Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks onstage at the New Yorker Festival 2015 on October 4, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images for The New Yorker)
Media critic

Ta-Nehisi Coates is leaving his position as a national correspondent for the Atlantic, a publication where he has emerged as one of the country’s top reporters and thinkers. He has not signed on with a competing publication. “It was this or nothing,” the 42-year-old Coates told the Erik Wemple Blog. “I didn’t have anything else.”

In a note to staff, top Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, in part, “Our colleague, and dear friend, Ta-Nehisi Coates is stepping down as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. As he has explained to me — and as he’s written in the recent past — the last few years for him have been years of significant changes. He’s told me that he would like to take some time to reflect on these changes, and to figure out the best path forward, both as a person and as a writer.”

For the past several years, the path has been all forward for Coates. So forward, indeed, that it’s easy to forget that a decade ago, he had been laid off by Time magazine and was looking a place to land. With some assistance from David Carr, Coates did some blogging work for the Atlantic and was hired by James Bennet in 2008. “Saved my life,” said Coates. (Coates was a former colleague of the Erik Wemple Blog at the Washington City Paper.)

Awards followed. “The Case for Reparations” from June 2014 combined Coates’s sense of justice for historical wrongs with diligent reporting — it starts with a black nonagenarian who’d been swindled by the very racist systems exposed in the piece. “Between the World and Me” — which won the National Book Award — forces readers to reckon with the reality that in the United States, black people have never had sovereignty over their own bodies. More recently, his Atlantic essay “The First White President” nailed just what the world’s “least racist person” is up to — and pairs nicely with Adam Serwer’s essay on “The Nationalist’s Delusion.”

With the successes came celebrity — work-infringing celebrity. Coates describes a protest he covered for a story less than a year ago. He gets to the protest, and proceeds to do his job as a reporter. Then: “There was a guy taking pictures of the protest and then he started taking pictures of me … That’s symptomatic of how the job has changed for me,” said Coates, who remembers less stressful days as a less famous blogger. “When I used to write, it was like I felt like I had more freedom to write as I felt. I didn’t think I was representing anything more than my own feelings and thoughts.”

Goldberg: “Ta-Nehisi is so well known that when he shows up as a reporter to an event … he can change the nature of the event just by being there, and that’s not a comfortable thing for a reporter.” For more on the topic, simply Google the name of Cornel West in proximity to Coates.

Another thing: Coates says that when he started on the reparations project, his mission wasn’t to force action in Congress. It was to master the topic for himself. “There’s a kind of power that comes from only vaguely understanding something and then getting it,” he said. When he started at the Atlantic 10 years ago, “I had a lot more questions than I do now. I have not felt the need to comment on every little thing that comes out,” said Coates.

Earlier this year, Goldberg hired the conservative writer Kevin Williamson away from National Review, only to reverse the decision after critics surfaced some of the writer’s archived views on abortion. Coates had previously praised Williamson’s writing, raising the question among onlookers as to what role he may have played in the kerfuffle. HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg got a leaked recording of a staff meeting headlined by Goldberg and Coates. In it, another staffer, Vann R. Newkirk II, asks some pointed questions about the situation:

Newkirk: Well, when David French did the piece quoting both of you, he quoted you and did not quote Kevin. But it’s interesting. I mean you’ve seen all things about what you’ve written that might be considered beyond the pale. You’ve seen it. It seems to me that we are having a conversation resting on something of your moral authority, your role in this. As Jeff said, not in the hiring position, but in lending some sort of moral credence to what we do here at the Atlantic. How do you feel about that? And, Jeff, is that a sustainable thing?

Goldberg: What do you mean sustainable?

Newkirk: That we have a person like Ta-Nehisi, who is an amazing journalist and person and friend to many of us, who is sort of the ongoing center of many of these conversations about who we are and what we do.

Goldberg: Is it sustainable?

Coates: No, I understand what he’s saying. I understand exactly what he’s saying.

Goldberg: You mean as a moral insurance policy? Or as a person who becomes a lightning rod for a lot of what is said about the Atlantic?

Newkirk: I mean, I think it’s both. The lightning rod is part of the package.

Coates: I understand what he’s saying. No, it’s not sustainable.

In his discussion with the Erik Wemple Blog, Coates repeated that sentiment, while making clear that he didn’t have a problem with Goldberg’s decisions — just the way he ended up sucked into the maelstrom by sheer weight of standing. “I became the public face of the magazine in many ways and I don’t really want to be that. I want to be a writer,” said Coates. “I’m not a symbol of what the Atlantic wants to do or whatever.”

He’s still a writer, whose gigs include a new book, comic-book writing, teaching at New York University. And if Goldberg gets his wish, some freelancing in the future: “I, of course, have a hope, and I don’t think this is a groundless hope, that in six months or a year, he’ll text me and say, ‘Hey, I have this great idea for a piece.’ ”

Full memo from Goldberg:

Dear All,

I’m writing today with some bittersweet news. Our colleague, and dear friend, Ta-Nehisi Coates is stepping down as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. As he has explained to me — and as he’s written in the recent past — the last few years for him have been years of significant changes. He’s told me that he would like to take some time to reflect on these changes, and to figure out the best path forward, both as a person and as a writer.

It should go without saying – but I will say it anyway – that Ta-Nehisi will forever be a member of The Atlantic family, and he will of course continue to mentor and coach many of our up-and-coming young journalists. But this is still something of a parting. We’ve been friends for a long while, though, and I do understand his desire for change, and for a period of contemplation.

I called this a bittersweet moment. But what is the sweet part? For starters, Ta-Nehisi’s extraordinary record of achievement at The Atlantic. Any fair-minded assessment of The Atlantic’s long history would include Ta-Nehisi on the list of its most significant contributors. He joined us in 2008, and soon began experimenting, semi-obscurely, with a then-new form of online expression (young readers of this memo should ask Jim Fallows to explain “blogging” to them). Today, Ta-Nehisi is one of America’s most celebrated writers. His cover stories, such as “The Case for Reparations” and “The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration” have changed the way our country thinks about itself. And his writing across the past decade about Barack Obama and his meaning will be studied by presidential historians a century from now.

Throughout Ta-Nehisi’s rise to the highest heights of journalism, he has been a selfless member of our team, an embodiment of this institution’s spirit of generosity. He has also been a great friend to David, Bob, and me. And I know that we will be able to continue to count on him for advice, and for a steady supply of writer recommendations and story ideas.

I’m hoping, of course, that Ta-Nehisi will make journalism for us again soon. I’ve promised him that I won’t lobby excessively on the subject, at least until after Labor Day. For now, he should know that we are grateful for his work, grateful for his contributions to the discourse, and grateful for his friendship. We will gather soon – I’m hoping in early September – to toast his decade of achievement. We will deploy (for once) better-than-average French wine at this toast (he says he would be satisfied with cheap beer, but I’m not sure I believe him).

There is so much more to say about Ta-Nehisi’s contributions to The Atlantic, and I, and others, will share more thoughts when we gather. For now, though, allow me to simply wish my old friend well.