The Atlanta Way: How Atlanta Eats Our Own

Roasting in the stifling construction traffic on Howell Mill, late for a doctor’s appointment, for the second time in the last month, my friend and I were watching a construction vest clad man, with a buzz cut and a few days old stubble move in front of us in a mint green Vineyard Vines long sleeve tee. 

We had to laugh at the juxtaposition of his farmer’s tan, Wranglers stitching, and the striking paleness of the shirt, all baking between the layers of hot sun and newly poured asphalt. We both agreed that he was a walking representation of The Atlanta Way, in the midst of its own sludge- so-called “progress” making necessary healthcare harder for no other reason than our transportation systems can’t be perceived beyond building more roads. All of it was delaying the reality of us seeking requisite healthcare, which I had taken the afternoon off to ensure was executed. 

The only way that shirt’s cleanliness was being maintained was the fact that this guy wasn’t doing much actual hands-on work. And who is he? Some workaday with kids who want him to be a little ‘more…current? Fashionable? Elevated? IDK. He probably doesn’t know either. 

This is how Atlanta functions- this toiling in the quotidian mundane for the benefit of some aspirational higher social climb. Even if it’s only for the sake of wearing a status symbol label shirt. A lot of the city boosterism promotes a kumbaya of races, but the reality is, our struggle is more about class than race- not to say that race doesn’t exist or doesn’t further impede social climb. I mean it more that Black Atlantans are just as quick to throw their fellow race under the bus as any white man. We Atlantans LOVE to invite growth, just don’t expect city leaders to plan for it or stick to a plan even if we do create one. City leaders will also not build the infrastructure that will actually make any of the growth work for our own benefit-and maintain it? Now you’re just talking crazy! And don’t expect Atlantans to get our hands dirty- no ma’am! We like to contract that out, find a public/private partnership, or something other than actually working alongside one another. We LOVE those strong class divides here in the city that’s ‘Too busy to hate’.

A lot of my writing consists of what has happened, how it intertwines across the City of Atlanta, and how or why it should matter to other Georgians and folks at the state level. Today I’d like to begin a series to talk about certain culture in Atlanta, and how it has and continues to harm Atlanta (and Georgia), in very real ways. I’m going to discuss transportation, planning, and schools. I have some ideas on how we can fix it, but you have to acknowledge there’s a problem first before you can find a solution. I’ll leave you with the questions I hold and ask you to consider a few of your own to add.

Let me explain where I started with this idea. The Atlanta Way has been touted for so long that maybe five or six years ago I finally started asking people ‘what does the Atlanta Way mean to you’? I’m not from here, and it seems like such a point of pride for so many older natives. I got a variety of answers, but most boiled down to wealthy elites (Black and White) coming together to support some aspect of the city (overcoming segregation, inviting the Olympics, the Atlanta Child Murders and the benefit concert that raised money for any information to put the criminal or criminals behind bars) or block some aspect of it (previous versions of the Religious Freedom legislation, certain highways and developments). Effectively, this was considered progressive and forward thinking in the decades following the Civil Rights movement and it supposedly set Atlanta apart as the city ‘too busy to hate’ in a nation full of cities that were blocking business because of segregation, or blow back to the Black Power movement in the 70s. Atlanta did the opposite- they had and we have Black elected leaders. We call ourselves the Black Mecca. In fact, a number of our current Black elected officials hold office, not because of their own work, but because of the work of their parents in the Civil Rights and anti-apartheid movements. Atlanta has developed nepotism and cronyism into a political art form on which we trade endorsements for money, votes for future jobs, and sacrifice cultural history for the sake of an immediate windfall.  And, God forbid if you speak against these leaders whether elected or not for their lack of real effort on behalf of their communities or question if the City of Atlanta’s process actually is addressing the need, you are labeled ‘racist’, ‘obstructionist’, or you are presumed to be doing things only for personal gain.  

Ask me how I know. 🙂(warning: NSFW audio) This was a discussion by the NPU Director, a City of Atlanta employee, and a fellow APAB member back in 2023, about yours truly. Just a reminder- this person not only maintained their job after not correcting a lie in a public meeting, but was also given a promotion by our new Commissioner of Planning. 

This is how the City of Atlanta works. 

Dear reader, I think we both recognize that the optimal level of corruption is not zero, yet I would say that Atlanta’s decades of baking it into the system means that if you want to work within it, you must first learn how to navigate around the inevitable mines of this corruption. For instance, you need to know whose contracts with the city you might be interfering with, lest you find yourself an unintended threat, or whose work you may be personally affronting by saying the current way of doing things is a mess. This is all entirely besides the point of actually doing any work, but if you get to any task at hand at all, you’ll probably be doing better than your predecessor. 

You’ll also run into titles-some with meaning, some not.

In a variety of settings, there are multiple Presidents of boards, meaningless positions to give gravitas to the person sitting in the seat as they meet with officials (my title at APAB, in the year of our Lord 2023, was “Correspondence Secretary”), and when all else is missing you may meet individuals who bear an honorific of “Mother” that represent their neighborhood standing. As a person who grew up in the South and have written my fair share of thank you notes, witnessed Parliamentary procedure in Baptist church meetings over a purchase of a lawn mower or church van, and can produce a casserole on command for any funeral, family gathering, or potluck, these practices are not totally foreign to me whether we refer to the gathering after a ‘homegoing ceremony’ as a repast or not. And lest you think this is limited to the Black community, let me relieve you of that myth by pointing out how many civic associations hold power within our City Planning process. We have so many layers of titles and bs process that it’s really questionable how anything in Atlanta gets done. We’re all so busy being self-important, it’s really amazing we find time to actually move any needles. 

At some point I had hoped Atlantans would cut the crap and get to work. But that seems to be the part that we’re too busy to do, in fact.

We’ll raise some hell occasionally over a development here and there, we’ll either fight parking or support it. 

But ask the system to change? 

Now I’ve gone from talking to meddling. 

And please don’t think I am new to nepotism in politics. Anyone working under the Gold Dome knows nepotism isn’t limited to city government, but the icky truth about nepotism in local government vs. the state is that with the privilege of education and class, fewer people run for office in need of a regular paycheck. But many on the local level do. It’s the easiest way to have regular healthcare and retirement benefits. So while Commissioners Arrington and Abdul-Raman bicker in meetings, or Hall sleeps with her staff (congratulations by the way to Commissioner-Elect Mo Ivory!), Fulton County voters turn a blind eye because there are few who will challenge them. 

Atlanta is old school, pay to play and dirty politics with whisper campaigns. But I’m seeing some things that make me hopeful for the future. I’m hopeful I get to write about them when they’ve all played out and some things change. But for now…

IMHO, all of this nonsense is the part we individually play in holding this farce of a system up. My experience within APAB gave me a fascinating front row seat to how petty individual actors can be and how fascinatingly they don’t lose their jobs in Atlanta, but get promotions! And the NPU system has been undermined by multiple Mayors and Councils because it is the natural system within which a natural community leader might arise. And this new Planning Commissioner just shrunk its entire membership and about a quarter of the membership either makes money off of the City of Atlanta or is paid by them.

Dear reader, we all know how to mollify our opposition, don’t we? When you can’t beat them, you join them! 

So look at all the new boards Mayor Dickens has created! As if we didn’t already have more than enough. And appointments galore! There’s Peter Aman, once previous Mayoral candidate, Police Foundation head, and City of Atlanta CFO (one might think he knows how to hide money) now Chief Strategist for the City! Sharon Gay- another previous Mayoral candidate-appointed to the Women’s Advisory Council. How novel for a Senior Counsel at the world’s largest law firm by number of lawyers and 6th largest law firm in the world by revenue to be appointed to something based on her gender! And what about Jodi Merriday- previous Council candidate now Neighborhood Ombudsmen? Or Greg Clay-previous Council candidate now Mayoral appointee. Greg went from creating apps to go on one’s phone to serving as the Mayor’s stand-in. Essentially in Atlanta, one’s primary method of achieving a senior level position in the City of Atlanta isn’t based on your knowledge, but your ability to secure votes.

And then there’s the boosterism. 

That’s also baked into The Atlanta Way. Atlantans, we LOVE to promote ourselves, don’t we? We love to talk about all the businesses, nonprofits, and deep civil rights history we have here, amirtie or amirite? We’ll just ignore those infrastructure challenges like 100+ year old pipes that Mayor Franklin tried to fix, or we’ll build a new park in Vine City because we never really got around to taking our topography and water challenges seriously here, did we?  Nope. We Atlantans have punched above our weight for a looooooooong time, haven’t we? It works in our favor that the center of political power in Georgia has never existed in the City of Atlanta. If they lived here, they too would demand more, but funny enough, I find state legislators just like to use Atlanta as a punching bag, on which to hang all problems as a way to deflect and distract from the problems existing in their own districts. I mean, we all know Atlanta is an easy target. You don’t have to kick us when we’re down, even though we know OTP legislators LOVE it.

While Ann Cramer and Coxe Curry sell outsiders on the bastion of peacefulness Atlanta is supposed to be and when Ambassador Andy Young didn’t meet a building permit he wouldn’t approve, in reality, no one thought to figure out how we accommodate inviting the world to this Beloved Community. So we’ve grown in size, we’ve hosted the Olympics, the Superbowl, and soon the World Cup. But what Ann & Andy forgot to mention was how we provided one way bus tickets to our own citizens à la Guliani to move them out while we welcomed global athletes in. Reed’s admin negotiated the purchase of Friendship Baptist Church’s land while he let their neighbors’ homes flood. Mayor Dickens is happy to develop Summerhill, Lakewood Heights, and South Atlanta, just don’t ask him to commit to Beltline rail, the streetcar extension, or to pave existing roads that the prior two projects would offset the wear of, or create an IGA with MARTA (as I learned Hapeville and Clayton Co. do to provide covered bus stops across our region-h/t to the Peach Pundit comment section, educating me!). I’d include KLB here, but we’d be here all day. But she did teach us all how to govern by press release, didn’t she? And effectively, that’s what Mayor Andre has done since she left. Who needs explanations of funding and timelines on infill stations while we’re looking a shiny new promise that won’t be fulfilled! 

Amirite or amirite?

What I’m trying to give you, dear reader, is not just a picture of how it works, but how we got here, and why Atlanta’s system must change for the benefit of all of Georgia.

I think anyone who has ever read anything I’ve written in the last decade or so knows I love Georgia with all my heart. But I remain frustrated with the thwarted and ill-planned growth of the Empire State of the South. While I have chosen to make Atlanta my home, she isn’t the only jewel in Georgia’s crown, but she is the first most outsiders notice. And dare I say, I think it’s high time Atlanta look to other cities among us and across the globe to invite in better ways to serve our people. Whether I like it or not (and I don’t), Mayor Dickens is the chair of the Atlanta Regional Commission. And if he can no more lead ants to a picnic in the ways I’ve seen demonstrated so far, we are all in a heap of trouble. Because as Atlanta goes, so goes the rest of the state. 

This series is going to talk about how we eat our own here and how that contributes to the perpetuation of The Atlanta Way. I’ve watched this play out in Republican circles with the T.E.A. Party and now the Left really doesn’t know what to do as it grapples with police violence, our history of racism baked into our process, and how do we separate ourselves from the colonization of the past if we’re still supporting Israel? Like any small group, we Atlantans turn to in-fighting and personal slander rather than agree to disagree on policy. This is often represented in racial terms, but I don’t find it’s limited to that. It’s more about power, privilege, who has it, wields it, and who that affects.

We can’t keep doing this. We’ve got to either step away from the myth of The Atlanta Way or wrestle with the fact that Georgia is only doing well because other southern states haven’t figured it out either. It’s not a high bar, and Imma be honest with y’all- we can do better. While children are often very resilient, to expect generations of adults in Atlanta to keep picking ourselves up after decades of failure, poor stewardship of resources & trust, is a level of naivety I can not indulge. 

So I’d like to leave you with these questions:

  1. How would you improve the transportation process in the Atlanta region? GDOT? ADOT? MARTA? Cobb Link? GRTA? Beltline rail? Streetcar extension? Tell me I’m thinking too small and how you’d do it. 
  2. How would you improve the planning process? I’m looking forward to seeing the Atlanta Dept. of Planning roll out a list of endorsements from third party groups it has bribed into supporting while they pay outside consultants to do the work Atlanta City Council will neither empower nor fund them to do. The Regional Commissions? I remember The Georgia Mountains Regional Commission seemed to be most agreeable when I worked for Gainesville legislators. The Comprehensive Development Plan? The Zoning rewrite? I am curious how much further Mayor Dickens will make our city more suburban-Alpharetta-like during his tenure when he has no more backbone to stand up to the small yet vocal minority of Atlantans who are against densification.
  3. How would you improve the education process? Peach Pundit writers (save me) are all pro-charter, but do we have anyone here who might have some suggestions on the challenges metro Atlanta schools face? Truancy? Parental engagement? What’s your kids’ schools doing that APS should be doing? How does your Board of Education work differently that you think Atlanta should adopt? 

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