The New South's Capital Likes to Contradict Itself

By William Jelani Cobb
Sunday, July 13, 2008


This past January, Sen. Barack Obama delivered a speech on Martin Luther King Day at Ebenezer Baptist Church here. The symbolism was obvious. Appearing in King's home church just a few weeks after winning the Iowa caucuses, Obama was a visible embodiment of the boldest aspirations of the civil rights movement. When he returned to the Atlanta metro area last week to speak and raise money for his campaign, the moment was less symbolic but possibly even more significant: The first African American with a reasonable chance of becoming president is fighting for the "New South." And he could win it.

It's no coincidence that Obama has visited Atlanta at least three times in the past year. The capital of the New South, Atlanta is a small town trapped inside a big city, a place firmly committed to putting the past behind it and a place where history shows through like paint under primer. To understand how -- and whether -- the Illinois senator's "Southern strategy" might have a chance, take a look at this Bible Belt city where the visibility and political clout of gays rivals that of New York or San Francisco. This is the place where King's vision has been most fully realized. In these early days of the 21st century, Atlanta has become a microcosm of black America.

And we have the contradictions to prove it.

You enter the city via Hartsfield-Jackson, the busiest airport in the country. It's named after two mayors -- one white, one black -- tethered together by a hyphen, a history and a commitment to progress. In fact, if there's any single obsession that binds the city to its past, it's this idea of "progress."

More than a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois lamented that the passion for progress was ruining Atlanta, replacing charm with ambition and faith with lucre. Atlanta's symbol is the phoenix, and almost since the city's 1847 founding, change has been a constant. (It had three names in the first 20 years of its existence.) In its most recent incarnation, the city has been reborn as "ATL," a locale that is to blacks of this era what Harlem was in the 1920s: the destination for a critical mass of highly educated and talented blacks in search of a better life.

Though I was born and raised in New York, my family history in Georgia dates back to the days of slavery. Frustrated by the lack of educational and employment opportunity for blacks in the state, my father left for Harlem at 17, just before World War II. Six years ago, I moved to Atlanta to take a job as a history professor at Spelman College, a highly regarded historically black college for women.

That's progress: A generation later, Georgia lured me for the precise reasons my father left it.

ATL and Atlanta are distinct places, two cities born under different signs, even if they share the same longitude and latitude. The former is both an international city and a mecca for black migrants. It's a place that came into being just after Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics, a place where few residents are natives.

In ATL, a thicket of race, success, vanity, poverty and glamour is packaged with great municipal swagger. If BET could design a city, it would look a lot like this one. Both the cable TV network and this city have prospered thanks to black music -- and by marketing a vision of black success and conspicuous consumption. In 2005, Mayor Shirley Franklin, a Philadelphia-raised transplant, undertook a branding campaign that actually commissioned music producer and longtime resident Dallas Austin to create an R&B song called "ATL."

A friend of mine who moved here, opened a successful business, bought a huge house and married a beautiful woman said that he came to the city because he "knew that as a black man, there was nothing that you couldn't achieve in Atlanta." You can see why he believes that. In 2007, Georgia's capital had the second-largest black middle class in the country, teeming with college graduates.

The city has also become a sort of epicenter for the "prosperity gospel" movement, which gives divine benediction to the notion of luxuriant well-being. Eddie Long, pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist megachurch, who reportedly earned $3 million in three years from his nonprofit charity, agreed, under threat of subpoena, to provide Senate investigators with details of his financial records. Creflo Dollar, the pastor of World Changers, another megachurch, has refused to do the same; his famously lavish lifestyle includes several Rolls Royces and a $2.5 million apartment in Manhattan, in addition to a sizable home in an Atlanta suburb. Taken in isolation, this is American excess as usual, but in ATL, you can't help noticing the distance between these theological perspectives and that of King, who -- almost literally -- opened the doors for them.

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