Let’s take a look at some of the best examples and commentary surrounding the saying, found by combing through many decades of coverage from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In 1887 and 1922, what was then The Atlanta Constitution printed articles from The San Francisco Chronicle that discussed the proliferation of the phrase. (It would take a more exhaustive literature review to determine if the saying originated in the West Coast, but would anyone really be surprised?)
The 19th century article explained it this way: It’s “human nature to be ashamed of being insignificant, of being unknown,” but “there is nothing a man resents more as quickly as being asked ‘Don’t you know who I am?’”
“Nobody in creation can keep back the answer ... “No, I don't, and I don’t care a —,” it continued.
It’s unclear what curse word the author intended there.
Just a few decades later, the California paper said the “open sesame” phrase could be heard “everywhere ... uttered shamelessly, brazenly, arrogantly,” as a developing class of people were making “a fetish of special privilege.”
This article was published May 22, 1922.
The article ends: “Yes, we know, but we also know that whoever you are, or whatever you are, you stand on an absolute equality with us before the law. Let’s enforce the law without fear or favor.”
Apparently, the famous and influential of modern times did not get the message. A prime instance was when actress Reese Witherspoon was arrested following a 2013 traffic stop. A police report said she asked, "Do you know my name?"
Reese Witherspoon was arrested following a traffic stop.
The cop said they didn’t need to know. “You’re about to find out who I am,” she said. “You are going to be on national news.”
She later apologized, attributing her behavior to "one drink too many" and said she has "nothing but respect for the police."
Here are some more examples, from the AJC archives.
• In 2011, an Atlanta police officer pulled over former NBA star Allen Iverson's 2007 Lamborghini Murcielago. When a tow truck was called, Iverson reportedly said: "Take the vehicle, I have 10 more. Police don't have anything else [expletive] to do except [expletive] with me. ... Do you know who I am?" He eventually returned to the scene and apologized for disrespecting the police.
• In 2007, a pair of intoxicated women were arguing with a security officer at the Mall of Georgia when a police officer was dispatched to investigate. One of them asked the officer if he knew who she was. She said she was a "Maxim model" who spent $20,000 a month at the mall. The officer said her status as a "pseudo celebrity" was immaterial, and they were arrested.
• In 2005, defensive tackle Rod Coleman was arrested by DeKalb County police after arguing with officers during a traffic stop on a freeway. "I wish you would touch my [expletive] truck. Do you know who I am? I play for the Falcons," he reportedly said.
Defensive tackle Rod Coleman made his lone trip to the Pro Bowl while a Falcon in 2005. He was one of six Falcons to be selected that season.
Credit: Curtis Compton
Credit: Curtis Compton
The phrase doesn’t always involve someone trying to avoid arrest, though.
A bellman for the Hyatt Regency Atlanta recalled that Dennis Rodman once bullied him about a package not arriving: "Do you know who I am?" Another time, a strip club owner allegedly tried to coerce a dancer into letting him lick whipped cream off her body by using the same question. And talk show host Montel Williams once used it against a group of reporters, adding: "I'm a big star, and I can look you up, find where you live and blow you up."
He later apologized.
Perhaps an American Express ad campaign from the 1970s and 80s didn’t help the sense of entitlement people may feel from being “known.” The series showed celebrities, such as Ron Reagan, the former president’s son, and voice actor Mel Blanc, asking the audience, “Do you know me?”
In Stephen King’s ad for the credit card, the author goes so far as to equate being unrecognized with death: “It’s frightening how many novels of suspense I’ve written, but still, when I’m not recognized it just kills me.”
Before we finish, here are three more DYKWIA gems uncovered during the research.
The first is interesting because it actually worked. In 1996, NBA international liaison Kim Bohuny recalled a situation with Alexander Gomelsky and ex-Hawk Alexander "Sasha" Volkov. They were going to Hawks practice in Marietta when they were stopped for speeding.
Hawks Kevin Willis (left) and Alexander Volkov celebrate a win over the Philadelphia 76ers in 1992. (RICH ADDICKS/AJC staff)
Volkov said he’d speak Russian so the cop wouldn’t understand a word. Then Gomelsky jumped out and said:
“Do you know who I am? I am Alexander Gomelsky, coach of Soviet team! I win World Championships! I win Olympic gold medal! My boys beat John Thompson's boys in Seoul. You no can give me ticket.”
The “totally confused” cop finally shook his head and said, “Ma'am, please drive,” according to Bohuny’s account.
The second case is unique because DYKWIA wasn’t employed, when it theoretically could have been. In 1992, the AJC reported that the man who invented the foam tomahawk “gracefully accepted the citation” he was handed.
Paul Braddy ... did not pull the do-you-know-who-I-am bit when Atlanta police charged him with vending Braves T-shirts without a license last week. ...
"It was kind of a misunderstanding and I think they'll drop the charges when I get to court," Braddy said.
He says he didn't try to argue his case with the police. "When those guys get going down there, you just let them do the talking and you just listen," Braddy said.
Paul Braddy, the guy who invented the rubber foam tomahawks that became synonmymous with the Braves in the early 1990s. Photo Courtesy of Paul Braddy
The third case, from 2005, involves police finding a man asleep on the sidewalk near the door of a Norcross convenience store. It is noteworthy because, well... you’ll see:
When awakened, the man said to the officer, "Do you know who I am? I stepped on you, you snake."
The man went on to say, "I control the world, and you and everyone you know is going to hell. You're going to hell! How do you like that?"
The officer asked the man where he lived. He said he was homeless, but does what he wants. For good measure, he added, "I control the moon."
He went to jail. He probably didn't like that.
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