The Atlanta Objective
Winner of the 2021 Society of Professional Journalists national award for Public Service in Newsletter Journalism
Grant winner from Google’s News Equity Fund and Substack Local
Georgia Writers Association inaugural John Lewis award winner, 2021
Center for Civic Innovation “Good Trouble” honoree, 2022
Consider this an introduction and a manifesto against cynicism. The rest will be my notes before the apocalypse.
My beloved Atlanta doesn’t have to go to hell. Remind me I said that, later.
George Chidi, Pirate Journalist.
“Tear gassed again, god**mn it,” I shouted at my phone, while protesters at the corner of University and Pryor in Peoplestown scattered in the street. “What the hell. God**mn . Twice in a week is bull**it. That’s not fair. That’s fu**ing lovely.”
I was livestreaming my degradation on Facebook, speaking to everyone and no one in particular.
We are awash in lies about what happens in the world. I stood, pissed off and retching, unedited, to bear witness.
Someday I’ll start using that MBA again, I thought. “You miserable motherfu**ers. Who the f**k do you think you are?” I said, instead.
Behold George Chidi in his natural environment: the middle of a mess somewhere around Atlanta, mud on my shoes, stating pure intentions with dirty language. The blood you see on my hands will probably be my own.
We are living through rap battles turned into street warfare as the music industry reckons with out-of-town rappers claiming Atlanta credentials. Atlanta is a glittering Black Mecca in the media and the inequality capitol of America at the same time. Technology titans are opening up gleaming midtown skyscrapers while a sixth of the public has faced eviction in the last two years. We remain the front line for America’s political trench warfare. As a good friend of mine says, Atlanta influences everything.
You should understand why this newsletter is worth paying as much as a Netflix subscription to read. Atlanta is broken. Most people live in social, racial and economic siloes here. Multifactor insight – actionable intelligence – about Atlanta that can connect the business community to its politics and culture is hard to find. The only constant in Atlanta is change. You’re here for help learning about what comes next.
Two years ago, people were in the street protesting the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and other Black men, and calling for reforms to the criminal justice system.
At the same time, violent crime in Atlanta - and the rest of the country, frankly - began to spike for the first time since the 80s. Crime has been falling since 1994 in most places, though you wouldn't know it if you watched half an hour of local television or interacted with the cesspool that is Nextdoor for any length of time. Crime was lower at the start of 2020 than it had been since the early 60s.
And then, it wasn't.
Atlanta's homicide rate increased 60 percent in a year and hasn't come down since. As a political writer and intermittent activist, I understood the implications. People were about to be bombarded with stupid, racist arguments about what to do to reduce violent crime.
So I decided to start writing about what was actually causing the increase in violence.
That led to a Substack newsletter launched in April of 2021, The Atlanta Objective. As in, the objective - the cause, the winning condition - is an intact, healthy, safe, free, just, egalitarian Atlanta.
What caused violent crime to increase here so much? Many, many things. Anyone suggesting a single cause to the violence either isn't paying attention or is selling something. It's the interaction of a dozen different things which hit the city square all at once.
Atlanta has a massive poverty and inequality problem. It's the worst in the country, as measured by Bloomberg. Concentrated poverty breeds violence. It is no accident that virtually everyone charged with a Part I crime in Atlanta is too poor to pay for a defense attorney. Rich people don't get into shootouts. They just sue someone or hire a therapist.
To this, add a housing problem exacerbated by the pandemic, which made conflict resolution more difficult because its harder to move away from a problem.
The pandemic created a mental health crisis: diagnoses of depression and anxiety increased by 25 percent. Georgia has the worst mental health service availability in the country, as measured by NAMI. And people without money get hit by that failure first and worst.
To this, add Georgia's general response to the pandemic. Georgia opened up its bars and restaurants early, which made Atlanta a destination for people cooped up on the Eastern seaboard. That created major conflict at the city's poorly-regulated nightlife spots, where about a third of the increase in homicides emerged.
Atlanta had a major street gang problem emerging before the pandemic. A gang war between two bloods sets - YFN and YSL - reignited in 2020, and other gang wars began to heat up with everything else. Atlanta's gangs are intimately tied to the music industry and the nightlife scene, which had become unusually dangerous.
Meanwhile, Atlanta Public Schools went completely virtual for about 18 months. While working class parents had to be back bussing tables, their children went unsupervised at home. Referrals to child protective services fell by half because teachers couldn't see abuse. Street gangs began recruiting kids ... and arming them.
Georgia also has comically-lax gun laws and an absurd gun culture. One out of 10 cars parked downtown has a gun in it. Local gangs know those numbers cold; stealing a gun is a 15-minute exercise in the average parking garage.
The police and courts response to all of this has been hampered by extraordinary staffing shortages. Some of those shortages were caused by the pandemic's health effects. Some of it is generational: Boomers are retiring and there are too few healthy people in the pipeline to replace all of them.
But some of it is a cultural shift within law enforcement borne of the public's (justified) reaction to police misconduct. Fewer people want to become cops, and more currently-employed officers want to quit big-city departments where they're more likely to be prosecuted or fired for misconduct.
That sentiment hits both ways. The Rayshard Brooks shooting - though later deemed justified - deeply damaged the public's relationship to the Atlanta Police Department, particularly after officers staged a "blue flu" sickout in protest. That has hampered the department's ability to solve crimes and, perhaps, emboldened acts of violence.
Here we are, two and a half years later. The Atlanta Objective newsletter has won a national press award for public service journalism from the Society of Professional Journalists, a "Good Trouble" honor from the Center for Civic Innovation and funding from Substack and Google's Local News Initiative. It has thousands of followers and hundreds of paying subscribers.
My reporting on the connection between Atlanta's music industry and gang violence appears in Rolling Stone. I'll be covering the YSL and Young Thug gang and racketeering trial next year, with a podcast produced with iHeart Radio and my partners Tommy Andres and Christina Lee. I'm still working on a book.
But the problem of violence itself isn't getting better.
Atlanta's murder rate remains about as high today as it was in 2020. Political figures continue to use this for their own cynical purposes, as Bill White's shameless fundraising after an aberrant murder of a 77-year-old woman in Buckhead last week demonstrates. Reform is unraveling.
Things to watch for over the coming year:
The YSL case isn't the only major gang-rap-racketeering trial going on. YFN Lucci is scheduled to start trial on the same day Young Thug does. The Babydrill murder case is pending. And there are others yet to come as the DA cracks down on street violence from gangs like PFK, 4PF, Henxhmen, Homixide, 4L, 5L, PDE and others.
The Fulton County Jail has become one of the most dangerous in the country. At least 15 inmates have died there this year, when two or three has been the average in previous years.
Atlanta is standing up violence reduction programs at Grady Hospital and elsewhere. Whether and how they work demands examination. I plan to look at the Atlantic Station shooting involving two groups of teenagers - who are apparently gang affiliated - as a case study in how this works in practice.
People would be alive who are dead today if the state's mental health delivery mechanisms worked as well as they do in other states. I will be following the fallout to the death of Melody Bloodworth carefully over the coming year.
The protests of the public - and of committed activists - over the construction of a police training facility in DeKalb County are growing increasingly strident and meeting increasingly strident responses from law enforcement. The behind-the-scenes involvement of the Cox Communications / Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Atlanta Police Foundation into the politics of this project demand reporting. I've back-burnered that issue, but I expect to get into it this coming year.
I have serious questions about the way the music industry recruits musicians who may have a propensity for real-world violence. I am particularly interested in how they are insured and how the industry manages its financial liability around the violence its artists make music about.
If you're here, it's because you saw my posts on Facebook and Twitter calling you here. I am preparing for my permanent exit from both. Facebook has me in some state of algorithmic hell; Twitter and Elon "Free Speech" Musk in a state of existential hell.
Behold, The Manifest Joys of Paying For This Stuff.
I’m a journalist. I hate asking people for money. It feels dirty. I’m getting dirty because I believe it’s just that important to get this done.
A major part of this project includes detailed analysis of crime patterns in Atlanta. Those files — 911 records, spreadsheets, regression analysis and the wonky stuff that can prove I’m not bullshitting people — will be available to paid subscribers as downloads as they are produced.
Similarly, I will be conducting lengthy interviews with interesting people, some of whom might have devious and nefarious purposes. The highlights go in the story. The raw files are for you.
Mostly, I’m asking you to help me help this city and this state. I’m asking you to keep people from making stupid decisions about public policy by gathering enough real information to make that less likely. I’m asking you to help me shake some trees, to cover the cost of the inevitable court battles for access, for the Big Data computing power, for getting cops and crooks and politicians drunk enough to tell me what’s really going on.
The payoff is, fewer people die and fewer lives are ruined for no good reason. That’s what I’m trying to deliver. Help me.