Atlanta’s promise is tested in a year of racial and political tension

By Rick Rojas

Like Atlanta itself, rapper T.I. has known both defeat and a long, twisting road toward redemption and prosperity.

He was a drug dealer from Atlanta’s west side who ascended to international recognition as a musician, producer and entrepreneur, became a federal inmate, and then climbed his way back to become an activist, serve on the mayor’s transition team and help invigorate his old neighborhood as a socially aware real estate investor.

Over the past year, he has watched as Atlanta has been buffeted by months of cascading sorrow, racial strife, economic pain and political drama. And on the cusp of momentous elections Tuesday that will decide control of the Senate and perhaps the direction of American politics for the next two years, T.I. is not the only one looking for clarity in the conflicting currents that have roiled Atlanta like few places after a tumultuous year.

“This is the year of the reveal,” T.I., whose given name is Clifford Harris, said of the past 12 months. “Everything is coming to light.”

For generations, the prevailing mythology of Atlanta has been that it is an undeniably Southern city that is also unlike the rest of the South, a place where the relentless pursuit of economic and social advancement meant casting aside much of the racial division and bitter history that have long dogged the region.

But lately, that notion has been tested — by the pandemic, by violent encounters between African Americans and police, and by the fluctuating divide between metropolitan Atlanta and the much more conservative and traditional state surrounding it.

The pandemic has laid bare gaps in access to opportunity and health care as the virus has hit the African American community especially hard. It has also galvanized ideological divides between the city and state as the mayor and governor sparred over adopting strict measures to curb the virus’s spread. Protests forced many to examine the stubbornness of institutional racism. A meltdown during the summer primaries, with long lines and malfunctioning voting machines, stoked concerns over suppression.

Those issues are certainly not Atlanta’s alone. But again and again in recent months, the city emerged as an arena in which those tensions played out in vivid and revelatory ways.

Because of it, said Kurt Young, a professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University, “we have an opportunity to grapple with some of the hardheaded realities that have stymied Atlanta for many, many years.”

Atlanta, as the unofficial capital of the South, has always summed up the region’s aspirations and limitations — from Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights era, to the good fortune of the Sunbelt boom of the 1980s and 1990s, to the international pageant of the 1996 Olympics, to the diversity and changed racial dynamic of Atlanta today.

When Georgia votes Tuesday, representatives of very different segments of Atlanta will play leading roles in this chapter of the city’s history: the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of King’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church; and Jon Ossoff, a young media executive from the Atlanta suburbs, are the Democratic candidates. Kelly Loeffler, one of the Republican senators pushed into the runoff, is a wealthy businesswoman who is an owner of the city’s professional women’s basketball team and has an estate in the affluent Buckhead section of the city.

The context of recent events has injected energy into the runoffs, which have already drawn enormous turnout. The election comes after Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in 28 years, a reflection of the party’s growing strength in the state, driven overwhelmingly by voters in Atlanta and its suburbs, which together make up nearly half the state vote. It also follows the protracted campaign by President Donald Trump to overturn his loss through recounts, legal challenges and a barrage of baseless allegations of fraud.

Once caricatured in popular culture by a “Gone With the Wind” gloss on Old South themes, Atlanta has more recently earned a place in the broader popular imagination through hip-hop and a subgenre of reality shows that display Black wealth in its most ostentatious variety. Those things are certainly Atlanta, but only pieces of it. The city is home to major corporations and prestigious institutions of higher education. (Friendly advice offered to newcomers: Please, don’t call it Hotlanta.)

Like other cities made great by generations of pluck and hustle, a strain of industriousness pumps through Atlanta’s bloodstream. It is an instinct visible on Buford Highway, a passport of flavors as immigrants from around the world have opened restaurants along the roadway, and in the teenagers who have made a business selling water bottles at city intersections.

“That’s entrepreneurship at its finest: someone refusing to sit down and just accept their circumstances,” T.I. said. “Taking the things that are available to them and putting them to work right where you know it can be most effective, utilizing your skills — that’s what Atlanta is.”

Atlanta has long been a magnet. The city has drawn African Americans from across the nation looking for opportunity and an escape from hostility and discrimination. It has become the same for gay, lesbian, transgender and gender-nonconforming people. It has also drawn a reverse migration of descendants of rural Black Southerners who fled segregation and poverty.

“You’ve decided that you want to return to the American South, but you’re not going to that little town in Mississippi where they actually came from,” said Calinda Lee, head of programs and exhibitions at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. “It’s this fictive homeland in this way that has hugely driven population numbers and hugely influenced sensibilities here.”

Whenever someone tries to knock Nikema Williams for not being a city native, she replies that her story is intrinsically Atlantan. Williams, who was elected in November to Rep. John Lewis’ former seat in Congress after his death last year, grew up in Smiths Station, just over the Chattahoochee River in Alabama, raised in a house without indoor plumbing.

As a student at Talladega College, a small, historically Black school in Alabama, she and her friends drove to Atlanta to shop and party. Williams, a Democrat who most recently served in the state Senate, saw Black elected officials, business leaders, artists and civil rights leaders. “You saw Black people living the full promise of this country,” she said.

“I moved here not knowing a soul,” Williams said, “but I was able to get involved, get engaged and find my way.” But, she added, “we still have a ways to go.”

A gulf has always existed between the aspirations of the “Atlanta Way” and the lived reality of many residents.

“Atlanta is unique and does have this particular way,” Lee said. “And yet, let’s be clear when we think about what it means: We have this reality, and a kind of hype and PR campaign — and those are separate things.”

A series of events this year shined a fresh light on the divide.

One evening in May, after George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police set off protests across the country, crowds in Atlanta smashed the windows of downtown businesses, vandalized the CNN Center and set a police car ablaze.

“What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a raw news conference, replayed repeatedly on local television and radio stations.

The demonstrations gained a new vigor after Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by Atlanta police. Officers had been called to a Wendy’s parking lot where, authorities said, Brooks had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-thru lane. The city’s police chief, Erika Shields, resigned, and the officer who shot Brooks was fired and charged with murder.

Brooks’ death kindled a familiar sort of sorrow and anger over an African American man being killed by police. But it also had particular force in demonstrating that Atlanta was not immune from the racial divides and anxieties afflicting the rest of the country.

“This happened in Atlanta, the city that’s supposed to be too busy to hate,” the Rev. Bernice King, one of King’s daughters, said in a sermon, invoking a motto that reflected the conviction that racial animosity had no place in a city with unflagging ambition.

After the death in July of Lewis, the longtime congressman and pioneering civil rights figure, many were inspired to trace the lines between the movement he had steered in the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter activism that mobilized last year’s protests. They saw how much had been achieved in Atlanta — and the limitations that still remained.

“It’s just not enough,” Young said, “to crack the nut of stubborn forms of institutional racism, blatant outright racism and other types of social ills that exploded right before our eyes this year.”

The outcome of the presidential election drew protesters waving Trump flags to the state Capitol. But for many in Atlanta, it was a cause for jubilation. Crowds gathered in parks, in the streets or under the visage of Lewis that looms over downtown and is visible on the nearby interstate highways.

Whether it reflects a changing region or a breakthrough that says more about Atlanta than the South remains unclear. But for many, it was a moment of triumph in a bitter year.

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