Opinion: Protecting Atlanta’s long legacy of success, compromise

This week, the pandemic within a pandemic, the parallel ills of coronavirus and racism, came to a head in our country.

The killing of George Floyd, his windpipe crushed under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer over Memorial Day weekend, felt like too much to bear in the midst of so much death, with America reaching the milestone of 100,000 souls lost to one of the largest public health crises in the history of the world.

Because racism is a national problem, the response to the latest example was national. Within days, protests erupted in cities across the country. And on Friday, generations of frustration and devastation finally boiled over in my hometown of Atlanta.

In the city “too busy to hate,” Friday night felt like a bridge too far for many black Atlantans, torn between our outrage in the wake of another black man senselessly cut down by police and our instinct to defend the city we love as more than our home — but as an aspiration, an ideal, and the dream over which we have stood vigil for nearly half a century.

In 1864, our city was burned and rose from the ashes. To watch it burn from the inside was to feel the dual heartbreak of race and place.

But then, I was heartened by my city, which did what it always does in times of crisis, when we find ourselves on the brink of chaos: We choose community.

In a remarkable press conference, Atlanta’s sixth consecutive black mayor — an unbroken line, unreplicated anywhere else in the country — stood alongside two sons of the city who have exported our culture through music, rappers T.I. and Killer Mike. There was the youngest daughter of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bernice. King lieutenant, Ambassador Andrew Young — a former Atlanta mayor, his body long past the point of protesting — took to Twitter to stand in unity with those who were enraged, while urging calm.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, her voice shaking and tears welling up in her eyes, spoke to her fellow Atlantans.

The daughter of southwest Atlanta and mother to three black sons and a daughter, Bottoms addressed them as one of their own, in a language understood by those of us raised in the red clay that stained our clothes, in the shadow of the Gold Dome of our Capitol, the King Center, and the Woodruff Arts Center.

“If you love this city, this city that has had a legacy of black mayors and black police chiefs and people who care about this city, where more than 50% of the business owners in metro Atlanta are minority business owners, if you care about this city, then go home,” she pleaded.

It was the Atlanta Way in action, once again. And even from 800 miles away, in Philadelphia, where I now live, it was a message that resonated with me deeply.

I was born at Grady Hospital, a granddaughter of Collier Heights, one of the city’s Old Guard black neighborhoods. My mother was a 34-year employee of Delta Air Lines, to which I am still fiercely loyal. The only soda I have and ever will drink is Coca-Cola, and I consider it a personal insult for people to order Pepsi in my presence.

I am a black woman, and I am an Atlantan. Those identities, of which I am equally proud, have never been at odds.

Ours is a city that has always looked towards progress. When other Southern cities embraced hate, we repeatedly became a beacon and an example.

“This city’s cut different,” Killer Mike reminded viewers during an emotional speech containing both his anger and anguish, as he wiped away tears at the podium. “Atlanta’s not perfect, but we’re a lot better than we ever were, and a lot better than cities are. If we lose Atlanta, what else we got?”

In his message was a calculation the city mothers and fathers have made countless times, and when Terminus again found itself at a crossroads, it returned to its compromising roots.

Over and over, the plea was clear, to black Atlantans in particular: Protect the city that has protected you. Don’t risk what we’ve built for this moment.

“Atlanta has been here for us,” said T.I. “We can’t do this here. This is sacred. It must be protected.”

More than 150 years after the Battle of Atlanta, we now find ourselves in a battle for Atlanta. May we rise again in the spirit of the phoenix that symbolizes our great city, stronger, higher, and together.

Errin Haines is editor at large for The 19th, a nonprofit newsroom focused on the intersection of women, politics and policy. A veteran journalist who has frequently written about race and the American South, she grew up in in the south Fulton County city of Fairburn.