Why Did Keisha Lance Bottoms Quit?

The mayor of Atlanta was a rising star in Democratic politics. Then the crime wave hit.

Photo: Elijah Nouvelage
Photo: Elijah Nouvelage
Photo: Elijah Nouvelage

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On a sunny Wednesday in November, Keisha Lance Bottoms went to the Atlanta City Detention Center, a water-stained hulk of concrete with slits for windows glaring out over Peachtree Street. She was there on a kind of valedictory tour, showcasing her accomplishments as she gets ready to leave the mayor’s office. “I thought this one was dead in the water,” she would tell me later of the deal that is turning part of this facility into a “diversion center” — a place where cops can bring people with behavioral problems that is not jail or the hospital. The floor inside was a ratty mix of linoleum and pilling brown carpet, and a podium had been set up for the event. That’s where Bottoms started to cry. “I’ve been crying a lot lately,” she admitted, wiping away tears.

The tears could mean a lot of things at this point: pride or disappointment or relief that it’s all going to be over soon. Bottoms’s time in office has been marked by dizzying highs (she was on the shortlist to become Joe Biden’s vice-president in 2020) and shocking lows, like her sudden announcement in May that, after a solitary term, she wouldn’t run for reelection that fall. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. When she took office in 2018, magic was the theme of her inauguration, a term she used liberally to describe the election that lifted her, “a girl named Keisha,” to the highest office in America’s so-called Black mecca. “I truly believe it was the energy and inspiration of generations of Black-girl magic that fueled our victory,” the mayor said in her first big speech, at Morehouse College. “I am Atlanta magic. You are Atlanta magic. We are Atlanta magic.”

The notion that Atlanta is exceptional was also the theme of her big moment on the national stage. In the summer of 2020, the city looked like the rest of the country: angry and at war with itself, with rioters torching cop cars amid peaceful protests after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The mayor was shaken and disappointed. “Go home,” she said. “When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn’t do this to our city. So if you love this city — this city that has had a legacy of Black mayors and Black police chiefs and people who care about this city, where more than 50 percent of the business owners in Metro Atlanta are minority business owners — if you care about this city, then go home.”

The people in the streets weren’t interested in her plea — cops had been kettling and arresting them by the hundreds — but they weren’t her only audience. Pundits praised her response as a savvy blend of disapproval and empathy. “Your passion, your composure, your balance has been really incredible,” Biden told her. The vice-presidency ultimately went to Kamala Harris, and Bottoms declined the consolation prize of heading the Small Business Administration, but her political future still looked brighter than ever. She was a bona fide rising star in the Democratic Party, so much so that after Biden was sworn in, his first campaign event was a fund-raiser for her reelection. An internal poll this past spring had the mayor’s approval rating at 68 percent in Atlanta. The question didn’t seem to be whether she would win a second term but what she would do with her governing mandate once she did.

And she knew which vision of Atlanta she wanted people to see. “Atlanta will be known for lemon-pepper wings and great strip clubs if we’re not careful,” she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2020, trotting out some of the hoariest stereotypes about the city’s Black poor. There is nothing wrong with those things, she clarified when we sat down for an interview in the mayor’s ceremonial room at City Hall. “I love it all,” she said. I had met Bottoms in passing once or twice before — my father-in-law helped with her campaign — and I recognized the same careful evenness in her voice. Her face mask was embroidered with the logo of Florida A&M University, her alma mater, to match her blazing-orange dress. “I have lemon-pepper wings every Friday, fried crisp.”

Her point, she said, was that Atlantans had a responsibility to honor the city’s past and preserve its legacy. This was the cradle of the civil-rights movement, after all, home to some of the country’s most prestigious HBCUs and a place where Black residents have prospered under Black mayors and Black business leaders. The vaunted “Atlanta Way” — the colloquial term used for the collaboration among Black and white elites that has kept the city humming since the middle of the 20th century — is the “envy” of other big-city mayors, she told me. But it’s also a profoundly divided city, the most unequal in the U.S. in several recent years. Black wealth sits astride an equally striking degree of Black poverty.

All of which gives her departure a whiff of surrender, a sense that the city’s problems are, for all the breathless boosterism that surrounds it, intractable. She has certainly had enough of the job itself. “My assessment has not been any different than Simone Biles’s or Naomi Osaka’s or Calvin Ridley’s, any number of other people who said, ‘I’m putting my emotional and mental health first,’ ” she told me.

She admits that being mayor was never a great fit for her personality — “an introvert masking as an extrovert” is how she describes herself, someone who would “much rather be somewhere reading a book than sitting at a party.” The gulf between her temperament and the demands of a job that is usually held by people she calls “social sponges” only got wider in the past year. Since the riots in 2020, Atlanta voters have become transfixed by crime. Murders were up by 50 percent from 2019 to 2021, roughly on pace with Chicago and Philadelphia — part of a national trend, though still a statistical aberration amid a historic lull. The developing picture has been painted with a “panicked brush,” Bottoms said, and residents have responded in kind: Crime was their top concern ahead of the November 30 runoff election. The top candidates to replace her as mayor, Atlanta City Council president Felicia Moore and Councilmember Andre Dickens, were well to her right on policing, though Dickens, the more dovish of the two, prevailed.

And while these problems were coming into focus, Bottoms was thinking about death a lot. “My dad died suddenly at 55,” said the mayor, who turns 52 in January. “When my dad turned 50, he had five years left that he didn’t know were only five years left. If those were my last five years on earth, how would I want to spend them?”

So she was there at the jail, taking a first stab at the official story of what her brief mayoralty has meant. Her time in office seemed to have sobered her; the magical transcendence that marked her inauguration had given way to a recognition that a lot would go unfinished. “I’m not God,” she said. “In the same way the groundwork for so many things was laid by previous mayors, I’m laying the groundwork for mayors to come as well.”

Whether her successor builds on that legacy remains to be seen. But the deeper question about Bottoms’s tenure haunts other American cities, too, especially after George Floyd — whether the demands of being a Black mayor are at odds with making those cities work for all Black people.

Keisha Lance Bottoms. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage

A week after our interview, Bottoms shared a video on Twitter of her father, the singer Major Lance, performing on Soul Train in 1972. He’s singing “Since I Lost My Baby’s Love,” a B-side single he had released the previous year, and wearing an extraordinary getup: a floppy newsboy cap, lapels out to his shoulders, and foot-devouring bell-bottoms. “My mom says a man on Auburn Ave made this outfit,” wrote Bottoms, shouting out Atlanta’s oldest Black commercial district. “Not sure which I like best, the voice, moves, or the suit. Love it all!”

The mayor’s social media is full of warm tributes to her dad, who died of heart disease in 1994. She writes him birthday posts every April 4. In June 2019, she shared what she captioned the “best throwback pic EVER” from around 1976. It shows young Keisha — hands on her hips with a tight half-grin, half-grimace on her face — and her father working in their backyard garden alongside soul icon Curtis Mayfield, who grew up with Lance in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project.

Her public archive is an abundance of feel-good riches, but it can also seem at times to indicate a daughter trying to reckon with a parental relationship that was beset by loss. In 1978, 8-year-old Keisha came home from school to find her father being led away in handcuffs. By the late 1970s, Lance’s music career, which had taken him and his family to England and back to Atlanta, had largely stalled. He struggled with addiction and started selling cocaine to keep the money flowing, which led to his arrest. The “trauma of that day forever altered the trajectory of my family,” Bottoms wrote of her father’s arrest and the years-long prison stint that followed.

Her mother, Sylvia, worked to keep the family afloat. She held multiple jobs — at the post office, an apartment-complex rental office, the Internal Revenue Service — before she enrolled in cosmetology school and opened her own salon in 1981. By 1986, she had moved her children into at least five different homes, crossing town in a rickety Ford Mustang that was often short on gas. (In 2019, Bottoms told Atlanta magazine that, to this day, the tanks in her family’s cars are always kept full.) During Lance’s incarceration, most weekends were spent driving across the state to various prisons to visit him, and the couple divorced around the time he got out in 1982. His sporadic presence in the lives of his children, on top of the extra workload Sylvia had to shoulder in his absence, felt to Bottoms “as if I had lost not one but both of my parents.”

She went from being a withdrawn child to a private and reserved adult. Over the course of her time at Frederick Douglass High School, Florida A&M, and law school at Georgia State University, the future mayor earned a reputation as studious and well liked — but also driven by a fear of precarity, determined to outrun the loss and instability that marked her childhood.

In 1994, the same year her father died, Keisha Lance married Derek Bottoms, a fellow law student. As a couple, they set out to build the kind of life that could easily have been packaged in a brochure and mailed to all the young Black professionals at whom so much of Atlanta’s cheerleading is directed. They put in time at their respective law firms. She made a career change, becoming a speechwriter for Thurbert Baker, then Georgia’s attorney general. Between 2002 and 2018, she went from being a magistrate judge, to a councilmember, to the mayor. Her husband is now an executive at the Home Depot. They have four children together.

Around 1976: Bottoms’s father, Major Lance; Keisha; and Curtis Mayfield in the family’s garden in Collier Heights. Photo: Courtesy of Keisha Lance Bottoms

Modern Atlanta was built by people like the Bottomses. By the tail end of Jim Crow, Atlanta was known as “the city too busy to hate,” a motto encouraged by local power brokers to assure wary capitalists that for all the tumult tearing across the South, their city was still safe for business. Wealthy white moderates, Black leaders, and white officials agreed that profit and progress didn’t have to be mutually exclusive — that as long as the city desegregated in increments, racial strife could be kept at bay.

This sunny image hid a pattern of local terrorism: White homeowners went to great lengths to avoid having Black neighbors, including threatening prospective buyers and even, on several occasions, bombing their own homes. Through the 1970s and beyond, droves of whites fled this incursion for suburbia, convinced a Black takeover was imminent. To the astonishment of many, Black stewardship brought prosperity. An uninterrupted streak of Black mayors, starting in 1974, is the most visible emblem of Atlanta’s rebirth as a Black mecca and a global city. Black cultural and educational institutions now predominate, and Black wealth is more common here than in almost any other American metropolis.

That Bottoms had a foot in both worlds — the downtrodden Atlanta and the enterprising Atlanta — was a principal appeal of her candidacy. She has an “authenticity that makes people trust” her, said Tharon Johnson, her former campaign adviser. “She’s very relatable.” Early in her term, when she ended cash bail and threw her weight behind the criminal-justice-reform measures proposed by then–presidential candidate Biden, she made sure her decisions were understood as part of a deep-seated desire to make the system more humane than it was when her family got caught under its heel. “My dad was a wonderful person,” she told me. “If addiction could impact my family and my dad the way that it did, it’s impacting people across this city.”

Almost from the moment she was sworn in, Bottoms faced an unprecedented sequence of crises. In March 2018, hackers based in Iran took the city’s computer system offline and demanded the bitcoin equivalent of a $51,000 ransom. Bottoms refused to pay. The system stayed offline for close to a week, reverting many city services to pen-and-paper operations.

Republicans in the state legislature barely gave her time to breathe before launching a new salvo: a threat to pass legislation for the state to take over the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the city’s crown jewel. That effort fizzled as it became clear that Governor Brian Kemp and most of the GOP leadership did not have an appetite for the fight it would entail.

Then in early 2020, a new coronavirus made its way to the U.S. Atlantans died by the hundreds, the economy ground to a halt, and Bottoms got into a public fight with the governor over the stay-at-home order and mask mandate she wanted to impose.

By late May 2020, a desolate mood had crept over the city. The freeways had emptied, and at certain times of the day it felt like you could easily cross a dozen lanes on foot. The smog had evaporated, whitening the clouds. Backyards transformed into miniature wildlife preserves where lone coyotes greeted our claps and hollers with bored indifference, and armies of birds gathered outside our homes with Hitchcockian audacity. But even as the days started melting into one another, with no vaccine or end in sight, people by and large did not take their frustrations out on Bottoms.

It turned out that none of these challenges compared to what would happen later that month, after the killing of Floyd. It’s more than a little ironic, given how competent or lucky the mayor was when facing the other curveballs fate threw her way, that it was the issue of criminal justice, to which she boasts such a vivid personal connection, that most confounded her.

December 2020: Joe Biden and Bottoms after a rally for U.S. Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and the Reverend Raphael Warnock. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

I don’t believe that people on the street even heard me that night,” Bottoms told me, referring to her much-publicized call for the demonstrators to go home. She has an idea why. “That really wasn’t a Black protest,” she claimed bizarrely. “There were times we had more white people protesting than Black people, which is why that night, or that evening, when I turned on the television, I knew there was something different about that protest. It didn’t look like a typical Atlanta protest. It physically looked like a different crowd to me.”

I asked the mayor why she brought up Black mayors and Black police chiefs in her speech when a Black mayor and largely Black police force were some of the protesters’ main targets. “What we saw last summer was something we’d never seen on many levels,” she said. Her goal, she explained, was to offer a historical template for navigating unfamiliar, dangerous terrain. “For whoever was out there protesting, let me remind you of our history, who we are, and how we respond in a moment of crisis.”

It often seemed that this idea — that a Black political structure is worth preserving in its own right — hobbled Bottoms’s response to a crisis whose dynamics kept shifting. In June 2020, another Black man, Rayshard Brooks, was killed by a white cop in Atlanta, and the visibly depleted mayor spoke to the press on June 15 to chart a path forward. Officer Garrett Rolfe, who killed Brooks, had recently completed de-escalation training. Bottoms lamented the futility of trying to “train our way” into racial enlightenment, only to announce that one of her new reform ideas for the Atlanta Police Department was a de-escalation requirement.

The plan satisfied neither the reenergized protesters nor the “tough on crime” contingent in the city government, emboldened by the images of disorder on the evening news. Rioters burned down the Wendy’s drive-through where Brooks died, and a group of dissidents set up an occupation amid the charred rubble. Bottoms did not immediately order the police to break it up, allowing the camp to stand for several weeks. On July 4, an 8-year-old girl named Secoriea Turner and her family drove up to a makeshift barrier near the Wendy’s, and armed people opened fire. Secoriea was killed.

The slain child became a fixture of the backlash against both the mayor and the protests. Young organizers “found themselves being demonized and vilified for really an anomalous act,” said Tiffany Roberts, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “And it felt like no one at City Hall had the courage to even draw some distinctions or disrupt some of the rhetoric that seemed to suggest” these movements against state violence “were in some way responsible for that tragic event.”

Moore, the president of the City Council, started pressuring Bottoms to bring “peace back to the city,” and in January 2021, Moore announced she would be running to unseat the mayor with a campaign focused on “crime that is out of control in every neighborhood.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial board began beating the same drum. “Atlanta is your responsibility,” the group wrote in a column that opened and closed by invoking Secoriea’s death. “And you must do more to reduce the bloodshed here.”

Few Atlantans, the mayor included, are unmoved by concerns about safety. “First thing when I wake up in the morning, I see five messages on what happened overnight. I immediately do the rundown list on Where — especially my 19-year-old — where is he?” Bottoms told me. Nighttime gunshots are also a regular chorus where I live. This past summer, an HVAC technician texted me after leaving my home. A motorist had stopped in front of a house up the street, he wrote, and unloaded with an AK-47.

The mayor responded to the increased violence by trying to satisfy a lot of conflicting demands while avoiding the one that gave the protests their unusual intensity: the idea that policing itself is a crisis and needs to be reimagined or abolished. She earned plaudits for being decisive in 2020 when she fired Officer Rolfe and accepted the resignation of Chief Erika Shields. Then 170 cops called out sick in protest. Less than a year after protesters had chanted “Defund the police” up and down Atlanta’s thoroughfares, the mayor rewarded the officers’ abdication of duty with a $2,500 pay bonus across the department.

And what might have been interpreted at the time as a gambit to put out a lot of different fires has shown itself in the months since to be a full-blown reinvestment in policing. In July, Bottoms announced plans to spend $70 million on hiring 250 new officers and further expand the city’s surveillance apparatus by adding hundreds of cameras. Cops now brag to local reporters about how many people they’re pulling over for traffic citations. One unit, composed of just six officers and two supervisors, stopped 2,300 motorists between January and mid-February 2021.

I asked Bottoms if her investments in law enforcement, like her pay raise and hiring push, were politically motivated. “No,” she said, repeating a line she had spent months rehearsing. “The reality is this: Our police officers respond to crime. As long as there are criminals, you’re going to have to have police officers.”

She added, “Atlanta is not without fault, because we’ve not always gotten it right. But I do think, when you look at cities like Los Angeles, our history with policing has not always been as complicated as it’s been in other major cities. I think that’s worth noting.”

She was adamant that “systemic issues” needed to be addressed too, citing the diversion center and her One Atlanta initiative to reduce economic inequality. “I don’t think one has to be mutually exclusive over the other,” she said. But even the plan to repurpose part of the jail has been plagued by half-measures and political infighting. She had previously committed to closing the Atlanta City Detention Center altogether. It holds about 30 prisoners a night these days and has become “something we didn’t need to continue to carry on our books,” she told me. But the City Council wasn’t onboard, and the mayor spent months negotiating a compromise with surrounding Fulton County, which wanted to buy the jail from Atlanta to absorb overflow from its own crowded facility.

The result, which ended up having bipartisan support, was a new animal altogether. The Center for Diversion and Services will have showers and treatment resources for people with behavioral-health problems (“nonviolent” people, the celebrants were careful to emphasize). The “county jail is the biggest mental-health facility in the Southeast,” lamented Judge Robert McBurney of the Superior Court of Fulton County, taking the podium before the mayor and saying he hoped the new center would change that.

The jail is still open, though. “I hope the next administration will commit to a full repurposing of the facility,” Bottoms said. “It would, in my opinion, be a very natural, easy lift for the next mayor to take it one step further and close it completely as a detention center.” But Mayor-elect Dickens is already planning to keep the jail open to lock up Fulton County’s extra prisoners. And the current agreement to house the diversion center stands for only two years with an annual option to renew.

November 2021: Bottoms announcing an agreement to put a pre-arrest diversion center at the city jail.

Like many of the police-reform activists she has fought to distance herself from, Bottoms suspects the recent uptick in crime is mostly due to COVID. “It’s what I’ve described as the COVID crime wave,” she told me. Sickness is the root of it, she says, the cause of heightened insecurity, shortened fuses, and economic convulsion in many of the city’s neighborhoods. She knows that when cops are used to address sickness, it can destroy families, because that’s what happened to hers.

But mayors of Atlanta are bound to a system that precludes such nuance. The city’s first Black chief executive, Maynard Jackson, elected in 1973, paired an initiative to grow Atlanta’s Black middle and upper classes with an unusual attentiveness to the Black poor. He invested unprecedented time, money, and administrative clout into low-income housing and infrastructure in poor neighborhoods. It did not last. White business leaders accused Jackson of anti-white bias, a charge he felt compelled to disprove as they threatened to take their dealings elsewhere. By his second term, the mayor had switched gears, breaking a sanitation workers’ strike in 1977 and moving money from neighborhood-improvement projects to downtown development.

This has been the prevailing dynamic ever since. “An established, as well as rising, Black middle class could only benefit from a city in which the racial priorities but not the class priorities had changed,” writes historian Ronald H. Bayor. As Andrew Young, the city’s second Black mayor, once remarked, “Politics doesn’t control the world; money does. And we ought not to be upset about that.” To this day, Atlanta’s Black working class and poor are routinely left behind — their neighborhoods bisected, left to deteriorate in the shadow of new sports stadiums; their economic needs deprioritized in new business ventures welcomed by the city government.

Black mayors are tasked with managing this order on the tacit condition they don’t change it. You get the sense that many, from Jackson to Bottoms, are driven by the apprehension that boom times are fragile — that this experiment in Black rule, for all its successes, could just as easily fall apart and vindicate the racists. Atlanta’s economic momentum is already under threat from its mostly white Northside. The local cityhood movement, in which mainly rich communities in Georgia break off to form small cities, has recently enticed Buckhead, Atlanta’s wealthiest district. The big reason its leaders have given for wanting to secede is crime. And the easiest way for mayors to perform seriousness on the matter is to throw money at cops, to greet Black suffering with nightsticks and gun barrels.

Atlanta isn’t unique in this regard. Several cities run by Black mayors — including Chicago and Washington, D.C., and, soon, New York — have responded to the revolutionary promise of last summer by realigning with the police. The assumption that Black political leaders are naturally more committed to justice for Black people looks as shaky as ever. An enduring lesson of the past 18 months, as fears about crime have taken familiar shapes, is that Black-led American cities are still American cities first and foremost.

In July, Bottoms was named an honorary HBCU fellow at Clark Atlanta University. She said she is fielding “a nice assortment” of job opportunities in the public and private sectors. She is also leaving a parting gift for the city’s police. The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, approved by the City Council in September and supported by Governor Kemp, is set to replace an older facility that the mayor calls “deplorable” — “I wouldn’t send my worst enemy over there,” she told me. If it looks anything like the early renderings, the new center will be bucolic. Like Atlanta itself, the complex referred to derisively by local activists as “Cop City” will be woven into a forest — this time on the grounds of an old prison farm in DeKalb County, one of the largest pieces of vacant city-owned property in town.

The mock-ups call to mind the secluded bliss of northeastern liberal-arts campuses. Each glossy structure is ringed by trees, each walkway lined with lush grass. Shafts of sunlight illuminate the wooded jogging trail that members of the nearby communities are invited to use — a “green-space,” the planners have called it. There are stables for the mounted-patrol horses fronted by abundant fields of grass for them to eat. There’s a building where firefighters can practice their rescue drills while real flames lick their heels and a fake little city in which cops can rehearse drug raids, riot control, and hostage situations. It’s a place whose key purpose, its proponents say, is to make cops feel better. “It’s going to lift the morale and optimism of the police officers tenfold,” said Atlanta Police Foundation head Dave Wilkinson.

For the mayor, it’s also about proving to the police that Atlantans deserve their respect. “If we want officers who respect our city, respect our communities, I don’t know how we expect to get that in return when we send them in places for training and it seems as if we don’t respect ourselves,” she told me. By investing accordingly, she and her partners have conjured a sylvan paradise where every cop can feel like a hero in their own fable. If someone told you it looked magical, you might not even blink.

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Why Did Keisha Lance Bottoms Quit?