Exclusive: Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on leading through adversity, reducing crime and making killer gumbo

Denene Millner interviews Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms thegrio.com
Chris Mitchell

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, fresh off of a contentious mayoral run-off election that pitted Black Atlantans versus white gentrifiers, progressives versus MAGA sympathizers, the haves against the have nots, is walking into a political lion’s den: the annual meeting of the Buckhead Coalition. The group, which represents prominent business owners in one of the most prosperous—and whitest—corners of the Black Mecca, made clear back in November that Bottoms was not welcome there when it threw its support squarely behind her opponent, Mary Norwood, a white conservative-leaning independent.

With that support came a little cash, sure, but, more importantly, the muscle of the coalition’s political action committee and the megaphone of coalition president Sam Massell, the last white man to be elected Atlanta’s mayor, back in 1969. There is no telling where Massell’s veritable megaphone is on this day or just how coalition members are feeling about their new leader as Mayor Bottoms stands in the back of the room, head bowed.

A minister renders a thoughtful prayer about the importance of diversity and coming together and building bridges—all conciliatory messages that tie into the luncheon’s “Atlanta Together” theme.

This Kumbaya moment was conspicuously absent when last December’s campaign runoff turned into an ugly referendum on race, class, gentrification, Trumpism and whether it was time for white folk to finally take back the political reigns in this Southern metropolitan city, where the majority Black middle class is withering under massive income inequality, a separate and unequal school system, rampant crime, and a mass swap of affordable housing for McMansions and coffee shops hawking $8.79 vanilla mocha lattes.

As she moves through enemy territory toward her table in the front of the room, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, 48, is a speck of pepper in this invitation-only stew of mostly white business owners; the few African Americans in the room are mostly either invited politicians, reporters covering the event or wait staff gently placing plates of filet mignon and salmon on the traditionally-appointed tables at which coalition members are seated. The air is thick—the greetings polite. And Massell, along with Coalition Chairman Juanita Branco, are talking that talk—making nice. Rather, kissing the new mayor’s ring.

Bottoms, a former magistrate judge and city councilwoman, understands the game and plays it well. The married mother of four children (she’s married to Derek Bottoms, an attorney and executive vice president for Home Depot) is gentle with the crowd and, in her speech, accepts the coalition’s olive branch and offers a few of her own, covered in the glitter and gold her audience craves: she pledges to raise Atlanta’s AA bond rating to AAA and work diligently to convince Amazon to establish roots for its new 50,000-job headquarters in the heart of Atlanta. But, she adds, “I want to make sure that… companies like yours are not forgotten, that your businesses are not forgotten, that our communities are not forgotten. While we pursue outside opportunities, it’s extremely important that we not forget those who have stuck with us.”

Her comments are met with a boisterous standing ovation and she graciously presses hands and poses for pictures long after she says her last words. Back in her truck, she offers a big smile when I make note of the coalition’s happy ending: “Everybody loves a winner,” she laughs.

But Mayor Bottoms is not fooled. With barely a month in office—her position is so new that when she settles into the Chesterfield-styled dark caramel foyer couch for an interview with TheGrio, she realizes it’s the first time she’s ever sat there.  She also recognizes that a city divided could easily turn her job into a baptism by fire.

Nonetheless, she will need to tackle a laundry list of inequities that have turned Atlanta into the tale of two cities. While luxury apartment buildings with sky-high rents crowd into what were historically Black neighborhoods, a decline in affordable housing stock has led to what the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta is calling a “crisis” after 22 percent of renters in Atlanta proper’s Fulton County received eviction notices in 2015.

At the same time, white Atlantans make, on average, $80,000 annually, compared to just $30,000 per year for the city’s Black dwellers and a whopping 80 percent of Atlanta’s African American children live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared with just six percent of their white peers. Lack of affordable housing, inequitable pay scales, and poverty rates affect every level of the city: crime rates rise, educational outcomes falter—Atlanta Public Schools graduates less than six in every 10 Black students—and Black residents, struggling to hold on to the glitzy promise of Black Atlanta, are forced to leave, as evidenced by the fact that between 2000 and 2015, the city’s Black population dropped from 61 percent to 53 percent, while the number of white residents rose from 33 percent to 40 percent in the same time period, according to Census figures.

Bottoms understands she’s got her work cut out for her and being Kasim Reid 2.0—critics accused her of being a clone of her mayoral predecessor, whom was widely criticized for “building buildings rather than building people”—will not work, especially if she plans to the kind of Atlanta mayor who can lead from Bankhead to Buckhead. She comes to the gig with a unique perspective: as a mother of four school-age children, keen on the role education plays in success.

She’s also the daughter of 1960s Chicago soul singer Major Lance, whose four-year prison term lurched her upper middle-class family into a swirl of low-income struggles with which Bottoms still identifies. She’s the aunt of an 18-year-old nephew who was murdered by gang members—a tragedy that makes her passionate about crime and creating safer neighborhoods.

In an exclusive sit-down with theGrio, Bottoms talks about her journey to City Hall, the fire she went through to get there, her mayoral agenda and her mission to carve out her own legacy as the 60th mayor of Atlanta.

theGrio: After such a divisive election and scrappy win, how do you let the everyday Atlantan who wouldn’t be sitting in a fancy coalition luncheon or be politically connected know that you can represent everyone, across income and background and access? 

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: It really is about being able to speak the languages of all of our communities, so that we’re heard and we’re understood. I think that goes both ways. It’s a reason my transition team has the CEO of Delta sitting next to Killer Mike and the CEO of UPS sitting next to T.I. It’s important that we are reflected in all of these ways, because we are all of these people in Atlanta. The beauty of growing up as a Black girl in Atlanta, going to a west side high school, is that I learned how to cultivate that. I went to a school where there were kids from the housing projects sitting next to a Civil Right’s icon’s son. We were all extremely diverse in our backgrounds. You learn how to get along with a cross-section of people and you learn very early that knowing how to do that made a difference. And that language and that ability for me to switch hasn’t been lost; if anything, it’s intensified. It doesn’t mean that you’re not authentic at one place or the other. It just means that I am, and we are, all of these things and it’s why we are Atlantans.

theGrio: In your coalition speech, you said a well-meaning friend warned you not to keep telling the story of your father’s imprisonment and how it affected your family. Why did you tell it anyway?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: She thought it would paint me into a corner as someone who wasn’t qualified or fit to lead. I didn’t take it offensively. At times, even I fought against telling it because I didn’t want it to become inauthentic, like, ‘Oh look at me, poor little Black girl whose daddy went to jail and look at me now.’ My story is not very different than a lot of families’ stories At times I’ve, in an authentic way, felt the need to own it and to speak it and to share it. And other times, it’s not necessary, because I’m more than that. Our communities are more than that.

theGrio: What’s the most important takeaway from the story of your father and his imprisonment?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: The biggest lesson is that sometimes good people can make bad decisions—that a lack of options lead to desperation and when you’re desperate, you do desperate things and the impact that has on families can last generations. For me, my perspective now is just a need for our families and our men to have options. What do we have for them on the outside? We can’t sentence our Black men to death sentences. What are we doing to make it better? To make sure that it’s not perpetuated in their children and their families and their communities? You have people who don’t have options, then they make additional bad decisions. What do you expect them to do? Because they still have to eat and they still have to put a roof over their heads.

theGrio: How does this translate into policy under your administration?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: We’re fortunate that the leadership of Mayor Reed has allowed us to be solid, as a city, financially. We do not have to worry, Are we going bankrupt?’ How will we pay our employees? Are we laying people off?’ Can we pave our roads? When you have money in the bank, you can think about other things.

theGrio: What made you sure that running for mayor was a good idea?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: It was November, in church, when I literally had a moment. The irony of this day is that I was going to be a “bedside Baptist,” but my daughter came in and begged me to go to church. We went to a service later than normal,and the associate pastor was preaching. I wish I could remember everything he said, but it literally was the moment that I knew I was to run. I was so overcome, I couldn’t get up out of my seat. I just sat there and cried. I get chills just thinking about it. It was an overwhelming moment because I knew this was about to be a really tough path ahead and, in many ways, my life, which was very nice and comfortable, was about to be very, very uncomfortable. And yet, I knew I was supposed to do this.

theGrio: That was quite an ugly race.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: I’ve been through very turbulent times throughout my life and what I’ve learned is you will get to the other side of it and you’ll be okay. That really was my perspective going into this race. Are you going to kill me, are you going to imprison me, are you going to maim me? Like anything else, I can take it and I knew that my family could too because we’ve gone to the other side before. Does it hurt when you get punched in the mouth the first time? Certainly. Does it hurt the 50th time? It does, but you know what it feels like and you know what to expect.

theGrio: Talk to me about your dealings with the Trump administration. How do you work with a president who is the ideological opposite of you and made a point of trashing the city as a dirty “hell hole”?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: It is very disheartening, on many levels, for me as a mayor, as a mother, as an African American, as a woman, that this is the tone that we’re getting from the President of the United States. It’s frightening and some days, it’s frustrating on others, it angers me at times and it saddens me. I think there’s just a range of emotions that we feel. As a mayor of a major city, if I’m feeling this way, what are our communities feeling and how do we address this? Atlanta is a welcoming city. We are an inclusive city. We are a diverse city. We are metropolitan area. It’s just not just about the boundaries of Atlanta, which is the reason it’s important that we have national leadership that cares about everybody in this country.

theGrio: How do you work within those confines?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: We have a Republican governor, a Republican lieutenant governor, both houses are led by Republicans. It’s important that we have our own relationships and that we work together for common goals. We share concerns and thankfully in Georgia we, in many ways, are just saying what’s good for Atlanta is good for the state and what’s good for the state is good for Atlanta. It doesn’t mean that we will always agree, but we have thoughtful conversation about what the win looks like for all of us. It’s unfortunate that we aren’t having that same level of thoughtfulness at the national level, as it relates to the leadership of Donald Trump.

theGrio: There’s a difference between campaign priorities and then getting in office and seeing this landscape of what the challenges are and having to recommit to a different set of priorities. Did that happen?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: It is night and day. The real work began January 2nd. We talk about Atlanta in that it’s thriving and it’s growing and it’s bustling and all these wonderful things that are happening. But the biggest issue is that our communities are being left behind and this divide between The Haves and The Have Nots is growing by the day. So as it relates to priorities, affordability and equity are number one issues in our city. It impacts everything, followed closely by quality of education in our city. I’ve said repeatedly, we will either pay on the front end or we will pay on the backend. We’re paying on the backend with our crime rates. I am committed to working with our schools and all of our community and corporate stakeholders to address this issue.

theGrio: Affordability is huge, gentrification is terrifying and it feels like Atlanta neighborhoods that used to be affordable and had this voice and this community are being decimated by luxury buildings that people can’t afford. It’s nice to have a café, but what does that mean if you can’t afford a $12 latte? 

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: The good thing is everybody is talking about it and cares about it. I have my transition team working on this. One of our subcommittees deals with affordability and equity and I have two working groups in that area, one from the progressive community that is saying what they’re seeing, feeling and think we need to do. Then there’s another group of corporate and nonprofit leaders who will take that information and say, “Let us help you put a framework around how we can implement change in this area.” It’s a work in progress.

theGrio: You announced an ambitious plan to raise one billion dollars to spend on an affordability plan. So what would happen with this billion dollars?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: Part of it is an education process, we just aren’t dealing with people who are minimum wage employees, we’re dealing with people who are school teachers, police officers, postal workers, every day working folk who just cannot afford to live in our city. What I envision is similar to what we’ve done through the Atlanta Police Foundation. There’s a path to home ownership. Through a partnership with a local company that builds homes, police officers moved in, there’s a 15-year path from leasing to owning. This is not the model that you think about with housing projects because we’ve gotten away from that. But we’d be making sure that people can own their homes and that in 15 years you aren’t being kicked out because the subsidies have run out. So really, it would be a generational change and teaching new homeowners how to care for their homes.

theGrio: Okay, I know it’s a hard turn, but I was looking up crime statistics and Forbes said that Atlanta is the sixth most dangerous city in the country.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: Atlanta has had around a 38 percent decrease in crime over the past several years. My goal is to get it to 50 percent. We’re seeing more break-ins in cars and things of that nature, not necessarily violent crime. There is also a change in how the FBI tracks some statistics that may have skewed numbers. But it’s still a problem no matter how low your numbers are if somebody in your family is a victim and my family experienced that. Nobody is immune.

theGrio: What happened to your family?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: My nephew, a college student, had gone to a friend’s house to play video games after they had been to a party and he was leaving to go home. They mistook his car for some other gang member’s car and opened fire on his car. He was not involved in a gang. He was a college student working at Home Depot part-time. He was 18. It is just inexplicable. The irony is that one of the boys who was convicted had gone to school with him and didn’t even know who they were shooting at.

theGrio: I’m so sorry. Do you use that as the Mayor to focus on change? Because it feels like we can march, we can create a community program, we can sit and find mentors, but it doesn’t end.  

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: I can get very anxious at times. I was watching the news a few nights ago and there had been three shootings—three girls in the city. And I feel like, if we lose another day, it could be another child. I don’t know what all of the answers are. What I do know is I’m often reminded what Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon that can be used to change the world.” So I know if we want to do something about our crime and we want to do something about the options that our kids in our communities have, we have to do something about education.

Something that’s become very clear to me is we do have to have this overarching vision and goal for the city, whether it’s the sanitation worker, whether it’s the fire department, the police department or the planning department, we all have to have and articulate a path to that goal. So if that goal is Atlanta is a safe community for all of our children, then my expectation will be that the sanitation department will tell me what they can do to make sure it’s safe for all of our children.

For example: in my cabinet meeting about a week ago, I told the police chief and the head of our Public Works Department, “You know we have our sanitation workers out every day. When they’re seeing gang markings on walls or on trash cans, is that information being relayed to the police department?” Because very likely they’re seeing maybe we have increased gang activity when they do their trash pickup weekly, maybe even before the police. So that’s just to give you my thought process on how we get there and hopefully we’ll have it clearly formulated and articulated soon. Come back and see me in six months and we’ll get rocking and rolling.

theGrio: How does that translate in the educational system, which, here in Atlanta, seems to be more segregated than ever and where it seems advanced courses and extra resources hardly ever apply to Black children?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: Our school system can’t do it all alone and I think that that’s why it’s important that other stakeholders, like the City of Atlanta begin to drill down into how we need to do it differently. What can our corporations do to help set up some after-school programs or some in-school programs that can help supplement and help maximize the experience for all of our kids?

There was a time we had very good partnership across lines—nonprofit, public sector, corporate community—in our schools. We had some other challenges with the schools that I think really have caused many to pull those resources back out, but now that the ship has been righted, if you will, in terms of changing in leadership and some other things going on over at our schools, I’m really hoping that this meaningful partnership can begin again. I know that it’s already begun.

As we talk about even the need for vocational training, for example, the head of Delta Airlines talked about the thousands upon thousands of jobs that they anticipate coming down the pipeline and they’re concerned that those jobs will not be able to be filled from residents of the City of Atlanta. So very quickly what they’ve seen is we don’t just need to partner with our technical colleges. How about we go in ninth grade, in eighth grade and start exposing children to certain careers and start training them and start pouring into them so that these careers can be an option for them later, these jobs that will pay $75,000, $80,000 a year?

It’s just important that we think outside the box. This traditional model of school really is an antiquated model. Even how kids receive information, how they process information. We need to catch up. I was at a school yesterday, Cristo Rey, a Jesuit school, for a dedication and its model is incredible. Many of the kids are from underserved communities, and one day a week they are paired with a corporate partner and go to work. We have to be more flexible and more willing to engage and even offer solutions because we can’t always look to our schools to come up with all of the answers and pathways.

theGrio.com: So, what do you do for fun?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: I love to read. I don’t get to read books like I used to so I’m getting back to that. I have so many books on my nightstand. I like fiction and nonfiction. Right now I’m reading Tyler Perry’s book. I also like to cook.

theGrio.com:I saw you on the Black celebrity “Gumbo Throwdown” on Twitter. They showed you no mercy.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: Oh, they talked about my gumbo so bad. They’re like, “No crab man?” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s what they had in Publix. That’s how we do gumbo in Atlanta.” They said it looked like swamp water. And then someone said, “Is that a crock pot?” I’ll tell you what, they could talk all they want. I only had half a cup of that gumbo left. It was good.

Denene Millner is the New York Times best-selling author of 27 books, including a memoir with Taraji P. Henson and the children’s picture book Early Sunday Morning. She also is the founder of mybrownbaby.com.