Atlanta: 60 years of covering the city

If you want a definitive history of Atlanta magazine’s early years, you’ll have to read Robert Coram’s epic 14,000-word story that took up the entire feature well of our 35th anniversary issue in 1996. (We recently posted it online, though if you can find a hard copy, you’ll notice that it’s followed by a story on Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison’s Cartersville farmhouse written by yours truly.) Owned by the Chamber of Commerce until 1977, Atlanta was at the forefront of a wave of city magazines that swept the country in the 1960s. Its founding editors were an audacious bunch. Editor-in-Chief Jim Townsend, from Lanett, Alabama, went on to launch at least 30 city magazines, causing TIME to anoint him the “Father of City Magazines in America.” Art director Bob Daniels later became the art director of Esquire. And this upstart monthly hired prominent creatives such as Leroy Neiman; Milton Glaser, who helped cofound New York magazine; and Vernon Merritt III, later a staff photographer for Life.

May 1961: Norm Kohn created this illustration for our first cover.

The book looked fantastic from the beginning. And it wasn’t long before the writers started pushing boundaries, too. Townsend hired Anne Rivers (later Siddons) because she wrote “the best froufrou” he’d ever seen, but her early stories about flea markets and mansions segued into substantive pieces like a narrative on Buckhead maids forming a union. She became a best-selling novelist—as did other early contributors like Bill Diehl, Terry Kay, Pat Conroy, and Coram himself. During my years as a freelancer and on staff, I’ve been fortunate to work with three amazing editors: Lee Walburn, Rebecca Burns, and Steve Fennessy, who all shaped generations of fabulous writers.

We decided to kick off our 60th year with a commemorative edition that looks back at each decade. And, for this project, we didn’t focus so much on the magazine as on how it reflected the city we cover. When this publication launched, Atlanta was competing hard with Birmingham, Charlotte, and Jacksonville for regional dominance. In April 1968, we quoted an old adage: “If Atlanta could suck as hard as it can blow, it would be a seaport.” Our earliest issues featured plenty of bluster. By the ’70s, mass transit, major league sports, and, above all, a thriving airport had secured our coveted status as a “National City.” Almost immediately, boosters started eyeing international prominence. In 2021, it’s hard for any city to maintain a perfect image. Atlanta isn’t Utopia and, as last year proved, it’s not yet Wakanda. But the Atlantan in me wants to believe we’re on the way there. —Betsy Riley

The 60s in 6 quotes | The era was nothing if not optimistic

Fixations | Our love affair with fast airplanes, fast cars, and fast men

Urban renewal | This cure for the ills of poverty proved worse than the disease

Short takes | YMOG’s & Powderpuffs

Georgians in Vietnam | Twice our photographers documented the war abroad.

Excerpt: What sort of mayor? The odds favor Ivan | Allen announces his intention to run for mayor

And more

The ’70s in 8 Quotes  | Atlantans meet soccer and working women

Behind the scenes | Three excerpts provide an intimate look into issues of the decade

Atlanta 2000 | The magazine’s best predictions about life in the year 2000

Good Talk is the Mainstay at Manuel’s | An ode to the stalwart bar, published 42 years ago

Struggle of the ERA | How the Georgia Legislature put women down

And more

More stories from the ’70s

The ’80s in 5 quotes | The decade of big hair and big schemes

Things we got right | Abolishing racist monuments and Midtown’s potential

Things we got wrong | Romancing the Civil War and our list of hot Atlantans

Cash crops | A peek into the domestic pot trade in Georgia

Women at the top | Blond ambition and the race to get ahead

Best of Atlanta | The first edition of our now-annual tradition

Waiting for Armageddon | In the back woods with a survivalist

And more

More stories from the ’80s

The ’90s in 6 scenes | A dig through our archives unearthed a cinematic rendering of Georgia just before the turn of the millennium

Review: Bacchanalia | Twenty-eight years ago, our restaurant critic (who’s our critic today!) reviewed a charming little restaurant in stark contrast to the dining scene’s bombastic glam

Obsession: Wayne Williams | No story in Atlanta history created controversy like the case of the missing and murdered children

The plague of politics | Can meddling politicians and idealistic medicine mix without an explosion in the labs of the CDC?

And more

More stories from the ’90s

The ’00s in 8 Quotes | The city was full of bravado in the days before the Great Recession

The Last Dreamer | Our 2003 profile of Congressman John Lewis

Water | Three years of drought had Atlantans scrambling for water.

Weddings & wontons | An issue about love, and our love for Buford Highway

A way with words | One girl’s journey to the National Spelling Bee

The survivors | Two award-winning stories by Chandra Thomas

And more

More stories from the ’00s

The ’10s in 6 quotes | The city booms after the bust, and the South more powerfully confronts its past.

Obsession: Wealth, The Walking Dead, and Waffles | The archive reminded us that Atlanta keeps evolving—but our hometown 24-hour diner remains the same

Freaknik | Our celebrated oral history of Atlanta’s greatest street party

Secrets of the Georgia Coast | A celebration of—and a call to protect—Georgia’s precious coast

Review: Staplehouse | Ryan Smith, Jen Hidinger, and Kara Hidinger showed us that restaurants can also be safety nets.

And more

We are only one year into the 2020s, but it feels like a decade already. To say the least, the last 12 months have brought unprecedented challenges to the city and to our magazine.

The media industry was changing rapidly even before the pandemic. Longtime titles were either adjusting to wider audiences attracted by social media or atrophying. Magazines like ESPN, Oprah, and Glamour have become digital only, while many local publications have ceased to exist at all.

Yet the confusion and scope of this year’s unrelenting crises have made people hungrier than ever for reliable news and information. In last month’s year-end “Best of Atlanta” issue, we gave props to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Our hometown newspaper has proved more crucial than ever, seeking balanced perspectives, analyzing data, and investigating government responses. Reporters who ask probing questions and check their facts have become indispensable heroes.

Our magazine has also been challenged with how to cover the turmoil. We were a week away from shipping the May issue when shelter-in-place orders sent us all home, and our entire editorial team raced to document what Atlantans were experiencing and feeling during the early days of the pandemic. We knew we were witnesses to history. And the early summer issues that followed plumbed the struggles of a city coming to grips with Covid-19: the resilience of restaurants, the courage of healthcare workers, the dedication of teachers and scientists.

Then came revelations about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, followed in short order by the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks—causing new despair as well as exposing the depths of a despair that’s continued for decades. David Dennis Jr.’s August cover story, “Let Us Not Forget Ahmaud Arbery,” began with a haunting opening line: “Black people disappear in America.” And Fahamu Pecou’s triumphant cover eloquently captured both despair and determination.

September offered a much-needed escape to the North Georgia mountains. But in that issue, we also mourned the death of Congressman John Lewis and captured the perspectives of four people present during the 23 days of fiery protests at the University Avenue Wendy’s­, ranging from an activist to a police officer.

October’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Atlanta Pride—with its oral history of the legendary Backstreet nightclub—made us smile. But the look back also reminded us of the devastation of AIDS and the heartache caused by laws restricting LGBTQ+ rights. In that same issue, we explored the past shortcomings of and current need for police reform.

In November, we examined how personal relationships were strained by the highly contentious campaign season and the impending presidential election. December contained not only our annual “Best of Atlanta” package, but an exclusive investigation into how our state bungled its critical Covid-19 data dashboard. Maybe the best thing about 2020 is that it is over.

Studying the first six decades of Atlanta for this special commemorative edition, our team was inspired by how our founding editors tackled the challenging issues of their times. In the 1960s and ’70s, they addressed the dark side of urban revitalization, the grief of the Vietnam War, and domestic workers’ efforts to unionize. A March 1979 cover story explored the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ parents, costing the magazine a quarter of its advertisers.

However, our earliest editions were also by, for, and about white men. By 1967, we had tapped Leroy Johnson, Georgia’s first Black state senator, as a “Young Man on the Go.” And we occasionally quoted Black leaders to support the city’s reputation as “too busy to hate.” In fact, in 1966, Johnson himself told us that, as a place to live for Black people, “Atlanta is without question better than any city in the South.” Yet we failed to publish a major outcry after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., or when Auburn Avenue was bisected by the Downtown Connector.

Now, in the 2020s, our pages look more like the city we cover, and I am this magazine’s second female editor. However, we won’t truly represent Atlanta until our editorial staff and contributors become more diverse. This was already a goal, but it’s become even more urgent as public awareness about continuing racial disparities has sharpened, creating new possibilities for change.

This magazine has always believed in the power of storytelling. But in this new decade, we have come to appreciate that for stories to be authentic, they must be told by the people who’ve lived them.

I’m hopeful the rest of the ’20s won’t be as challenging as this year, but I believe Atlanta can be a more compassionate, creative, and equitable place because of what we’ve been through together over these last 12 months. Whether Atlanta is charting a tour of gas-station tacos, interviewing a new school superintendent, exposing the dangers of gentrification, or sharing memories of Congressman John Lewis, our goal is to explore this great city and, maybe, help make it even better. —Betsy Riley