In 1996, Marcus Sakey landed his first job out of college in Atlanta at Turner Broadcasting behind the scenes in animation. At the time, he never imagined himself in front of the camera.
Fifteen years later, Sakey’s hosting his own TV show on the Travel Channel called “Hidden City,” where he travels to one particular city each episode to dig into iconic historical crimes. On Tuesday, he ventures back to Atlanta, a city where he resided from 1996 to 2003 and met his wife G.g.
“The idea is to explore cities through their stories,” Sakey said in a recent phone interview. “I go into each city from the viewpoint of a novelist. The idea is to understand the people as characters, to know what they were going through from my perspective.”
A fictional crime author, Sakey said “Hidden City” takes a slice of foodie traveler Anthony Bourdain’s whimsy, a taste of light-hearted ABC drama “Castle” (which stars a crime novelist) and a dash of MTV’s “Jackass,” because he’ll partake in activities that are reminiscent of the referenced crimes.
Over 12 episodes, he gets pepper sprayed like a protestor, attacked by a dog and tackled by cops after trying to “steal” a car. “It’s not just gimmicks,” he said. “I want to understand why people act the way they do and get the adrenaline rush of being on the run.”
In Atlanta, Sakey pursued three stories, taped in June of this year: a chase between two locomotives during the Civil War, the Buckhead day trader murders of 1999 and a notorious Gwinnett County drug case from 2008.
The thematic tie of these three stories, he said, is the city’s relentless focus on commerce and transportation, with an eye towards the future.
Sakey even visits a dank maintenance tunnel in downtown Atlanta where a sign marks the spot where the city officially staked itself as a railroad hub in 1837. It’s also a popular hangout for homeless people. “History,” Sakey said on the show, “smells a lot like urine.”
Ratings for “Hidden City,” which debuted Dec. 6, have been modest. After three episodes, it’s averaging 346,000 viewers, down 25 percent compared to what was airing in the time period a year ago (”Ghost Adventures”), according to Nielsen ratings data. Sakey is not deterred, noting that viewer reaction has been positive so far.
“We’re very pleased with how ‘Hidden City’ is performing,” a Travel Channel spokesman wrote in an email Wednesday, noting that the program has been seen by 4.5 million viewers cumulatively, counting repeats.
Here’s a quick overview of the three crimes Sakey spotlights in Tuesday’s episode:
- In 1862, Union scout James Andrews and several volunteers commandeered Confederate locomotive the General in Kennesaw and tried to destroy the rail line leading up to Chattanooga in hopes of cutting off supply lines.
William Fuller on the Confederate side, using a locomotive called the Texas, eventually caught up with the General and captured Andrews, who was hanged. “The daring rogue versus the tireless voice of law,” Sakey called it on the show. (The Texas is now at the Cyclorama.)
“This is such novelistic territory,” Sakey said. “Two men squaring off. Behind enemy lines, one man steals a train right under their nose. If Andrews had pulled this off, it might have shortened the war.”
- On July 29, 1999,while Sakey was working at a web design company at the King Plow Arts Center during the height of the dot.com boom era, Mark Barton was trying to make a living day trading.
But with financial losses piling up, Barton snapped and turned to violence, first killing his family, then nine employees at two different Buckhead day-trading firms, then himself. Buckhead, Sakey noted on the show, was known more for “shopping sprees than shooting sprees. It’s Elton John’s neighborhood, for Christ’s sake!”
During “Hidden City,” Sakey recounted that awful day with then-Mayor Bill Campbell, who was the public face of horrified Atlanta residents — many huddled around office TV sets as the scope of the tragedy around them unfolded in live news reports. Campbell, later disgraced after being convicted of tax evasion, rarely does interviews but accepted this one, Sakey said, because of its narrow scope.
Sakey met Campbell at the Silver Skillet diner in Midtown because that’s where many a dot.com deal was settled back in the 1990s. Plus, “when I worked at Turner, I spent many a lunch at Silver Skillet. I think the hash browns are still in my belly!”
The firm Sakey worked at in 1999, he said, eventually “imploded spectacularly – but without gunfire.”
- With its miles of highways and a giant international airport, Atlanta’s image as a transportation hub was key to attracting business. In 2008, those same assets also attracted big-time drug dealers moving their contraband throughout the East.
In 2008, a mid-level cocaine dealer Oscar Reynoso was kidnapped and held for ransom by a Mexican cartel for owing $300,000. He was hidden away in a Lilburn basement, gagged and beaten.
U.S. federal agents found him alive.
“Who would have known Atlanta is a hub for Mexican drug cartels?” Sakey said.
He interviewed undercover officers involved in the raid at Manuel’s Tavern, an Atlanta hangout for politicians and journalists. “I like a place where you have no idea if it’s dark or sunny outside,” he said.
10 p.m, Tuesdays, Travel Channel.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk