ATLANTA - At 2:55 a.m. on a recent Thursday, as metro Atlanta's millions snooze, David Chandley treks from Lilburn down Interstate 85 to his West Peachtree Street office, hopeful his fellow predawn travelers are sober.
Chandley, 47, is fresh off winning his third Southeast Emmy Award as the region's top weatherperson. He joins a team of four meteorologists on WSB-TV in Atlanta - the area's ABC affiliate and the South's oldest TV station. He knows the wind patterns, ridges and valleys of Georgia like the veins of his hand, knowledge that computer models won't always pick up.
They say it's going to rain today. But who is "they"? He is.
And they is who Chandley has wanted to be since his vagabond childhood around the United States (his dad worked for AT&T and moved the family often). He's always envied the information authority. The talking head on TV that knows stuff before you do. The messenger.
3:20 a.m. Chandley ditches his suit jacket and gets to work. He studies computer models, mulls the chances of rainfall over north Georgia, builds the foreboding graphics that summon viewers deeper into newscasts. The rest of Georgia dreams.
The Atlanta region - the second-highest metro area in the United States, behind Denver - is basically a big forested knob blanketed by hot, oceanic air currents that, in many ways, resembles meteorology heaven. But the rambunctious weather also means Chandley is never really off duty; he's been pulled from two vacations and myriad family dinners.
"Weather doesn't know it's Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July - it happens," he says.
5 a.m. Chandley relays the day's forecast (beware: showers loom) and gets viewers thinking ahead to the weekend. His diction is precise, nary a stutter, and yet he retains a luring affability. He shoots from the hip, no script, ad-libbing like the seasoned pro he's become. These same qualities have cemented him as the perennial emcee of Lilburn's Christmas Parade, back in his longtime home.
"You feel like you're part of a real town," he says of the emcee gig. "It's almost a Mayberry thing."
Despite the wacky hours, he's not tired, having tricked his body. He wears a light pink shirt and a pink, striped tie, his dark hair swept back. Plop him in a drop-top Porsche Boxster and he's that Ron Burgundy-esque egotist who adores his televised image; but in truth, Chandley - the avid softball coach, the country music buff, the PTA president, the Parkview High School volunteer, the active church member, the father - is the antithesis of that guy.
"We're very proud of David," said Lilburn Mayor Diana Preston, who's tickled each time Chandley plugs her city ("Looks like clear skies for Lilburn Idol, folks," he might say).
Preston again: "He's just a singular individual and a model for the community. Lilburn is proud to claim him."
9 a.m. There's a problem afoot. It's turning out to be a nice day.
"How many ways can you show a day that is sunny and clear?" Chandley worries.
9:30 a.m. More complications. Chandley's daughter calls him about a check-engine light that's popped on. Actually, there are three lights: check engine, tracking off and something called the VSC light. "Yikes," he says.
His office is the news studio, a vast room that seems meat-locker cold in contrast to the blazing heat outside. The cameraman-less cameras, programmed to waltz across the studio floor, prefer the chill.
10:10 a.m. Chandley's eldest daughter, Lauren, a senior at Georgia College & State University and WSB-TV summer intern, stops by his office. She was 6 months old when Chandley came aboard at WSB-TV in 1988. Her father's notoriety, she chides, made her Gwinnett adolescence an interesting affair.
"I can't count how many times I've had people ask me what the weather's going to be," laughs Lauren, whose aspirations point more toward public relations than Doppler Radars. "I feel like he's a little local celebrity. I take his nuggets of wisdom in life and in the business very seriously."
Lauren's pushing her father - not quite kicking and screaming, but close - into the realms of Facebook and Twitter. He downright refuses to inform people when he's going to eat a bagel, etc.
10:47 a.m. Chandley builds a PowerPoint and walks over to the Chroma Key Wall. When it's showtime, the camera will superimpose a weather map behind him, and he will eye a monitor.
"That's what I do - I see me on TV."
Chandley broke into the business in 1984, after a journalism professor at UGA recognized his ad-libbing prowess. As a newbie, he studied under a retired Navy man in Albany, then went to master science at Mississippi State University. After stints in Macon and Columbus, he landed at WSB-TV, where last year he earned the CBM (Certified Broadcast Meteorologist) designation, the industry's highest mark of distinction.
11:15 a.m. It's time to shoot a promo. Chandley stands on a little black box, stares into a camera, and says: "I'll show you where pop-up thunderstorms could hit!" A knife through butter.
In terms of career highlights, he counts the 1988 Dunwoody tornado as his "shining moment," in that he was on air for hours alone in the infancy of storm-tracking. He believes he saved lives that night.
The messenger isn't alone in that opinion. Just ask morning and noon anchor Fred Blankenship, who speaks to the vitality of Chandley's craft: "I'm from out west, and we don't have severe weather like this," Blankenship says. "For a lot of people it's the last line of defense, and they count on (Chandley's) words for their dear survival.
"He's a nice guy and a funny guy - but he's a necessary guy."
11:41 a.m. Youngsters from two summer camps swing through the studio. A curly haired kid in a Cleveland Indians cap is mouth-agape fascinated by Chandley's weather acumen. Chandley tells the kid to excel in math and science. They high-five.
11:48 a.m. Chandley eats a banana. Brain food.
11:55 a.m. Lauren and Blankenship debate the virtues of IHOP syrup as the anchor applies his own makeup. A photographer adds strawberry syrup to the discussion, but Blankenship sticks to his guns: boysenberry.
11:58 a.m. Some technical issues need to be ironed out. Stress levels soar. "Don't worry about the mule," Chandley tells the anchor, "just load the wagon."
A few minutes past noon, Chandley goes live, slipping mellifluously between camera shots, reading from the data packed in his head, cool as an arctic jet stream.
"This is still my passion," he says minutes later, his workday nearly finished. "It's a pretty cool way to make a living."