By John Ruch
If you think 2021 is just another city election, it’s time to wake up and smell this coffee. All five candidates with a realistic shot at being the next mayor agree that it’s time to reform the “Atlanta Way.”
Imagine a presidential debate where the major-party candidates agreed we should update “In God We Trust” to say, “But Verify.” The notion of altering Atlanta’s combo of exceptionalist civic motto and smoke-filled-room decision-making is that monumental, that descriptive of just how low trust in government has fallen.
The candidates’ admission at an Oct. 4 forum that the Atlanta Way has perhaps lost its way did not drop like the bomb it was, instead coming with wonky talk of a “2.0” version and more “inclusion.” That calmness is to be expected; the original point of the Atlanta Way was keeping Black-and-white race relations tranquil both in practice and appearance during the Civil Rights movement era via paternalistic nods from the white business elites.
Concessions to inchworm-paced “reform” are how relentlessly placid systems hint that they are mortally terrified of populist movements. The candidates’ Atlanta Way talk shows how effectively such movements are working, from Black Lives Matter radicals, to grassroots nonprofits pressing for localized power-sharing, to the Buckhead cityhood secessionists. Elections are always a good time for citizens to make demands of their government, but this may be Atlantans’ best shot in 50 years.
Then again, we, the people, never voted to institute the Atlanta Way in the first place, and promises of more “inclusion” could be code for its fundamental tactic of co-opting potential political trouble-makers.
The origins of the Atlanta Way
Ronald Bayor, a professor emeritus of history at Georgia Tech and author of “Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta,” is among the academics who have penned critical studies of the Atlanta Way. He and others have credited the method for lessening the street violence and terrorism that other Southern cities saw in the Civil Rights era and making Atlanta relatively progressive on desegregation. But they also critique its fossilization of a top-down system that shut out the general public — especially the working and poor classes. Highways and stadiums that tore down entire communities for business gain are among the many examples.
“In all that occurred during the heyday of the Atlanta Way, the main beneficiaries were the white and Black elites. The poor and others never got their voice heard,” Bayor said in an email.
“To bring more groups to the table is a good idea, and it is notable that the mayoral candidates are speaking about this,” Bayor said. “But it cannot be done in a paternalistic way or by paying little attention to the new voices. It’s easy to say that other groups will be part of the discussion, but not easy to actually give them a voice that will be considered in decisions.”
The Atlanta Way, and its closely related motto, the “city too busy to hate,” came out of the era of Mayors William Hartsfield and Ivan Allen Jr. in the 1940s through 1960s. It was the “way” the city’s white corporate and political elites kept cash and power flowing as smoothly as they could by giving certain compromise-minded Civil Rights leaders a seat at the table. At the same time, part of the goal was making sure Atlanta remained white-led.
The Atlanta Way’s meaning has shifted somewhat over time, especially to adapt to Black political leaders taking control while today’s more progressive-minded corporate powers still retain a hold on many levers of power. Today the term is often used loosely by mayors as a shorthand for Black political power, or for a general aura of local boosterism. The election of incumbent Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was called an example of the Atlanta Way by Kasim Reed, her predecessor; and Bottoms recently said she handled the pandemic the Atlanta Way.
“The ‘Atlanta Way’ was an attempt to avoid violence and street protests by bringing white and Black leaders together for talks,” said Bayor. “Until the 1960s, and in some cases into the 1970s with MARTA, it was a paternalistic process in which whites were in a superior position and Blacks were being brought in to give them as little as possible and avoid disruptions. This situation changed as the Black population secured more power through the vote and growing economic impact on the city. I would say the main shift came with Maynard Jackson’s election as mayor [in 1973]. At that point, there was equality in the process, and the whites didn’t like it.”
A hallmark of the Atlanta Way, and one that persists today, is hashing out debates and plans behind closed doors with tycoons playing key decision-making roles. That means a facade of business-like calm for the outside world, and little or no democratic input for regular folks. It’s a tactic as recent as the enormously controversial — but naturally successful — plan for a public safety training facility at the former Atlanta Prison Farm analyzed in secret and backed by an undisclosed list of corporate funders.
In recent years, the Atlanta Way has taken on another meaning as a way to scold impatient radicals and populists, who in turn sometimes directly challenge the system as a con. The Occupy Atlanta economic justice protest 10 years ago was an early example of such a challenge.
A turning point was the massive Black Lives Matter rallies of 2016, when former Mayor Andrew Young, a Civil Rights activist and Atlanta Way defender, infamously blasted protesters as “unlovable little brats.” In a masterpiece of political jiu-jitsu, then-Mayor Reed called protesters’ bluff by showing up at a Buckhead protest and meeting with their leaders privately inside a police van, then arranging another private sit-down at City Hall; but that discussion fell apart as many demanded the meeting be open to the public. “We know the Atlanta Way,” one organizer said mockingly. Reed ended up sharing a press conference podium with a BLM activist derided as a poser by many other protesters and who is now facing federal charges on accusations he misused his BLM organization’s funds.
The candidates’ ideas
Today, Reed is among the mayoral candidates saying the Atlanta Way needs some kind of reform, along with fellow top-polling contenders Antonio Brown, Andre Dickens, Sharon Gay and Felicia Moore. Their descriptions and prescriptions had some nuances.
The forum where the question was raised is notable itself — it was hosted by one of the classic Atlanta Way participants, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The question was asked by City Hall reporter Wilborn P. Nobles III: “Does the Atlanta Way still exist today, and if so, what does it look like to you in a city where so many people feel like they’re being left out of the equation [and] they don’t have a seat at the table?”
Brown, the most rabble-rousing of the candidates, was no fan of the system.
“I believe the Atlanta Way is not working, and it hasn’t been working for a very long time, just as well as this narrative around Atlanta being a ‘Black mecca’ or a ‘city too busy to hate,’’ he said. While some other contenders mentioned adding seats at the civic table, he said “the people are the table” and Black poor people are especially left out. While suggesting no specific reform, he said the Atlanta Way means residents having to “beg and plead with their elected officials to hear them…”
Dickens’ vision of the Atlanta Way combined a keep-it-local economic vision with support for poor people. “The Atlanta Way worked for a while, and we need to improve upon it, just like any other system,” he said. To him, that meant such examples as Microsoft announcing an Atlanta facility but not how many locals would be employed there, or a ribbon-cutting in Bankhead where the barbecue was imported from Lawrenceville. “It’s disrespectful to Atlanta when we say there’s an Atlanta Way but we always seem to find ourselves supporting outside groups and not supporting our own,” Dickens said. “Poor people want us to help them out and they want us to take them seriously right now.”
Gay praised the achievements of the Atlanta Way while saying last year’s Black Lives Matter protests showed it’s time for a change. “Over the years of our history, the Atlanta Way has been essential in moving Atlanta forward rather than backward and making Atlanta and therefore Georgia, really, the capital of the New South, not the veneration of the past,” she said. “But it is not sufficient for where we are today… Too much of our planning has been top-down, however well-meaning that might be, and we need to broaden the seats at the table and have a truly inclusive Atlanta.”
Moore called for an Atlanta Way “2.0” that is more inclusive by class and “other ethnicities” in the city. “The Atlanta Way has to become everyone’s way and it needs to be with a larger table inclusive of more people,” she said. “And it’s not just about race in Atlanta. It also has to be about class and economic status, and we have to open that table up to more people and have more conversations… So yes the Atlanta Way can exist, but it needs to be the 2.0 where we’re increasing who is at the table.”
Reed spoke strongly in defense of the old Atlanta Way with allusions to Buckhead cityhood as a threat. He said that “for generations since, we’ve all benefited because of it.” Today, he said, it’s “at risk right now, not because of our unity or our feeling for one another. It’s at risk because we’ve had an explosion in crime and violence that’s ripping our city apart with people who disagree on the approaches and it’s making it very hard for us to have important conversations. It’s also hurting our national and international reputation.”
However, Reed also acknowledged some need for change. “I think the view of the Atlanta Way has to be much more broad,” he said. “It has to include LGBTQ people. It has to include Hispanic people, in order to be improving in a positive and bold way.”
One of those five candidates is likely to be the next mayor of Atlanta. How likely they are to actually change the Atlanta Way is, of course, a totally different question.
Bayor, the student of the Atlanta Way’s history, says the ultimate proof won’t be in a metaphorical seat at a metaphorical table, but in power.
“Voting and economic power will determine how strong their voices will be,” he says of those left out of today’s decision-making and string-pulling. “Street protests can work if the city’s reputation is affected. Atlanta is still a business-oriented city where its reputation around the world is of paramount importance.”