Atlanta is at a special moment in its evolution. From the Beltline to Buford Highway, the Hawks to our festivals, there is a genuine sense of investment, excellence, and pride that permeates our city. Atlanta, always a city of outsized ambition, is now firmly on the world stage.
While civic pride has been important to Atlanta’s growth, being globally competitive requires us to move beyond boosterism and harness our authentic strengths. To do so, unlike nation states that have “hard power” tools of military might and economic policy, Atlanta must rely on its “soft power”: the civic, cultural, and economic attributes that set us apart and influence others.
Soft power matters. When a city has a compelling identity, it attracts investors, talented people, tourism, and businesses that find common cause with the city’s cultural strength and lifestyle. Cities are agile, action-oriented laboratories that wrestle with society’s biggest challenges. When a city solves a problem, it becomes a beacon for others, elevating its reputation and promoting the exchange of great ideas. Boston’s soft power includes higher education. Chicago has world-class architecture and public space. Denver thrives by embracing an active, outdoors lifestyle. What is Atlanta’s soft power?
From our ambitious culinary scene to the allure of tree canopied-neighborhoods to the airport’s connectivity, Atlanta has a number of unique attributes that call to locals and visitors. Yet, our most meaningful soft power is tied to our history of creativity, inclusion, and optimism.
Creative and cultural influence: What is created in Atlanta often influences the world. Distinctive from the rest of America, what is created in Atlanta is forged from the city’s struggle and progress on race and civil rights, the rhythm and pace of the South, and optimism spawned from repeated rebirths. Our music, food, fashion, and arts appear in Tokyo clubs, Seattle bookstores, and television screens the world over. We would do well to proudly embrace our creative and cultural influence, from Drumma Boy to Steven Satterfield to Fahamu Pecou. Doing so helps those who create in Atlanta build their brands and businesses across the world. It also makes Atlanta an inspiring place to live.
Civil Rights: As the modern crucible of racial reconciliation, we have an unparalleled civil rights history. While we celebrate it proudly, the world looks to us for more. We have the opportunity and gravitas to remain at the vanguard of global civil rights leadership. Between the Carter Center, Center for Civil and Human Rights, and our thought-leadership, Atlanta is a special platform for discourse and action. Atlanta is one of the few places the world turns to for inspiration and practical guidance for addressing issues of racial and ethnic equity and justice. We can, and should, be the global home of conflict resolution and the advancement of human rights.
Inclusion: Atlanta’s most compelling soft power is its spirit of inclusion. From locals’ willingness to help transplants find their way to the diverse mix of people who make things come to life, the Atlanta way is based on inclusion. Our region’s decision-making tables are attended to by an increasingly diverse set of perspectives, people, and talents. People of all colors and backgrounds find success here and we embrace new and divergent perspectives more than we exclude them. This sets us apart from most American cities and creates a model for how to live and thrive in an increasingly diverse and integrated country.
Atlanta has emerged into a truly unique city: grounded by a powerful, influential history, fueled by diversity and inclusion, and increasingly defined by our unique take on public space, food, and the creative economy. Our soft power, when authentic and wielded purposefully, can help keep us vibrant for decades to come. Given our unique history, culture, and successes, Atlanta can be the city others look to for addressing national growing pains as well as a global destination for diplomacy, reconciliation, and humanitarian action. That we are also home to a powerful creative economy gives Atlanta a rare mix of wisdom, action, and inspired spark.
No longer a regional city, Atlanta’s ability to make its mark and thrive on the world stage depends on our ability to understand and leverage our authentic soft-power advantages. We have the right ingredients. Let us seize the moment.
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Amir Farokhi is a metro Atlanta native and a founder of the Georgia Forward civic collaborative.