Atlanta journalists share reflections on the 2021 year in local news

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Another year draws to a close, and it has been another one full of news. In The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newsroom, our journalists have dedicated themselves to bringing you the big stories in metro Atlanta and Georgia.

In this special report, five of our journalists reflect on stories that shaped their reporting in 2021.

Bill Rankin: Covering the Ahmaud Arbery case

The murder trial for the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery just outside of Brunswick promised to be one of the most closely watched in Georgia history. I was one of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalists dispatched to the coast to cover the trial. In the months leading up to it, we wrote many stories about the case, dissecting Georgia’s old citizen’s arrest law, interviewing members of Arbery’s family and explaining the arguments raised by the defense. We also made the case the focus of the eighth season of the AJC’s “Breakdown” podcast. We produced a dozen episodes before the trial, and we dropped an episode every Monday during the six-week trial. The podcast took listeners inside the courtroom and outside the courthouse where demonstrations were held. I am proud to say I believe we covered the case as thoroughly and fairly as possible. It was exhausting work, but this was a moment in Georgia history not to be missed – particularly for me, having covered the state’s justice system for more than 25 years. To top it off, we recorded our final episode of “Breakdown” on Thanksgiving Day, the day after the jury returned guilty verdicts against all three men.

Wilborn P. Nobles III: The Race for City Hall

The main story that has consumed my life this year has been the Atlanta mayor’s race. The work obviously spanned beyond a single story and my penmanship alone.

J.D. Capelouto and I were responsible for the heavy lifting in covering the race for City Hall. We spent the year interacting with residents, politicians and experts to deliver news in an engaging manner. We spent countless hours reviewing documents and videos to provide accurate information about the city’s landscape.

Several other reporters and news leaders participated as well. Ben Brasch and Tyler Estep were invaluable sources for all things in Fulton and DeKalb counties, respectively. Greg Bluestein and Jay Black gave us airtime on the “Politically Georgia” podcast to further spread our reporting. Anjali Huynh contributed several great storylines and voices to our nonstop coverage as well.

The list of supporters is lengthy, but my main point is that everyone at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution works beyond their limits to provide you, the reader, with the news that matters. This task is more important than ever in an era rife with an unimaginable number of platforms eager to throw out misinformation for the sake of clicks that can be monetized, regardless of the impact of the hearsay.

Everyone at the AJC is grateful for your ongoing support. I’m subscribed to the AJC, and hopefully you will either stick with us or join us for the first time before year’s end.

Again, thank you for what you do to help us and to support your community. Congratulations to you for your own persistence after an indescribably stressful – and historic – year. Press on, be safe and take care.

Tia Mitchell: Carrying on the legacy of John Lewis

One of the most meaningful articles I worked on this year wasn’t a huge breaking news scoop or in-depth investigation. It was a series of vignettes The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published to mark one year since the death of Congressman John Lewis.

I spoke to some of the political figures and elected officials who were shaped by him, allowing people like Stacey Abrams and attorney general Chris Carr to share with AJC readers how they were carrying on Lewis’ legacy of “good trouble.”

I spoke to others who aren’t household names but who were literally at Lewis’ side during his final days. These aides heard firsthand Lewis’ stories about what it was like on the front lines of the movement for equal rights. They spoke about what it was like working for a giant who lived among us, and how he touched them in ways beyond just his impressive resume and personal story.

John Lewis remains an important figure not just to us here in Georgia, but also to the nation as he becomes a symbol for selflessness and self-sacrifice in the name of creating a more perfect union.

Kelly Yamanouchi: Digging deeper into an airport fuel spill

Many people are shocked when they find out that a fuel spill from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport could flow into the nearby Flint River, which provides drinking water to thousands, and the public won’t necessarily hear about it. So when I heard of a spill at the airport in September, my first thought was that I had to find out how bad the contamination was and make sure our readers knew.

It wasn’t easy to find answers. It took multiple rounds of questioning over days to get an idea of the extent of the spill – an evolving estimate that continued to grow from 400 gallons initially to at least 1,300 gallons – and how it happened. I also set out to explain to readers how the law allows these types of spills to happen without the public finding out. I researched state and federal laws, interviewed government officials and talked to concerned environmental and community leaders. It’s not unusual for early calculations to underestimate the size of spills at the airport. Officials are charged with notifying the public if there are health and safety risks, but they often make that determination based on those early estimates. It made me wonder how many spills there had been. I reviewed documents and regulations. I submitted open records requests to learn more about the causes of the September spill and earlier ones. I talked to legal experts. Our coverage allowed local officials and residents in towns downstream from the airport to voice their worries about the lack of notification and to push for more transparency. I’m dedicated to informing our readers about the issues they care about. Thank you for supporting our work.

Bill Torpy: Unexpected twist in Atlanta’s political scene

Politics has gone crazy, we know that. But Atlanta’s political scene had its own, shall we say, unusual and unexpected twist when Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms suddenly told the city “Adios.”

Incumbent mayors are almost unbeatable in Atlanta, and Bottoms, who took a laissez faire approach to governing the past couple of years, still would have been tough to defeat. At the start of the year, I was hearing persistent rumors that former Mayor Kasim Reed was going to run. I noted that in columns, although in writing that, the contention seemed absurd: Why would a pol who four years earlier helped install his successor in office suddenly come back and try to beat her?

Hizzoner went on the radio to criticize how Bottoms ran things and next thing you know she’s making an announcement she has decided to spend more time with family.

Suddenly, we had a real mayoral race. The absence of an incumbent opened up lanes for ambitious politicians, and Atlanta is full of them. One of those pathways was for Andre Dickens, a two-term councilman who was anything but a household name. But political stars are made – and exploded – with terrifying frequency these days. Dickens, a likeable fellow who increasingly became less wooden on the stump, was the right guy at the right place for voters looking for a fresh face.

Reed tried to campaign that he was a kindler, gentler version of his old self. He was so changed, he even spoke with me, his old archenemy. However, he came in third in the general election to Dickens, whose star was on the rise. It was a compelling election, where old norms were pushed to the side and a crowd with a different vibe set to run the city. We at the AJC were there for the ride and will be here to document how it goes.