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Mike Jordan


60 Voices: Charles Black and Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis on the fight for civil rights

Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis is executive director and a professor of human rights at Freedom University, an underground school for undocumented students in Atlanta. She grew up in rural Minnesota, in a biracial Japanese-Slovak household, and is a graduate of UGA, with a PhD from Emory University, where she studied interracial labor movements and human rights. Soltis has placed a human-rights framework at the center of Freedom University’s mission and connects undocumented youth to veterans of the Black Freedom Movement. She works to advance the undocumented student movement by educating and mentoring a new generation of undocumented freedom fighters and advocating for fair admissions policies in higher education across the United States.

Charles Black is a living legend of the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta. A Miami native and Morehouse College alumnus, he served as chairman of the Atlanta Student Movement and was one of just eight students taught at Morehouse by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to being involved in strategy and organization of the Civil Rights Movement, Black has served Atlanta throughout his life, including as editor of the Atlanta Inquirer newspaper. He continues to lead as a mentor to young community and political activists, as a speaker on civil and human rights around the country, and as chairman of the board of advisors at Freedom University.

Soltis and Black got together to talk about what different generations of activists can learn from each other just days after a gunman killed eight people in Atlanta-area spas, six of whom were of Asian descent. As they spoke of the continued fight for human and civil rights in Atlanta and beyond, the killings were fresh on the minds of the two friends, separated by age, race, and geographic origins but united in their hopes for a more perfect city and more unified front against inequality and injustice.

CB: I have to tell you who you have on this line here: probably the most valuable human being in a very long time. You know, like, maybe since Jesus. She’s my favorite person, but let me tell you she is one of the smartest people in the world. She’s one of the most talented people in the world. She’s the most dedicated person in the world. She has more heart than anybody in the world. And, you know, the beauty of God speaks for itself.

LES: Thanks for that intro, Charles. Now, I want to let you know who you have on the line here.

CB: Now don’t listen to anything she says. It’s not important.

LES: Charles Arthur Black: Born on October 6, 1940. Star debater. Born in Miami, went to Morehouse College. What you may not know about him is he has continued his struggle and leadership in human rights work, unapologetically and continuously, probably since he was born, but especially since his days in the Student Movement. He’s been doing this throughout. He is a mentor to so many young folks, and quasi-young folks like me. He really lives out human rights, and a dedication to human rights without exception, regardless of your citizenship, status, race, gender, religion, etc. If you’re a human being, he loves you.

CB: I love her more.

LES: Charles and I met at a panel I put together as a grad student at Emory, bringing in veterans of the Atlanta Student Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I studied human rights and social movements as a PhD student. And I thought it was so critical that my generation learn from the activists who came before us. That is when Charles and I became friends, about 12 or 13 years ago, and we have been constant friends. But we also challenge one another, as not only different in race and gender and generation, but with really different life experiences. What I love is that through true dialogue you can really come to understand and have deep respect and love for people who, on the outside, may look very different from you.

I came into this work studying human rights and international human rights academically. But I was transformed when I learned about farmworkers in South Florida. When we talk about human rights, we’re talking about not only political rights like the right to vote and civil rights like the right to equal protection and non-discrimination, but also economic rights—the right to unionize, social rights, the right to education, cultural rights, the right to speak your own language. That is what we mean by human rights: the full spectrum of human rights.

The farmworkers in South Florida were coming from Mayan communities in Guatemala, in southern Mexico, and Haiti, they were interracial. They were bringing the knowledge and genius they had of organizing their home countries. But they were using a human rights framework, and they were studying Dr. King. They were studying Black youth strategies in the South. They were learning from the people who came before them. So, while I say I got my degrees from the University of Georgia and Emory University, I got my education in the tomato fields of South Florida.

In 2011, these farmers were coming to Atlanta to go on a tour. And because they were students of King, nonviolent civil disobedience, and the Atlanta Student Movement, they wanted a tour of Morehouse and Spelman. They said, “Do you know someone who might be able to give us a tour?” And I said, “Yes!” So, I invited my friend Charles, and he literally boarded a bus filled with migrant farmworkers and took them on a tour of Atlanta. For him to be able to say, “That’s City Hall; I helped desegregate it. And this is the street where we marched and we did a sit in… This is where we used to meet.” I remember the farmworkers were learning so much, and they really gave Charles the deep respect he deserves. It was so beautiful to see this interracial dialogue across citizenship and occupations.

This appeal for human rights is what made me reach out to Charles, and Lonnie King, and Constance Curry, and John Lewis. And we lost three of them just in the last two years. But they live on—not just in movement lore, but in all of the students they had and all the lives they touched. And that includes undocumented students in Atlanta today, who have to meet underground because they are banned from the public universities that these same Freedom Fighters desegregated, 60 years before.

Yesterday, actually, I stopped by the Gold Spa, one of the three massage parlors that was targeted. I was really moved and heartened to see not just so many flowers, but so many messages of interracial solidarity. There was one big sign that said “Black + Asian Solidarity.” There was another quote by Assata Shakur, which is, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom, it is our duty to win, and most importantly, we must love each other and support each other.” And there were so many Black youth present. That gave me hope, not just that the diverse community of Atlanta has each other’s back, but also that young people are pointing us in the right direction, as always, and are really the first to step up and show support.

It was extremely timely that [the shootings were on] the same day Stop AAPI Hate published their report on hate incidents and hate crimes against Asians. They found that there were over 3,800 incidents in 2020, and interestingly about 68 percent of them were against women. It’s important to recognize that this act of violence wasn’t simply racial; it was also based in misogyny. And it points to the different ways people experience racism. When it’s combined with gender, sexuality, or age, it can be different. And what may have not been reported on is that many of these Asian women who were targeted were in their 60s and 70s. And for whatever reason that made it hurt more.

It’s fascinating that hate crimes are generally reported and prosecuted based on race, without taking into account the type of racism that Asians and Latinx people face—which is often nativist in language. Go back to where you came from, right? Hate against Asian Americans often includes this nativist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, which sometimes isn’t included under how we conceive of hate crimes. And, of course, this comes out of a long history of racialized exclusion from citizenship in the U.S. For Chinese that was 1882 through 1943. Other Asians were actually racially excluded from citizenship until 1952. And most people in the U.S. don’t recognize that history.

This hostility is often rooted in a history of U.S. military involvement and wars in Asian countries, which doesn’t make it worse or better. It’s just different in the type of hate crimes and anti-Asian violence that Asians experience. Some people call it a kind of patriotic racism. And we can’t ignore that the U.S. has been in a near-perpetual state of war since the 1940s with Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

One last point I want to make is this idea of the “model minority” myth, which is this misguided perception of some type of universal success among Asian Americans. This is actually a modern “divide and conquer” strategy, a tool of white supremacy, that pits groups against each other. It places value on Asians’ proximity to whiteness. Sometimes it’s used to shame other racial groups for maybe not performing like these perceived successes among Asian Americans. But it also makes invisible the poverty within Asian American communities, particularly in South Asian and Southeast Asian communities. And this helps explain, oftentimes, the non-white violence against Asians as well. As we know, looking at New York in particular, the majority of hate crimes against Asians were by other people of color. And that’s heartbreaking. But understanding this “model minority” myth helps us understand the unique kind of violence that Asians experience.

CB: One thing we all should know by now is that bigots and bullies are always cowards. Almost invariably, they have to operate in the dark of night, or in large groups, or attack somebody from behind, or somebody who is more vulnerable because of their age, or their gender. So it’s not surprising to me that most of the folks who’ve been attacked have been female and elderly people because bigots are cowards. And they’re also usually very stupid, which is why they get caught most of the time, and I’m glad about that part.

We all have to recognize the fact that this “otherness” foolishness can include any of us at some point in time. Today, it’s Asians. It’s always Blacks and browns. But then it’s Jews, Muslims, people who practice other religions, people who love folk of the same gender, folk who worship differently. I mean, you know, there’s always this “otherness.”

LES: And something that Charles has always reminded me of is that “bigots have babies.” And so, when people say that it will be fine 30, 40 years from now, we see that racism transforms over time, bigotry transforms over time. That’s why freedom is a constant struggle, right? Because oppression is always changing. And bigots have babies.

Everyone cries out when they’re in pain. Some get hurt, and some don’t. I think it’s important to remember how Asians are racialized in the U.S. with constant otherness. Only a third of Asians in Atlanta were born in the U.S. Another third are naturalized, another third have a more vulnerable immigration status. That impacts fears of protesting. We need to be realistic about that as well. I think crying out when you’re four percent of the population is scary. And that is why that interracial solidarity is so important.

CB: It’s extremely important that we cry out when it’s not us that are the targets. Don’t wait for it to be your turn because these are your people. We all need to cry out when there’s evil and bigotry and wrong in our society.

I think it was [John Wesley Dobbs] who talked about the importance of “the three B’s”: the Book, the Ballot, and the Buck. It was those three things that made the difference during the 60s, when we changed this town. When Rich’s department store lost $10 million over the Christmas holiday in 1960, they said, Oh, you hadn’t explained it to me like that, people! They were willing then to sign an agreement to desegregate their facilities. But these folk don’t do these things out of the goodness of their heart. They’re influenced by your ability to vote them in or out of office, and your ability to withhold your economic strength from them. Those are the things that make the difference.

LES: What my generation has to learn from Charles’s generation: We can learn how to organize. We can learn how to adapt the things they did well. We can learn about human rights framing. The importance of writing your demands, and of including everyone. SNCC was famous, when they went down to Freedom Summer in 1964, for including anyone who had a passion for justice. It was led by Black youth, but there were also white students, Asian students, Latinx students, who went down not just to register voters, and not just to create freedom schools, but to create leadership from the grassroots. That’s the inspiration that I take.

In terms of how we are doing as a city, one thing I want to focus on is our report card on immigration. Georgia is widely considered to be the worst state to be an undocumented immigrant in for many reasons. We’re only one of three states to have a type of admissions ban in our public university system against undocumented young people. The only three states in the entire country are South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. And Georgia is considered the worst because we also ban students with DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, who have a temporary social security number, pay state and federal taxes, have a driver’s license. But they’re banned from the University of Georgia. They’re banned from Georgia Tech. They’re banned from Georgia College and State University.

CB: What’s going to make a difference, of course, is that people who can vote, vote. We need to be aware of the issues and the candidates, what they stand for, who they are, and vote for the best of them. Don’t wait to see who’s going to get in a race. Identify the people that you think should represent you, and help them to prepare themselves, and to qualify and campaign and win the seats in Congress and City Hall, or wherever else, so that you know that you are represented by people that you already know are representative of you. That’s what’s going to make all the difference. We have to do whatever we can to step up to the suppression of voter opportunities, and also the gerrymandering of office holders choosing their voters, as opposed to the voters choosing their office hours. That’s what’s going make all the difference in a state like Georgia and anywhere else.

LES: Voting rights are critical. Reducing voter suppression is critical—expanding the right to vote and to make it easier, not harder. These are basic concepts of a vibrant, multiracial, pluralistic democracy. You want as many people who can vote to vote, not to make it harder. Sometimes when people think about voting rights, it does not include immigrants or undocumented immigrants, recognizing federal policy that only lets citizens vote. But remember, historically, that citizenship is constructed. For almost 250 years, Black people on this soil did not have the right to vote. Through Jim Crow, they had the right to vote but were barred from it. What does citizenship really mean? To expand that idea of citizenship to people, and to increase participation, that’s a good thing for our society and a good thing for our democracy.

There are 300,000 undocumented immigrants who work and pay taxes in Georgia. Taxation without representation seems to undermine some of the fundamental values on which this country was built.

CB: That’s why I always talk about human rights as opposed to all rights, because civil rights can be voted in and out of existence. But our human rights are inalienable rights that we have by virtue of our birth, by virtue of our humanity. For a very long time, as Emiko just said, Black folk, even those born in this country, had no right to vote, and women only got the right to vote 100 years ago, last year. Even white women couldn’t vote. And they were born here, and you know, their parents were the ones who stole the land in first place! It’s something that is decided by those who have the power. That’s why we have to have more say in who has the power, and then choose those folks who will represent us.

LES: Can I thank you so much for bringing this up, Charles? Oftentimes we learn these histories in silos, if we even learn these histories at all. Race and immigration are intertwined in this country and cannot be understood separately from one another. Thinking about the Civil War and Reconstruction, hopefully people are familiar with the 13th Amendment, 14th Amendment, and 15th Amendment, which came out during Reconstruction. The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery except as punishment for a crime gave the justification for the creation of our modern criminal justice system. The 14th Amendment was birthright citizenship. Remember that the equal protection and due process clauses protect people. You may not deny to any person equal protection and due process. It is not “citizen,” it is “person.” And that part of the 14th amendment was the basis for so many human rights struggles afterwards. And the 15th Amendment, the right of citizens to vote. It’s vital that we move beyond a Black and white duality of understanding race, not just in the South, but in the country. The first restrictive immigration law in the United States was the 1875 Page Act, which banned Chinese women from entering the United States. So, when we’re talking about anti-Asian violence today, it has a rich history. The 14th Amendment gave citizenship by birth, and it turns out that Chinese immigrant women were giving birth to U.S. citizens. So that first act was banning Chinese women, even though we needed Chinese laborers to build the Transcontinental Railroad.

Atlanta magazine: What would you like to see happen in an ideal future here in Atlanta?

CB: I’ll tell you what I’d like to see, which would be a better world: I’d like to see more women in charge. I like to see diversity of people with respect to ethnicity, and socialization, and education, and economic status, all in positions of representation. That way we will have the populace represented. Everybody ought to be represented. That’s the kind of dream that I want to see—a totally diverse representation of the populace at all levels of government authority.

LES: I would love to see an Atlanta where your race does not determine if you live or die, whether by acts of violence or access to health care. I would like to see an Atlanta where no matter which zip code you live in, you have access to good schools to help you fulfill your full human potential. I would like to see that the richness and diversity of Atlanta is represented at all levels of our government. And I would love to see everyone’s full political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights—the full spectrum of human rights—respected and fulfilled, and an Atlanta in which our air is clean. And that our water is clean. And to be a true international city, we must welcome all with open arms.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

It’s more important than ever to support Black-owned restaurants. Here are 17 we love.

Atlanta's best barbecue
Bryan Furman cuts ribs at B’s Cracklin’ BBQ

Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

In light of the pandemic, be sure to check a restaurant’s Instagram or website for its most up-to-date info on dine-in, patio, takeout, and delivery options.

Anna’s BBQ
You can feel the love the moment you step into Anna’s BBQ, an old school–style barbecue spot in the middle of fast-gentrifying Kirkwood. The sprawling menu can be overwhelming, but the pulled pork, served as a platter, a sandwich, or in “Anna’s Favorite” (a sandwich topped with slaw), is a good start. The pork is juicy and well-seasoned and scattered with a just-right, sweet-and-hot sauce. The collards are appealingly briny, the mac and cheese adequately decadent (if a little salty). Pro tip: The portions of meat served with the lunch meals might feel a little scrawny for more carnivorous diners; spring for the dinner platter. 1976 Hosea L. Williams Drive, Kirkwood, 404-963-6976

B’s Cracklin’ BBQ
Every cloud has a silver lining, even the cloud of smoke that began billowing from the roof of B’s Cracklin’ last year, when a fire consumed Atlanta’s best barbecue restaurant. For better or worse, smoke and fire are integral to pitmaster/proprietor Bryan Furman’s success. In 2015, his first location in Savannah also burned down, and the amount of support he received back then allowed him to reopen in four months. Of course, both smoke and fire are critical to preparing his masterful, pecan wood–smoked ribs (cut from heritage-breed hogs raised in Georgia and South Carolina) and brisket. While Furman and his wife and co-owner, Nikki, still have a new location in the works, they opened a B’s Cracklin’ outpost in October in the new, BeltLine-adjacent Kroger on Ponce. Now, you can get your B’s fix at the same time you try to score toilet paper. 725 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Old Fourth Ward, no phone

Busy Bee Cafe
Atlanta would be a lesser town without Busy Bee, which provided sustenance to Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. Since 1947, the woman-owned institution has reliably served heaping helpings of soul food: smothered pork chops, oxtails, fried chicken, collards, and cornbread dressing. Old-school politicos and R&B stars alike continue to file into the tight quarters on the outskirts of Atlanta’s HBCU complex, seeking lunch or early dinner. You can’t find a more delicious serving of history. 810 Martin Luther King Drive, AUC, 404-525-9212

Chicken + Beer
There is no better restaurant co-owned by a rapper and named for a seminal album—especially if, like the intro track from Ludacris’s Chicken-n-Beer, you prefer your comfort food “Southern Fried.” That the restaurant is located in the airport is just one more reason to show up to Hartsfield-Jackson early. Ludacris and his partner, restaurant group Jackmont Hospitality, don’t peddle “airport wings” (the flavorless variety created solely to sustain a captive, security-cleared audience); these whole wings rival those you’ll find at any restaurant in Atlanta, the world’s wing capital. If or when Luda and company decide to expand the franchise beyond Hartsfield-Jackson, and members of the general public have an easier time getting hold of the short-rib mac and cheese, it will be even clearer that this food holds its own against restaurants far beyond Concourse D. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Concourse D, Gate 5, 404-209-3905

Daddy D’z the BBQ Joynt
Daddy D’z the BBQ Joynt

Photograph by Martha Williams

Daddy D’z the BBQ Joynt
Christianah Coker-Jackson bought Daddy D’z in 2018 from the restaurant’s founder, Ron Newman. The iconic barbecue spot on fast-gentrifying Memorial Drive received not just a fresh coat of paint but a continued commitment to the neighborhood’s longtime residents. “As a business owner, you can see that maybe there’s a possibility of increased business with all this development,” Coker-Jackson told Atlanta earlier this year. “But as a Black woman, I see gentrification as a way to displace African Americans, because these were our neighborhoods, and we’ve been pushed out of them.” Yes, there are tons of restaurants on Memorial Drive now, where there used to be few. But don’t overlook Daddy D’z. The tender, smoked ribs are as perfect as ever. 264 Memorial Drive, Grant Park, 404-222-0206

75 Best Restaurants in Atlanta: Desta Ethiopian KitchenDesta Ethiopian Kitchen
Desta is one of three Ethiopian restaurants at the corner of Briarcliff and Clairmont roads—including the stylish and formidable newcomer Feedel Bistro. Despite the competition, it’s still among the best places in town to scoop up kitfo (raw, minced beef seasoned with chili powder and spiced butter) and miser (red lentils stewed with cayenne, onion, garlic, and ginger) using soft, spongy, fermented injera bread. The menu, which allows you to make decisions based on how daring you are, demystifies Ethiopian cuisine, and the tree that rises up from the middle of the covered patio and through its roof makes you forget you’re in the middle of an asphalt sea. A second location recently opened in Emory Point. 3086 Briarcliff Road, North Druid Hills, 404-929-0011, and 1520 Avenue Place, Emory, 404-835-2748

Feedel Bistro
As the newest of three (yes, three) Ethiopian restaurants at the intersection of Briarcliff and Clairmont roads, Feedel Bistro signifies the size and strength of Atlanta’s Ethiopian community—but it also faces a challenge. How does it differentiate itself from its next-door neighbor, the no-frills and long-reliable Bahel, and its across-the-street one, the acclaimed Desta? For starters, Feedel Bistro is technically Ethiopian and Eritrean (the cuisines of the bordering countries are similar). A bigger difference is Feedel Bistro’s stylish dining room, all decked out with distressed shiplap walls and black rattan pendants. The space is tasteful and curated, and so is the concise menu, which has fewer options than Desta’s or Bahel’s and is a little easier to navigate. The supremely comforting “mom’s special,” gomen be’siga, combines cubes of tender lamb and velvety collards in a mildly spiced butter sauce. The kitfo—a beef dish traditionally served raw but also available here lightly sauteed or fully cooked—is evidence of the kitchen’s delicate balance with spice (the meat is neither overwhelmed nor underseasoned) and its deft knifework (the raw beef version is perfectly minced). Whatever you do, order the vegetarian sampler platter of spiced red lentils, brown lentils, yellow split peas, collards, cabbage, and house salad. It’s one of the best vegan meals around and a worthy addition to the spread, even at a table of carnivores. 3125 Briarcliff Road, North Druid Hills, 404-963-2905

Lake & Oak
Chef Todd Richards, who launched Richards Southern Fried at Krog Street Market and serves as culinary director at Jackmont Hospitality (One Flew South, Chicken + Beer), finally brings his mastery of barbecue to the masses. Lake & Oak, on a quiet East Lake corner formerly inhabited by Greater Good BBQ, arrived without much forewarning—but that didn’t stop the crowds from lining up (if only to pick up their takeout orders). Lake & Oak’s ribs have just the right amount of smoke and tug, the brisket is downright buttery, but I was no less impressed with the briny collard greens (no sign of mush in these leafy beauties) and the collard fried rice, punched up with slivers of ginger. 2358 Hosea L. Williams Drive, East Lake, 404-205-5913

Merkerson’s Fish Market
Few things feel more Southern than a fish fry. You can locate some of the best by following a sign advertising one at a local church—but if that doesn’t pan out, you’ll find a similarly iconic Atlanta experience at the somewhat decrepit-looking, old-fashioned Merkerson’s Fish Market, a longtime fixture on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard. Merkerson’s offers fresh porgys, sheepheads, snappers, mullets, and catfish whole at the counter, which you can cook yourself. Better yet, have them fried on the spot while you sit on one of the benches, waiting for your order to be called. A scant $7 will buy you three pieces of deftly fried flounder, two thin slices of wheat bread, some fries, and a few jalapeño hushpuppies. The hot sauce waits for you at the counter. The whiting fish sandwich, priced as low as $3.49, trumps anything you could ever purchase at a fast-food restaurant. Eat your fish burning-hot at a long folding table overlooking a broken Pac-Man machine or in your car with the windows open. 740 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, West End, 404-758-9079

The Real Milk & Honey
The Real Milk & Honey

Photograph by Eley Photo

The Real Milk & Honey
At this all-day brunch spot from Chopped: Redemption–winning chef Sammy Davis and Monique Rose, you can chow down on Crown Royal peach cobbler French toast and Southern fried catfish with creamy grits—even for dinner. A valentine to Atlanta’s iconic Black music scene, the interior features photos of music-industry icons, gold accents, a bar embedded with vintage vinyl, and a menu that also includes crab hash, Southern fried fish and grits, and lobster, egg, and cheese biscuits. 3719 Main Street, College Park, 404-458-5500

Slim & Husky’s
This Westside pizza joint is the first of two Atlanta outposts from the hip-hop–minded Nashville minichain, which gained initial attention by opening in historically Black and underserved North Nashville. Atlanta is a logical next stop (Memphis and Chattanooga are next). But underserved the Westside is not; the chain’s mission will resonate more strongly in Adair Park, its second Atlanta location. The pies have cracker-thin crusts and names evoking vintage hip-hop (Rony, Roni, Rone! or Got 5 On It), and they’re made in front of you, assembly-line style, before being placed in a conveyor oven. What emerges on the other side is high on stoner-y fun. Go for the Cee No Green, loaded with ground beef, pepperoni, sausage, and two styles of bacon. 1016 Howell Mill Road, Westside, 404-458-3327, and 581 Metropolitan Parkway, Adair Park

Slutty Vegan
Bring a friend. Bring a book. Just be prepared to stand in line. This southwest Atlanta take-out–only burger stand serves plant-based patties to thousands of people every week, all of them willing to wait an hour (or more) for the experience. The Westview brick-and-mortar location of Pinky Cole’s viral-sensation food truck serves cheekily named burgers—hello, One Night Stand and Menage a Trois—that have drawn orgasmic reviews from celebrities like Tyler Perry and Snoop Dogg. The 10 burger and sandwich options on the menu come with toppings including vegan bacon, vegan cheese, vegan shrimp, and caramelized onions (the $19 Menage a Trois has all of those atop an Impossible patty; perhaps it should’ve been called the Menage a Cinq), and all but one of them is doused with Slutty Sauce. Gloriously sloppy and convincingly meaty, these burgers are nearly indistinguishable from the classic ones you’ll find at the best walk-up joints. A second location opened in Jonesboro in July. 1542 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, Westview, 678-732-3525; 164 North McDonough Street, Jonesboro

Tassili’s Raw Reality
There are 40 ounces of kale packed into the Mandingo wrap at Tassili’s Raw Reality, which since 2011 has occupied the colorful ground floor of a two-story duplex in West End. (Grab a table on the front porch.) Lest you scoff at its $25 price tag, note that this wrap could easily feed you for three days—and that it’s so magical you’ll actually want to spend three days eating it. What makes it so good? Superspicy, soy-marinated kale, sweet coconut corn, couscous flecked with raisins and goji berries, and the sticky-crunchy combo of hemp hearts, almonds, and agave. Fewer mouths to feed? Various normal-sized wraps run from $9 to $14. 1059 Ralph D. Abernathy Boulevard, West End, 404-343-6126

Thompson Brothers Barbeque
Though you won’t see them all in the flesh, the five Thompson brothers can be found at this modest strip-mall joint just north of SunTrust Park—grinning at you from the large photo over the counter or beaming down from the snapshots lining the wall that collects their various honors (from culinary to military to athletic). Once you bite into a rib, you’ll want to grin back. There’s just the right amount of tug and chew comparative to soft flesh and fat, all of it bursting with straight-from-the-smoker fragrance. Those ribs might overshadow the chopped pork, but if you’re going for a combo platter, that’s your next best choice. Skip the underseasoned collards and lackluster mac and cheese for the piping-hot, perfectly tangy Brunswick stew. 2445 Cobb Parkway, Smyrna, 770-818-9098

Trederick’s Seafood & Grill
The owners of the Blue Ivory NightClub on the fringe of Castleberry Hill opened the charming Trederick’s next door in 2019. Southern-fried seafood is the specialty, and the catfish and whiting fillets in a light coating of cornmeal batter are especially splendid, though you might also be rightfully tempted by baskets of huge, sweet shrimp. In addition to its inexpensive fried offerings, Trederick’s offers more decadent options such as crab clusters and lobster tails. Don’t forget the crinkly fries, the thick homestyle chips, and the sweet coleslaw. 609 Whitehall Street, Castleberry Hill, 470-343-2175

Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours
Chef Deborah VanTrece is quick to share her unfiltered opinion on the state of soul food, Black restaurateurship, and any other social issue you care to discuss. She also artfully builds on culinary traditions of Black Southerners. And after reopening on Juneteenth, her restaurant’s patio has become an ideal place to unwind. For brunch, order the “Sweetest Hangover” Chick, a fried chicken Benedict with crunchy Vidalia onion rings, arugula, and peach Hollandaise. 1133 Huff Road, Blandtown, 404-350-5500

Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar
Gee and Juan Smalls, who debuted Virgil’s last summer in College Park, are married business partners and first-time restaurant owners; they started out as event producers based in Midtown and rapidly became leaders in the Black LGBTQ community. It was Juan who suggested that Virgil’s pay tribute to his late father-in-law, Virgil F. Smalls, and the Gullah-Geechee cuisine Gee grew up with on James Island, just outside Charleston. As chef, Gee looks to the traditional Gullah-Geechee kitchen as inspiration for dishes such as red rice, crab rice, okra soup, and shrimp and crab gravy. 3721 Main St, College Park, 404-228-4897

A version of this article appears in our August 2020 issue.

Odes to three rising-star Black chefs

Odes to Three Rising-Star Black Chefs
Scotley Innis, owner of soon-to-open restaurant the Continent

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

What does success look like when you’re Black in the restaurant business? One example is Atlanta’s iconic Russell family, who own and operate a veritable empire of fast-food and fast-casual airport eateries, as well as landmark restaurant Paschal’s. Another is the prodigious Todd Richards—cookbook author, co-owner of the recently opened Lake and Oak barbecue restaurant in East Lake, and culinary director of Jackmont Hospitality, which operates One Flew South and Chicken + Beer. In the more intimate, chef-driven realm, there’s Deborah VanTrece, whose Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in Blandtown artfully builds on culinary traditions of Black Southerners.

All of which is to say that restaurant-world success for Black people looks like it does for everyone—except that there’s not enough of it.

I asked VanTrece, Richards, and Mori Russell, the scion who serves as business-development manager for the family’s Concessions International, to single out the rising-star chef whose work most inspires them—in the hope that, in short order, the ranks of successful Black restaurateurs in Atlanta will swell.

“Our role is to continue to create opportunities for people who look like us,” says Russell, the granddaughter of real-estate baron Herman Russell. “I had the doors open for me to go in. And it’s not just for me to go in: It’s for me to bring everyone in with me.”

VanTrece says that, even as the next generation of aspiring Black chefs and restaurateurs discover systemic roadblocks at every turn, she’s hopeful and insistent that there’s a way forward.

“We’re in times now when things are changing, and more opportunities are available,” VanTrece says. “More people are open and receptive. Get out there and really search for financing. Get your own little spot. It doesn’t have to be huge. The food speaks for itself.”

Odes to Three Rising-Star Black Chefs
Mori Russell and Zak Wallace at Local Green

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Zak Wallace
Founder and owner of vegetarian/vegan/pescatarian restaurant Local Green Atlanta in Vine City

Praised by Mori Russell for his devotion to healthier eating

Wallace says it’s not always easy selling a vegan barbecue sandwich in a city that loves smoked pork ribs: “It’s been an uphill battle, and I’ve been the underdog.” But his mission goes beyond turning a profit. “I’m trying to impact the areas [of Atlanta] with the highest population of chronic illnesses and mortality rates.”

Wallace hopes to scale his business, similar to how the Russell family has, to bring the Local Green brand to underserved communities throughout the region.

Odes to Three Rising-Star Black Chefs
Todd Richards and Briana Riddock at Lake and Oak

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Briana Riddock
Chef, caterer, recipe developer, and writer who runs the site SeasoningBottle.com

Praised by Todd Richards for simultaneously excelling as a cook, writer, and entrepreneur

While earning her master’s at NYU, Riddock was awarded a Julia Child food writing fellowship, and she went on to editorial internships and fellowships at Country Living and Food52. She also has worked in a range of Atlanta restaurants, including the Optimist. You can now get acquainted with her Caribbean-inflected Southern food by perusing the recipes on her site (think braised guava short ribs and honey-turmeric skillet chicken), joining her Dope Girls Cook Academy demonstrations on Seasoning Bottle’s Instagram page, and booking her to cater an event.

“It means a lot to be respected by other chefs,” she says of the nod from Richards, “because only chefs and others in the hospitality industry know how difficult the work is. Becoming a chef is a long game. You are the tortoise in the race.”

Odes to Three Rising-Star Black Chefs
Scotley Innis and Deborah VanTrece at the Continent

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Scotley Innis
Executive chef and operating owner of the Continent, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant set to open soon on Buford Highway

Praised by Deborah VanTrece for being the kind of chef who, in a more fair and just world, would need no introduction. “He’s amazing, and he’s starting to get a little bit of his due,” VanTrece says. “But he’s still far away from where he should be [success-wise, given] the level of his food.”

Innis is perhaps best known as the former executive chef of 5Church and for appearing in Season 18 of Hell’s Kitchen. He says it’s taken longer than he’d hoped to land his dream gig—but that’s not all bad. He successfully sought out nontraditional opportunities when traditional ones were scarce. That includes launching his Scotch Yard popup dinner series focused on Jamaican cooking, which he says is moving into Midtown’s Cloud Kitchens facility—part shared test kitchen, part virtual food court—later this year.

“Being underrated and overlooked was the biggest blessing, as it forced me to stay innovative and nimble,” Innis says. “I’ve had to work harder and grind like my life depended on it.”

This article appears in our August 2020 issue.

Is patio dining the future of restaurants?

Lazy Llama Cantina Atlanta
A Lazy Llama customer described its patio as the first truly organized outdoor dining he’s encountered.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Three weeks after Governor Brian Kemp allowed Georgia restaurants to resume dining-room service, Lazy Llama Cantina’s patio almost felt like an escape from the thought of the coronavirus—though there were a few notable reminders. In restaurants statewide, no more than 10 customers are allowed per 300 square feet of public space, which here includes both a covered and uncovered patio in addition to the indoor dining room. Some inside tables had no chairs and were marked “X” with blue masking tape, a reminder that they’re off limits. But on this day in mid-May, there were no customers sitting inside the Midtown restaurant.

Patricia Parajon and Stephen Gubelman live within walking distance of Lazy Llama. Since the coronavirus hit Georgia, the self-described “avid patio diners” say they’ve been uncomfortable eating on the patios of many of their favorite Midtown restaurants, which they describe as “free-for-alls” where diners consume carryout food without any social-distancing enforcement. Gubelman says Lazy Llama’s patio is the first truly organized outdoor dining experience they’ve encountered during the pandemic.

“When we walked up, they told us it would be about 15 minutes to be seated,” Gubelman says. “And we appreciated that, because I feel like they’re putting our safety first.”

Parajon has a sister who’s an ER nurse at a metro Atlanta hospital and a brother who owns a restaurant in Athens. “So, I see both perspectives, from people saying, ‘stay home, stay back’ to people saying, ‘hey, you’ve gotta get back in the game and support local businesses.’ You just have to make sure they’re taking the necessary precautions—and here, they were.”

Gubelman says he’ll stick to patio dining for the near future. “Maybe it’s just a subconscious thing, but being outside in the sun and having a constant flow of air makes me feel better,” he says, “whether it actually has anything to do with keeping me safe or not.”

Boxcar Atlanta
At gastropub Boxcar, customers order at the window and sit at safely distanced outdoor tables.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

It’s not just perception; patio dining carries less risk than eating indoors, according to Dr. Andreas Handel, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at University of Georgia’s College of Public Health. Handel—whose work includes modeling and data analysis for infectious and communicable diseases such as flu, norovirus, tuberculosis, and COVID-19—says precautions such as extra spacing between tables and only seating groups who’ve been social distancing together also help.

“We’ve seen reports where indoor circulating air led to transmission, meaning that the six feet of distance doesn’t help if [the virus] gets sucked into the air conditioning and circulates throughout the whole room,” he says. “That danger seems to not exist outside, unless there’s a really heavy breeze going through.”

Dr. Handel says that whether you eat indoors or outside, though, there risk of spreading the virus through touching objects such as menus and silverware remains. And, unfortunately, restaurant workers who come into contact with multiple people during their shifts have a higher likelihood of exposure and of further spreading the virus. There’s also the concern that employees who can’t afford to take sick days might not speak up if they know or suspect they’ve contracted the virus.

“I think everyone has their own risk-benefit calculations they’re making in their head, asking if it’s worth it,” Handel says.

French-Vietnamese restaurant Le Colonial in Buckhead is trying to further minimize some of the risks Handel described. When it first reopened in May, it only seated guests in its two outdoor dining rooms. (It later opened its indoor one for limited service.) Le Colonial also offers disposable menus and requires daily temperature checks for staff. “We have learned consistency is key,” says general manager Jake Guyette, who points out that the restaurant is adamant about “enforcement of new policies to keep guests and staff safe.”

“My gut is that restaurant dining is not going back to normal for 12 months.”

When interviewed in May, Kraig Torres, owner of gastropub Boxcar in West End’s Lee + White development, wasn’t yet ready for service to fully return to his balcony patio, let alone his indoor dining room. “I’ll be honest; I’m not comfortable with having one of my servers reach across a table of potentially sick guests for a plate. I’m not putting our team in the line of fire.”

Boxcar instead offered “dine out” service, in which guests order limited menu offerings like the Vagabond fried chicken sandwich over the phone, at a to-go window, or downstairs at Torres’s Lee + White location of Hop City, his chain of craft beer shops. Customers then could sit down at well-distanced outdoor tables on the patio and throughout the Lee + White compound. Torres even created a new staff position: a chaperone he calls the “lifeguard,” who gently reminds patio diners to adhere to safety guidelines.

“You want someone friendly but a little bit assertive,” Torres says. “They can’t be shy; you have to be polite and firm.” (Editor’s note: Boxcar closed for nine days in June after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. It reopened on June 13 with limited seating and carry-out.) 

Boxcar Atlanta
Kraig Torres, owner of Boxcar

Photograph by John E. McDonald

The demand for outdoor dining these days is only going to increase, says Sean Yeremyan, who owns Lazy Llama with his wife, Becky. “We’re lucky because all of our restaurants have pretty large patios and garage doors, which open up [the indoors] to the outside.”

The Yeremyans’ other two restaurants have the option to expand their outdoor seating even further. The couple owns Hobnob locations in Dunwoody and Brookhaven—cities that now offer special permits allowing restaurants to add more outdoor tables, even on sidewalks and in parking lots.

“We have to be patient with our businesses and let them figure out what works for them, their employees, and customers,” says Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch, who aims to create a safer restaurant experience for customers and a greater volume of business for beleaguered restaurant owners. “There’s gonna be a lot of evolution over the next few months as the situation changes.”

Yeremyan says the three new restaurants he and his wife are planning to open before 2021—a Hobnob in Atlantic Station and another in mixed-use Forsyth County development Halcyon, where they’re also launching a steakhouse called Cattle Shed Wine & Steak—will have garage doors and patios as well. “The more outdoor space you have,” he says, “the safer people are gonna feel.”

Still, the reality is that restaurants have fundamentally changed, and patio dining is not the sole economic cure for an industry battered by COVID-19. Torres, who also owns Alpharetta restaurant Barleygarden in the Avalon mixed-use development, says revenue from patio business at Boxcar amounts to less than 20 percent of typical business. “My gut is that restaurant dining is not going back to normal for 12 months,” he says.

And while he embraces the additional safety precautions, he clearly misses the good old days. “It’s a more dangerous minefield than ever,” Torres says. “It used to be easy.”

This article appears in our July 2020 issue.

Now 40, the Atlanta Opera continues redefining its audience by mixing old and new

Atlanta Opera 40th anniversary
Adam Diegel and Dina Kuznetsova in the Atlanta Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly

Photograph by Jeff Roffman

After four decades of arias and curtain calls, the Atlanta Opera finds itself comfortably between two worlds: classic and contemporary. Mixing old and new is a strategy of General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, who says he’s inspired by Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock films as much as he is Steven Spielberg.

“Coming up with the season is like preparing a meal for guests, and one of the recipes for a great meal is different flavors—some spicy, some sweet, some traditional, some experimental,” Zvulun says. “There’s a great variety in it: classical operas, musical theatre, operas that reach out beyond the main venue.”

During Zvulun’s seven-year tenure, the Opera has doubled productions from three to six, and this 40th anniversary season (October 5–May 24) follows its highest-grossing in a decade. Some of that success, he says, can be attributed to the mix of titles the performers and orchestras bring to life.

“Every year, we’re trying not only to do famous operas like Cinderella or Salome, but we’re also trying to program one crossover piece, like Porgy & Bess or West Side Story or Sweeney Todd,” Zvulun says. Patrons have many options for entertainment, and the Atlanta Opera hopes it can start conversations and surprise audiences.

The season is bookended by productions from the Discoveries series, launched five years ago, which brings the Opera to alternate venues and offers the chance to perform lesser-known works. It opens with the Michigan Opera Theatre’s chamber production of the Frida Kahlo–inspired Frida—whose performance at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center marks the first time the Atlanta Opera has presented in the North Fulton suburb—and closes at Alliance Theatre with Glory Denied, a production based on the troubled life of America’s longest-held prisoner of war, Colonel Jim Thompson.

Rounding out the casts is local talent. January’s Salome will feature UGA alumna Jennifer Holloway as the titular lead in the famously complex show, and Grammy-winner and East Cobb native Jennifer Larmore as Herodias. Playing the part of Porgy on March 7 and 10 is Morris Robinson, who grew up in southwest Atlanta and went on from the Atlanta Boys Choir to play football at the Citadel before becoming a world-renowned bass.

“Our mission is tied into Atlanta, and our strategic plan sets up the vision of the opera in two simple words: reimagining opera,” Zvulun says of the model. “We’re reimagining the way we are presenting classic operas, we’re reimagining the business model, and we’re reimagining our audience.”

See the entire 2019–2020 season lineup at atlantaopera.org.

This article appears in our October 2019 issue.

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