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Why Rembert Browne thinks this is, finally, the Hawks’ year and why he decided to co-host a podcast about Georgia flipping blue

The Southwest Atlanta native is not only proud of the Hawks’ early season on-the-court success, but the franchise’s off-the-court activity. He’s also so proud of his home state bringing a record-number voter turnout, he decided to co-host a limited five-episode podcast about it.

Rembert Browne is highlighting a few of the key people on the frontlines of the Georgia Senate runoff.

Browne, the former Grantland, New York Magazine writer and current creative lead for brand and voice at Twitter, is co-hosting “Gaining Ground: The New Georgia” with Jewel Wicker, a Tenderfoot TV and Crooked Media five-episode podcast that centers around Georgia turning blue in an election for the first time since 1992.

Executively producing and writing the podcast is the latest feat in Browne’s media career.

The Southwest Atlanta native has developed relationships with some of the biggest names in entertainment and sports, including Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, who he has previously dubbed as “his guy.” Browne said being a proud Atlantan at national outlets writing about the Hawks has had the love reciprocated to him when attending games.

He interviewed President Barack Obama on Air Force One on the way to the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches. When rapper Mac Miller died in 2018, he shared some of the more intimate exchanges the two had on his Instagram, like how Miller, whose real name is Malcolm McCormick, would always send him a selfie if he didn’t pick up a FaceTime call and the artist would always urge him to visit if Browne was in Los Angeles.

As “Atlanta” co-writer, director, star and Grammy award-winning musician Donald Glover became more private, wiping out his social media feeds and no longer conducting extended one-on-one sit-down on-camera interviews, Browne spoke with Glover on the record on multiple occasions. He’s also interviewed writer, producer and actress Issa Rae, and has done profiles on actor Michael B. Jordan, director Tyler Perry and rapper Noname.

Instead of reaching into his A-list Rolodex for podcast interviews, “Gaining Ground” spotlights local voices like Manuel Tavern’s owner Brian Maloof, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, Albany Mayor Bo Dorough and AJC photographer Alyssa Pointer.

“(Sometimes), you’ve seen how a lot of well-meaning, well-intentioned things have gone wrong,” Browne said in an interview with Peachtree Hoops. “I feel like there’s a lot of familiar traps projects and people often fall into. One of those, for me, is trying to get the biggest people instead of the right people. I understand there’s a dopamine rush of wanting the biggest people, but are you doing it for the name, or you doing it for the actual story you’re trying to tell?”

Browne said he didn’t want the podcast to sound like an outsiders’ perspective of Georgia, and he brought in current Georgia resident, fellow Southwest Atlanta native, Georgia State and AJC alum Wicker on board with him to co-host the show.

“All of the decisions that we’re making is if I wasn’t a part of this and it pops up on my timeline,” Browne said. “What would I roll my eyes at? What decisions would I not approve of as someone from this state.”

Georgia’s flip in the general election and Senate runoff has put the state at the forefront of the nation’s political discussions, and Browne wanted to make sure the narrative wasn’t stolen from the people who helped make it happen.

“It’s a pretty amazing story we’re in the middle of,” Browne said. “At the time we’re talking, (we’re) four days away from, no matter how it goes, (something that) will change the country.”

Atlanta basketball’s role in change

You don’t have to go far to see what role Atlanta basketball has played in the runoff.

The second episode of “Gaining Ground” features Las Vegas Aces wing Angel McCoughtry, who is undoubtedly the greatest player in the Atlanta Dream’s 12-year history. On the podcast, McCoughtry spoke on how surprised and disrespected she felt from Dream co-owner Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s involvement in stock trades worth millions of dollars before the public was alerted of the severity of COVID-19, and Loeffler’s unwillingness to support Black Lives Matter.

“The statement, ‘Black lives matter,’ is very different than the organization Black Lives Matter. I think we all agree the life of every African American is important,” Loeffler previously said to ESPN. “There’s no room for racism in this country, and we have to root it out where it exists. But there’s a political organization called Black Lives Matter that I think is very important to make the distinction between their aim and where we are as a country at this moment.”

WNBA players, including the Dream, began to arrive at games in the “Wubble” wearing black “Vote Warnock” shirts, endorsing Rev. Raphael Warnock, Loeffler’s opponent. The Dream also released a statement beginning with “Black lives matter.”

Browne called the Dream’s response to Loeffler’s comments one of the more impactful moments “not just in sports,” but in general for 2020. He said he’s always craved the idea of a city’s athletes representing a particular city and the Dream represent Atlanta.

“If people are going to be critical of power, they tend not to do it to the folks right above them,” Browne said. “That can mess with the money, that can mess with opportunities, so to see that was incredible.”

Both current and former Hawks alike have also been vocal about the runoff elections, including Toronto Raptors wing DeAndre’ Bembry and Atlanta Hawks forward Solomon Hill.

Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce worked tirelessly through 2020 as a leader in the social justice movement in Atlanta, headlined by him publicly announcing the franchise’s desire to make State Farm Arena a polling place for Fulton County residents in June. When State Farm Arena became the first approved sports arena to host voters, Pierce volunteered at the arena during the early voting period. The same way Browne believes the Dream represent Atlanta is the same way he feels Pierce represents what a leader in Atlanta is. He compares the Hawks’ coach to San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich in the way he keeps a stern face and demands respect, but players also know he’d “take a bullet” for them if need be.

Growing up in the predominantly Black area of Southwest Atlanta, Browne played basketball and tennis.

“I kind of come from the school of athletic coaches but (who are) also raisers of men and Black men,” Browne said. “There’s always a world outside of sports, even if the sports are super important and we were doing them at a very advanced high level. It was still about being about the community. It was still about being a good role model, it was still about all of those things. I always think about sports, coaching and mentorship connected in even something like the NBA. Lloyd Pierce feels like the type of dude who belongs in a place like Atlanta.”

The 2021 Vick Experience

Browne has coined “this is the Hawks’ year” as one of his catchphrases over the course of his career.

He dubs the mid-2010s era as the “Millsap years,” and although he said those teams were good, he believes the era lacked excitement.

“Atlanta’s a city that likes a little flash,” Browne said. “We didn’t even win the Super Bowl, but I loved the (Michael) Vick years. The Vick years in Atlanta were incredible because people were talking about us, people were looking at us, we had a superstar who was just doing next-level stuff and it made us feel proud to have that type of team in our city in a way that Hawks teams in the past haven’t really had for us.”

Well, a team that has scored 141 points in a game led by an All-Star starting point guard who’s throwing in-game-off-the-backboard alley-oops to the team’s second-best player, three of the league’s best second and third-year wings, a pair of veterans who can get 20 points any night, one of the smartest players in NBA history and a member of the most famous public high-school basketball team ever might check the exciting box for Browne.

“This is the type of team that could allow us to be both sports fans and just folks from Atlanta, which are folks who just like to talk about how they’re from Atlanta,” Browne said. “That’s our music culture, that’s our cultural culture, telling folks we’re from Atlanta and pointing to something like, ‘Yes. This is why there’s no music industry for the past 20 years without us.’ We like to talk about how Atlanta is the best and this team has my group text firing away about the Hawks that is typically reserved for a Falcons team or this past Braves team, but we are losing our minds about this Hawks team right now and it’s exciting because it’s been a very long time.”

As much flash and boastfulness as the home of an outfielder stopping mid-home run trout to pose for an imaginary selfie and the NBA’s No. 1 pick going viral for showing off his level of confidence champions, the age-old southern hospitality cliché still exists. The turn of a new year for Browne represents the orbit around the sun that marks a decade since he started writing at Grantland in 2011. A decade in, and he’s very grateful for all the opportunities his career has afforded him. Now, he wants to continue to use his platform to not only push important topics but to share the stage with other qualified and deserving individuals like Wicker because for him, it’s not about his name, it’s about the actual story.

The final two episodes of “Gaining Ground” are set to go live on Jan. 5 and Jan. 12. The podcast can be heard on all podcast streaming platforms.