up a dog from the airport and keep him for the weekend. I said no to all but one.
When the plague arrived and I was no longer going on a reporting trip, I had started directing my questions towards two subjects that had eluded me the most: my parents. Among the first questions I asked was a table we had in our hallway when I was growing up. One of the strangest of my childhood afflictions was a dream of becoming Helen Keller. I walked around the house pretending to be deaf and blind, reluctantly forcing my parents to redo their postmodern furniture, including the hall table in question, with its sharp corners. After bringing up the subject of the painting – I just wanted to know what happened to it – I noticed that our family WhatsApp group had gone silent.
When I confronted my father, he told me that he had given it away after his business closed following the 1997 crisis (which I had not experienced), and that the fact that I talked about it had upset him and my mother so much that he had been relegated to the guest room. There were other secrets that I will spare my family from divulging here. He was crying as he explained that this was – the pain he was demonstrating so clearly – the reason he wanted to back out of what I was thinking of doing. To refuse to be narrativized, nothing less in the language of the empire, was for him an act of resistance.
I felt I was locked in an ideological battle – my advocating excavation, my father choosing obfuscation. But now, watching my father’s pixelated crying on my iPhone, I was filled with doubt. “Just asking questions” and writing are acts of violence. When doctors inflict pain, it is with a promise of healing. I wasn’t sure what I was offering in exchange for dredging up the past for its misdeeds.
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