‘Year of the Reveal’: Runoffs Follow Pandemic, Protests and a Test of Atlanta’s Promise

Whenever someone tries to knock Nikema Williams for not being a city native, she replies that her story is intrinsically Atlantean. Ms. Williams, who was elected in November to Representative John Lewis’s former seat in Congress after his death last year, grew up in Smiths Station, just over the Chattahoochee River in Alabama, raised in a house without indoor plumbing.

As a student at Talladega College, a small historically Black school in Alabama, she and her friends drove to Atlanta to shop and party. Ms. Williams, a Democrat who most recently served in the State Senate, saw Black elected officials, business leaders, artists and civil rights leaders. “You saw Black people living the full promise of this country,” she said.

“I moved here not knowing a soul,” Ms. Williams said, “but I was able to get involved, get engaged and find my way.” But, she added, “we still have a ways to go.”

A gulf has always existed between the aspirations of the “Atlanta Way” and the lived reality of many residents.

“Atlanta is unique and does have this particular way,” Ms. Lee said. “And yet, let’s be clear when we think about what it means: We have this reality, and a kind of hype and P.R. campaign — and those are separate things.”

A series of events this year shined a fresh light on the divide.

One evening in May, after George Floyd’s death in the custody of the Minneapolis police set off protests across the country, crowds in Atlanta smashed the windows of downtown businesses, vandalized the CNN Center and set a police car ablaze. “What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a raw news conference, replayed repeatedly on local television and radio stations.

The demonstrations gained a new vigor after Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by the Atlanta police. Officers had been called to a Wendy’s parking lot where, the authorities said, Mr. Brooks had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-through lane. The city’s police chief, Erika Shields, resigned, and the officer who shot Mr. Brooks was fired and charged with murder.

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