I work full-time for a builder, selling houses. In the evenings, Monday through Friday, I clean offices and then do Postmates. On the weekends, I manage my own business and do delivery. I have a lot more time to work because I don’t get to do the socializing that I would typically do. I mean, we can call, text, email, but that closeness, being able to hug and kiss on family and friends, I miss that.
I recently lost my mom, about a year ago. I have been able to find things to do that are positive, productive, to kind of fill in that gap of losing her. With driving, I have been able to not only pay off my credit cards but it has allowed me to adopt a family going through a little bit of a struggle. A young couple and their three children moved in [to the apartment above mine]. After my mom had passed, I just had an extreme amount of extra—extra food, just extra. And the first thing I thought was my mom would want me to share. When I moved, I put it on my calendar every month to make sure that I take them some items.
My favorite area, primarily, is Brookhaven during the week. When I’m at home, since I’m in Kennesaw, I pretty much stick to Smyrna, Marietta. This business is about time. If I have your hot food, I want to get it to you ASAP. Near Lenox Mall, it is so freaking congested. I picked up an order from the Palm at the Westin for a girl; she lived in the apartment building across the street. It took me longer to go in there and pick up the food and maneuver through traffic than it would have for her to walk across the street. I tell all my friends: As long as we, as consumers, continue to be lazy, there will be money to be made. Keep being lazy! I’m going to hand you a smile and your food.
I’ve been in restaurants and retail for a couple of decades now, and I just got burnt out. I wanted to get out of a brick and mortar and make my own schedule. I was driving for Uber, doing passengers, then, when Covid hit, I switched over to Uber Eats to minimize my exposure to people. My fiance works at the Flying Biscuit, but with everything shutting down during Covid, I was the main breadwinner. He was getting unemployment, which helped, but that put me out driving a lot more. On an average day, I’ll have a downtime of maybe five minutes between orders. Recently, I picked up a part-time job working three days a week at a restaurant in Midtown just to have a little more stability, a little paycheck coming in every couple of weeks that I could depend on.
I had a phone call with Uber today because our wages have dropped. They gave me a lame reason about lowering base payout to improve the in-app experience. Up until a couple of weeks ago, the minimum I would make on an order, without a tip, was around $4. I picked up a double-order today—you go to one restaurant, pick up two orders, and deliver to two separate people. The total payout on that was $3.82. That’s why I called them. Basically, I just made $1.91 per order on that. That’s barely gas money at this point, and I’m trying to make a living off of this? It’s just like any other service-industry job: We depend on tips to make money. I think a lot of people don’t realize that the driving industry is making [a few dollars] per order without tips. We need to change the system in America. We need to get to a place where we pay the service industry what they deserve.
Laura Phelan and her friends have been meeting for breakfast every week for the last four years. The owner of their favorite spot, Gracious Plenty Bakery and Breakfast, makes the best biscuits Laura has ever eaten, she says, “and I had a Southern grandma.” The top left corner of the menu reads, “All Are Welcome, Hate Has No Place Here,” which feels fitting to Laura, “this Southern biscuit place with this progressive message.” Her friend group that gathers here is split politically—three lean left, three right.
They’ve met, all six women, only a few times since March, when their kids’ schools closed and the pandemic ramped up, when wearing a mask became a political litmus test, and when they unconsciously sorted themselves into two groups: those hunkering down at home, and those not.
About a mile south of Gracious Plenty is Roswell Presbyterian, where the friends, most in their 40s, and their families have attended services for a decade. The oldest church in the city, it offers some insight into the United States’ inclination to divide itself: Galleries built to seat enslaved people still loom above its circa 1840 sanctuary, which would later serve as a Union hospital during the Civil War.
Laura describes her church in its current incarnation as progressive. It allows LGBTQ+ marriages, women can hold leadership positions, and, this summer, two of its pastors joined Black Lives Matter marches. The congregation has taken a cautious approach to reopening; phase 1 started in September, meaning outside services with limited attendance, social distancing, mask-wearing. A friend of Laura’s serving on the church’s governing body told her about the plan to reopen: You know how the country is divided right now? It’s pretty much like that at church, too.
Laura supported the suspension of services but says the absence of in-person fellowship—with people from different generations, with different ideologies—has been difficult. “Not having that right now, because it’s not safe to gather, is so hard on us in terms of retreating to our echo chambers,” Laura says.
She sees her small group as a microcosm of her church family—and perhaps a microcosm of the country, politically. One woman casts her vote according to convictions related to social justice and climate change; another is fiscally conservative and supports whichever party’s tax plan makes most sense for her family.
All six women live in the Sixth Congressional District, which was a Republican stronghold for four decades—until 2017, when suburban women helped power Jon Ossoff’s campaign against Karen Handel through what would be the most expensive U.S. House race in history. Ossoff lost, but his margin of defeat was surprisingly thin, less than four points. (The district would finally flip for Lucy McBath a year later.) Laura considers herself a moderate, but she served as a precinct captain for Ossoff’s campaign, which, for a while, some of her Republican friends wouldn’t even discuss.
“You know how it is in the South,” Laura says. “So many people for so long were like, Well, we just don’t talk about that.”
But the 2016 election season changed something for her. “We’re sick of going to cocktail parties and talking about nonsense when we really feel like this is important,” she says. “I feel like more and more people find it hard to just make small talk when their whole lives have been turned upside down.”
Her friend group has weathered differences in various members’ ideologies over the last four years in part because of a shared Christian faith and in part because their lives are so interwoven. “We know we don’t all agree, but we are here because we’re supporting each other,” Laura says.
That’s not to suggest that they’re all on the same page when it comes to supporting each other’s choice for president. In fact, they say they don’t even know what page the others are on.
Laura says the women share a bond so deep it allows them to “transcend” certain issues. There are other potentially divisive topics on which they choose to remain mum. That explains why, when I ask the group of six friends who they plan to vote for in November, no one answers.
The friends, all white women, sit in socially distanced lawn chairs outside a gray stucco home with a big Palladian window in a Marietta subdivision. There’s a chemist-turned–stay at home mom of four, a violin teacher and small business owner, a freelance writer, the director of arts and worship for their church, another stay-at-home mom, and an account executive for Dooney & Bourke wearing a blue-and-pink striped maxidress and flip-flops. All six families, 16 kids among them, camp in the North Carolina mountains every year and meet for a supper club every few months. A few of the women run road races together.
After a long pause, a few of them speak. They say they probably can guess each other’s chosen candidates, but they haven’t told one another—or, for that matter, their husbands or their children.
“That is very personal and private. There’s a reason you’re at a ballot box by yourself,” Laura’s friend Katy Vogel says. “That allows for freedom and dialogue. I just think putting a label on yourself means that you stick with that label, and that’s not my jam.”
Another friend, Betsy Jackson-Homer, says she and her husband voted differently in 2016, which was a source of some contention for a little while, but “it’s just not something that I talk about, even in our marriage. I think I know how he’s voting, but I’m leaving that up to him,” she says.
This group is part of the elusive, coveted “suburban woman” voting bloc that helped Trump win office in 2016, then flipped the House to Democratic control two years later. Both parties have pinned their hopes on them this season, aggressively vying for their attention. See Biden’s commitment to naming a woman as vice president or Trump tweeting to “suburban housewives” that his opponent will destroy their neighborhoods.
Laura and friends look similar to what many imagine Trump is referring to when he promises “the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that [they] will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in [their] neighborhood.” Because, despite the ongoing suburbanization of poverty and the fact that a third of suburbanites are nonwhite, “suburban woman” is often code for educated, middle (or upper-middle) class, and white—a swingable demographic that for four decades has leaned Republican.
“I think [Trump’s tweets] in some ways signal that his version of what a suburb looks like is a version of what suburbs originally looked like in the ’50s and ’60s, without recognizing that suburbs have changed,” says Andra Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Political Science and Director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute.
The political divide within the “suburban woman” set is widening—which makes successful friendships such as the ones maintained in Laura’s group more rare and more necessary.
“Individuals have to take ownership of how they may be exacerbating the problem,” Gillespie says. “If they want polarization to end, they need to stop polarizing in their personal lives.”
In an experiment conducted by psychology professors at the University of Winnipeg and the University of Illinois at Chicago and published in 2017, participants reported that hearing from the other side of the political aisle was “as unpleasant as taking out the trash.” Just under half of Republicans and Democrats view their opposition as “downright evil,” and about one in five think they “behave like animals,” according to a 2019 study by political scientists at Louisiana State University and the University of Maryland. The same survey found that a significant percentage of voters—enough to equal 20 million people in the U.S.—“agreed that the country would be better off if large numbers of opposing partisans . . . ‘just died.’”
In a Pew Research Center study on partisan antipathy, researchers found one thing everyone can agree on: Nearly three-quarters of the public say the parties “not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on the basic facts.”
Gillespie says this disagreement is manifesting itself in how we record history (or don’t). For instance, Trump floated a proposal for patriotic education and Tom Cotton sponsored a bill banning schools from using federal funds to add the New York Times’s 1619 Project to their curriculum.
“Slavery is a historical fact; its genesis in what became the United States traces back to 1619. Yet we see that undisputed facts are now being contested,” Gillespie says. “And this is happening in real time. With the rise of opinionated news media, there isn’t a uniform story.”
The problem, says Spelman associate professor of political science Desiree Pedescleaux, is that voters today “aren’t willing to do the necessary critical analysis of information to really vote [their] interests.” If a politician says he’s creating jobs, look at what kind of jobs. “Are they part-time jobs offering minimum wage? You can’t support yourself on minimum wage anymore—unless you have three jobs.”
But Pedescleaux says people don’t seem to be voting in their economic interest anymore. “They’re voting their interests all right, but it’s a different interest; it’s me against them or it’s us against them, which is something much more dangerous and insidious.”
Sandy Dawson is allergic to cats but finds herself taking care of one that belongs to her friend Kathy Scribbins’s youngest son’s girlfriend; Binx will be with her until his owner finds a new apartment, Sandy explains, as she and Kathy and four others wait on the last of seven women to join their Zoom call. Beth Smith Lindner is the glue in this friend group, gathering other women from PTA meetings, church, and the tennis court, and folding them into the mix.
Beth, 53, is a Libertarian, but she was a Republican for years. The transition was gradual, an accumulation of little things that picked at her until, eventually, “I just stopped understanding the platform; I felt like it changed a lot.” She was in the midst of a divorce when she realized her opinions “had been suppressed. I just realized, Gosh, this is not where I really want to be.”
In the last five or six years, she’s found her voice and become a lot more outspoken. She has a warm, welcoming personality and throws great parties—she just got some new wine in from Nassau and jokes that she needs help cleaning out the wine cabinet.
Some of the friendships in the group are as old as the women’s children: Beth met 58-year-old Julie Ethridge at the pool while she was pregnant with her twins. (Julie’s boys turned 22 this year.) Tip Tucker Kendall, a 45-year-old nonprofit manager, is the youngest of the group. She played on a tennis team with a few of the women until she moved to Tucker two years ago; she still considers them her sisters, mothers, mentors. The group is composed of three Republicans, two Democrats, a Libertarian, and an Independent; four of them will vote for Trump and two for Biden. (One is unsure.)
Sandy is one of the two women who identify as Democrat. She calls herself a “faithful liberal” yet voted for Jill Stein in 2016 and says she can’t vote for Biden in November—because she’s convinced he has Alzheimer’s. Plus, “the progressives will be running the country, and he’ll be the puppet,” she says. “That scares me to death.”
Kathy, 63, was hesitant about voting for Trump in 2016—“just all the situations that he put himself in with womanizing and all that kind of stuff”—but now says voting for him was one of the best decisions she’s made. She echoes Sandy’s fear that Biden would be a puppet in Nancy Pelosi’s hands, which, in her mind, is one step closer to “progressive socialists” gaining control.
“It terrifies me, what I see in this country,” Kathy says. “More people are buying guns, where, they can’t even keep up right now because people are scared. They are scared to death because of what they see in the media. It’s unbelievable.”
Julie says she doesn’t like the names Trump calls people, like Sleepy Joe. “I wish he would be nicer,” she says. “But that’s his personality.”
Journalist Anne Helen Petersen might describe these women as “Ivanka voters,” a term she coined to describe pro-Trump women who find his language and behavior indefensible but don’t feel that it’s their responsibility to defend. Like “Ivanka Voters,” they prefer to steer clear of politically divisive conversations.
“I have to be careful about what I say; as a Republican, I have heard so many people say, I cannot talk about it, because if I do, I will be verbally abused,” Kathy says. “I usually keep silent, because I feel like freedom of speech is not on the conservative’s side.”
Tracy Turner, 51 and an Independent, is the only Black woman on the Zoom call. She says she voted for Trump in 2016 and hasn’t yet decided if she will again. “It’s really hard in my family, because if I’m not with Black Lives Matter, then I have a situation that is kind of like what Julie describes; now, I have to deal with the ridicule of, Well, why aren’t you? Because you’re Black,” Tracy says. “To me, all lives matter. I’m in the middle of that. I have a police officer as a son, but he’s also a Black boy.”
Tip, who interned for a Republican Senator in college but now considers herself a Democrat, is fiscally conservative and socially liberal. As the parties have drifted further apart, she says it’s been harder for her to find a home. She quips that election years are as hard to navigate as college football seasons. She and her friends agree that the media—which they all say they deeply mistrust—is to blame for driving society to political extremes. Tip says the bombardment of polarizing news is overwhelming.
“You cannot get away from it,” she says. “And I think we’ve had to live with it in a way that we didn’t have to live with it 20 years ago, when the nightly news was the end of your political lesson—that was the end of politics for the day. Now, it is in your face all the time.”
She says the result is a state of constant defensiveness. “You’ve got to go into battle if you’re going to open your social media feed.”
Ella Wilson and Elizabeth King each were navigating divorce and single motherhood when they met at their daughters’ daycare seven years ago. “I feel like a disaster—wait, you’re a disaster, too! Can I get your number?” says Ella, laughing about how they became friends. “Thank god we had each other, because that’s a lonely, isolating feeling to have everything blow up and then suddenly, you’re doing it all on your own.”
They bonded quickly—and, for one reason, surprisingly. Ella is an unlikely Democrat, and Elizabeth is a conservative-leaning Christian. “I didn’t have a single influence that I can think of that was liberal,” says Ella, a 40-year-old copywriter who lives in Gainesville, a few minutes from where she grew up. “I mean, that was a bad word in the Bible Belt.” She says being the only liberal Democrat in her circle of close friends has made her good at “deflecting and keeping the peace.”
Elizabeth, a 39-year-old HR training and development specialist, grew up a self-described “army brat”; she and her family were living in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. Elizabeth’s politics center in part on the fact that she is anti-abortion, which, she explains, is not only a moral issue but a deeply personal one: She had a stillborn baby at 27 weeks.
She describes herself as an evangelical Christian, with a disclaimer: “I think, sometimes, people think that means rightwing, straight–party ticket type of personality.”
Ella is pro—abortion rights, but her number one issue is universal healthcare. She jokes that she “would vote for Satan himself if it meant that everybody in the country could have quality healthcare.” When Elizabeth suggests that universal healthcare could turn into socialism, Ella responds, “I don’t care if it does.”
Despite their differences, they act as sounding boards for one another when it comes to parenting. Finding common ground is just as much for them as it is for their children. “You don’t want to go out of your way to teach your own children to be crazy about the same things that you’re crazy about,” Ella says. “I want to set them up to go out into the world and not make fools of themselves.”
The two women are learning to school their daughters on politically divisive topics in ways that don’t undermine an opposing worldview, because, Ella says, “screaming at people that they’re wrong has never changed anybody’s mind in the history of the world.”
Elizabeth agrees: “If you want to be heard, you have to learn to listen.”
From politics and hip-hop to soccer in the Dirty South, here are 20 podcasts to offer some respite from COVID news and quarantine—all recorded and/or produced in Atlanta and described by their hosts.
Buried Truths Genre: History, True Crime Hosts: Hank Klibanoff and the students in his civil rights cold cases class at Emory University The show in 6 words: Stories of unpunished, racially motivated murders If you liked season 2 of In the Dark, you’ll like this show. Start with: Season 2, episode 1 sets the story’s stage with Otis Redding, James Brown, and Little Richard. Ideal cohost: an Emory student immersed in historical research If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be? Greater acceptance as legitimate historical research Favorite local podcast: Breakdown
Storytime with Legendary Jerry Genre: Music Hosts: Jerry Clark and Jaimee Paige The show in 6 words: Cutting edge interviews with music royalty If you likeDrink Champs, you’ll like this show. Where is the show recorded/produced: The Swag Shop on Edgewood and the Gathering Spot Favorite episode: Jerry: Killer Mike. He’s like my brother, and it was recorded live at the Pandora Atlanta office with a huge audience. Most difficult part: Getting guests to show up on time for interviews
Waiting on Reparations Genre: Music, Politics Hosts: Mariah Parker (Linqua Franqa) and Kedrick Mack (Dope Knife) The show in 6 words: It’s where hip-hop and politics connect If you likeCitations Needed and The Breakfast Club, you’ll like this show. Start with: Episode 2, “Wiretap Rap” If you could get anyone to listen to this show, who would it be? Linqua Franqa: Everybody’s got that one racist uncle. I’d want it to be him. Favorite podcast of all time:Dope Knife: The Majority Report with Sam Seder Best feedback: “Chip on shoulder put there by dems. Bless yo heart.”
The Atlanta Podcast Genre: Culture Hosts: Christian Andrews, Myron Green, and Justin Wilson The show in 6 words: Black. Culture. Atlanta. Beer. Comedy. News. If you likeThe Breakfast Club, you’ll like this show. If you could get anyone to listen to this show, who would it be? Killer Mike. We are collaborating with Pontoon Brewing to release a beer in his words called “Plot. Plan. Strategize. Organize. Mobilize.” It’s the first part of a beer series called “Brewing Conversations” focusing on inclusion in the beer community and social equality as a whole. A portion of the proceeds will go to funding positive Black organizations. Favorite episode: #92. WSB-TV anchor Jovita Moore popped into the Beer Basement to learn more about craft beer, play a friendly game of “Guess the Race,” and engage in a deep conversation of ethics in journalism and the beginnings of her career.
Trashy Divorces Genre: Comedy Hosts: Stacie Hieronymus and Alicia Mintz The show in 6 words: A good podcast about bad relationships Start with: Scroll the catalog and find a person or couple you like (or hate!) and start there. If you like that, you’ll like this: We’re a great palate cleanser for true-crime diehards who need a break from stories about women getting murdered. The drama levels are often similarly high, without the unfortunate body count—in most cases. (Looking at you, Henry VIII.) Best feedback: Someone left us a negative review complaining that one of us sounded like Elizabeth Warren. We’re desperate to know which one of us that person meant, and also how anyone could think that’s a bad thing.
Archive Atlanta Genre: History Host: Victoria Lemos The show in 6 words: Events, people, places that shaped Atlanta Start with: Ward System (#57) talks about the beginnings of Atlanta and how and why the city’s government was structured the way it was. Spoiler alert: It’s always about race and class! Best feedback: When someone tells me I’ve sparked an interest in them to learn more or I’ve inspired them to visit a neighborhood or drive to see a specific building, those are the comments that make my heart explode. Where is the show recorded/produced? I record in a basement closet at my home in Smyrna. (I used to record in my daughter’s spaceship pop-up tent.)
Bottom of the Map Genre: Music Hosts: Christina Lee and Dr. Regina Bradley The show in 6 words: It’s Southern hip-hop: Explored. Explained. Exalted. If you hateThe Breakfast Club, you’ll love this podcast. Start with: Our debut episode, “There’s a Trap for That” Ideal co-host: André 3000 If you could change one thing about the podcast industry, what would it be? Celebrities being the face of the podcast boom when so many enterprising “nobodies” actually paved the way Initially invested: $13 for a movie ticket. Our unaired pilot was about Director X’s Superfly remake, coproduced by Future. What’s next? Christina: I’m currently working on another podcast featuring the 2001 Gold Club trials.
Therapy for Black Girls Genre: Health Host: Dr. Joy Harden Bradford The show in 6 words: All things Black women’s mental health Initially invested: $100 for equipment Start with: Session 14, “What Are Boundaries & Why Do I Need Them?” Favorite episode: Session 50, “This Isn’t What I Imagined,” tackles the strain that can come with trying to live a life that others want for you versus the one you’d truly like to cultivate for yourself. I think this happens with Black women a lot. If you could get anyone to listen to your podcast, who would it be? Beyoncé Favorite local podcast:While Black
Breakdown Genre: True Crime Hosts: Bill Rankin and Christian Boone The show in 6 words: Compelling, in-depth coverage of court cases If you likedIn the Dark, you’ll like this show. Best feedback: One woman said she decided to go to law school because of what she heard while listening to our first season, “Railroad Justice In A Railroad Town.” Ideal guest: Breakdown’s resident legal expert and Atlanta criminal-defense attorney Don Samuel. His ability to clearly and succinctly break down complex legal issues so just about anyone can understand them is a godsend. Current season: The shooting of Ahmaud Arbery
Radio Rental Genre: Society & Culture Hosts: Payne Lindsey and Rainn Wilson The show in 6 words: Weird, scary, strange, funny, pulpy, dark If you lovedOuter Limits, the Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, or Are You Afraid of the Dark?, you’ll love this show. Start with: #1 explains our premise the best Favorite episode: Payne: The second story in #4, called “Laura of the Woods.” To me, it’s by far the creepiest story. I remember getting chills when I was recording it. Most difficult part: Finding the stories. They’re out there, but you really have to dig—sometimes through the depths of Reddit. Best feedback: “This podcast is for real spooky bois.” It was literally one of the first reviews on Apple podcasts. We still quote that around the office.
While Black Genre: Education Host: Vince and Art The show in 6 words: Awareness, information, inspiration for Black America If you likedJust Mercy, you’ll like this show. Ideal cohost: Vince: If Art wasn’t available, I guess I could settle for Michelle or Barack. Favorite episode: “Ahmaud Arbery—Can I Live?” brings to light the real emotions and feelings of four successful and established Black men. How does it really feel to be a Black man in the country today? Are we hopeful or hopeless, fearful or fearless, do we fight or cower? Will we succeed? Will we live?
The Fall Line Genre: True Crime
Hosts: Laurah Norton and Brooke Hargrove The show in 6 words: Amplifying the Southeast’s overlooked cold cases Initially invested: A few hundred dollars and had absolutely no idea what we were doing. We sounded like we recorded in a bathtub. Favorite episode: In Season 4, we covered the 1996 murder of a housekeeper who was killed on the job at a luxury hotel. We learned about issues facing housekeeping staff—danger, physical toll, unfair wages—and the measures that many companies have failed to implement to improve safety and working conditions. If you could get anyone to listen to the show, who would it be? Raymond Green. We featured him in Season 3. He was kidnapped at just five days old. He is out there somewhere, and his mother, Donna Green, is waiting. She’s been searching for him for 40 years.
Savor Genre: Food Hosts: Anney Reese and Lauren Vogelbaum The show in 6 words: Nerding out about food and drink Who is your ideal guest? Lauren: Julia Child. Wit, poise, and complete dedication to both silliness and science. If you could get anyone to listen to your podcast, who would it be? Anney: Any marginalized young person who for whatever reason has a negative relationship with food or believes that the world of food is not for them. Best feedback: We love the nostalgic food stories people share, thanking us for bringing back memories of loved ones. Also: “I never thought cauliflower could be so interesting.”
No Dunks Genre: Sports Hosts: Skeets, Tas, Trey, Leigh, and JD The show in 6 words: The only NBA podcast you need Favorite episode: “Justice for George Floyd” because we all spoke from the heart If you could get anyone to listen to this show, who would it be? Skeets: My wife. Best feedback: We’ve had a few fans over the years tell us how our podcast saved their life. It turns out listening to a bunch of friends talk hoops and crack on one another can be therapeutic for someone suffering from severe depression.
Political Breakfast Genre: Politics Host: Denis O’Hayer The show in 6 words: Civil, often funny, inside political analysis If you like the NPR Politics podcast, you’ll like this show. If you could get anyone to listen to your podcast, who would it be? Anyone who fears that we can’t have thoughtful conversations across the political divide. Start with: “Can Intentions Turn to Action in Pursuit of Racial Justice?” Best feedback: The most recent one that made me smile was from someone who got a good laugh when he heard guest Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson describe what he imagined was the dress code for a weekend GOP strategy session (flip-flops, shorts, UGA shirts, and visors).
Catlick Genre: History Host: B.T. Harman The show in 6 words: True crime meets Atlanta’s racial history What would your next podcast be about? The Corpeswood Manor Murders. In the late ’70s, two men built a mansion deep in the woods of north Georgia, and, in 1982, they were violently murdered. That story has a high creepy factor as well as some interesting LGBT themes. I’m a gay man who loves true crime, mystery, and Atlanta, so that would be a storytelling dream for me. If you could get anyone to listen to your podcast, who would it be? Donald Trump. I’m not sure he knows much about American history, and I think Catlick would be very helpful for him. Best feedback: A particularly salty reviewer said that I made her want to “gouge her eyes out from boredom.” I got a chuckle out of that one.
Stuff You Missed in History Class Genre: History Hosts: Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson The show in 6 words: A little light into history’s shadows If you could get anyone to listen to this show, who would it be? It would be great to get to tell the Lumière brothers, who invented the cinematograph but thought movies were a passing fad, that films today make billions of dollars. Favorite episode: Tracy: Butter vs. Margarine. It was silly and fun, but it also connected to culinary, legal, and business history. Best feedback: More than one person has written in to tell us that we’re dog whisperers and that they can only get their pupper into the bath if they have our podcast on.
Dirty South Soccer Genre: Sports Hosts:Five Stripe Final: Joe Patrick, J. Sam Jones. Mouths of the South: Eric Quintana, Sam Franco, Josh Bagriansky The show in 6 words: Atlanta United insight, analysis and commentary If you love Miguel Almiron, you’ll love this show. Ideal guest: Alexi Lalas. He plays his role as a hated U.S. soccer-media talking head and loves putting on a performance on podcasts and on TV. If you could get anyone to listen to this show, who would it be? Jeff Larentowicz Best feedback: Anytime someone isn’t calling us idiots, we’re pretty proud of ourselves!
To Live and Die in LA Genre: True Crime Host: Neil Strauss The show in 6 words: Seeking justice for missing of LA If you loved Serial, you’ll love this show. Most difficult part: These are real lives and people’s loved ones at stake, so it’s the pain of families going through the worst nightmare conceivable. Best feedback: The best comment is a tip. And thanks to the reach of the podcast, someone was brave and empathic enough to provide a tip that provided powerful answers and closure. What’s next: Season Two, which I’m not able to reveal too much about right now, is very intense. It will continue to explore mysteries within the Hollywood world, this time focusing on a new missing persons case set in another subculture of LA.
Unladylike Genre: Lifestyle Hosts: Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin The show in 6 words: Stay curious. Build empathy. Raise hell. If you likeFull Frontal with Samantha Bee, you’ll like this show. Start with: Episode 34, “How to Slam Dunk.” Even if you couldn’t care less about basketball, the gender politics wrapped up in the move are fascinating and resonate way beyond the sport. If you could get anyone to listen to this show, who would it be? The woman who complains about political correctness and/or assumes that issues like sexism, racism, and homophobia are other people’s problems.
Alicia Philipp stands to the side of a stage in a dim downtown banquet hall, steeling herself to deliver a speech to 1,500 people, and she genuinely thinks she might vomit. She speaks in public often but not usually to so many people—and never saying what she’s about to say.
The lights come up, and she pulls herself together. She eases into her big moment by asking the audience to think back to 1977, before some people in the room had been born: Jimmy Carter was president, Atlanta and the nation were emerging from a recession, and Philipp was a quick-witted, overconfident 23-year-old Emory grad. She’d lucked into a seat at the proverbial Table by landing a job with Dan Sweat—a benevolent “fixer” who was instrumental to mayors, governors, even Carter, and the first executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, the organization for which Philipp is delivering this speech today. Having Sweat as a mentor granted her access to Atlanta’s power brokers and entry to the exclusive downtown offices where decisions were made—and where she was often, in a room full of white men, the only woman who wasn’t someone’s secretary.
“So, reflect with me, 42 years later,” Philipp says. “What’s different?”
Not much. The region has diversified, but the Table has not.
From 1980 to 2015, the proportion of white people in the metro area dropped by a quarter. Now, just 51 percent of households in the metro are white, but those households account for 64 percent of the ones bringing in more than six figures. And the people at the top look almost exactly like they did four decades ago: All but one of Atlanta’s 30 Fortune 1,000 CEOs is white (and just two are women). The future of the Table looks homogeneous, too: White students outperform their Black counterparts on every metric in grade school—because of the opportunities their race affords them—and then graduate to earn more than them even at the same education levels.
“Decisions are still made, and power still lies, with a small group that doesn’t reflect the future of our region,” Philipp says on stage, essentially telling a large portion of the crowd that, in fact, they are the problem.
Atlanta, as its former mayor Shirley Franklin explains in an interview, is a city primed for boosterism: “How many times have we heard about what a good place Georgia is for business investment? We hardly ever hear public leaders or elected leaders talk about what a miserable place it is if you’re making the minimum wage, or if you’re an immigrant, or if you’re an eighth-generation African American who’s had very few opportunities along the way, if you just moved [to Atlanta] from one of the poorest counties. Nobody ever talks about that side of it,” she says. “We only talk about the cherry on the top.”
Of course, Philipp, a white woman, is not divulging in her speech anything particularly revelatory about racial inequity. Nor is she the first person in power to complain about the status quo. But her perch has afforded her a unique platform and an unparalleled view: As the leader of one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the Southeast, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, she has embedded herself in the lives of people from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds—people who seldom come into meaningful contact with one another. For 43 years now, Philipp has studied the city’s income gap from nearly every possible angle, and she’s finally ready to say that what we’re doing isn’t working. Leveraging the credibility she’s earned over a lifetime of gently nudging people out of their comfort zones, Philipp is now trading her polite messaging for something more subversive. Philanthropy as we know it won’t solve Atlanta’s astounding inequity; change has to be innovative, systemic, and drastic—and it has to start at the Table.
Franklin has known Philipp for most of her public life. They started their careers around the same time and shared Sweat as a mentor; later, Franklin served on the Foundation’s board. But in the early ’80s, she didn’t realize the Foundation’s potential impact on the region. Its depth became clear to her two decades later, when, as mayor, Franklin was raising funds to help college-bound students cover relatively small costs remaining after grants and scholarships. She remembers Philipp calling her to say that several funds at the Foundation already had been created to do just that. “That opened my eyes to the breadth of their work,” Franklin says.
“We talk about the political leadership, we talk about the business leadership in Atlanta, but [Philipp] clearly is someone who started young, stuck with it, and had an institutional impact on the greater Atlanta area,” she says. “That’s not necessarily easy to do when you think about how male-dominated it was at the time, how divided people were.”
In many ways, though, they’re still divided. In the city of Atlanta, the top 5 percent earns nearly 20 times more than the bottom 20 percent, whose wages have barely increased in the last two decades. In more recent years than not, Atlanta has had the worst income disparity in the country. It’s also a city where low-income people are displaced at a higher rate than most anywhere else in the U.S. More than a quarter of metro Atlanta’s families don’t have $400 on hand for an emergency; a third spend so much on housing that it’s difficult to afford other necessities, like food.
“People like to talk about ‘The Atlanta Way,’ this nostalgic idea that we’re special, that there’s no such thing as racial lines or gender barriers in the way we work,” Philipp says. “It’s time to get over the nostalgia for this narrative we keep telling ourselves.” Being the City Too Busy to Hate is a low bar.
After leading the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta for four decades, Philipp steps down this fall with a call to action for her successor, for the city, and for the broader region: The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference. We may not hate our neighbors who are poorer than we are, who don’t speak our language, who don’t look, pray, or love like us, she says, “but we are clearly indifferent to their opportunities, their well-being, their pain.” And in that indifference, this gap between the haves and the have-nots is deepening into a chasm—one that will be widened still by the crisis of a generation.
For all her influence, Philipp isn’t a household name; likewise, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta is one of the most powerful organizations in the metro you’ve probably never heard of. It connects people interested in high-level philanthropy (read: $50,000+ donor-advised funds) with nonprofits that fit their interests—a “philanthropic GPS,” they say.
Philipp’s job is decidedly less high-profile than her teenage dream of becoming a politician. Early in her career at the Foundation, she wanted to quit and run for city council, but Sweat assured her she’d have the greatest influence on the community—even greater than if she ran for office—by staying put. He was probably right. Philipp has grown the organization into one of the three largest foundations in Georgia; under her leadership, its assets have increased more than 170-fold, from $7 million to $1.2 billion.
When Philipp was named the Foundation’s executive director (with a staff of one, herself), it had been around for a little less than three decades. After a few years of neglect and, later, an operating deficit, its future was unclear. In Philipp’s new role, her age turned out to be an advantage: Most seats at the Table were filled with middle-aged men, who, she says, projected onto her their aspirations for their children: “Many of them commented that I was their daughter’s age, and they hoped that their daughter would have a successful career.”
For its first 30 years, the Foundation mostly dished out funds, but under Philipp, it adopted a more personalized approach. That doesn’t come without some spectacle: To determine their “giving story,” donors are invited to play custom-made board games, created by a company specializing in multigenerational giving. Its founder often talks about how to help next-gen donors feeling paralyzed by predecessors, privilege, or possibilities.
Most importantly, under Philipp, the Foundation became an incubator. It has helped launch initiatives like the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, to help low-income women and girls break the cycle of poverty, and the Neighborhood Fund, to support hyperlocal, grassroots initiatives from individuals or groups that may not be registered nonprofits. Last year, the Foundation launched GoATL, which offers low-interest loans to nonprofits.
Of course, the byproduct of such innovation is failure. The Foundation started a few hyperlocal funds that fizzled. Working Capital Atlanta relied on a group microlending model in which individuals would borrow money to start their business and then pay it forward, except people didn’t really do that last part. The Foundation led an initiative to enable individuals in low-income communities to grow and sell produce; it had a promised $6 million grant from HUD to be used within Atlanta city limits but could never get the land.
But that fail-fast approach is part of what’s taken Philipp from being a one-person staff, working out of an office she describes as a broom closet with a sink in the middle of the room, to a 50-person staff, working out of the 10th floor of 191 Peachtree, with a slightly better view.
Four years ago, the Foundation created a program focused on residents of Thomasville Heights, where the median household income is $17,000—five times less than Grant Park, just two miles away. Thomasville Heights Elementary long has been among the lowest-ranked schools in the state, with about one in 10 third-graders reading on grade level, a metric used to predict a child’s likelihood of graduating from high school. Three years ago, media specialist Intiasar Frankson helped launch a pilot program at the elementary school that, thanks to a Foundation grant, offered third-graders incentives like gift cards if they read a certain number of books. The Foundation was supporting other organizations that work on-site at the school, including CHRIS180, which provides counseling for students, and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, which helps families fight for better living conditions. At the end of that school year, students’ Milestone scores had increased by 19 percentage points in English. The next year, Frankson scaled the program and used a second grant to purchase graphic novels and trendy titles, which, alongside the literacy push, Frankson says, sparked a change at the school: “Now, reading is ingrained in the Thomasville culture.”
Though the Foundation is working to challenge existing power structures at the Table, there’s an imbalance written into its own DNA. People of means, albeit with benevolent intentions, make decisions to affect a community they’re not a part of. As Foundation program associate Mindy Kao explains, philanthropy “was built to keep decision-making power in the hands of a few.” So, the Foundation has taken steps to flip the script in Thomasville Heights. In 2019, the Foundation spun off a new grantmaking initiative that shifted decision-making power to a committee of community members, ages 16 to 70, who take proposals from and award microgrants to their neighbors.
Roderick Thomas Jr., who’s 17, is now in his second year serving on the committee. He says the ideal plan for Thomasville Heights’ future is the one imagined by the people who live there: “When we’re given the opportunity to direct and choose what we think would fit best in our communities, that’s the best thing possible.”
On a chilly, mid-December morning, in the midst of the Foundation’s end-of-year philanthropy rush, Philipp woke up at 7 a.m., threw on a pair of jeans, and headed downtown to help prepare and serve lunches to hundreds of Atlantans with special needs. A few hours later, she gave a presentation on giving at Tiffany & Co., where well-heeled women played dress-up in $20,000 jewelry. The Foundation’s goal is to connect those worlds. Philipp worked the Tiffany crowd and left that night with three donor prospects. “It’s not a complete disconnect between wearing baubles and caring,” she says.
Even when there is a complete disconnect, though, that’s not the most frustrating part of her job; it’s that if everyone in the Tiffany crowd became donors, the Foundation still can’t solve what it’s tasked with solving. “We need more philanthropy; we need more people giving. But we need them thinking about the key issues—is their philanthropy and their advocacy really helping at those key issues and not serving as a Band-Aid?” Philipp says. “There is a need for Band-Aids in some cases, but we also really need to get deeper.”
Philanthropy should be agile and innovative, but it should work in tandem with the government rather than make up for governmental inaction. “The two ought to be talking to one another,” Philipp explains.
That’s the way it used to be: Philanthropy would test ideas, and the government would back the successful ones. Think: Head Start, public libraries, or, locally, Open Hand Atlanta, which began as one man and his neighbors delivering food to 14 friends living with AIDS. Early support came from individuals, corporations, and, later, the Foundation. Today, Open Hand delivers 5,000 meals a day, with the government footing about half the bill.
The problem with that relationship is it has become increasingly lopsided.
The top 10 percent of humanity holds 90 percent of the world’s wealth, according to Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All. This widening gap, coupled with lower taxes and weakened regulations, has led to a power imbalance favoring the wealthy. Last year, Philipp invited Giridharadas to Atlanta to speak to her donors about problems causing (and caused by) an atrophying public sector. In his talk, he quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “Philanthropy is commendable but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
Giridharadas went on to explain: While we live in an age of extraordinary generosity, the plutocratic class behind the giving is the same one fighting against minimum wage increases and for lax labor regulations and lower taxes. “The government, like any animal you starve, turns out to be less effective when you starve it,” he said.
“So, we have very rich people, a slightly anemic government, and festering social problems—and the rich come along and say, ‘This is a real shame! I’m troubled by these social problems, and I’m troubled the government that should be dealing with this is not! Allow me to step in and help, and I’ll get a tax deduction.’”
For the last 14 or so years, Philipp has lived in Decatur, in a two-bed, two-bath, top-floor condo with tall ceilings, a tiny balcony, and a view of downtown Atlanta’s skyline, just over the treetops. A mentor and former Foundation board chair, Larry Gellerstedt, through his company Beers Construction, had a hand in many of the buildings she can see, a reminder she wouldn’t be where she is without people like him lending her their credibility early in her career, helping her form connections with powerful people who might not otherwise welcome her in. Philipp has now mentored hundreds of young people herself.
Dozens of picture frames are neatly arranged on the dresser in Philipp’s bedroom: her son, Connor, in his Coast Guard uniform; her daughter, Alice, with pink hair. There are pictures of her three-year-old grandson, Manuel, and one of herself at 16, with her two older brothers. The three grew up in Maryland in a middle-class family, attending Catholic schools. One of Philipp’s earliest memories is of her mother, on her hands and knees scrubbing the church floors as a volunteer. Her maternal grandfather worked at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard and got her father a union job there. He eventually worked his way up to a management role. When Philipp started school, her mom decided to try real estate, selling houses for $15,000 a piece, eventually hitting the million-dollar mark.
Philipp keeps magnets of Anderson Cooper and Che Guevara on her fridge. In the kitchen, there’s a painting by a self-taught artist in North Georgia that depicts a kid skinny-dipping in the river at a church baptism. Hanging above her couch is an earth-tone abstract she bought in the late 1980s, like most of her art, at a charity auction, this one benefiting the Atlanta AIDS Fund. The artist was a man living with AIDS; he died soon after the auction. The painting reminds her of how heart-wrenching the early days of the crisis were, a time of fear, uncertainty, and homophobia, as “gay-related immune deficiency” silently claimed hundreds of lives. Just a few years before, the Foundation had been approached for a grant to support “cultural competency education” for health-department workers so they could more compassionately assist their LGBTQ clients. Half the board voted against it, but the chairman at the time, Sweat, voted in favor to break the tie. Philipp said that was the proudest moment of her time with the Foundation, which would later help establish the Atlanta AIDS Fund. Since 1991, the Community Foundation has provided $11 million to AIDS-serving organizations.
Still, today, Georgians have the nation’s third-highest risk of contracting HIV—about one in every 51 people will be infected in their lifetimes. The vast majority of those cases will be people of color: Black people make up about 30 percent of the population in Georgia but represent 77 percent of new AIDS cases. Now-retired Foundation Senior Vice President Lesley Grady, who worked alongside Philipp for 20 years, says that this particular public health crisis has persisted because of a bigger problem, one that plagues the city, state, and nation: The masses have been too slow to suspend their disdain for gay people and poor Black people.
Philipp addressed the lack of progress last winter: “I look at that [first grant, in 1982] with pride at being there early, but I look with distress because not much has changed.”
Doctors Jeff and Sivan Hines got involved with the Foundation seven years ago, after they showed up to a fundraising event and realized they were the only people of color in the room. Jeff is Black; Sivan is Sri Lankan. For them, the Foundation was more than just a way to augment their giving; Jeff Hines says it gave them a place at the Table. The city of Atlanta is majority Black. “But Black donors, people who have donor-advised funds at the Community Foundation?” Hines says there are fewer than 50. The Foundation has more than 1,000 donors but “has not evolved to a place where we currently track the race of its donors,” says Elyse Hammett, its vice president of marketing and communications. The Hineses were upfront with Philipp about why they started a fund and what they want: a Foundation more representative of the community it serves.
“There’s Black wealth in Atlanta. There’s old Black wealth; there’s new Black wealth,” says Hines. He thinks part of the Foundation’s lack of diversity among its donors stems from the fact that different communities have different approaches to philanthropy. A study on regional giving found that Black people give a larger percentage of their income to charitable causes than any other racial group and that they’re more likely to volunteer; however, they’re less likely to give to trusts and foundations than to individuals and the church. Another issue is that there are few Black people on the Foundation’s team who manage donors’ portfolios: “It’s very difficult to engage families of wealth of color, particularly Black people, when your people who are your financial advisors don’t look like me,” Hines says. “It’s important for a potential donor to realize this organization really appreciates and embraces diversity.”
Hines explains that the Foundation employees who lead programs in the community are in fact a diverse group. He’s pushing to extend that diversity to the portfolio managers as part of the Foundation’s new strategic plan. That plan revolves around improving economic and social mobility across metro Atlanta and is focused on seven metrics that stunt racial equity, from the percent of babies born low-weight (which is tied to health and educational achievement) to the percent of students who graduate high school (which is tied to incarceration rates in adults).
The Foundation is pushing to look at inequity holistically: Ensuring an expectant mother gets the care she needs so her baby is born healthy is crucial, but it’s not enough; that young family needs safe, affordable housing and access to good schools. Supporting young students so they perform at grade-level and graduate high school is impactful, but those young adults should then earn a wage that allows them to make rent, buy groceries, and go to the doctor if they need to. A push for postsecondary education is ideal, but how can we help that family build wealth, so its next generation starts from a better place?
Part of the “hard work” Philipp says she’s trying to do is speak out against a Southern politesse lulling the metro into a false sense of accomplishment. That means honestly addressing current power dynamics and then actively working to balance them, which will require those in power to relinquish some control. But if power has unjustly resided in the same hands for far too long, why is Philipp just speaking up now? “I think that the veil wasn’t really off my eyes totally,” she says. “I think it was partially a gradual awakening to the situation that we’re in.” Also, her coming retirement gives her “the liberty to be able to say this in a way that I would not have been able to say it before. Maybe I should have awoken a long time ago.”
A few donors and nonprofit leaders said they thought Philipp’s more subdued messaging was strategic, a way to push for incremental change from the inside; they said her belief system regarding racial inequity has been consistent these four decades, though she has grown bolder with time. Or perhaps, as former mayor Franklin explains, “her position allowed her to be in high places but probably did not allow her to push as hard as she thought was needed to open the door.”
Philipp says she hopes others will continue that push—namely, her replacement. Frank Fernandez, Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation senior vice president, will assume the position in August. Fernandez, a second-generation American whose parents emigrated from Cuba, graduated from Harvard and the University of Texas and has served in the nonprofit sector for 20 years. Most recently, he’s led the Blank Foundation’s efforts in youth development, social justice, and revitalization work on the Westside.
It’s 63 degrees and sunny in São Pedro do Sul, Portugal, at the Quinta da Comenda bed and breakfast, where Philipp sits on a stone bench, flanked by an olive grove and a small vineyard. She starts every morning with Manny, her grandson, just down the road at her daughter’s organic farm, where 10 years ago, a 22-year-old Alice came to volunteer and never left. Around noon, as Community Foundation team members are just waking up in Atlanta, Philipp heads to her daughter’s bedroom for WiFi and works well into the night.
She’d planned this trip in lieu of taking a vacation during the holidays, because that’s the Foundation’s busy season, and it would be her last. She’ll spend part of her imminent retirement here; the rest in Guatemala, working in women’s economic development, and in Atlanta. She’s studied Spanish for a decade to prepare. Her ex-husband planned to arrive the day after she left, but his travel plans changed and he arrived a week early. Then, before Philipp could fly home for her last few months as the Foundation’s president, Portugal locked down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leaving them both stranded in what her daughter refers to as “the Grandparent Trap.”
This story, like many others, was different before the pandemic. Before, the problems Philipp talked about—food and economic insecurity, the importance of an adequate social safety net, the widespread perils of racial injustice—simmered. COVID-19 brought them to a boil.
Three factors put people at increased risk of hospitalization or death as a result of the virus: advanced age, preexisting health conditions, and low socioeconomic status. According to the New York Times, low-income individuals are about 10 percent more likely to have a chronic health condition, and those conditions can make COVID-19 up to 10 times as deadly—a problem compounded by unequal access to healthcare. Last year, a quarter of Americans put off a doctor visit or treatment because of finances; and, though nearly everyone whose income is in the top quarter has paid sick leave, the majority of those in the bottom quarter do not. In the days of social-distancing, working from home was a privilege essential workers weren’t afforded, putting many people in traditionally lower-paying jobs at greater risk. At one point, among a sample of COVID-19 patients at eight Georgia hospitals, more than 80 percent of those hospitalized for the virus were Black. Hundreds of thousands of metro Atlanta workers were furloughed or fired, and the loss of income hit communities of color hardest: About 70 percent of Black Atlantans make $40,000 or less, compared to 50 percent of Latinx Atlantans and 30 percent of white Atlantans. Just two in five Black and Latinx Atlantans have enough in savings to keep them out of poverty for three months, compared to four in five white Atlantans.
As schools closed to slow the spread of the virus, some districts set up food distribution sites for families whose children depended on those meals; others had buses run delivery routes. In Atlanta, 76 percent of Black children and 40 percent of Latinx children live in high-poverty areas, compared to just six percent of white children.
Los Niños Primero, a nonprofit serving Latinx preschool children, has received support from the Foundation for 15 years. Executive director Maritza Morelli says because of COVID-19, the vast majority of their families, many of whom are undocumented and ineligible for government assistance, have lost substantial income. Morelli says most of the children they serve don’t have internet access or computers and are in danger of falling further behind. “Parents, you know, they’re losing hope,” Morelli says. “They’re in despair.”
In an effort to cushion the pandemic’s blow to metro Atlanta’s arts community, the Foundation, through its Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, awarded $580,000 in grants in late May to organizations such as Burnaway and Dad’s Garage. But not one of the 11 grant recipients in this first round of funding was a Black arts organization. In an open letter to Philipp—published June 4, as this issue went to press—more than two dozen leaders in Atlanta’s Black arts community shared their frustration over the fact that the Arts Fund has not made investments in the metro Atlanta Black arts community in ways remotely comparable to the white arts community.
“If Black organizations have succeeded in breaking through the Community Foundation force field, it is the exception, not the rule,” the letter stated. “Your philanthropic model was never designed for our success.”
The letter called for further conversation between the Foundation and members of the metro Atlanta Black arts community. Plans for that conversation are underway.
“I think racial equity is a journey, and I think in every journey there’s a stumble,” Philipp says. “This is definitely one for us. We did not live up to what we said we want to do, but we’re rectifying that and learning from it.”
Before the pandemic, Philipp had been laying the groundwork to help prevent such blindspots. “I don’t always take the time to stop and understand where somebody’s coming from and what their personal experience is,” she admitted in February. “They’re bringing so much to the table, and I’m missing it.” She did know that whatever shape the Foundation’s new solutions would take, the power and authority for those solutions should belong not to wealthy givers but to members of disenfranchised groups. That shift in power is now more necessary than ever. “For all [the pandemic’s] horribleness,” she says, “I hope that we have learned some lessons that we never can unsee or unlearn.”
Lately, donors are becoming more comfortable questioning whether they’re right in making decisions—even in the form of charitable gifts—for others and more comfortable relinquishing power when it comes to those gifts.
One donor, Angie Allen, says the Foundation’s efforts in Thomasville Heights have provided “a window into other lives.” Those lives are so different from hers, she says, “that my own opinions, my ideas, my solutions have very little bearing.”
In a memo to her successor, Philipp writes: “What will this different decision-making environment look like? What new models and processes will transform how the region includes and synthesizes diverse voices?” Philipp doesn’t know the answers. But she believes the Foundation and her successor must be instrumental in figuring them out.
As Philipp said in that speech that made her so nervous: “The future is not one voice, one language, one race, or one gender. We don’t all look the same—and the center of power should look like all of us, not just some of us.”
This article appears in our July 2020 issue. This version was updated to include the announcement of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta’s new president and CEO, Frank Fernandez.
The restaurant business is a brutal one even in the best of times, whether you’re a Michelin-starred chef or a rookie barback. Any worker who’s gone through its basic training emerges with something of a battle-ready mindset. Usually, though, such battles take the shape of merciless hours and relentless dinner rushes—not an invisible, spiky-crowned virus. This is the rare fight that the tenacious members of the restaurant industry can’t win alone. In our Resilience of Restaurants issue, you’ll find not only suggestions for how to support your favorite haunts—many of which were far from ready to reopen in early May, despite the governor’s assurances that it was fine to do so. You’ll also find the faces and stories of the people who need that help to survive the short term, so that they can stick it out long enough to protect their families, their workers, and their customers. They want to preserve what they’ve built so that something lasting remains after the virus retreats. “These are the places that you’ve always loved, and the charm is still there,” says Allen Suh, who was forced to close Buford Highway stalwart Donquixote in April. “We always hoped that would bring the people back, you know?” —Mara Shalhoup
1. Mobilize (and pay) restaurant workers to feed those in need
There are, tragically, an astronomical number of people who make and serve food for a living who recently lost their jobs. In Georgia, unemployment claims from restaurant-industry workers increased by 118,000 in March, according to the Georgia Department of Labor. There also is an unprecedented number of people in need of meals, from front-line workers to children who had relied on subsidized school (and summer-camp) lunches to families whose wage earners have suffered layoffs, furloughs, or pay cuts. The private and nonprofit sector already is raising and donating funds to pay restaurants and their workers to prepare meals for those in need. But what if the government funded a program to redeploy restaurants and their workers as emergency food providers?
Congress passed a $25 billion COVID-19 bailout for the airline industry but not one tailored to the restaurant industry, which is four times bigger in terms of sales and 18 times bigger in number of jobs. Instead, restaurants were left to compete with all other businesses for federal small-business loans—and smaller, independent restaurants often are missing out on those funds in favor of restaurant chains. In the first round of loan disbursements, seven such chains gobbled up $91 million of the $349 billion available (though many of them returned the loan money after public blowback).
Miller Union chef/co-owner Steven Satterfield and his team mobilized after Emory Healthcare asked him and Forza Storico’s owners to provide meals for hospital workers, many of whom are pulling 12-hour shifts. The effort supplies 400 meals a day between both restaurants, five days a week, thanks to funding not from the feds but from State Farm Arena and the Atlanta Hawks. It’s enabled Satterfield to keep about 60 percent of his employees on the payroll at $15 an hour.
“We’ve just been really fortunate to have something to do while this pandemic is happening because so many people are out of work. So many restaurant workers are furloughed and have no mission except for just to try to navigate their own life,” Satterfield says. “It’s given us a purpose, and we feel really lucky.” He says that, without the work from the initiative, “we would have just been doing piecemeal to-go sales and probably furloughing more people.”
Chef José Andrés, who has used his international nonprofit World Central Kitchen to provide more than 15 million meals for those in need (including passengers on quarantined cruise ships in California and survivors of Hurricane Maria), essentially is proposing a New Deal for the restaurant industry. His plan would have the government pay restaurant-industry professionals to feed their cities’ most vulnerable—on a large scale. (Think arenas and convention centers.) He shared that idea in a phone call in March with chef and restaurateur Hugh Acheson (of 5&10 in Athens and Empire State South and By George in Atlanta), who then came up with his own, scaled-down take, which calls for using federal funds to support cooks in preparing meals each day in their restaurants; as of late April, Acheson’s two restaurants were preparing well over 1,000 meals daily for in-need communities and first responders (paid for by outside contributions). Whether large-scale or small, such efforts—if federally funded—would bring relief not just to restaurants and those in need of meals but to the entire restaurant supply chain, including Georgia’s farmers and shrimpers.
Along with Satterfield and Acheson, other Atlanta chefs are already doing their part, with donations from individuals and the private sector. You can donate meals (from places like Nina & Rafi and Hampton and Hudson) through the Meal Bridge, a website where you sign up to buy food for healthcare workers at the hospital of your choice. You also can donate to the cause through the Castellucci Hospitality Group, where a $15 contribution will ensure the delivery of two meals to healthcare workers as part of CHG’s Feed the Frontline campaign. Petit Chou is delivering meals to the elderly and other high-risk individuals.
Other restaurants have focused their efforts on helping their fellow hospitality workers, predominantly with funding from outside contributions. Gina and Linton Hopkins (Holeman & Finch Public House, Hop’s Chicken, and C. Ellet’s Steakhouse) have partnered with the Lee Initiative, an organization that strives to make the restaurant industry more diverse and equitable, to turn what would have been the Hopkins’s newest venture, Eugene and Elizabeth’s, into a relief center where restaurant workers who’ve been laid off or had their pay significantly reduced can stop by for a to-go meal and supplies like toilet paper, canned food, and diapers. Red Pepper Taqueria has partnered with Sysco, FreshPoint, and Buckhead Meat to provide weekly care packages (with fruits, veggies, meats, and hand sanitizer) for its employees. Staplehouse is taking donations via Venmo (@staplehouserestaurant) to pay its staff to serve meals to out-of-work food-service employees. Yet another effort spearheaded by Electric Hospitality (Golden Eagle, Muchacho, Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall) called #ATLFamilyMeal provides a similar service, working alongside about a dozen partners, including Fox Bros Bar-B-Q and New Realm Brewing, to deliver meals to workers’ homes; a $20 donation covers four meals. So far, #ATLFamilyMeal has hired workers from 100 local restaurants, bars, and breweries to help prepare and deliver more than 10,000 meals.
These are noble and essential efforts on the part of the restaurant industry and the people, organizations, and corporations whose donations support them. (For even more ways to give, see no. 5 below.) But it’s time for the government to step in to sustain this important work—because even after dining rooms reopen, the need to subsidize both the restaurants and the workers ravaged by COVID-19 will continue.
2. Order food to-go
Regardless of when restaurants decide to reopen, the takeout orders that allowed them to hang on during the roughest weeks will continue to be essential to the slow rebuilding of their business. They’ll be essential, too, for those of us who are unwilling to risk visiting even the most overprotective dining room. As of early May, there were more restaurants offering takeout, curbside, or delivery than not. Just take a look at our 50 Best Tacos issue, which we updated to indicate how many of those tacos you can order to-go. (Answer: 48!) And while this is an especially good time to revisit, repeatedly, your all-time favorite spots, you also should use this opportunity to give newer restaurants a try—especially those from the brave souls who opened in the midst of the pandemic. Whether you seek comfort from septuagenarian Busy Bee (there are few greater salves than their fried chicken) or from newborn Talat Market (we’d like to sleep on a bed of that crispy rice salad), there’s no shortage of memorable meals.
3. Buy groceries from restaurants . . .
Running low on eggs, flour, or salad greens? Skip the grocery store and hit up your neighborhood restaurant instead. Many restaurants have pivoted to retail in order to keep the lights on and keep a few employees on payroll, all while offering a low-contact way to stock your pantry—and helping to keep the local food-supply chain intact.
Inman Park bistro-turned-bodega One Eared Stag started offering groceries out of a to-go window in early April. By selling the produce it would normally use in its farm-to-table kitchen, One Eared Stag is supporting local farmers while figuring out yet another survival mechanism. (One Eared Stag also offers takeout meals.) “Without the bodega right now,” says general manager Matt Reeves, “I don’t know where we’d be standing.”
4. . . . or from farmers It’s not only service-industry workers who are struggling as a result of the mass closure of restaurants. Suppliers to those restaurants—most notably, the growers who’ve powered the farm-to-table movement—also need extra support to weather the pandemic. The good news is that there are an increasing number of ways to safely buy produce from local growers—which not only will protect their livelihoods but will ensure that, when restaurants reopen, their crops will remain intact. Here are a few local options:
Sign up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription and get a box of ultrafresh produce weekly. You can find farms with online ordering using the Good Food Guide from Georgia Organics. One notable new CSA not on that list is the one offered by 8Arm; order by Wednesday morning for a Thursday or Friday pickup—and note that a portion of the cost goes toward providing produce boxes for undocumented workers who’ve lost their jobs.
And if you’re not comfortable picking up your produce, you’re not out of luck. You can get local produce delivered to your door through Bag’d Atlanta.
5. Donate what you can, whether to organizations or directly to restaurants Perhaps one of the best and most immediate ways to help the food-service industry is by donating your dollars to support restaurant workers, many of whom lived paycheck to paycheck prior to the crisis. Few local organizations fulfill this need as greatly and effectively as Giving Kitchen, which provides food-service workers in crisis with small but critical grants. Since the start of the pandemic, the organization—the sister nonprofit to Staplehouse—has provided over $200,000 in financial assistance to workers who’ve experienced illnesses including COVID-19 (or are under doctor’s order to quarantine). Giving Kitchen also offers assistance through its Stability Network for restaurant workers who don’t suffer directly from COVID-19 but, rather, from its vast economic impact. The Stability Network creates partnerships with and offers referrals to dozens of groups that provide aid for everything from housing to mental health to immigration issues to family services. “In every phase of our work, we’re experiencing an unprecedented response,” says executive director Bryan Schroeder. “We will never have to explain ‘why Giving Kitchen’ again.”
You also can support the staffs of your favorite restaurants by giving money directly to them. Dozens of restaurants have launched employee relief campaigns on crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, with ones like Kimball House, Redbird, and those belonging to the Fifth Group collective raising tens of thousands of dollars for former employees in less than a month. A comprehensive (and searchable) index of those campaigns can be found at ReliefAtlanta.com.
6. Invest in dining bonds
Like savings bonds, dining bonds offer buyers credit to be redeemed at a later date. What makes the concept more attractive than gift cards is that they’re sold at a discount: A bond that costs $100 today could be worth $125 when it matures in, say, three months, when a restaurant reopens. The idea was the brainchild of Helen Patrikis and Steven Hall, two New York PR professionals who serve the hospitality industry. They launched their website, the Dining Bond Initiative, on the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, and, within a month, nearly 500 participating restaurants around the world signed up. The service is free to the restaurants, whose owners set their own terms and sell the actual bonds. An interactive map helps users find locations near them.
Atlanta-area participants include Gusto!, NaanStop, and South of Philly. Gusto! founder Nate Hybl estimates the program brought his company close to $60,000 in its first month, all of which went toward paying team members. Before the pandemic, he had about 200 employees at five locations (two more are in the works), but about 30 percent have been laid off, at least temporarily. Sales initially dropped 70 percent, despite Gusto!’s niche of providing portable, fresh food. Dining Bond proceeds have helped save more jobs. “We are so thankful to the Atlanta community,” Hybl says. “The dining bonds are an amazing sign of belief in us. We have tremendous gratitude.”
Patrikis designed the program specifically to help restaurants survive. “We really admire and love the people in the restaurant industry,” she says. “They’re givers. They’re generous and hard-working. They are always the first ones to help out when there’s a charity or a humanitarian crisis and people need food. Whenever there’s something to celebrate or an occasion to mark, you’re going to your favorite restaurant. What’s it going to look like when this is over if they’re not there?”
7. Buy a private dinner
At charity auctions, private dinners hosted by local chefs are often a choice bid. Canoe chef Matthew Basford and co-owner Gerry Klaskala have raised $20,000 multiple times at High Museum auctions. But opportunities for such exclusive affairs are rare—or at least they used to be. Basford’s team already is considering auctioning off a dinner to raise money for staff. “It’s very hard to get us to come to your home as a restaurant,” he says. “But [it’s different] if it’s something to raise funds for staff and to keep the restaurant alive.” And Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q is offering a 50-person backyard barbecue for $6,000, with all proceeds going toward employee assistance. Short of that, you can book almost any restaurant for a future private party. You’ll have to pay early (or at least put down a solid deposit), then wait for your dinner; but if you were planning to splurge on an upcoming occasion, you’ll never have a better chance to recruit your favorite chef.
8. Local government: cut the red tape
As the number of COVID-19 cases mounted and restaurants temporarily closed their doors or pivoted to takeout, local governments tried to help keep them open by easing rules on selling to-go alcohol and classifying them as essential businesses. But policymakers should view those efforts as first steps and should listen to what restaurateurs need during an unprecedented time. While the newly created Independent Restaurant Coalition (chaired by Miller Union chef/co-owner Steven Satterfield) lobbies the federal government for relief on the national level, the Georgia Restaurant Association has urged local and state governments to grant sales-tax holidays and temporary breaks on business fees, and to defer taxes on purchases until the pandemic eases. Not all those proposals will happen. But the passage of some could mean the difference between a beloved ramen spot reopening when COVID-19 treatment and vaccines are available and a “For Rent” sign popping up in the restaurant’s window.
9. Fight for restaurant workers to get better health insurance and sick leave Georgia’s laws favor businesses more than workers, and the state prohibits cities and counties from passing labor-friendly policies like increasing the minimum wage, requiring paid leave, and establishing fair scheduling, which would push employers to provide workers with more predictable schedules and better protections. The gaps caused by those preemption laws (not to mention’s the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid) have left those in food service among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic—and the least protected.
Ideally, all restaurant owners would be able to offer affordable healthcare coverage to their employees, but that’s unlikely, given the industry’s razor-thin profit margins and workers’ low wages. Another, perhaps equally unlikely option is for the state legislature to expand Medicaid coverage. At the very least, says Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, Georgia could join the 13 other states that guarantee workers paid leave, no longer forcing servers, bartenders, and kitchen staff to work sick, which is unhealthy for them and unsafe for coworkers and customers. Some companies temporarily implemented paid sick leave policies as coronavirus spread. That’s a start, but employers and—better yet—the state should commit to making these changes permanent.
The feast or famine practice of tipping, erratic work schedules, and a state minimum wage that hasn’t increased in 15 years can make it hard for restaurant workers to maintain a steady budget or handle an unexpected expense. “All of the sudden, these folks who we consider to be low-wage workers, who were scraping by, are the essential workforce,” Camardelle says. “If this doesn’t force us to [raise the minimum wage] in the near future, I don’t know what will. It’s always been a lack of sheer political will. It will be a complete denial of these people’s humanity and their worth.”
10. Be supportive of the vastly different style of restaurant that could emerge as the pandemic recedes
If you think that offering benefits and paying workers livable wages on razor-thin profit margins was hard enough before COVID-19, just imagine what it will be like in the aftermath of the pandemic—when restaurants will have reduced occupancies (perhaps by as much as 50 percent). Also: Gone, for a while at least, will be the days of waiting for your table—and running up a tab—at the shoulder-to-shoulder bar. “What we made in a day is now what we make in a week,” says Gee Smalls, co-owner of Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar in downtown College Park. The restaurant has pivoted to takeout and delivery (through Uber Eats and DoorDash), but a large part of Virgil’s success since opening a year ago was its busting-at-the-seams weekend bar scene. “We’re using this downtime to think of ways to do things better and strengthen our restaurant.”
We’ve long needed to build a better, more equitable, more worker-protective restaurant; now, we need to build a more diner-protective one—all based on a business model that actually keeps the restaurant afloat. For that miracle to happen, we need to be ready, as diners, to assume some of the cost—at a time when many of us have new financial struggles of our own. It might become more expensive to eat out than it was before. Or the more luxe experience at a given restaurant might become more casual and, given the masked servers and required temperature readings, weirder. Nobody yet knows exactly what the postpandemic restaurant will look like. (Well, our former dining critic Corby Kummer might; he’s working with the James Beard Foundation and the Aspen Institute’s Food and Society Program to establish new safety protocols for restaurants.) The biggest thing to keep in mind is that, going forward, restaurants will require an unusual amount of patience and patronage—and however much you’re able to give will be worth it.
When Gregor Turk paid $85,000 for his northwest Atlanta studio—a one-story cinderblock structure built 70 years ago by a World War II veteran—the visual artist quickly learned the nuances of neighborhood customs, such as the crack house down the street that announced new product by hanging a Tweety Bird piñata in the front yard.
That was in 2003—ancient history in the fast-evolving landscape of intown gentrification. Turk’s studio is now surrounded by 35 new single-family homes, with prices starting at $550,000. Hipster venues have already moved in, from a coffee shop to a BYOB axe-throwing facility. And the area has been rechristened “West Town.”
Not so fast, says Turk, who in 2016 erected a billboard in his yard that reads, “Welcome to the Heart of Blandtown.” The sign is not a passive-aggressive middle finger at developers, Turk says. Instead, it’s a history lesson.
Hidden behind the Atlanta Waterworks, Blandtown’s known history dates back to just after the Civil War. Once home to four churches, a public health clinic, and a dime store, the predominantly black neighborhood flourished until 1956, when the city rezoned the land from residential to heavy industrial, a “death sentence” according to Larry Keating, professor emeritus at Georgia Tech and author of Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion.
The ordinance blocked new construction and even discouraged home repairs so that by 1990, the community had lost nearly half its housing and three-quarters of its population. The rezoning’s effects would linger until recently, as proximity to the Westside boom has begun to lure developers.
Turk has made preserving Blandtown’s name and history his personal mission. His project “Reclaiming Blandtown (Phase 1)” is one of a dozen winners chosen from among 77 applications for a $1,000 Idea Capital Atlanta grant this year.
At an Atlanta Preservation Center panel discussion hosted by Turk, Rhana Gittens, a Georgia State University PhD candidate, amended urban folklore surrounding Blandtown’s origins. Legend had it that white landowner Viney Bland paid for her slave Felix Bland’s university education and willed him her estate, which he later lost for failure to pay taxes. But Gittens’s research found that Viney was registered in the 1880 census as black. Her husband, Samuel, who was also black, purchased four acres for $200 in 1871. The couple had four children, including Felix—presumably none of whom were slaves.
As part of his project, Turk is using boxes wrapped in used bicycle tire rubber to create wall-mounted sculptures depicting the footprints of local buildings. Sites range from demolished structures like a barbershop and a juke joint that once catered to railway workers to the present-day homes that replaced them.
Felicia Feaster, a member of the Idea Capital Steering Committee, says Turk’s work stood out because, in addition to it being “a little poke at the underbelly of Atlanta’s gentrification . . . there’s gravitas.” He’s critiquing a problem, she says, and starting a conversation—one that Turk plans to continue this year with an exhibition.
While the community’s name isn’t particularly sexy, Turk wants the neighborhood to own it: “There’s nothing insipid about Blandtown.”
A spindly 13-year-old wearing a silver plastic crown and cargo shorts stands next to a middle-aged man in full military regalia as they await their royal photo. They’re surrounded by more than 70 delegates—dressed in pearls and kitten heels, electric blue sailor suits, glitter-coated boots, and capes. They represent 26 nations, from the Kingdom of Jupiter to the Republic of West Who.
Queens, emperors, and dictators traveled from as far as France this past weekend to Tucker’s Reid H. Cofer Library to discuss their day-to-day lives as the rulers of micronations.
Not familiar with the term? Newbies are often introduced to the concept through the example of the Principality of Sealand, which, depending on whom you ask, is either the world’s smallest nation or a rusted military platform off the coast of England.
Built by the British in international waters, Roughs Tower was one of four naval forts used to fend off Germans in World War II. The post was abandoned after the war—until pirate radio operator Roy Bates commandeered it, moved his family on board, and declared independence in 1967 as the Principality of Sealand.
Most experts deride the claim that the structure is a sovereign territory; nevertheless Sealand has served five decades as a model for aspiring micronations, surviving attempted demolition by the British navy and an armed coup.
Not all micronations have such storied histories or take themselves as seriously—or even have physical territories. For some, it’s a state of mind; for others, it’s their bedroom, their home, or a slice of western Antarctica.
The Kingdom of Briarcliff, for example, is a neighborhood in central Illinois, where His Royal Majesty King Andrew I, got the idea to start a micronation from a YouTube video.
The 13-year-old flashes a braces-laden smile and recounts his muse, the Republic of Cheesistan.
“All their problems were settled by pulling apart cheesesticks, and whoever got the bigger part won the debate,” he says. “I thought that was really cool.”
Queen Anastasia Sophia Maria Helena von Rubenroth Elphberg of Ruritania also founded her kingdom as a teenager. In 1967, she volunteered to do a friend’s school project—creating a country from scratch—and she’s been queen (of half an acre in Stone Mountain) ever since. As host of this year’s MicroCon, she carries herself with an air of royalty, greeting constituents under an orange sun hat with a pink satin ribbon and white dogwood blossoms.
This is just the second MicroCon (the first was two years ago in California, and the next will be two years from now in Canada). Anastasia and her family organized three days of events—sightseeing around Atlanta, bowling, a gala, and this conference.
Three generations of Ruritanians are present, including Anastasia’s sister-in-law, Grand Duchess Carolina Francesca Antonia Frederika von Elphberg, who joined the Kingdom of Ruritania after her brother, the King, died. She said running the micronation helped the family face that hardship.
“Queen Anastasia says that you don’t always have good days; bad things happen,” the Grand Duchess explains. “But you can’t wallow in it; after all, you’re a queen, and you have people who depend on you.”
Grand Marshal Karo Lyn, of the Ambulatory Free States of Obsidia, hails from Oakland, California. Decked out in an electric blue uniform, hot pink fishnet stockings, and glittery high heel boots, she’s at the convention to spread her nation’s feminist (and borderless) agenda.
When it’s her turn to offer a status update on the state of her nation, she says the captain of Obsidia’s navy is now working with Women on Waves, an organization that travels around the world in a sailboat, bringing safe abortions to countries where the procedure is illegal.
“Borders are the enemy of mutual aid, of autonomy, of feminism, and, indeed, freedom,” she says. Obsidia wants an international sisterhood, where the only boundaries for women are the ones they mandate over their own bodies.
While Karo Lyn uses her micronation (a self-proclaimed “ridiculous project”) as a vessel to bring attention to important issues, King Richard, of Acworth, hopes his Kingdom of Edan itself can be a solution for those who dislike living under a large government structure. While the army vet was studying political science, he came across the issue of statelessness—millions of people who have no citizenship or territory to claim as their own. He wants to create a nonterritorial nation for those people—or anyone else who wants a small, personal government.
The Kingdom of Edan’s ultimate goal is to peacefully acquire sovereign territory, but for other micronations, the goals are more casual.
“Some people [form micronations] because they like to dress up and have fancy tea parties,” says King Richard. “And I heartily approve.”
Even those just in it for a laugh can find the responsibility of ruling their own country to be more than they expected.
The eighth-grader from Illinois, King Andrew I, wears a plastic crown adorned with silver fleurs-de-lis to match the red emblem on his sash and beams with pride as other monarchs look over his constitution, written in pencil on copy paper and carefully displayed next to the official letter system of the Kingdom of Briarcliff (the Briarbet), an abstract interpretation of the Roman alphabet.
His state recently survived its first war—his foe, 9-year-old brother Alex, was defeated using heavy artillery (Nerf guns) and grenades (foam balls)—but a bigger problem now lingers on the horizon: the national debt.
A year into his reign, Andrew spends his time chipping away at the $1,300 the Kingdom owes Ambassador JoDee Benoit (aka his chauffeur and Papa, who purchased the flags, the crown, and the materials for the royal sash he’s wearing). How does he plan to overcome the deficit? “Merchandising.”
Trifold posters and sample currencies—the Republic of Molossia’s Valora is linked in value to Pillsbury Cookie Dough—line the library’s conference hall; props like King Andrew’s map, hand-drawn and colored in crayon, sit next to 3D-printed armor that’s been field-tested with a battle axe for the Technocratic Republic of Theodia’s would-be guards.
Its founder, Swena, recently graduated from the University of Georgia and is looking forward to devoting more time to his country, which—seven years in—he still considers to be in its early stages.
Much of Saturday is spent soaking in PowerPoint presentations, from the tongue-in-cheek (“Women in Micronations: Starting your own or supporting your dictator husband”) to the academic (“Diagnosing Emperor Norton,” examining potential psychosis in one of history’s first self-proclaimed rulers).
The contributor of the latter is Imperial Majesty Doctor Eric Lis; he rules the Aerican Empire when he’s not working as a psychiatrist. His presentation is on Joshua Norton, who declared himself emperor of the USA in 1859 and, with the support of fellow San Franciscans, “reigned” until his death in 1880.
Lis’s prognosis as it applies to a room full of self-declared monarchs and presidents?
“If someone has their life together in the three domains of work, love, and play, then any weird hobbies they might have are most likely eccentricities and quirks, as opposed to symptoms,” he says. “Take that for whatever it’s worth coming from a guy who spent three days wearing a cape and a coat with smiley-face buttons.”
Lis says that he rarely faces ridicule for ruling his micronation—in fact, he notes, many of his patients are comforted to speak to someone they can view as a fellow misfit. He said if someone did look down on him because of the Empire, he’d ask that person if it’s “any less ridiculous to watch brain-damaged millionaires chase after a ball or surgically-altered debutantes compete on reality television.”
“We all choose how we spend our time, and almost every human activity is kind of silly when you really look at it.”
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