BUCKHEAD, GA. – Chances are, Ben Affleck has not spent much time here. Ben Stiller, either.
But this tiny Morgan County town 90 minutes east of Atlanta is basking a bit in the Bens’ misdirected glow.
This summer, a New Yorker article about Stiller said the comic actor rented a home “high on a hill in Buckhead, Ga.,” while in Atlanta filming the movie “The Watch.”
The town gets another inadvertent shoutout in Affleck’s “Argo,” in theaters now. In one scene in the movie about Americans escaping Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis, CIA operatives desperate to reach a reluctant Hamilton Jordan, who was the president’s chief of staff, lure him out of a meeting by pretending someone from his kids’ school — Pace Academy, in “Buckhead, Ga.” — was on the line.
Atlanta native Margaret McDaniel, amused by the gaffe, emailed to alert us. “I’m sure the folks out in the ‘real’ town of Buckhead would chuckle,” she said.
We headed east to find out.
From her crowded counter at Buckhead Groceries, Janet Willis sells lottery tickets, food, drinks and cookies she bakes in a little kitchen off to the side. She also serves as unofficial historian to the town, which the Georgia Municipal Association said had 171 residents in 2011.
“People will tell you: I am Buckhead,” she said with no hubris in her voice. When we explained our mission to straighten out Hollywood regarding Buckhead the town and Buckhead the community, she offered some filmmaking of her own.
“Hang tight,” she said, and directed us to a small television with a DVD slot. Wouldn’t you know it? The dern thing wouldn’t play, so she had to tell us about the documentary she produced in 1993 after researching the town. A hunting party that included town founders killed a deer and mounted its head on a tree when they were casing the place in the early 1800s. “Buckhead” stuck and the town took off.
“We had a big hotel. We had a bank. We had a restaurant, a tavern, a cotton gin,” said Willis, whose shop is across the street from two vacant buildings and around the corner from a few more. “It was big. It was really a boom town.”
But the good times didn’t last. Unlike in Atlanta’s Buckhead, where the commercial real estate market cooled during the recession but has since warmed back up, things in Morgan County’s Buckhead never turned around.
“Between Sherman coming through, the boll weevil and the Depression, people went other places,” Willis said. She bucked the trend in 1984, moving from Covington when “Covington got too much like Atlanta.”
She would love to see some growth, although she cherishes the small town where her customers are regulars she calls by name or nickname and sometimes runs a tab for. While we were talking, a guy walked in, took a Mountain Dew out of the cooler and simply nodded on his way out. “That’s Tea Pot,” Willis explained.
Up the road, Dana Howe and her sons Eli, 5, and Fletcher, 3, were swinging in the sun. At 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, they had the entire park next to the Buckhead Fire Department, in the shadow of the Buckhead water tower, to themselves.
Growing up, Howe looked forward every year to the Wagon Train, where folks would clomp from Madison, the Morgan County seat, to Buckhead in their mule- or horse-drawn buggies and then have a big picnic. Her grandfather was among the founders of the annual event, which withered a decade ago when the roads got too busy.
Still, Howe wouldn’t live anywhere else. Certainly not any other Buckhead.
“This is the only Buckhead,” she said proudly. She can’t really compare the two, since she’s only driven through the other one. “I grew up on a farm. I can’t imagine dealing with the traffic.”
If she decides to leave Buckhead the town to visit Buckhead the community again, Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell will be there to welcome her. Known colloquially as the “mayor of Buckhead,” the former mayor of Atlanta clucked through a list of Buckhead mix-ups over the years.
“We’ve encountered, with pride, a number of national firms advertising, with pride, a new opening in Buckhead, Ga.,” he said. He also worked with U.S. Postal Service officials to ensure that letters accidentally delivered to the town instead of the neighborhood get rerouted to Fulton County rather than returned to senders.
“We are on good terms with the city of Buckhead, but not to the degree they would give up their post office,” he noted dryly. As for his counterparts to the east, Massell said, they “are welcome here to the shopping mecca of the Southeast, the dining room of Georgia, the art gallery of the metro area, and the nightclub of Atlanta!”