OPINION: For some Atlanta residents, the new American dream isn’t always in America

Charisma Freeman and her son Cam, pictured in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, left metro Atlanta in December 2021 to live abroad. Freeman travels to different countries staying at least a month before buying a one-way ticket to their next destination. Courtesy of Charisma Freeman.

Credit: Charisma Freeman

Credit: Charisma Freeman

Charisma Freeman and her son Cam, pictured in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, left metro Atlanta in December 2021 to live abroad. Freeman travels to different countries staying at least a month before buying a one-way ticket to their next destination. Courtesy of Charisma Freeman.

In December 2021, Charisma Freeman was finally ready to leave Atlanta.

Inspired by the Exodus Summit, a virtual conference that helps Black women plan a sabbatical or permanent move abroad, Freeman had sold her home, her van and many of her possessions and bought a one-way ticket to Colombia.

“I had a very concrete life in Atlanta but there was always something missing,” said Freeman, 37, a nurse practitioner who works in telemedicine part time. “Leaving the U.S. is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.”

Freeman was most recently in the Dominican Republic when she and I communicated via Facebook Messenger. Raised in the Tri-Cities, Freeman is divorced and has sole custody of her son whose special needs require a wheelchair and crutches.

The nation’s largest metro areas have seen population decreases in recent years — including Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties in Atlanta, which lost 10,000 people between 2020 and 2021 — as residents flocked to suburbs or other cities, but a subgroup of people exiting metro Atlanta have left the country altogether.

Freeman had long pondered a life filled with travel, moving as she pleased and sharing it all with her son, but it wasn’t until she attended the Exodus Summit that she felt ready. It was as if the event organizers ― two Black women who had managed to escape the rat race — had given Freeman permission to act. Now she lives on income from rental properties and part-time work while traveling to different countries where she and her son stay for a minimum of one month.

The combination of the pandemic and the social justice movement of 2020 encouraged many Black and brown people nationwide to start looking for a better life, said Exodus Summit co-founder Stephanie Perry.

“Black people are raised to believe that our responsibility in life is to make life easier for other people, not necessarily to embrace ease for ourselves,” Perry told me. “Moving abroad is a wonderful option for Black and brown women. It can be financially beneficial and a pathway to greater peace of mind.”

Like expatriates of other races, Black and brown Americans have many reasons for leaving the U.S., temporarily or permanently. They want a better quality of life. They want to retire. They want lower taxes. They want to own land and a home. But for some Black expats, exiting the country comes with the added layer of feeling that leaving is something they must do to keep themselves and their families safe.

Many of the countries that are now havens for Black and brown expats – Mexico, Colombia, Panama – have historical ties to the Maroon settlements created as early as the 1500s by Africans who fled plantations to create places of short-term or permanent refuge from slavery. In some circles, Tulum has been dubbed the “Atlanta” of Mexico for its surging population of Black expats.

Anytime there is political or social unrest in the U.S., such as the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, Perry said she sees an uptick in interest on her social media channels. “There is a movement to stop the struggle that is inherent in being a Black or brown person in America,” she said. “Even the people who can’t or don’t want to leave the U.S. at least want to find communities where they don’t have to constantly look over their shoulders or constantly be on guard.”

Freeman had many reasons for wanting to lead a nomadic life but in the back of her mind, she worried about safety. “I have a Black son with a disability,” she said. “How would that go with police? What if he called 911 because he needed help? Would they take that as a threat?”

In March, she posed a question to a private Facebook group dedicated to helping Black Americans leave the country. “Is it just me or are we all leaving Atlanta?” she wrote. “How many of you all have left the ATL?”

More than 80 commenters shared stories of leaving Atlanta or nearby southern cities for Costa Rica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and countries in Africa and Asia. Crystal Lacon, 38, of Jonesboro, stated her plans to leave metro Atlanta in two years. She has visited Ghana several times a year since her first visit in 2014 and is building a home in advance of her arrival to the African country. “The U.S. has branded itself as land of the free. Unfortunately, you are going to pay a cost for the freedom that we have,” said Lacon in a phone interview.

There are no reliable statistics that measure the number of Black and brown Americans that have relocated to other countries, but a recent Airbnb survey found that more than 70% of U.S. Black and Hispanic professionals are embracing the idea of “living anywhere.”

According to the survey, 72% of Black remote professionals and 70% of Hispanic remote professionals have lived in at least one different location since 2020 compared to 64% of all remote professionals surveyed. The Caribbean, Europe and Latin America were among the top destinations for extended stays.

Many Black and brown women who have relocated to other countries have created companies that help bring other Black and brown people along for the journey, resulting in expat communities in countries such as Spain and Costa Rica that have grown to include hundreds of Black retirees, singles and families with children.

In her online journal, Freeman acknowledges the tendency to focus only on the high points of the expat life, but she keeps it real by describing the struggles too — the times when there is no hot or clean water, when she has trouble navigating spaces with her son’s wheelchair, language barriers and challenges with currency.

But positives like the opportunity to travel, greater spending power, access to fresh produce and daily communing with nature keep her invested in the process, she said.

Later this year, she plans to travel to Africa where she will stay for at least a year.

For Black expats and nomads like Freeman, traveling is a way to leave behind the problems of America. To me, their departure is yet another indication that collectively, we are long overdue for a rewrite of the American dream.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.