On April 1, 2020, Lauren Spanjer Bricks’s world changed in an instant. That day, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration granted an Emergency Use Authorization for a COVID-19 PCR test developed by Ipsum Diagnostics, a Sandy Springs–based company that Bricks co-founded in 2016. They were only the fifth laboratory in the country to receive the authorization.
“Our test got the green light at the same time everyone in the country was realizing that this virus is an explosive problem,” says Bricks. “We were in the lab going 100 miles an hour and there was no stopping.”
In April, Governor Brian Kemp announced Ipsum as a key COVID-19 testing lab for the state, and they partnered with the Georgia Department of Public Health to fulfill all of their testing requirements. A year into the pandemic, Ipsum has tested more than a million samples, mostly from Georgia.
For the first time, Ipsum was flooded with calls from patients, frantic for their test results. “Typically labs interact with physicians’ offices, not patients, but all of a sudden we had thousands of phone calls and emails every day,” she says. Bricks noticed that many of the callers were native Spanish speakers who had trouble explaining what they needed.
Within a week, Ipsum had hired Spanish-speaking customer representatives, implemented a Spanish-language patient portal, and made all of Ipsum’s reports available in Spanish—the first COVID-19 testing facility to do so. “These are vulnerable populations and anything that we can do to help educate people about their status is one step closer to stopping the spread of this disease,” says Bricks.
Today, with COVID-19 vaccines available, Bricks is proud of the work Ipsum has done to help Georgians during the pandemic. “I’m the owner of this company, but I’m also a mother and I live in this community,” she says. “This virus was affecting everyone that I care about, everyone that our employees care about. We wanted to do right by them.”
“I want to live in a city where everyone can succeed,” says Wendy Stewart. As the Atlanta market president for Bank of America, Stewart is in a unique position to help encourage that success, a responsibility she takes seriously.
“When I came into this role in 2016, I really wanted to look at the most pressing issues facing Atlanta,” she says. She led a group that determined the issue where Bank of America could have the biggest impact—closing the economic mobility gap. The city leads the country in economic inequality and a lack of upward mobility: In the metro area, children born into families in the bottom fifth of income distribution have just a 4.5 percent chance of eventually reaching the top fifth.
To effect lasting change, Stewart knew it was important to take a hard look at the root problems, like systemic racism, that keep people locked in generational poverty. She brokered partnerships with Atlanta organizations already working to address their communities’ most urgent needs related to education, affordable housing, and workforce development. In 2020, she oversaw the distribution of more than $7.5 million in local grants and sponsorship funding, including $1.6 million in support of COVID-19 relief efforts.
One of the partnerships for which she is most proud is with Grove Park Foundation, dedicated to revitalizing the Grove Park neighborhood in west Atlanta. Stewart, who’s served on the foundation’s board for the past four years, co-chaired a capital campaign in support of a $50 million project to construct a new K-8 school, an early childhood education center, and a federally qualified health center. Now, she’s helping develop a broader strategy to make sure the neighborhood remains affordable for those who wish to stay. “We want to make sure the neighborhood is inclusive, equitable, and thriving, especially for legacy residents,” she says.
“I’ve lived in Atlanta for 35 years,” Stewart continues, “and in the past decade, I’ve seen the city go through a resurgence unlike anything I can remember. It’s our responsibility to make sure everyone has the opportunity to benefit from this growth.”
Can you even call yourself a Southerner if you don’t spend at least a quarter of the year griping about the heat (and don’t forget the humidity)? But during a season when the forecast seems permanently set to “scorching,” you can still find pockets of delicious coolness—and we don’t mean the blast radius around your air-conditioning vent.
A subterranean cave, a chilly river, the highest summit east of the Mississippi—these destinations are all shivery oases on dog-day afternoons. You might even need that quarantine sweatshirt.
Ginnie Springs | Florida
Florida is perhaps best known for its beaches, but locals and in-the-know visitors often prefer the state’s hundreds of freshwater springs. You won’t be able to resist plunging into the crystalline blue pools at Ginnie Springs, located about twenty miles northwest of Gainesville in High Springs and fed by 260 million gallons of natural spring water. So pure is the H2O, Coca-Cola has bottled and sold it under the brand Dasani, and the temperature below the surface never inches above seventy-two degrees—even on the most sizzling Florida day. The privately operated destination is actually a system of seven interconnected springs, and there are plenty of ways to experience it: tubing, kayaking, snorkeling, even scuba diving (the springs are pockmarked with limestone grottoes and caves, and the translucent water allows for breathtaking views). Ginnie Springs is also popular as a campsite, and both overnight guests and day-trippers should expect to see plenty of wildlife, including tortoises, alligators, even manatees.
Not a fan of camping? The Grady House Bed & Breakfast is located inside a circa-1917 Craftsman-style home right in High Springs. Visitors rave about the fresh chocolate-chip cookies served in the afternoons.
In downtown High Springs, the Great Outdoors Restaurant is known for its steaks, seafood, and decadent cheesecake desserts. Station Bakery and Cafe, a family-operated eatery, serves a dizzying array of cakes and pies, plus classic deli sandwiches.
Hoist a Cold One Sample craft beers, ciders, and non-alcoholic sodas at High Springs Brewing Company. The brewery often hosts live music acts, food trucks, and fun events like goat yoga.
Drinks, On the Rocks An arctic respite from the intense Florida heat
With a bar top, stools, even highball glasses carved from seventy tons of ice, Icebar Orlando bills itself as the world’s largest permanent ice bar. (The coldest parts of the establishment are kept at a glacial twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit.) Forgot your parka? An “Ice Princess” will greet you with a thermal coat and gloves. Don’t miss a photo-op in front of the fantastical ice sculptures on exhibit. Say ch-ch-ch-ch-cheese!
Chattahoochee River | Georgia
Shooting the ’Hooch, the famed 430-mile river that flows south from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Florida border, is a summertime rite of passage for Georgians. One of the best spots to float in a tube on the water is in Helen, a Bavarian-style village in northeast Georgia that looks plucked from the pages of a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Begin just north of Helen and let the Chattahoochee—whose waters stay cold year-round, rarely topping fifty degrees—gently wind you through scenic alpine forests and into the heart of town. Book a tubing trip with a local outfitter (hint: rent an extra tube for your cooler), and they’ll haul you upstream to drift for an hour or two along this natural lazy river. Nearby, sun-dappled trails weave in and out of the Chattahoochee National Forest; be sure to check out Anna Ruby Falls, a pair of cascading waterfalls that are easily accessible via a half-mile paved path. Experienced hikers can head a little farther to the summit of Blood Mountain, the highest peak on Georgia’s section of the Appalachian Trail.
One of Helen’s oldest landmarks and a popular Instagram backdrop, the Heidi Motel and Windmill Suites (yep, there’s an actual suite inside of a windmill) is delightfully kitschy. For one of Georgia’s quirkiest camping experiences, rent a circa-1970s barrel cabin in Unicoi State Park.
No visit to Helen is complete without a traditional German meal. At Hofbräuhaus Restaurant & Pub, feast on heaping portions of schnitzel or wurst served with red cabbage, sauerkraut, and spatzle.
Get a Dose of Nostalgia
Just down the road from Helen is Babyland General Hospital, the 70,000-square-foot “birthplace” of Cabbage Patch Kids. Learn the history of the beloved toy, dreamed up by local artist Xavier Roberts, and let the kids ink adoption papers for their very own baby.
Cold Mountain The higher you climb, the lower the temperature
Hiking might seem like a counterintuitive way to cool off, but North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell State Park—home to dense spruce-fir forests and the tallest peak in the Eastern United States (6,684 feet above sea level)—has an average annual temperature of just forty-five degrees and even occasional snow flurries in summer. If you’re not up for a strenuous ascent to the summit, try the Balsam Nature Trail, a three-quarter-mile stroll where you can dip your fingers into an always-icy stream. Afterward, drive an hour southwest to Asheville for a frosty pint; the city is home to the most breweries per capita in the country.
Beech Mountain | North Carolina
Perched 5,506 feet above sea level, Beech Mountain (population: 528) is the highest little town in the eastern United States. That skyscraping elevation also makes it one of the coolest spots in North Carolina, no matter the season. In winter, the mountain in the state’s northwestern corner is a playground for skiers and snowboarders. In summer, when the average temperature sits around seventy-three degrees, it’s popular with hikers and mountain bikers. June through September, you can reach the Emerald Outback (a park with seven miles of trails and magnificent alpine vistas) via ski chairlift at the Beech Mountain Resort. Disc-golfers can try their hand at the resort’s eighteen-hole course, while golfers will appreciate the mild temperatures and ridgetop views at the mile-high Beech Mountain Club. Love fishing? The rivers in this part of North Carolina often converge to fill small lakes; cast for mountain trout or bass at Buckeye Lake, a ten-acre pool ringed with trees. When you’re ready to end the day, the sweeping views from 5506′ Skybar at the top of Beech Mountain Resort stretch across North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Grab a beer and one of the Adirondack chairs on the 2,800-square-foot deck for a spectacular sunset show.
Beech Mountain is dotted with cozy cabins and chalets available for private booking. And just a short drive away near Banner Elk, the Lodge at River Run has five rustic-chic rooms and a river full of fish rushing right by its doors.
For lunch, try the expansive menu of pizzas, salads, and sandwiches at Banner Elk Cafe and Lodge. Come dinnertime, everything is made from scratch at Artisanal, a fine-dining restaurant in Banner Elk that’s open May through October.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road The Land of Oz theme park operated atop Beech Mountain from 1970 to 1980 and featured meticulous recreations of The Wizard of Oz movie sets, including a road paved with 44,000 yellow bricks. Today, visitors can see the restored park during private tours and events, such as the Journey with Dorothy tours held each summer.
Cold Pursuit Leave blistering summer temps behind with a jaunt to one of the South’s coolest towns (all averages are annual)
Hamilton, Alabama Average low: 46º
Average high: 74º
Milton, Florida Average low: 55º
Average high: 78º
Blairsville, Georgia Average low: 43º
Average high: 68º
Monroe, Louisiana Average low: 54º
Average high: 77º
Holly Springs, Mississippi Average low: 46º
Average high: 72º
Jefferson, North Carolina Average low: 38º
Average high: 63º
Salem, South Carolina Average low: 45º
Average high: 70º
Mountain City, Tennessee Average low: 40º
Average high: 66º
Cathedral Caverns | Alabama
Bring a sweater if you venture into this spectacular underground cave in Woodville; the temperature inside stays a crisp sixty degrees year round. In fact, archaeological studies show that humans have been cooling off in the cave’s passageways for 8,000 years. Once operated as a private tourist attraction, Cathedral Caverns and its surrounding acres in northeast Alabama were purchased by the state in 1987 and turned into a state park in 2000. Past the gaping entrance (128 feet across and twenty-five feet high), two miles of paved corridors are open for ranger-led tours. Along the way, you’ll see the subterranean Mystery River flowing past striking rock formations, including one of the world’s largest stalagmites (dubbed “Goliath,” it’s forty-five feet high and 243 feet in circumference). There’s also a wall of stone that resembles a frozen waterfall, a dense stalagmite “forest,” and a vast open chamber that inspired the caverns’ name. Once you’re ready to brave the heat again, let the kiddos try their hand at gemstone mining, or herd the family along the park’s five miles of hiking trails.
There are campsites at Cathedral Caverns State Park, but if you prefer an air-conditioned room, try the lodge at nearby Lake Guntersville State Park, which offers suites and cabins alongside the banks of Alabama’s largest lake.
About thirty minutes away in historic downtown Huntsville, the award-winning Cotton Row Restaurant serves upscale American fare and seasonal cocktails. Slightly closer by, you can fill up on Southern seafood at The Docks in Scottsboro.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville is where budding astronauts come to train at Space Camp each summer. There are interactive exhibits and programs for kids and adults, plus a jaw-dropping Saturn V Rocket, which sent Apollo missions to the moon.
Take a Stroll Through the Sky You can’t beat the cross-breeze!
Traverse the Mile High Swinging Bridge, the country’s highest suspension footbridge, for panoramic views of North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain. Just don’t look down into the eighty-foot ravine below.
Tallulah Gorge in North Georgia is a two-mile-long chasm formed by the Tallulah River and its many waterfalls. Take the Hurricane Falls Trail at Tallulah Falls State Park, and an eighty-foot bridge will lead you over the rushing water before you descend to the base of the falls.
The Gatlinburg Sky Bridge, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America, is not for the faint of heart: Even the extra-wobbly middle section is constructed with glass panels. Sweaty palms aside, the swaying 680-foot bridge offers a spectacular view of the Tennessee tourist town and the Great Smoky Mountains.
Lake Lure | North Carolina
In the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, about thirty miles southwest of Asheville, lies a major spot in chick-flick history. That’s right, Dirty Dancing fans: Lake Lure is where Patrick Swayze performed the famous “lake lift” with Jennifer Grey in the movie’s most memorable scene. With a small water park, a sandy beach, and a slide that sends you sailing straight into the shimmering, cool lake (the average water temperature at the surface stays in the low seventies), it’s also an excellent spot to weather a hot summer weekend. Rent a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard to explore the bays and inlets, or take a guided pontoon-boat tour of the 720-acre reservoir. Presiding over the horizon is Chimney Rock, a 500-million-year-old stone pillar that juts out over the landscape like a giant thumb. Climb all 491 steps (or take the elevator!), and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the water and surrounding mountains. Chimney Rock State Park is also crisscrossed with trails that lead you under lush tree canopies, past sheer rock cliffs, and through the cooling mists of Hickory Nut Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi.
The 1927 Lake Lure Inn and Spa hosted the Dirty Dancing cast during the movie’s filming; request to stay in the “Swayze” or “Jennifer Grey” suites to slumber within the same four walls as the film’s stars.The intimate Lodge on Lake Lure is a luxury inn with seventeen guest rooms and suites, most with unobstructed views of the water.
You can’t beat the scenery at La Strada, a popular family-run Italian restaurant with a large patio overlooking the lake. In Chimney Rock, Old Rock Cafe serves some of the area’s best burgers, sourced from local Hickory Nut Gap Farms.
Have the Time of Your Life Thousands of Baby and Swayze fans sashay into town each August for the annual Dirty Dancing Festival. You can attempt your own “lake lift,” or just lay back and enjoy a lakeside screening of the film.
Splashdown! Go waterfall chasing in the Tar Heel state
With four mountain chains and 2,700 named peaks, North Carolina is home to an abundance of waterfalls. (Transylvania County, in the state’s southwestern corner, boasts 250 falls alone!) An impressive wall of water pours over a sixty-foot drop and into a clear pool at Looking Glass Falls near Brevard. Carefully wade over the rocks (they’re slippery!), and you’ll be enveloped in a powerful spray of mist. Five miles northwest, Sliding Rock is nature’s Slip-n-Slide, with a gushing stream that propels you over a slick, sixty-foot-long rock face before dropping into a seven-foot-deep pool of icy water. Near Cashiers, Whitewater River tumbles over a stunning 411-foot plunge at the upper falls, then drops another 400 feet at the lower falls across the border in South Carolina—making Whitewater Falls the highest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. ashevilletrails.com, adventurepisgah.com
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Southbound.
For 10 years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, each weekday morning, Jeremy Wilhelm walked from his house in Grant Park to the King Memorial MARTA station.
There, he caught a train to Five Points and then walked another few blocks to his job in a Marietta Street office tower. In fact, when he and his wife were shopping for a house, their top requirement was being within walking distance of MARTA, says Wilhelm, a project manager and analyst at Westat.
Then, the coronavirus showed up, and Wilhelm’s office shut down. He’s been working out of his living room since March 2020 and expects to do so indefinitely. His wife, Holly, used to commute by MARTA, too, riding the train up to Buckhead. Her job as an aptitude consultant for the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation requires her to be in the office a couple of days a week, but these days, she prefers to drive.
“It just feels like the safer choice,” says Holly. Sometimes, the train has been uncomfortably crowded; a couple of times, she changed cars because someone nearby was sneezing or coughing. And her coworkers let her know that they’d feel safer if she didn’t take the train. Plus, she says, “now, it’s much faster to drive than take MARTA because there’s so much less traffic.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has been catastrophic for public-transit agencies across the nation. With lockdowns, increased telecommuting, and customers’ safety concerns, ridership has plummeted—in some cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Minneapolis–St. Paul, by more than 90 percent. Income from fares has taken a nosedive, while at the same time, agencies are having to shell out for new air-filtration systems and complicated disinfecting procedures.
It’s anyone’s guess when we will be able to toss our masks for good. The nation broke records for new daily cases in January, and even though the national case rate has began to decline from that peak, surveys show that many Americans remain skeptical of getting vaccinated against Covid-19. Even when the pandemic does end, it’s possible that our work and travel patterns will be disrupted permanently if remote work becomes the norm or commuters simply get used to driving instead. Then, there’s the economic impact of the pandemic and its corresponding effect on tax revenue, a major source of funding for many transit agencies, including MARTA. (A penny sales tax in the city of Atlanta and DeKalb, Fulton, and Clayton counties funds $512 million of system operations and capital improvements—more than four times the revenue from passenger fares.)
MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker says the Covid-19 pandemic is the most profound public-transit crisis he’s ever dealt with, and it’s happening on the precipice of the system’s biggest expansion plan since its founding more than 40 years ago. The next few months not only could determine the trajectory of the planned $2.7 billion, 40-year investment—which Parker has called metro Atlanta’s “moonshot for transit”—but also the fate of how commuters will navigate the region for the next decade or longer.
Prepandemic, public-transit agencies were already feeling some pain. For several years, ridership had been dwindling in nearly every major metro in the U.S., including Atlanta, says Kari Watkins, associate professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech. Watkins is part of a team that recently was awarded $1 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to study the decline in mass-transit use, which she says is driven by several factors. For one, gas prices have dropped in recent years—prices went down even more during the first few months of the pandemic—while bus and train fares have increased, making it cheaper for many people to drive than to take mass transit. (MARTA fares haven’t increased since 2011, when the price of a trip rose from $2 to $2.50, although Parker says the agency may need to implement a hike soon.) The proliferation of telecommuting and online shopping has translated into fewer trips overall. And transportation-network companies, or TNCs—academic parlance for Uber and Lyft—have brought new competition.
According to the most recent data from the American Public Transportation Association, MARTA rail usage dropped by more than 10 percent and bus usage dropped by more than 13 percent from 2015 to 2018. (Interestingly, Watkins notes that, in cities like Atlanta with heavy-rail systems, TNCs depress demand for buses more than they do for trains.) But that’s nothing compared to the freefall in ridership that occurred in 2020. During the pandemic, the number of people hopping aboard MARTA trains has declined by 65 percent, while 40 percent fewer people are riding the bus.
Still, MARTA has weathered the pandemic in better financial shape than many other mass-transit systems. MARTA’s relative youth—the heavy-rail lines were built just over 40 years ago—means less deferred maintenance compared to century-old systems like those in Boston or New York. Atlanta’s authority has ended its past nine fiscal years, including 2020, with a balanced budget, in large part thanks to a $300 million infusion of CARES Act money. (Of that $300 million, MARTA used $83 million to ease Covid-related revenue losses and earmarked the rest for fiscal years 2021 and 2022.) At press time, the $900 billion federal Covid relief bill passed by Congress included $14 billion for mass transit, and MARTA expects to receive $50 million of that funding.
Assuming a slow recovery of the economy and ridership, just the original CARES Act Funding “gets us through 2024 with enough revenue to support our current operations,” even without a fare increase or the second round of aid, says Parker. “We’re miles ahead of an agency like the MTA [New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority],” which has said it needs $12 billion to avoid what the New York Times called “doomsday” service cuts.
He is also optimistic that Atlantans are becoming incrementally more comfortable riding MARTA as the pandemic drags on and scientists learn more about the virus and how it spreads. Ridership began to tick up slightly last fall after steep drops in the spring. According to MARTA, about 117,000 more people entered the stations in the slowest week of October compared to the slowest week in April.
“It’ll take us years to get back to our prepandemic numbers at that pace,” Parker says, “but it’s steadily moving in the right direction, even as cases are greater today than they were in April.” And he’s convinced ridership will quickly regain momentum after the pandemic ends.
Commuters tend to follow routines. “Habit is a huge factor in all of this, and there’s actually a ton of research to show that when we pick a mode of transit, that’s what we stick with,” says Watkins. “People are not often multimodal.”
However, surveys and history show that our behaviors could be altered more permanently as a result of the pandemic. Psychologically, Americans’ tolerance for close crowds may be slow to spring back. Many of us are likely to keep working remotely.
“If telecommuting continues, that means less congestion. And one of the biggest catalysts for people wanting to take transit, when they have the option of driving, is the stress and time wasted on traffic,” says Watkins.
Fewer daily commutes means that transit pricing, currently designed around monthly passes, also might need to be rethought. If you’re going into the office just three days a week, it may no longer make sense for you to fork over $95 per month for unlimited rides. In turn, large corporations may be less likely to buy passes in bulk for their employees. “MARTA and others have to pivot to be more innovative about pricing and how fares are collected,” says Watkins. “Otherwise, they’re going to lose people.”
Back in March 2020, when Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a shelter-in-place order for the city of Atlanta, MARTA was deemed an essential service, meaning buses and trains kept rolling during the lockdown. At the same time, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people avoid mass transit to protect against potential exposure to the coronavirus. (They later revised their guidelines, encouraging riders to wear masks instead.)
MARTA has stayed open throughout the pandemic, but the agency has been forced to adapt. For five months, bus fares were suspended so that riders could enter through the back doors and avoid contact with drivers. (MARTA began collecting fares again in September, after they’d erected polycarbonate shields to protect drivers.) The agency instituted new disinfecting protocols, cleaning all vehicles and facilities with special sprayers that disperse a fine mist of disinfectant that more readily adheres to surfaces. They installed antimicrobial air filters on all buses and, over the summer, began requiring riders to wear masks. All buses and rail stations are equipped with free mask dispensers, and MARTA says it has so far handed out more than 700,000 masks.
The agency has earmarked $20 million to fund such precautions, but following the new protocols has been bumpy at times. In the spring, says Parker, only about a quarter of riders were wearing masks. (Now, more than 90 percent do, according to MARTA.) Even with the new procedures, as of late November, 274 employees (out of 4,406) had contracted Covid-19. In April, a station maintenance worker died.
To allow for social distancing, the agency also has reduced the number of passengers permitted on buses, marking off seats that shouldn’t be used. Buses that used to carry 30 or 40 people now have a capacity of just 15 or 20, and that’s meant making some hard choices about who gets to ride and who doesn’t. In April, MARTA cut 70 of 110 bus routes, redirecting all of its vehicles to the most essential routes that serve the greatest number of people. Redesigning the network was a difficult but necessary decision, says Parker. “The flip side is, we could have ignored it and helped spread a virus by not limiting the number of passengers.”
In fact, density on mass transit matters a lot, says Alicia Kraay, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and an infectious-disease epidemiologist. “From a probability standpoint, you’re less likely to encounter an infected person with reduced density,” she says, “and that affects how much virus could be circulating in the air.” It’s hard to keep your distance from others on a packed bus or train. (MARTA says it has not had to limit the number of passengers on rail because ridership is down more significantly on trains than on buses, allowing plenty of space for social distancing.)
Remarkably, a Chinese study published last summer by the Infectious Diseases Society of America showed that if you are in the same train car as someone who has Covid-19, the average risk of getting infected is 0.3 percent—though the chance of transmission rises the closer a rider sits to an infected passenger and the longer they ride together and can rise higher than 10 percent. (The study did not consider whether riders wore protective gear.) The study’s estimated likelihood of infection may seem low, Kraay says, “but if you take MARTA every day, the risk accrues. And when community incidence is rising, the risk is inherently higher that you’ll encounter someone who has the virus.”
For Atlantans who rely on MARTA, the cuts have been tough to bear. Brenda Moore is a 68-year-old retired schoolteacher who lives in West End. She used to take MARTA to get to doctor’s appointments and do her shopping, but all three of her usual bus routes were eliminated in the spring and, as of December, none had yet been restored.
“Some people in the community are doing Lyft. Some are trying to walk it. If you’re younger, you can do that, but I walk with a cane,” says Moore. “I do understand that they’re in a difficult position. The drivers that we’ve had have always been very nice; I don’t want to see anything happen to them or their families. But I really do think MARTA let us down.”
She adds that many of her neighbors are essential workers with jobs that require them to show up in-person, and she often sees them walking home. “There’s one woman—I see her at 10 o’clock at night walking. It’s a long way. I couldn’t walk it physically.”
Parker says he knows that customers are hurting but insists that the agency has evaluated its decisions to make sure that service cuts haven’t disproportionately affected lower-income or minority communities. “We’re actually serving a higher percentage of minority populations than we were,” he says. (An internal analysis by MARTA found that, of people who lived within a quarter mile of the pre-Covid bus network, 70.9 percent were minority and 26.7 percent were low-income; for the “essential-service” bus network, it’s 72.7 percent minority and 28.7 percent low-income.) “And we’re constantly looking at our resources to see where we can skim a couple of buses off one line and put them back on another route.”
Atlanta City Council member Andre Dickens is chairman of the Transportation Committee and says he tries to ride MARTA often. He’s done his research to make sure that bus routes aren’t being eliminated unfairly. Still, he’s heard firsthand how taxing the service cuts have been, particularly for seniors or parents traveling with young children.
“Those [who live along] the routes that are not being serviced right now feel like, What did we do wrong? Why did you forget me? People were understanding for a little while, but now, they’re like, Get me out of this mess, and get my bus back.”
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that MARTA’s planned expansion remains vital—even in the face of the pandemic. Metro Atlantans historically have been slow adopters of mass transit. (Of the “big cities” that Watkins and her team studied, Atlanta had the lowest population density and one of the lower ridership-per-capita rates.) MARTA only operates in three metro counties—Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton—and ballot measures that would expand its service into Cobb and Gwinnett have failed numerous times.
When a portion of I-85 collapsed in 2017, experts predicted that it would lead to a permanent surge in MARTA use among suburban commuters, but after the interstate was repaired, drivers jammed up the lanes once again.
It’s been the same in many Southern cities, says Watkins, “but given the size of Atlanta, we cannot be auto-centric and continue to grow. Growth at some point requires some density, and density requires moving people in tighter spaces than a car can allow.” To ensure transit is successful and to allow it to compete fairly, the city and region have to build the necessary dedicated infrastructure.
Despite rumors of a mass migration out of cities due to the pandemic, so far, American city dwellers seem to be staying put, according to data from moving companies. Metro Atlanta’s population is still expected to balloon by nearly 3 million people—increasing by more than half its current number—over the next 30 years, and transportation experts say that managing that population infusion will be impossible without a more robust public-transit system. For one thing, metro Atlanta is notoriously sprawling, home to more than 5.4 million people but less dense than the urban areas surrounding Charlotte or Akron, Ohio. And at the moment, many metro residents don’t have the option of commuting any other way than by car. A 2012 study of 100 U.S. cities found that Atlanta had one of the lowest rates of public-transit connectivity to jobs.
“We definitely have a congestion problem that’s going to bounce back because of the low-density way that our city has developed,” says Watkins. “The more we can build dense, transit-oriented developments, the better off we’ll be longer-term.”
In 2016, Atlanta voters approved a half-penny sales tax to launch a $2.7 billion MARTA expansion plan, which includes a slew of new projects and improvements: nearly 30 miles of light rail; 14 miles of rapid bus lines, many with dedicated lanes; 22 miles of “arterial rapid transit” (faster and more reliable bus service along major corridors); and the renovation of heavy-rail stations.
The expansion is meant to better connect high-traffic streets and make MARTA more reliable and appealing for riders. Parker and Dickens both say the plan is critical to mitigating some of the negative effects of a rapid population boom (i.e., navigating an endless sea of brake lights) and that it isn’t on the chopping block. “It’s a 40-year plan with 40 years of planned revenue,” says Dickens. “One-and-a-half years will affect it, of course; the early years form the foundation. [But] I’m hoping that there are some financial levers that we can pull to make these 18 months not upset the whole 40-year plan.”
Still, Parker concedes that it’s possible that some initial projects may have to be “right-sized” to adjust for declining revenues. Some of the more costly projects that are slated to begin soon include improvements to the Bankhead rail station, an extension of the Atlanta Streetcar east to Ponce de Leon Avenue, and light-rail transit along Campbellton Road linking the Oakland City rail station and Greenbriar Mall.
“The good news is that we haven’t begun turning dirt. As we develop these corridors, we’ll be keeping in mind how many dollars we have,” Parker says. “[The pandemic] adds a layer of uncertainty, but I don’t think that it’s so profound that it will completely derail the projects.”
Some MARTA riders and transportation advocates argue that the pandemic should guide new decision-making about which projects to prioritize. Odetta MacLeish-White, managing director of the TransFormation Alliance, a broad partnership of community advocates, policy experts, transit providers, and government agencies, says the crisis has made it clear that MARTA needs to focus on its core riders—the ones who’ve always relied on public transit and have continued to do so.
“The pandemic has given us this new term: ‘essential workers.’ They’re the ones keeping society going,” she says. According to a 2020 report from TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to improving public transit in U.S. cities, 2.8 million essential workers across the country use mass transit to get to work, making up more than a third of all transit commuters nationwide.
“This is the moment to center on them more and focus on making transit run best for them,” MacLeish-White says. “To bounce back to what was before would be to center on what I think is the wrong group.” Prior to the pandemic, she says the agency was seeking what she calls “choice” riders. Indeed, recent efforts to promote perks like free WiFi, smartphone apps, and easy access to the airport did seem aimed at attracting white-collar consumers, who have other transportation options.
Watkins agrees, noting that “transit is currently serving a whole population worth of people who have to have those services. A lot of MARTA’s planned projects are meant to ensure that these people are not living as second-class citizens in their own city.”
“After we’ve done the reparative work, then we can turn to the people who are choice riders and convince them of the benefits of transit,” says MacLeish-White. “Refocusing on the loyal, generational riders is a growth opportunity. [But] it’s a hard pivot because so much has been invested in convincing choice riders, because, if you can convince them, then maybe you can convince elected officials or economic-development organizations that transit is important.”
Although MARTA says it currently has no plans to reconsider the timeline of expansion projects, the pandemic may have provided the agency a chance to recalibrate more broadly. So has a new administration, with a new president who famously commuted by Amtrak for decades and who has named transit as one of his priorities. Locally, there may be new opportunities to better connect the metro region. In November, county commissions in Cobb and Gwinnett flipped from Republican-controlled to Democrat-controlled, and both counties’ newly-elected commission chairs have made it clear that they’re interested in supporting transit.
“There’s a lot that could happen in the next year,” says Saba Long, a former MARTA spokesperson and a founding member of MARTA Army, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving riders’ experiences on public transit, which has had 300 people participate in its programs in the past year. “While there are still the types who like to say that trains are a waste of money, there’s a rising level of education and awareness as it relates to public transit, particularly around economic development.”
Tejas Kotak, a 29-year-old transportation planner for the Atlanta Regional Commission, also sees new opportunities for transit in the pandemic. He rides MARTA and other transit services several days a week, and he’s noticed that reduced traffic has made buses more efficient. One of his regular trips, from Doraville to Sugarloaf Mall, used to take up to two hours. Now, it’s reliably an hour or less.
That’s an opportunity for MARTA, says Kotak, because unreliable and infrequent service is one of the biggest obstacles to get people to use transit. “To me, this is the time to put in dedicated bus lanes, while we have less cars on the road.”
MARTA’s first planned rapid bus lines will have dedicated transit lanes that are primarily on Atlanta city streets. Watkins says that, while congestion is low, the city’s Department of Transportation should help MARTA get a jumpstart on those lanes. In fact, in August, the city passed legislation setting aside the first reserved lanes along the North Avenue, Summerhill, and Campbellton Corridors.
That all sounds nice to Moore, but for now, she just wants her bus back. “I’ve been riding MARTA since 1976, when it was 15 cents. Now, it’s $2.50, but I get the senior discount. People in my community, this is our way of getting around. We just need it. We really do.”
I grew up on a dirt road in Ellaville, Georgia. It’s literally one red light and one restaurant that sells pizza called “The Pizza Place.” No one there ever talked about politics because there was this understanding that everyone was on the same team. My English literature teacher was Jimmy Carter’s niece, and she was, like, the town’s only Democrat.
I was a theater kid, and I wanted to live in “the big city,” so in 2011, I moved to Atlanta to attend Georgia State University. I got into the improv scene, and then in 2017, I took an all-female standup class at the Punchline. I was scared, but after doing open mics for six months, I started getting booked at clubs around the city. Then, the pandemic hit.
I couldn’t perform onstage, so I started making these videos for my friends. One night in July, I was scrolling through Twitter when I came across a trending news story about a Costco customer who went on this wild rant after being asked to wear a mask.
I read that he was married, and I was like, No. Really? I had the idea to make a video based on what I thought his wife would be like. I posted the video online, and it completely blew up. Some people thought I was being serious, that I was really this guy’s wife. Since then, I’ve played Brian Kemp’s daughter, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Matt Lieberman’s daughter, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham’s niece, and Congressman Tom Cotton’s wife. Even now, there are people who really think I am these women.
Men in politics, you don’t hear a lot from the women in their lives. Tom Cotton, for example: His wife doesn’t talk in his ads. She doesn’t have a presence online. It’s like that for a lot of the wives and daughters. I try to give these women a voice to shine a light on men’s bad behavior.
I also find character inspiration in all the insane headlines of 2020, like a woman whose husband is a QAnon conspiracy theorist or a woman who insists she’s still an undecided voter. I get a lot of messages from women who are very liberal but grew up in conservative strongholds, and they say, I could never explain the way these people think, but you’ve put it into words.
I’m not the only comic doing “crazy Southern woman,” but I am one of the only ones who grew up in it, and I try not to base the characters on stereotypes. It’s more than just slapping on a Southern accent and saying something insane.
I know I wouldn’t have this level of popularity if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, not only because it’s given me a lot of material but because people are online all the time. In September, Malcolm Gladwell retweeted one of my videos and said, “Blaire never disappoints!” I was like, Just wait! I can disappoint! Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, has become my internet friend. Stacey Abrams reached out to say she was a fan, and I produced a guttural scream.
I think a lot about when 9/11 happened and Jon Stewart was hosting The Daily Show. The first episode that aired afterward, he gave this beautiful, emotional speech, and, at the same time, he was still able to be funny. I think we look for people who can consume upsetting news and regurgitate it in a way that takes the sharpness out of it and makes it easier to process. It’s not about saying, It’s going to be okay. Instead, it’s, We’re all in this together.
On March 12, Atlanta Public Schools’ announced that its buildings would close to students and staff for a minimum of two weeks. The following day, the 13th, Michelle Ampong received a call asking her to come to her children’s school, Parkside Elementary, in Grant Park. (The school that, full disclosure, my children also attend.) School staff had just one day to distribute all available devices to kids to take home, but many students were missing the necessary permission slips.
Ampong, who’d been helping the school reach out to families living at Trestletree Village Apartments, a low-income family housing complex, joined a small group of other parents and staff. Crammed into an office, they spent the whole day calling and texting families.
“I was telling people, ‘We’ll drive to your job so you can sign it. Your kid needs this device in order for their education to continue.’” After eight hours, “every kid got their permission slip signed, and every device got to leave the school.”
The group was relieved, but as they began to walk back to their cars, they started thinking: Now what? Parkside is a Title 1 elementary school, meaning the majority of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. How would those kids get fed now? What about families with other needs—diapers, cleaning supplies, internet access? Who would look out for them?
It’s a question that many school communities have been asking since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even as districts like APS worked to figure out how to distribute food and technology to families, the complicated logistics meant that plenty of students were falling through the cracks. The pandemic has also exposed and worsened existing inequities, disproportionately affecting Black families and forcing many households to confront both a health crisis and an economic crisis.
Kimberly Dukes, a mother of 10, including eight students in Atlanta Public Schools, is a longtime resident of Thomasville Heights and the founder of Atlanta Thrive, a parent advocacy group. After schools closed in the spring, Atlanta Thrive surveyed over 400 parents about their concerns. A big one was self-care, she says.
“Families are in survival mode. They’re worried about their bills. A lot of people are frontline workers. A lot of kids have never had a computer to use, only a smartphone,” she says. “I get calls late at night from parents who need help.”
In June, RedefinED Atlanta, a nonprofit focused on high-quality public education, chose Atlanta Thrive as one of two groups to administer $100,000 in Covid-19 funds to Atlanta Public Schools’ families. In three hours, over 350 parents applied for help with rent, bills, and other urgent needs. “I think we were able to help 174 families and the majority of those came from the Thomasville Heights community,” says Dukes.
Dukes says that the pandemic has exposed more privileged families to the destabilizing effects of poverty. “Low income people, people living in poverty, we’ve been going through this. Once it happened to everybody else—when suddenly they were threatened with losing something—it’s an eye opener.”
Within the affluent neighborhoods served by the North Atlanta High School cluster, poverty has long been hidden in plain sight, says Michelle Martin. Last year, Martin was room mom for her son’s fifth-grade class at E. Rivers Elementary in Peachtree Hills. A couple of weeks after school closed, she received a call from his teacher.
“He never called me during the school day, but he was almost in tears,” she says. “He said, ‘Michelle, I don’t know what to do or who to call, but we have a community that’s in real trouble. The parents have lost their jobs, they can’t afford to buy groceries, they don’t have computers or internet.’ He told me, ‘I haven’t been this scared in a long time.’”
Martin knew the community that the teacher was referring to, Central Village Mobile Home Park, because her kids played soccer with some of the students who lived there. That phone call was the catalyst for Operation Feed, which has raised more than $30,000 to support hundreds of mostly Latino families with groceries, baby items, and household supplies since April.
The community-run group works with Central Village residents and North Atlanta cluster social workers to help identify needs and plan ways to meet them.
“If a parent or teacher or child asks, we try to find a solution,” Martin says. “We’ve assisted with virtual learning or childcare. I’ve had a couple of doctors help look at Covid cases during their free time. Right before school started in the fall, we got tablets from the school and a whole bunch of Spanish-speaking volunteers and we offered socially distant help with signing up for free lunches, getting the kids online, getting hotspots.”
Jasmine Martinez, 18, started volunteering with Operation Feed last spring during her senior year at North Atlanta High School. She lives in Central Village, and says the group has “allowed people to breathe.”
She also says “it’s been helpful for my voice to be in there directing what they’re doing. Explaining what to remove from a grocery list and what to add. They know I’m from the community and I have more insight into what people want and need.”
At other schools, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to expand existing programs to assist families. Pre-Covid, parents and staff at Maynard Jackson High School in Grant Park had established a “sunshine closet” to provide food, hygiene products, school supplies, and uniforms to students who were homeless or at risk of homelessness. In March, when word went out that the school was shutting down, “we emptied out the closet for our vulnerable students,” says Kelly Hartley, a parent who oversees the closet. “Initially we thought that would be for two weeks. Then we didn’t go back.”
Through their relationship with the school’s social worker, the parent-led student support team knew that food insecurity and a lack of access to reliable transportation were major issues for many students, not just those who were homeless.
“A lot of our families have an elderly relative as caregiver and no car,” says Beth Wells, a parent who helps run the student support team. Working with members of the community, the group arranged to pick up food at APS distribution sites and deliver it to families; they also put together additional food and hygiene supply boxes every two weeks.
“Though our efforts redoubled for the pandemic, it was a natural outgrowth of what we were already doing as a school,” says Wells. “With the great economic divide that we have in these schools, I think people now more than ever are willing to pay someone’s Georgia Power bill or buy them groceries.”
Linda Brenner, who oversees a similar program at Grady High School in Midtown called Grady Cares, agrees, noting that the pandemic has produced a flood of families wanting to help.
“We’re trying to mobilize a community of people who have more than they need to directly connect with people nearby who don’t have enough,” she says. “What I want to do is build the avenues for sharing these resources.”
A few miles outside of Atlanta in North Decatur, the International Community School is a charter school designed to serve refugee children and recent immigrants. In January, the school had opened a community resource center to provide health and social services and educational workshops, but when students and parents dispersed, they weren’t sure how families would access them. Many parents also didn’t speak or read English, which made communication challenging.
One of the first things the school did was survey families about their needs and concerns, says Marinella Taoushiani, the school’s director of development, and they’ve sent out new surveys every six weeks. Families who don’t fill it out receive a phone call, and if necessary, staff dial into a service to provide translation on the spot.
To address the most urgent needs, the school started a Covid-19 relief fund and appealed to families and nonprofits in the community. As a charter school, ICS was on its own when it came to providing devices for students. A high percentage of families didn’t have computers at home, so one of the biggest priorities was securing laptops and hotspots. Many families were also food insecure. Parents stepped up to buy groceries and have them delivered via Instacart, and the school plans to open its own food co-op as a more sustainable option.
“Privileged families didn’t always understand all the services we offered through the community center, but now they do, and they see ways that they can help bring their own skills and resources to the table,” says Taoushiani.
The weekend after school shut down, the initial team of Parkside parents and staff decided to stop assuming what families needed and start asking them. “We created a script and asked teachers to call every student’s family,” says Ampong. “It was a lot of checking in with people: Do you need food? Do you have internet yet? What’s going on?”
“We don’t want to make plans without including people who are disproportionately impacted, or else we’re not going to understand and meet their real needs,” says Allison Glass, another parent who has helped lead the group’s work.
They set up an online fundraiser, eventually bringing in more than $14,000, and a Google Voice number for parents to contact if they needed assistance. As the weeks ticked by, more parents joined, with eventually 200 families either giving or receiving aid. Over the summer, the group decided to formalize their work with the creation of the Parkside Community Equity Coalition, and branch out to provide voter registration help and antiracism training for parents and advocate for families at risk of eviction. Relationships are the backbone of the group’s work, says Ampong.
“[With] school being closed and not being able to have guaranteed community for your children, it drives people to build their village,” says Ampong. “We need to invest in our communities for times like this. Hopefully we will all come back to an even stronger, more welcoming school in the end.”
Jessica Howell first met Dave Pratt at a dinner party hosted by mutual friends in 2011. A while later, she sent him a message on Facebook. He took three months to respond. (In his defense, “I really don’t check Facebook very much.”) Soon after, they went out for barbecue at Fox Bros., where they were so absorbed in conversation that they were the last patrons left in the dining room as the restaurant was closing. Dave asked what she was doing the next night. “Going out with you,” she said.
Nine years, one marriage, and two sons later, their Kirkwood home is full of noise and music and fun. During family dance parties, Jessica, Dave, and their two young sons (one is five, the other is two) take turns dancing and egging each other on. No matter what song is playing, Dave will twirl Jessica and then pull her close for a kiss.
Like every married couple, the Pratts argue—about housework or how much screen time the kids should get—but there is deep tenderness between them. Dave, a consultant, typically logs longer hours than Jessica, who works for Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, and, when things get busy, he doesn’t get home until close to midnight. On those nights, before she goes to bed, Jessica writes love notes on Post-its for him to find when he walks through the door, and he brings her dessert from whatever restaurant he grabbed dinner from. “It’s kind of like Christmas to check the fridge when I wake up in the morning,” she says.
Going into the relationship, Dave and Jessica knew they had their differences. He’s Black, and she’s white. He grew up in a small town in coastal Georgia; she’s from metro Atlanta. He’s a 50-year-old Gen Xer; she’s a 38-year-old Millennial. But to many people, the difference that’s most surprising isn’t any of these: It’s that he’s a Republican, and she’s a Democrat.
When choosing a partner, there aren’t many taboos left. Interracial marriages have increased steadily since the landmark Loving v. Virginia case in 1967 and, as of 2015, comprised 17 percent of all new marriages. Nearly 40 percent of people who married between 2010 and 2014 wed someone of a different faith. And as of 2017, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage a right, about one in 10 LGBTQ+ adults were legally wed. Relationships that transcend political party lines, however, have become something of an oddity.
In 2017, Dr. Tamara Afifi, a communications professor at University of California–Santa Barbara, surveyed 1,000 people and found that only about 80 were married to someone who voted for the opposite candidate during the 2016 presidential election. “It’s pretty rare for people to actually be in a romantic relationship where one of them would vote for Clinton and the other would support Trump,” she says.
It wasn’t always that way. Shared political affiliation has become increasingly important for couples, in part because partisanship has become shorthand for something much more divisive than which policies you support, says Dr. Alexa Bankert, assistant professor of political science at the University of Georgia, whose research is focused on the development and consequences of partisan identities. Party affiliation has become what political scientists call a “mega-identity” among strong partisans, more closely aligned with their values than even race, religion, education, age, or gender. “Partisanship aligns, at least in our head, with much more than ideology,” says Bankert. “We use it to infer so much about the other person and what they stand for.”
As more of our values divide neatly along partisan lines, Americans increasingly view members of the other party in a negative light and choose friends and love interests based on political compatibility. These days, we’re less likely than ever to have a conversation with someone from a different party, let alone marry them.
Jessica admits she had some initial reservations about embarking on a serious relationship with a Republican. She grew up in a moderately conservative household, became a Democrat early on, then took a “sprint to the left” while getting a graduate degree in public health. These days, she says, she rarely interacts with any Republicans other than Dave and some extended family members.
“My social circle is pretty homogenous,” she says. “I had assumptions about Republicans, and I spent some time thinking through the long-term implications, like, will this lead to fundamental differences about how we might raise our kids?”
For Dave, a political-science major at UGA who later studied negotiation at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, the idea of dating a Democrat was of no concern. “As long as the person can voice their opinion in a convincing way, maybe I can be convinced. Jessica is very vocal about her beliefs and it’s one of the things I find most wonderful about her. . . . If you want to have a strong, enriched life, you’re not going to always agree.”
Couples that form across party lines may be judged harshly. Unlike interracial and same-sex marriages, which the majority of Americans now support, acceptance of interpolitical marriages has declined over the past several decades. Surveys from Gallup show that parents today are significantly more likely to care about their future daughter-in-law or son-in-law’s political affiliation than they were in the 1950s.
Jessica and Dave married in 2014, and their coworkers or new friends often express surprise when they find out that they’re wedded to someone of the opposite party. “During the Clinton years, when Democrats found out I was a Republican, they just laughed,” says Dave. “Then, once Republicans took control, it went from humor and disbelief to mild hostility. Since Trump came into the picture, it’s been overtly hostile.”
Dave says he sometimes gets judged by Trump supporters who are astonished that he’s not in favor of the President. But he receives the most hostility from Black Democrats, for being a Republican. “A lot of Black Democrats who meet me for the first time give me this look like I’m an Uncle Tom. If they never get a chance to get to know me, they always carry that,” he says.
It’s one reason why he thinks it’s so important to engage on a human level with people who believe differently than you. “If you never talk to them,” he says, “you just believe the memes and the tropes.”
Julie Shingadia, a moderate Democrat, has been married to Raj, a Libertarian who leans Republican, since 2004, and the couple has three children. She says as political polarization has increased, it’s been tough on their relationship.
“We’ve been together since the Clinton years, but I’ve felt the arguments [with Raj] more [acutely] over the past eight years,” she says. Julie, 42, was raised by parents who also didn’t agree politically and grew up having rousing, friendly debates around the dinner table. Now, she says, the friendliness has been removed from political discourse in general. Julie says that living in Suwanee, where her neighbors have expressed a lot of support for Trump, “conversations tend to get heated, even among friends. I’m not afraid to say that I support Black Lives Matter or gay rights or whatever, but I don’t want to get into a deep conversation about Trump.”
Raj, 42, who is Indian American and immigrated to the U.S. at age 10, is not a citizen and cannot vote. He considers himself a fiscal conservative and social moderate. “I support many of Trump’s policies and his position on China,” he says. “I don’t support his tweeting.” Still, the president and his rhetoric can act as an irritant in his relationship with his wife.
“He’ll defend some of the stuff that Trump does, and it drives me crazy,” says Julie. “When we start talking about candidates or people who are currently in office, that’s when we start butting heads more.”
“I’ll give somebody credit when they do something good, and I’ll bash them when they don’t,” Raj responds. “Trump is easy to bash, but I do give him credit for the times when he does something good.”
Because Dave and Jessica went into the relationship knowing that they were on different points of the political spectrum, they say they don’t get too fazed by disagreements. Still, the conversations aren’t always easy.
“I am almost always emotional when it comes to disagreements,” says Jessica. “Conversations escalate quickly to me flailing my hands in the air and raising my voice, and Dave is trained in keeping a cool head and bringing it back to the issues.” The downside is that sometimes “for him, it’s a fun debate, but for me, it’s upsetting. It gets to the point where I’m like, Stop negotiating with me. Let’s just talk about this like two people.”
After the 2016 presidential election, Dave, who initially supported Jeb Bush for the party’s nomination, was wary but hopeful that, once in office, Trump would become less antagonistic and polarizing and would work collaboratively with the Republican establishment. Jessica was crushed.
“The next day, my coworker and I watched Hillary’s address and just wept in my office. I remember thinking, This is going to be such a disaster, and Dave and other Republicans saying, Once he’s president, he will be more presidential.”
“I understood her point of view, and I also believed, then, it was a little bit of an overreaction,” says Dave. “I took [Trump] at his word, and I deferred to the judgment of the Republican leaders. It did not happen as I had envisioned. It probably didn’t happen how they had envisioned.”
Dave’s initial tepid support for Trump evaporated in the wake of the President’s reported disdain for fallen soldiers and feuds with Gold Star military families and Senator John McCain, who Dave considered a personal hero.
Even so, Dave isn’t willing to say that he is definitely voting for Biden this time around. He desperately wishes that another Republican had thrown their hat in as an Independent, and it clearly pains him to think about voting against his party. As of September, the most he’ll admit is that, “Right now, [Trump] does not have my vote.”
Asked how her husband’s statement makes her feel, Jessica says: “I don’t think there’s any chance he’d vote for Trump, and I would be shocked if he did.”
Dr. Jeanne Safer is a psychoanalyst and a Democrat who has been married to a Republican for more than 40 years. She says for many couples, political fights are really about being seen by their partner. “People don’t realize what these fights are about. They think it’s about Trump. But they’re really about the fact that somebody that you care about sees the world very differently than you do. That’s devastating to a lot of people,” says Safer, whose latest book I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics plumbs the complexities of interpolitical relationships.
She says couples have to focus on what they have in common and figure out a way to let the other things go—even if it means that some arguments never really get resolved. “People who agree politically can still have terrible relationships. People can be good partners even if you don’t agree,” she says.
In their marriage, Julie and Raj have embraced the idea of “letting go,” even if they aren’t always sure that it’s the right thing to do.
“We do talk more about those things we agree on, which tend to be social issues and human-rights issues,” Julie says. “I want to make sure that the kids absorb those values.”
“I don’t think we’re so far apart on the fundamentals,” Raj says. “I bet if we worked through those differences, we could find consensus.”
“But maybe not in terms of a candidate we support,” Julie adds.
Jessica and Dave both admit that they aren’t sure if they’d even have met or started dating after Trump’s election. The friends who introduced them are Republicans, and “I don’t think I’d have even been with that group of friends, given all of this,” Jessica says. Even if she had, “I would see that ‘R’ next to Dave, and been like, No.”
Finding couples to interview for this story was not easy. One source said all the couples she knew who had voted for opposing candidates in the 2016 presidential election had since divorced. In fact, every couple that agreed to be interviewed had something in common: at least a baseline agreement on President Trump.
Afifi says that’s not surprising. “I think what people are having a hard time with in the Trump era is that, as the parties move further apart ideologically and the rhetoric gets more poisonous, a vote for your values can become a vote against my values,” she says. When she surveyed couples in which one person voted Trump and the other voted Clinton, typically at least one partner would say, Politics don’t really matter to me, actually.
“It’s kind of softening the blow,” she says.
Safer, who interviewed dozens of couples while researching her book, says that, in the last few years, the number of relationships that are mixed politically is getting much smaller. “I think Trump has made the whole dynamic much worse. People think, How can you love me if you voted for this person?” she says. “They can’t even conceive that they could have a friendship or a marriage with someone who voted for the other side.”
That’s a shame, says Safer, because human connection is perhaps the only way to break the self-perpetuating cycle of polarization and antagonism between party members. The fewer crosspolitical relationships there are, the easier it is to believe the worst about the other side.
Samantha Phelps, a 24-year-old Democrat, has been dating her boyfriend, Nik Oesterle, a 30-year-old Republican, for three years. Nik’s last girlfriend broke up with him in 2017 because she couldn’t get over the fact that he voted for Trump, and Samantha’s previous experiences with Republicans made her feel like she was “talking to a wall.” They say that the key to their relationship has been keeping an open mind. As a result, they’ve intentionally worked hard to remove themselves from their respective echo chambers.
The couple, who live in South Forsyth, turn to Google and Apple News to stay informed (Nik deleted his Facebook account because his feed has become so politically charged) and seek opinions from both sides on conservative and liberal YouTube channels. Afterwards, they discuss how both sides presented the story and try to sniff out biases.
“I tried to have so many conversations with my ex-girlfriend about politics, and it was like a window that was always closed,” says Nik, the Atlanta branch manager of a national home-service company. “After we broke up, it was very important for me to find somebody who was open enough to have these conversations.”
“We’ve evolved as we’ve been dating. At first, it was more, I’m right, you’re wrong,” says Samantha, a market researcher who was recently laid off during the pandemic. But “if we kept saying, I’m right, you’re wrong, then, no one grows, and you don’t feel respected.”
The couple say their approach to their relationship has made them more centrist in their views and more supportive of politicians who are willing to work with members of the opposite party. “People don’t see the middle as bringing about change,” Samantha says. “But to us, that’s the way that you build consensus and actually make things happen.”
When Koosh Desai finished his internal-medicine residency in 2019, he was happy to get offered a job at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany. The small, friendly community, not far from where he grew up in Columbus, seemed like an ideal place to start his career as a doctor. He could see a wide range of patients and practice a holistic approach to medicine, while also working for the Medical College of Georgia. He couldn’t have expected that, six months in, a global pandemic would ravage this corner of rural Georgia.
“The first couple of patients, we didn’t know what they had. In early March, the idea that there was community spread of coronavirus happening in Albany was shocking,” says Desai, 30, a graduate of Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. “My first day taking care of COVID patients, I had two people who went from okay to being on a ventilator. That was the moment when I realized this is not like anything I’m used to.”
Within less than two months, all ICU beds were full with COVID patients. Phoebe Putney had to create several additional units to handle the volume, and Desai felt overwhelmed by the number of patients who needed his attention.
“Going from residency, where you’re supervised, to suddenly being on your own is already a learning curve,” he says. “The pandemic has just added another layer of stress on top of that.”
At other hospitals, new doctors were facing nearly empty waiting rooms. Stephen Jackson, an emergency medicine physician, also finished his residency in 2019 after graduating from Medical College of Georgia three years earlier. At Wellstar’s Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point, where he works, the normal stream of heart attacks, strokes, accidents, and broken bones slowed markedly in the wake of coronavirus.
“Normally, we might see a stroke every week and a heart attack once a month,” says Jackson, 31. “I don’t know if they’re dying at home or what’s happened. I’m used to seeing 25 to 30 patients in a 10-hour shift. Now, it’s like eight patients, and they’re mostly there because of COVID. Our typical caseload has dramatically decreased.”
Jackson is paid based on the number of patients he sees rather than a set salary and has had his pay cut by more than 30 percent. “People think doctors are making boatloads of money just because we’re in a healthcare crisis. But a lot of practices are really suffering.” He and his wife had hoped to pay off his medical-school loans within five years, but, “now, I’m thinking it’s going to be more like 10.”
“Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” is how Peyton Hanson views his looming transition from medical-school student to practicing doctor. Hanson, 26, officially earned his MD from Emory School of Medicine on May 8. This summer, he’ll pack his things into a U-Haul and begin the long drive to Boston to start his residency in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Under normal circumstances, Hanson would be celebrating his graduation and residency match with friends and family: Mass General is a prestigious, sought-after training program for doctors. Instead, since Emory closed its campus in mid-March, Hanson has been staying with his parents on Lake Martin in Alabama, wrapping up his schoolwork and helping out at his family’s hand-sanitizer distribution business.
Boston has been hard-hit by coronavirus, with more than 17,000 cases in Suffolk County so far. Hanson says this could alter his training on conditions other than COVID-19, depending on the case mix when he starts.
“I wasn’t thinking about specializing in infectious diseases, but that’s what my training will be now. During residency, you’re supposed to have two- to four-week blocks of electives, like in cardiology or endocrinology, often in an outpatient setting, so you get a feel for that subspecialty. A lot of that was upended when places temporarily stopped holding outpatient clinics.”
Caroline Coleman, who also graduated from Emory School of Medicine this spring, is starting her residency in internal medicine, which rotates between four area hospitals: Grady, Emory University Hospital, Emory Midtown, and the VA. She knows that a lot has been asked of residents during the pandemic, and she’s nervous about donning a white coat for the first time as some experts are predicting a second wave of cases.
“The way I was describing it to a friend is that it feels like we’re at summer camp getting ready to go off the diving board. But as you get close to the front of the line, someone puts a big X over the normal diving board and they point you to the Olympic-sized board instead,” she says. “It’s like, yeah, I know how to dive, but it’s really scary. It’s definitely going to be an extra challenge learning the ropes at the same time that this simmering anxiety is going on in the background.”
She also anticipates that she might have to self-quarantine away from her parents at some point. Still, Coleman, 25, is proud to be joining the ranks of a profession whose members are being hailed as heroes.
“There’s this sense that we’re all in it together. It’s like, Put me in, Coach. Seeing the yard signs and the cheers that happen at shift changes; that kind of stuff gives me chills.”
For Alex Galloway, the “hero” label is intimidating. Galloway, 27, just finished his first year of residency in internal medicine at Emory and works at the same four Atlanta hospitals as Coleman. He himself got sick with COVID-19 back in March and has since recovered.
He says there’s no way to know where he was exposed to the virus, adding, “Healthcare workers face unknown risks every day. I chose to do medicine because I wanted to care for others in spite of the risks.” While he appreciates community support, he admits, “I often feel inadequate in the face of these challenging times. I have come to appreciate the sacrifices of so many, including food services, housekeeping, security, and others who keep the hospital going.”
Ashlee-Marie Jones, 27, graduated from Morehouse School of Medicine in May and will soon start her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Wellstar Kennestone in Marietta. She points out that the state’s dismal maternal mortality rate could worsen if more pregnant patients miss out on prenatal and postnatal care because of COVID.
“Some women are already coming in for their first prenatal visit at 30-plus weeks of pregnancy,” says Jones. “Being pregnant is already an immunocompromised state. It’s really a double-edged sword, and there are a lot of steps where things can go wrong.”
Jones, who says her medical-school textbooks had “one paragraph” about coronaviruses, adds that the pandemic may present an opportunity to learn more about infectious diseases in pregnant women. Still, the many unknowns about how the virus impacts expectant mothers and babies are daunting.
“Instead of just worrying about my ability to take care of my patients, I’m also worried that I’ll somehow mess up a disinfecting procedure or get exposed myself,” says Jones. “I also have a daughter who is only three years old. It’s going to be hard coming home from the hospital and not being able to give her a hug.”
It’s a sweltering Saturday afternoon on Marietta Square, and Jen Jordan is way outside her comfort zone. As kids lick drippy popsicles and a sweaty crowd line-dances to the “Cupid Shuffle,” Jordan—the political newcomer elected in 2017 to a state senate seat in an affluent, former GOP stronghold—stands inside the Cobb County Democrats tent. It’s not Jordan’s political affiliation or her relatively freshman status that’s the source of her unease. Rather, it’s the fervor with which fans greet her.
“I just want to tell you that I worship you,” says a woman named JoAnn Wood. “You are giving voice to so many things that I want said.”
Two moms from Cherokee County approach with their 13-year-old daughter to tell Jordan how excited they are to have her in the Gold Dome. “Thank you for showing our daughter that there are people willing to stand up for her,” one says.
Jordan, who despite the heat looks polished in a crisp white blouse, flats, and full makeup, smiles and thanks each person who approaches her, shaking hands and posing for selfies. But a slightly dazed expression settles on her face whenever the cameras drop.
“The irony of all this is that I am the most introverted, repressed person,” she says in a low tone, as if embarrassed. “I hate talking about personal stuff.”
“All this” began with a viral speech she gave, three months earlier, in which she laid bare the most tragic moments of her life. On March 22, 2019, Jordan went from little-known legislator to household name—at least among the politically active set—thanks to her impassioned dissent against Georgia House Bill 481, the so-called “heartbeat bill” that is one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country. In the speech, which has been viewed and shared tens of thousands of times, Jordan, without so much as a crack in her voice, opened up about her eight miscarriages, including the death of a daughter, Juliette, whom she lost five months into pregnancy. One of her many concerns about the bill was that someone like her could be prosecuted if she was suspected of causing her own miscarriage.
Within weeks, Jordan was catapulted to A-list status among state Democrats. In April, she was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about a bill cosponsored by Republican Georgia U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson and David Perdue that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The same month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution included her on their shortlist of potential Democratic challengers to Perdue, whose term is up in 2020. (Jordan later decided not to run for Perdue’s seat and more recently ruled out running for the one vacated by Isakson and filled, temporarily at least, by Kelly Loeffler, Governor Brian Kemp’s appointee.) Democratic presidential candidates including Elizabeth Warren have been calling.
Stacey Dougherty, a founding member of No Safe Seats, a group that provides grassroots support for female candidates in Georgia, says she thinks Jordan or someone like her is the future of statewide politics. “I love her scrappiness,” she says. “People underestimate her because of her Southern gentility, her attractiveness, her small stature. They think she won’t be fierce, but she’s not afraid of the tough stuff.”
Jordan is now approached constantly by women—“it’s almost always women,” she says—telling her how much her speech meant to them and sharing their own stories of reproductive trauma: infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion. Still, although she is strongly pro-choice, Jordan says she never wanted to be known as “the abortion speech lady.”
On the other hand, given Jordan’s extensive experience stepping outside her comfort zone—as a child who grew up poor in rural Georgia and worked her way into law school, as a self-sufficient woman who married into an elite Southern family, as an unlikely candidate for a Republican-held seat, and as an even more unlikely face of the state’s pro-choice movement—she might be one of the politicians best-poised to persuade Georgians to step outside theirs.
“I was very uncomfortable at first when it looked like this was going to come down the pike,” she says of HB481, which Governor Kemp signed into law. (It has stalled due to a legal challenge.) “It was not the hill I wanted to die on. But you take the fight that comes to you.”
Jordan was born Jennifer Auer at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base near Jacksonville, North Carolina. Her dad, Michael James Auer, had enlisted after high school and married her mom, Winona Giddens Purser, not long after. When Jen was in kindergarten, her parents split up, and Winona moved with Jen and her younger sister, Jessica, back to her hometown of Eastman, Georgia, south of Macon.
Jordan saw her father only a handful of times from that point on. He left for his next military posting “and was really just out of our lives after that,” she says, adding, “I don’t think he knew how to be a father.” She remembers her dad as an “unhappy person”; even as a kid, she sensed it was a gift to have him gone.
In Eastman, a rural town of about 5,000 people, the family became Section 8 tenants in a building filled with single moms and their kids. Winona got a job cutting hair at the family’s beauty shop for $100 a week. After school, Jordan would take the bus to the shop and sweep the floors for pocket money. To this day, she is soothed by the sound of a hair dryer. When Jordan was in middle school, her mom saved up to buy a single-wide trailer.
“I didn’t really realize that we didn’t have a lot because when you live in an area where everybody’s fairly poor, there’s no comparative there,” Jordan says. “It’s not like in Atlanta, where the disparity is so clear.”
Still, there were moments when Jordan recognized her hardship. Once, when her father came to Georgia for a weekend, Jordan and her sister went to see him; his new wife complained about what the girls were wearing. “I overheard her saying to my father, ‘I know your ex-wife did that on purpose, sent those children with holes in their shoes to make it look like she didn’t have any money,’” Jordan recalls. But those were the shoes they wore to school every day. “I just remember being mortified.”
Jordan was brought up to be a hard worker, and she thrived at school, where she joined the cheerleading squad, edited the yearbook, and ranked at the head of her class. “She had grit, and she always rose to the top,” says Wendy Evans Rogers, who went to high school with Jordan and now teaches middle school in Eastman. “Even as a teenager, she was somebody who seemed bigger than Eastman.”
In the 11th grade, Jordan was accepted to the Governor’s Honors Program, a residential summer program for gifted high school students. “All these kids were talking about where they were going to go to college and what they were going to do,” she says. “I remember thinking, the counselor at our school is more concerned about the dropout rate. She’s got her hands full with that. If you went to college, you went to Middle Georgia, which was the two-year college in Cochran.”
Despite being a straight-A student, Jordan had never really considered what she might do after graduation. “My mother’s expectation was that maybe I would end up doing hair one day, which is laughable,” she says. “I can’t even do my daughter’s hair.”
Jordan realized that if she was going to get out of Dodge County, she needed a plan. But she’d never so much as taken an ACT practice test. Plus, she had no money for college. Her teachers had told her that she was smart, that she could do it. “But it wasn’t like my mother was pushing me to do it,” Jordan says. “She didn’t have any concept of how life-changing it can be if you get an education.”
In 1993, during her senior year of high school, something happened that put college more easily within reach: Georgia began awarding HOPE scholarships to cover the cost of tuition for high-achieving students. Georgia Southern accepted her, and HOPE made it possible for her to attend. It was while filling out forms to qualify for HOPE that Jordan got a clear picture of her mother’s financial situation. In 1993, her mom’s tax return showed an annual income of just $12,000. It was the most money she’d made up until that point.
At Georgia Southern, Jordan worked three jobs to pay for expenses that HOPE didn’t cover, like rent. She’d wake well before dawn to start making bagels at 4 a.m. at the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery. After her shift, she had just enough time for a quick shower before reporting to an administrative job at the university at 7:30 a.m. In the evenings, she waitressed at Buffalo’s Cafe. Her roommate complained she always smelled of beer and hot wings.
Halfway through Jordan’s junior year of college, her father had a massive stroke at the age of 45. Michael Auer was now twice divorced and retired from the military, living in Olathe, Kansas. Jordan had only recently gotten back in touch with him, but at 21 years old, she was his closest adult relative—and, as such, responsible for making decisions regarding his medical care.
At the hospital in Kansas, her father lay unconscious; it was the first time she’d seen him in over a decade. Five days later, after conferring with her father’s sister and mother, who met her there for moral support, Jordan told the doctors that she would not prolong life support. Michael died on January 13, 1996.
“We thought he was in great health because he ran 10 miles a week, had been a Marine. But when I went through his records, I ended up finding out that he had high blood pressure that he wasn’t treating,” she says. “And that’s what killed him.”
Jordan majored in political science at Georgia Southern, and, after her father’s death, she took an internship in D.C. at the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the now-defunct nonprofit founded in 1985 that aimed to attract voters with a more centrist philosophy to the party. At first, she says, she figured she was too broke to pursue it. “Then my dad died, and I was like, ‘I’ve got to get it.’” She no longer was willing to postpone what mattered to her.
A self-described political nerd, Jordan had grown up listening to NPR and watching C-SPAN, which “I guarantee you no other kid was doing in Eastman.” Her senior year of high school, in the run-up to the 1992 Presidential Election, she led a voter-registration drive in Dodge County.
The internship went so well that the DLC asked her to stay on permanently, but Jordan decided to return to Georgia Southern and finish her degree. The following summer, she signed up as a campaign volunteer for Jim Wiggins, who was running against Republican Congressman Saxby Chambliss.
Jordan says she found the political circuit fascinating but decided that, as a career, it wasn’t for her. She says she cared more about policy and helping people. Instead of jumping into another campaign, Jordan enrolled in law school at the University of Georgia. There, her classmates say, she stood out for her work ethic.
“Jen had a different perspective than the students who may have felt their family name or connections or educational pedigree owed them something,” says Leslie Lipson, a disability civil rights attorney who attended law school with Jordan from 1998 to 2001. “She holds herself, and everyone around her, to a very high standard. She takes a deep dive into something, and she won’t look up until she’s mastered it.”
One well-connected classmate, Lawton Jordan (pronounced “Jer-dun”), remembers her as a “wonk” who wasn’t content to just read or understand or talk intelligently about a problem. “She was urgent about changing things,” says Lawton. “I was probably a little intimidated by her.”
Urgent is a word that comes up a lot when people describe Jordan. She speaks in a broad South Georgia drawl, but at a turbo pace unpunctuated by “um”s or pauses. And despite her private nature and poised appearance, she pulls no punches when the subject turns to what she considers poor policy decisions or boneheaded behavior.
After law school, Lawton and Jen’s friendship turned romantic. The relationship moved quickly: They attended the UGA homecoming football game on their first date, and, “by the Georgia-Auburn game, we had decided to get married,” she says.
Lawton, who comes from a well-known Southern family—his uncle is Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s White House Chief of Staff, and he grew up taking trips to Camp David—was a fellow political junkie who had worked on Al Gore’s presidential campaign and helped found the Red Clay Democrats. When they wed, Jordan, who had been financially and emotionally independent since her teenage years, was jolted into a world of privilege and tradition.
She remembers getting a job offer, and Lawton said they had to call his parents to talk about it. The experience was foreign to her. “I have always been an independent loner,” she says. “I never had to check in with anybody because it’s just been me.
“I think we all seek what we’re missing, in some ways,” she says, describing her marriage. “I was looking for somebody who would make the best father in the world and be supportive. And that’s what I got.”
After law school, Jordan took a job as an associate at Bondurant, Mixson, and Elmore in Atlanta and fell under the wing of founder Emmet Bondurant, who famously argued the “one man, one vote” case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court at the age of 26. Bondurant, whom Jordan describes as her early mentor, taught his staff that lawyers have a public duty to right society’s wrongs.
She took the lesson to heart. Jordan assisted Bondurant on a case brought against then Mayor Bill Campbell, who for months had refused to sign an airport-concessions contract, costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2006 and 2007, she represented Georgians in multiple class-action lawsuits against payday lenders. The same year, she successfully blocked a law that required Georgia voters to present a photo ID from being enforced.
She points out that many Georgians, especially the poor and elderly, don’t have an ID. Many were born at home and don’t have birth certificates. “They didn’t have the ability or the money to figure out how to get an identification card,” she says.
Jordan and her husband wanted to have children, so after she left Bondurant’s practice, she took a job at the Barnes Law Group, led by former governor Roy Barnes. She knew a plaintiff’s practice would have more family-friendly hours than a defense practice, and Barnes’s daughter, who was also a partner at the firm, had convinced the office to add an on-site day care.
Their son, Richard Lawton Jordan IV, whom they also call Lawton, was born in 2005, and a daughter, Corinna, whom they call Cokie, followed in 2009. When they tried to conceive a third child, though, Jordan miscarried time and again. Each positive pregnancy test was followed by agonizing days, weeks, even months. In 2013, Jordan showed up for a post–20-week ultrasound to find that her daughter, whom she and Lawton had already named Juliette, no longer had a heartbeat. Jordan had to be escorted out the back of the medical office, so the other pregnant women in the waiting room wouldn’t hear her wailing.
Jordan also suffered physically during each of her pregnancies, developing severe lethargy and flu-like symptoms. “It was as if I was on chemo,” she says. She felt pressure to show that her pregnancy wasn’t affecting her at the office. “But if I wasn’t at work,” she says, “I was in bed.”
The emotional pain of the miscarriages was devastating, but the physical toll made it doubly hard to endure. In all, Jordan lost eight pregnancies in a span of five years. Finally, in 2015, they’d had enough. She never carried another child to term.
Most people I speak to say that they had a hunch Jordan would end up in office one day. The only person who seems caught off guard by her decision to run is Jordan herself.
Like many women, she credits the 2016 presidential election with reigniting her interest in politics. Late that November 8 night, when Donald Trump was declared president, it felt like a great hand slapping down her and women like her. The following week, she made a list of all the women in her Rolodex who she thought would make good political candidates.
“Women need to be running for office more,” she says. “But they never self-select; they never say, ‘I’m going to be the person to do it.’”
Jordan invited the women to join a private Facebook group called Georgia Women Mad as Hell and offered to help them figure out how to put together a campaign. A few candidates emerged from the group and won their races, including state senators Zahra Karinshak and Nikema Williams and state representative Teri Anulewicz. But Jordan hadn’t considered putting her own name on the ballot.
“I really like to work and read and think and not have things be about me,” she says. But when you’re a candidate, it’s all about you. “You’re the product.”
It was a legal case that changed her mind. Two years earlier, in 2015, Jordan had started representing a young woman known as J.B. in a civil case against a dental practice, where she had been sexually assaulted in 2009 by a nurse anesthetist. The jury awarded $3.7 million in damages to J.B., who had been a high-school student at the time of the incident. The judgment was appealed, and in December 2016, Jordan went to argue it in front of the Georgia Supreme Court.
“The justices came out, and it was all men. I just remember thinking, ‘This isn’t going to go well.’” To rule in favor of J.B., she says, the justices would have to decide that the injury was significant. The dentist’s attorneys argued that since J.B. had been under anesthesia during the assault, she hadn’t been damaged by it. Jordan says that during the questioning, she got the impression that the justices agreed. When the verdict came out in February 2017, it unanimously overturned all the prior decisions that had gone in favor of J.B.
“I remember having to call my client,” who was in her early 20s, Jordan says. “And she was just like, ‘Is this it? People can just do this with impunity?’ And I was just like, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’
“Before then, I thought that if you work hard and you stick with it, at the end of the day, justice prevails. After that decision, I said, ‘It’s just not enough anymore to be a good lawyer. We need more diversity in the rooms where decision-making is happening. Because clearly people—men—don’t get it.’”
The problem, as she saw it, was that she was a Democrat living in what was purportedly a very Republican area: Sandy Springs. And she didn’t want to run unless she thought she could win. Then, two months after the J.B. ruling, Jordan’s state senator, Hunter Hill, announced he was vacating his seat to run for governor. A Democrat hadn’t won the office since the sixth district lines were redrawn in 2011 by the state’s Republican leadership. (The district is U-shaped, curving from Dobbins Air Force Base, down through Smyrna and Vinings, over to Buckhead, and up through Chastain and Mount Paran to Sandy Springs.) Jordan saw a path to victory, although she knew it wouldn’t be easy.
“Everybody was like, ‘You’re crazy,’” she says. “It was almost like, ‘Oh, isn’t that sweet.’”
Many of Jordan’s early campaign supporters were women who, like her, were deeply disturbed by Trump’s election and felt a responsibility to push back. Kate Kratovil, a 30-year-old site director for a nonprofit, began volunteering for Jordan after seeing a Facebook campaign ad for her in May 2017.
“Before the presidential election, I probably wouldn’t have even known which state district I lived in. But I just had this sense—and I know it sounds silly because I had only seen a picture of her—that she was someone who could win,” Kratovil says. “She seemed so professional, so accomplished, so polished. She looked like the future.”
In November 2017, Jordan beat out six other candidates, including five Republicans, during the nonpartisan election and advanced to a runoff against fellow Democrat Jaha Howard. But Howard’s campaign sputtered after anti-gay messages he had posted on social media came to light.
The morning of the runoff, Jordan checked Facebook, and a memory popped up. “It was a year to the day that I had argued the J.B. case in the Georgia Supreme Court,” Jordan says. “It was a little sign. We’re going to win this.”
Her victory broke the Republican supermajority in the state Senate, making it more difficult for the party to override the governor’s vetoes and pass constitutional amendments. “I like to say that my race was the canary in the coal mine,” she says. “But it didn’t make me the most popular person [in the Gold Dome].”
“As a woman, this did not feel like the usual political debate. They were talking about pregnancy like it was nothing.”
In her first legislative session, Jordan tried to throw off assumptions Republicans might have about her as a metro area Democrat and build alliances with rural senators. “I do think that I understand rural issues, but I can say, ‘Trust me,’ or I can show people they can trust me,” she says. She won the respect of Republican Greg Kirk, who represents Jordan’s hometown of Eastman. Kirk, who is battling stage-four cancer, spoke from a chemotherapy appointment to say that, despite their differing ideologies, he and Jordan have often met on the same page.
“Jen really tries to make sure that people in the legislature consider how things are going to affect all of Georgia,” he says. “She understands the dynamics that people in Atlanta don’t always consider. For example, unpaved roads are a huge issue back home. Not many people from the metro area would get that.”
Still, Jordan has come up against plenty of resistance from her Republican colleagues, who aren’t always open to her brand of lawyerly persuasion—no matter how much evidence she compiles to support her argument. She cites a 2018 antihacking bill that was written so broadly, it would have made it illegal for companies to perform legitimate cybersecurity measures.
“I gave people law-review articles, I drafted a few different versions [of the language] that would have fixed it. And the bill’s sponsor wouldn’t even talk to me,” she says. During the debate, she relentlessly cross-examined the sponsor, Republican lawmaker Bruce Thompson, who eventually refused to take any more questions from her. The bill, which was widely criticized by tech experts, passed but was ultimately vetoed by Governor Nathan Deal.
“I was like, ‘I told you so! Maybe you’ll listen to me next time,’” says Jordan. “At that point, I figured out that I didn’t need to be liked, but I needed to be respected. And I was going to have to fight tooth and nail for respect in that chamber.”
When the anti-abortion bill HB481 came up for debate in her second session, Jordan says she again felt there was a wall between her and her Republican colleagues that she could not penetrate. This time, though, it was personal.
“As a woman—and just about every woman I know has been through some kind of trauma with regards to pregnancy or fertility or sexual assault—this did not feel like the usual political debate,” she says. “They were talking about pregnancy like it was nothing, but I know the toll it takes on your body, your career, your ability to care for your family.” It’s a toll, she says, that women shouldn’t be forced to endure.
Jordan decided if she wanted to try to reach people on the other side of the aisle, she had to show them why it mattered. So, late one night, she started writing, vividly describing her painful history of pregnancy loss—details many of her friends and family didn’t know. The speech she crafted made the case that the bill, which would outlaw abortion six weeks after conception (before many women even know they’re pregnant) and make both women and their doctors subject to criminal prosecution, could leave women vulnerable to arrest if it was suspected that they purposefully caused a miscarriage. By laying bare her own experiences, filled with pain and loss, Jordan also hoped to make the point that women deserve a fundamental right to privacy—and freedom from prosecution—when it comes to their bodies.
Lipson, Jordan’s friend from law school, had the speech on in the background at home and says that, during the first few minutes, as Jordan laid out a powerful critique of the bill and its legal implications, she thought to herself, ‘Hot damn, she’s on fire!’ Lipson’s pride and admiration were joined by shock when, nearly 10 minutes into Jordan’s fierce takedown of HB481, she began to speak about her miscarriages and about Juliette: “I have been on my knees time after time and in prayer to my God about my losses,” Jordan said in her measured yet impassioned drawl. “I have loved each and every one of those potential lives, and my husband and I have grieved each passing. But no matter my faith, my beliefs, my losses, I have never, ever strayed from the basic principle that each woman—each woman—must be able to make her own decisions in consultation with her God and her family. It is not for the government or the men of this chamber to insert itself into the most personal, private, and wrenching decisions that [women] make every single day.”
“I got emotional because I knew what a self-sacrifice it was for her,” says Lipson, who was close friends with Jordan when she lost Juliette. “That was the lowest point of her whole life, and she never opens up about it. To anyone.”
Lipson compares Jordan’s mental discipline and ability to compartmentalize to that of a soldier. “She can go through the most excruciating, painful experiences and then put them in their place. In a lot of ways, I think that has been an incredible gift for her because it’s allowed her to move past so much trauma in her life.”
Lawton adds that he doesn’t think his wife could have made herself so vulnerable two or three years earlier when the wounds were much more raw.
“We shed a lot of tears over those miscarriages, but we’d also been through a healing process,” he says. “That she was able to deliver it in such a composed way—that was the lawyer in her coming out.”
Jordan says her biggest goal with the speech was to cut through the talking points and get someone, anyone, even just one person to consider the real-life impact that the bill would have.
“Though we disagree on many things, I certainly admire the faith and honesty with which she has shared her convictions.”
“It’s like when your mama grabs you by the shoulders and says, ‘What are you thinking?!’ I wanted to say, ‘What are y’all thinking?!’ This is going to end up hurting people, and you need to understand what the implications are,” she says. “I really believed that maybe I could do it. Which made it so hard coming out of that vote when it didn’t seem to have an effect on people—people who I do respect and know and believe are good.”
The Georgia senate passed the bill 34-18, straight across party lines. (It went on to pass the state House a week later—by just two votes—with five Republicans voting against it.)
“I know Senator Jordan’s story touched a lot of people, even Republicans, which goes to show how personal and conflicting this issue is for many Georgians, for many Americans,” Butch Miller, a Republican senator who represents District 49, which includes Gainesville, said in a statement to Atlanta magazine. “Senator Jordan has shown courage and leadership in her party, and though we disagree on many things, including the right to life, I certainly admire the faith and honesty with which she has shared her convictions.”
Mike Dugan, a Republican state senator representing District 30, northwest of Atlanta, shared a similar sentiment in a statement to Atlanta: “While this issue is emotional and conflicting for each of our members, I believe our chamber handled the debate and vote with respect and dignity. A prime example of this is when Senator Jen Jordan delivered her speech. . . . It is never easy to stand in a crowded room, in front of your peers, the public, and all of Georgia and share something so personal like she did.”
It’s a full house at the Cobb County Civic Center on the evening of August 19. Hundreds of people are packed into bleachers and rows of folding chairs, and mostly, they’re furious.
A month earlier, a report produced by WebMD and Georgia Health News revealed that Sterigenics, a Smyrna company that sterilizes medical products, had been releasing hundreds of pounds of ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic gas, into the air—and that the state’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) had declined to alert nearby residents. At the public meeting, attendees hold up signs demanding the facility be shut down and loudly boo representatives from the EPD and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. There are a lot of politicians in the room, including Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore and U.S. Representative Lucy McBath. Yet Jordan’s name gets the biggest applause by far.
Since the news about the carcinogens broke, Jordan has been extra busy: sharing information on her public Facebook page, issuing a statement calling for more transparency from Sterigenics and the EPD, submitting an official request to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the health impact of ethylene oxide in communities surrounding the plant, and pressuring Governor Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr to do the same. Again, it’s a fight that feels personal. For years, Jordan had worked in a legal office located down the road from the Sterigenics plant, and on August 6, she got word that one of her coworkers there, Missy Bird Wilson, had died of breast cancer.
“I don’t know if there’s a relationship between [Missy’s] cancer and the plant. But you can’t help but wonder. That’s what everybody is doing that lives here,” she says. “People are scared.”
After the public meeting on Sterigenics, Jordan repeatedly called on the governor’s office to shut down the plant and others like it in Georgia. The plant suspended operations in August to install upgrades to reduce emissions of ethylene oxide, although the state EPD’s consent agreement with Sterigenics allowed the company to keep operating during that time. On September 6, Jordan filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court to invalidate that consent agreement. Since then, officials have refused to grant permits allowing the facility to reopen.
“This movie’s already played up in Illinois,” where Sterigenics was shut down in the wake of a similar issue with ethylene oxide, says Jordan. “There, the company entered into a sweeping consent agreement with the state of Illinois that is probably as protective as you can get. To compare what Sterigenics has agreed to do in Illinois and what they’ve agreed to do here, the people in Georgia got a raw deal.”
In November, Erick Allen, a Democratic state representative from Smyrna, announced his intent to introduce legislation that would strengthen the state’s oversight of ethylene oxide when the legislature convenes again this year. Jordan says that more state involvement is critical, given the federal EPA’s hands-off attitude under the Trump administration.
“I think we clearly need to rethink the role of Georgia EPD in this process,” she says. “You have a federal government that’s saying, ‘Well, it’s on the states to deal with this.’ And then, you have a state agency that isn’t really doing what it needs to do. That creates a real problem.”
Still, Jordan knows she and her Democratic colleagues may well be playing defense on the issue.
“When you are part of the minority party, you don’t dictate policy, priorities, anything,” she says. “You just have to respond to whatever they’re pushing.” It’s not an enjoyable role, and it doesn’t always feel rewarding, she says.
“People think it’s like some kind of honorific, like, ‘Oh, you get to be a senator!’ They ask you sometimes, ‘You having fun over there?’” she says. “It’s not fun. But it’s important.”
Although her name has been tossed around to run for higher office, Jordan says she has hesitated over whether to make a play for Washington. Part of her reasoning is that she doesn’t want to uproot her family or spend months out of every year away from them in D.C. (“When I’m not there in the morning or evening,” she says, “I start to feel discombobulated a little.”) And part of it is because she’s not sure she’s ready to leave the Gold Dome, where she feels she can be of value.
Her biggest concern is restoring balance to state government. Supermajorities, where a single party controls the House, Senate, and Governor’s office, currently exist in 36 states, including Georgia, and Jordan has seen firsthand that it disincentivizes compromise.
“When you have that kind of imbalance, it takes away space for people to come together. It creates these far-right, far-left corners for people, where there’s no room in the middle,” she says. “The partisan rancor, the inability to even see each other as human beings—it’s almost like this crazy fever dream that we’ve got to wake up from. For too long, communication and compromise has been seen as a weakness. But we’ve absolutely got to get back to that place.”
Heading into the 2020 legislative session, her third, Jordan is plagued by a sense of unease. After last spring’s battle over HB481, she was hoping for a break from what she sees as “extreme social legislation.” But with a highly conservative governor at the state’s helm, and with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that federal courts can’t put brakes on partisan gerrymandering, she’s worried.
“The gerrymandering [case] gives an all-clear. The training wheels are off. That’s why I’ve been telling [Democrats], we’ve got to take the state House in 2020,” she says. “That’s the only way that we don’t end up with completely partisan maps that are going to put us again in a place where you have the fringe element taking control.”
She and others in the state legislature and beyond think some Republicans may be fearful of a 2020 blue wave in Georgia and will use this legislative session to push through a conservative wishlist: permitless gun carry, religious liberty bills. In 2016, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed in the state legislature but was vetoed by then Governor Deal. Critics argued the bill would have allowed faith-based organizations to refuse to serve or hire LGBTQ people based on religious beliefs. A similar bill was proposed in the state senate in 2019 but never made it out of the chamber.
“I’m really, really concerned about RFRA this year,” Jordan says. “It’s kind of like their last stand.”
Battles like these are part of the reason why, back in September, Jordan announced that she wouldn’t challenge U.S. Senator Perdue in 2020. “With state senate, I know what I can bring to the table. It’s a bird in hand,” she says. “To jump from this job where I really feel like I’m making a difference, there has to be more to it than just, ‘Oh, it’s time.’”
She also backed away from the race for U.S. Senator Isakson’s former seat after formidable Democratic challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock announced in late January that he’ll be running. Had Jordan wanted to vie for that seat, she would’ve been making a perilous political decision—splitting the Democratic vote in November’s “jungle primary,” in which qualifying candidates from both parties all compete against each other. It’s possible that finance executive and political newcomer Loeffler, Kemp’s appointee to replace Isakson (who says she’s willing to put $20 million of her own fortune into the race), will split the GOP vote with fellow Republican candidate Congressman Doug Collins—though it’s more likely one of the two will bow out, under pressure from President Trump.
“Kemp’s choice of a person who isn’t from Georgia and who basically bought the appointment by giving millions to Republicans isn’t exactly inspiring,” Jordan says. “The pick, however, is a recognition of the emerging electoral power of women in this state.”
She adds: “But being pro-Trump isn’t being pro–policies that matter to women, and Georgia women are smart enough to know the difference.”
Regardless of when or if she might seek higher office, Jordan looks like a Democrat who could pull off a statewide win. She can connect with a range of audiences, whether it’s attorneys at white-shoe law firms or public school teachers. She’s also a Christian who owns the label “progressive” but bristles at being called a radical. “The problem with these labels is that they’re just intended to signal to people that this isn’t somebody that’s on ‘our team,’ and therefore, you need to reject them out of hand,” she says.
She might not have swayed Republicans on HB481, but she hasn’t given up on finding common ground—whether under the Gold Dome or potentially in Washington. “Although you may not like certain things I do,” she says, “I bet if you keep looking, you’re going to like something I’ve done.”
This article appears in our February 2020 issue. It has been updated since it ran in print.
Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is Carden Wyckoff, as told to Jennifer Rainey Marquez.
When I was nine years old, I was diagnosed with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, a disorder that causes progressive muscle weakness. My body breaks down my own skeletal muscle. Typically, it’s hereditary, but mine was caused by a spontaneous genetic mutation. I’m a special snowflake in that way.
When someone tells you at nine years old that you’ll eventually need a wheelchair, it doesn’t compute. You look at yourself and you think, “I play soccer, I play basketball, I run. Is there really anything wrong with me?” The symptoms weren’t noticeable until I was a teenager; one day, I went for a run, and I couldn’t propel my legs forward. I sat down in the middle of my neighborhood cul-de-sac and just cried my eyes out.
Since then, the disease has progressed pretty significantly. First, running got really difficult, then climbing stairs, then walking long distances. In high school, I would tell the teacher that I had to go to the bathroom five minutes before class ended. That would give me extra time to walk across campus. At the University of Georgia, I started using leg braces because I kept tripping and falling—one time, I fractured my skull.
After graduation, I moved back to Atlanta and got a scooter, but I refused to admit I needed it. It sat unused for six months before I told myself, just try it out. The moment I got in, I felt like I had my freedom again. Now I roam the city in my power wheelchair. I think that’s why I always loved running: I love wandering. It’s my “me time,” when I clear my head.
For me, accessibility means something different every year as the disease progresses. Before I got my wheelchair, it was, Are there stairs? What’s the distance? Now, it’s, Is the sidewalk paved? Is there a ramp? When I visit a new bar or restaurant, the first thing I do is scope out the restroom. Can I stay here long? Can I drink anything?
In Atlanta, the sidewalks are really good in some places and really bad in others. There are sidewalk closures, missing curb cuts, and crumbling concrete. I push e-scooters out of the way or pick them up when they’re blocking sidewalks or curb ramps.
I’ve probably uploaded a few hundred pictures of inaccessible sidewalks to Atlanta’s 311 app. Some don’t get resolved quickly, but the city is typically good about responding. Still, we need to be more proactive than reactive.
I take MARTA everywhere. Every station has an elevator (though they’re not always working), the train is level with the platform, and I can board any car. The buses all have ramps, so I don’t have to limit myself to a specific route or a specific stop. In a lot of cities, the trains are older, the platforms are older, there’s no elevator.
In 2018, I booked a solo trip to Europe. It was exhilarating—and really scary. Every city is different in terms of accessibility. It got easier every day. Everywhere I went, I encountered such lovely people who were willing to help me. Sometimes you just can’t do it alone.
Since 1961, Atlanta magazine, the city’s premier general interest publication, has served as the authority on Atlanta, providing its readers with a mix of long-form nonfiction, lively lifestyle coverage, in-depth service journalism, and literary essays, columns, and profiles.