Atlanta is a cultural oasis, an island shaped like a Black Power fist in a sea of MAGA red. A city with a mayor named Keisha. Where the power structure is Black, and a core of prestigious Historically Black Colleges and Universities exist to educate future members of that power structure. To walk down Edgewood Avenue on a Saturday night is to see hip-hop come to life, the energy of young Black people on full display in the sound of the music booming from car windows, in the raucous laughter and cadence of Black speech and the movement of Black skin up and down the block.
Atlanta’s vibe will make you feel like what happens in other cities doesn’t happen here. The vibe was shaken somewhat when the global rage that erupted after the world witnessed the savage police murder of George Floyd didn’t spare the city. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms got in front of the press and spoke to Black Atlanta like a stressed-out older sister, demanding her younger siblings quit acting the fool, flanked by two of Atlanta’s favorite sons. Killer Mike responded like a big brother, expressing the frustration of seeing another Black male life snuffed out but asking people to try another way. T.I. likened Atlanta to Wakanda and by Sunday, the city had returned to an uneasy quiet.
That quiet, and the Atlanta myth, were shattered on the night of June 13 when Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old unarmed Black male, was shot and killed during an altercation with two white Atlanta Police officers. On the streets, the reaction was swift; direct action taken on the business the neighborhood felt was responsible for Brook’s death; around the city, marches and shutdowns that are still ongoing. Officially, the incident was handled the Atlanta way: Police Chief Erika Shields resigned her position, the officer who fired the deadly shot was terminated, the other placed on administrative leave. Mayor Bottoms returned to the media podium in the hope that these measures will force the reaction to burn itself out.
But what’s happening in Atlanta is bigger than Rayshard Brooks’ tragic death. The city that calls itself “too busy to hate” is often too busy to self-reflect and this collective fantasy has been used to ignore serious issues festering in the “Black mecca.”
According to a 2018 Bloomberg report, Atlanta has the highest level of income inequality of any city in the United States. Black people make up the majority of residents living just above or below the poverty line and the massive unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic is projected to swell those numbers. Nationally, impoverished, usually Black communities tend to be overpoliced and criminalized and Atlanta is no different.
Atlanta is gentrifying rapidly. Many of the people moving into the city are coming from areas unfamiliar with city life and how to identify what is a threat and what isn’t. This means police are called to respond to nuisance complaints or worse, to interact with people dealing with mental health issues often with deadly results, as in the case of Anthony Hill. Rents, property values and property tax rates in historically Black neighborhoods like Vine City, Bankhead, the West End and Castleberry Hill rise higher than residents can afford, forcing them to move outside the city where public transportation is inadequate to get them to gainful employment.
In 2016, thousands of young Atlantans took to the streets to protest the killings of Black men and women by police. Over the course of a couple of weeks several direct actions were taken, including shutting down highways and marching on the governor’s mansion. Then Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed gave a press conference saying “Martin Luther King would never shut down a highway,” while former mayor and civil rights icon Andrew Young called the protest leadership, which was mostly young Black people, “unlovable brats.”
Those comments were a symbol of the disconnect between the generation that fought for and reaped the benefits of the 20th century’s Black civil rights struggle and youth demanding those goals be fully realized. Atlanta’s Black leadership has been on autopilot for decades resting on the legacy of civil rights wins that a few of the elite have managed to exploit while the vast number of Atlanta citizens still struggle.
All these issues amount to a policy of benign neglect presided over and ignored by a Black power structure that the killing of Rayshard Brooks exposed. These are issues that Atlanta can no longer ignore if it’s going to survive.
As Atlanta goes, so goes Black America. The fact that parts of the “Black mecca” endure the same racist policies as other cities is a sign that the old coping mechanisms Atlanta uses as a security blanket no longer work. Atlanta is still in America. There is not enough praying, partying, education or assimilating you can do to escape white supremacy. It is an evil as old and as aggressive as America, and it must be resisted just as aggressively.