Atlanta is in the throes of Falcons fever.
Fans have waited almost 20 years for the team to advance to the Super Bowl, and seeing it happen has thrown them into a frenzy.
As the the Falcons prepare to do battle against the New England Patriots during Super Bowl 2017, a battle of words and wits is playing out across metro Atlanta where fans can finally talk trash about their hometown team—and mean it.
Specifically, you can’t stroll into a barbershop these days looking for tepid talk about football. The rules of engagement are to engage at your own risk.
Be ready to talk fast, talk loud, tell the truth (or get caught in a lie) and play the dozens at least as well as the Falcons have been playing football.
“What are you going to do when you lose?” said Patriots fan Quentin Findley at Off the Hook Barbershop in Castleberry Hill.
“I’m a show you how to walk around like a champ,” Maurice Combs said, flapping his arms up and down like a dirty bird while sidestepping down the center aisle.
“Tell ‘em what you used to, Maurice. You used to losing,” Findley said.
“Rise up!” yelled Combs to a chorus echoed by a fellow barber and patron.
This has been going on for at least 30 minutes.
Findley is from Syracuse, N.Y. He has lived in Atlanta since 2007. He’s been a customer at Off the Hook for most of those years, but he’s been a fan of the New England Patriots even longer.
The banter between Findley and Combs has gone back and forth for as long as they both can remember, but this time, at last, Combs believes in his bluster.
“The Cowboys had their time. New England had their time. Now it’s our time,” Combs told Findley.
But Findley appears to be talking on his phone.
“Awwwww. Suddenly his phone rings? He ain’t been on the phone all year,” Combs said, throwing his hands up in the air.
When Findley ends his phone call, Combs, who is wearing a T-shirt that says “Excuse the Falcon in Me,” hands him a sheet of paper — an Atlanta Falcons Bandwagon transfer sheet.
“Ooooohhhhh!” said customers and fellow barbers.
“Look at that grim smile he’s got,” Combs said. “I’ve been waiting years for that.”
Being a Falcons bandwagoner is almost as bad as being a Patriots fan in Atlanta, and the barbershop is a good place to get called out.
“You can tell the difference between the bandwagoners and the die-hards,” said Daniel Arenas, who is getting a haircut at Anytime Cutz. “The die-hards are going crazy right now.”
The Buckhead area barbershop is open 24 hours and the level of trash being talked depends on the time of day.
“A lot of people come in and talk,” said Twin Da Barber. “They want the Falcons to bring a championship to the city, but I’m not going to sit here and pretend to be a Falcons fan. I just got here five months ago.”
Combs is the total opposite of a bandwagoner. Every year, he says the same thing, “The Falcons are going to the Super Bowl!”
But every year, he has been wrong. He has been wrong for so long that the Falcons helmet he keeps at his barber station is covered in a thick coat of gray dust. The Falcons flag hanging over the side of his station is sprinkled with hair clippings.
Eight years ago, when Combs repeated his annual proclamation to Shannon Sharpe, a former Off the Hook patron and ex-NFL tight-end, Sharpe said he would throw Combs a Super Bowl party if it ever happened.
This year, Combs will spend Super Bowl Sunday at Habanos Cigar Lounge at a party in his honor, courtesy of Sharpe.
“I’ve been a Falcons fan since I can remember. Everyone has got a time. It’s our time now,” said Combs.
Not far away, at Vintage Barbershop in the Healey building downtown, Melvin Malone agrees that this moment has been a long time coming. “I was amazed. I’ve been waiting a long time for this. We have to go all the way,” he said.
Malone, 63, who shines and repairs shoes at Vintage, recalled seeing his first Falcons game when he was a young boy growing up in Vine City. People can get really riled up when they start talking football at Vintage, Malone said. And it doesn’t help that he’s surrounded by haters.
One barber is a fan of the Detroit Lions. Another barber, Ray Carter, has a red, white and blue Patriots jersey swinging from his station.
“I hope he takes it down next week when the Falcons win,” said Malone.
He has his own way of dealing with those who aren’t Falcons fans and those shifty characters who have recently become Falcons fans but haven’t been in the trenches in the decades since the Falcons last traveled to the Super Bowl.
“Rise up!” he says loudly.
On a recent Monday, the crowd at Vintage barbershop was thin, but the Falcons spirit was still flowing.
Around noon, a handful of customers relaxed as they got trims and cuts.
A man walked in holding up black and white prints of Julio Jones and Matt Ryan.
“Two for $3,” he said. He gets no takers. “Alright then. Have a good day.”
Malone said goodbye and watched him leave.
His raised eyebrows almost disappeared under the top of his Falcons knit cap.
“They used to be two for $1,” Malone said. “Rise up!”