The New Mayor: Andre Dickens comes to the job calculating and confident

Engineer, tech executive, and now mayor: Dickens is still acquainting himself with his newest job, but his mission is clear

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens
During Peace Week, Dickens meets with students at Burgess-Peterson Academy.

Photograph by Alyssa Pointer

The glazed doughnut, tucked in a white cardboard box on a side table at East Atlanta’s Burgess-Peterson Academy, doesn’t stand a chance. Andre Dickens bounds through the front entrance, nearly bumping his head on the steel doorframe. Three students, wearing masks and khaki-and-polo school uniforms, crane their necks upwards to welcome him. “Yeah, I’m six foot three,” he says with a chuckle, heading for the conference room. It’s 11:13 a.m., and all he’s eaten today is a banana. He spies the doughnut and devours it in under a minute, wiping sugary flakes from his goatee with a napkin.

As part of the city’s first-ever Peace Week, the mayor is here to read a book on conflict resolution—Rita and Ralph’s Rotten Day, written by Carmen Agra Deedy—to Ms. Johnson’s fourth-grade class. In late February, just weeks after his inauguration, Dickens launched this observance to “rebuild and strengthen the social fabric of Atlanta as cities across the country grapple with violence.” The week kicked off with an interfaith prayer service at the King Center with the Reverend Dr. Bernice King.

The impetus for the six-day event is Atlanta’s recent crime wave, exacerbated by the pandemic and a key focus of Dickens’s campaign. (Murders in the city jumped 60 percent during the last two years, and aggravated assault was up 25 percent, though other crimes, including burglary and rape, dropped by double-digit percentages.) On this unseasonably warm winter day, however, another type of violence is grabbing headlines. More than 5,000 miles away, Russian armed forces have begun assaulting Ukraine. The poignancy of today’s conversation is not lost on Dickens, who’s been tracking the advance in snowy Eastern Europe on his phone. “It’s crazy how you can dual-process,” he says.

In Burgess-Peterson’s library, with children sitting criss-cross on a vibrant carpet stitched with images of books, the scene hearkens back to September 11, 2001, when then President George W. Bush learned terrorists had attacked New York City’s World Trade Center towers while he was discussing The Pet Goat by Siegfried Engelmann with a Florida elementary school class. Bush tried to concentrate as the children read the story. Then, the kids knew something was off. Today, the crisis is farther from home, but these students are old enough to recognize how conflict escalates.

Dickens reads the story about two best friends, who get into a fight when Ralph accidentally hits Rita in the head with a rock. Resentment grows as the two tromp back and forth to each other’s house, fuming over various petty grievances, until one morning when they meet under their favorite tree and apologize. “Best friends always find a way to meet in the middle,” reads the mayor.

He asks the students about healthy ways to handle conflict and can’t help snickering when one boy confesses to swiping one of his mom’s birthday treats. It’s more sobering when another suggests gun control.

Later, Dickens sits on the passenger side of a black, souped-up GMC Yukon XL piloted by Detective Ramone Rivers. Occasionally interrupting himself to point out the new pavement along Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard, he frets about how even young kids worry about shootings. “Violence is something that is indoctrinated in us,” he says. “Think about how naturally these kids are like, Oh, guns are bad, guns are bad.”

A native Atlantan, Dickens learned about violence early. When he was five years old, he moved into a house in Adamsville with his mom and sister. (His parents divorced before he was born, and dad “wasn’t in the picture,” he says.) Mom wouldn’t let them roam the neighborhood until she’d met everyone’s parents. So, with the two siblings shut inside, the local kids started taunting them. “They were like, Y’all need to come outside,” Dickens says. When they finally did go outside—“in a neighborhood with, like, 30 boys and eight to 10 girls”—he needed to stake his claim, test his mettle. “We fought often.”

Those grade-school fights weren’t particularly consequential, but when classmates started bringing bats and brass knuckles and “all kinds of foolishness,” Dickens wised up. He turned to sports, especially baseball, and hit the books.

• • •

Having won the 2021 election after a November 30 runoff, Dickens is still acquainting himself with mayoralty. But his mission is clear: Fight crime, produce affordable housing—which, experts say, would help prevent crime—and create good-paying jobs (another noted crime deterrent). Simply put, he must make Atlanta safer and more equitable.

Before his election, he spent eight years as an at-large city councilmember, pushing progressive legislation but remaining an uncontroversial figure at a city hall still reeling from the corruption scandal left by a previous mayoral administration. He became known for his leadership on public safety, transportation, affordable housing, workforce development, and education. When Keisha Lance Bottoms announced she was not running for reelection, Atlanta suddenly needed a new mayor who could lead the city out of the pandemic, stop violent crime, and bolster its economic standing—while simultaneously reining in gentrification. Dickens, a professional engineer and tech entrepreneur accustomed to solving difficult equations, weighed the variables. Certain that no one knew the city better than he did, he calculated that he was the best man for the job.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens

Photograph by Chrisean Rose

Since childhood, the now 47-year-old Dickens has been a hard worker—a former high school homecoming king, Georgia Tech standout, and Baptist deacon. He was also a bit of a nerd. “Nice guy, but he wasn’t cool,” says Matt Westmoreland, an Atlanta City Councilmember and friend of the mayor. The two got to know each other playing adult rec league kickball, where Dickens might show up for games in cargo pants. “He is kind of learning to become cool, which is fascinating to watch.”

An alum of Benjamin E. Mays High, Dickens graduated from Georgia Tech in 1998 with a chemical engineering degree. After a short corporate career, he helped launch City Living Home Furnishings, a multimillion-dollar business that closed after the Recession. In 2011, he headed back to school and earned a master of public administration degree in economic development from Georgia State University. Then, from 2016 to 2021, he served as chief development officer for TechBridge, which provides technology consulting for nonprofits.

Westmoreland met Dickens in 2013, when the former was running for a seat on the Atlanta school board while Dickens was running for city council. The two jelled, philosophically and politically, and became even closer when Westmoreland joined the council in 2017. “When you sit next to someone, serving in elected office, it has the ability to really bond you,” says Westmoreland. “You sit in really tense meetings, and you have to grapple with tough issues that make a lot of people angry, and you are responsible for revising or stopping or moving forward policies that can impact half a million people and beyond.”

As councilmembers, they consulted one another routinely on policy issues—sometimes relaxing afterwards over pizza and a six-pack of SweetWater 420s. Dickens was a confidante who knew Westmoreland was gay before he publicly came out in January, as well as a fellow “policy wonk” who enjoyed discussing ideas. “He was always one of the first people I reached out to, because I found him to be a good partner in zooming out on any given topic. He was a really good person to sit down with and be like, All right, here’s where we are,” Westmoreland says.

Together, Westmoreland and Dickens parsed data and community input before weighing in on red-hot city issues, like plans for the controversial Northside Drive pedestrian bridge, redevelopment of downtown’s Gulch, or public safety budgets.

Nowadays, Westmoreland addresses his pal as Mayor Dickens in public, but he’s “still Dre” in private. “I would’ve told you in November, ‘Dre’s a little goofy,’” he says. “I don’t feel that anymore. He’s still warm and friendly, but he’s not goofy.” Westmoreland says Dickens reminds him of Jimmy Smits’s character in The West Wing, when he played a congressperson trying to find his voice as a presidential candidate. “I’ve seen Andre grow a very large amount in a very short period of time. Now, he stands taller, he speaks slower, he cuts right to the chase.”

Westmoreland is one of many local leaders Dickens consults when considering policy moves. The new mayor keeps a roster of close advisers whose expertise he relies on, including his predecessors. He often seeks counsel from former Mayor Shirley Franklin, who’s lately emerged as something of a kingmaker in Atlanta politics, helping him—along with new councilmembers Jason Dozier and Jason Winston, as well as new council president Doug Shipman—get elected. She coached him as he worked on his Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech, where he ended up quoting Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me”: “We all have pain; we all have sorrow. But if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow.”

“You bring your whole self to the job,” Franklin says. Sometimes, you read what’s in front of you­—what speechwriters have written. Other times, you freestyle.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens
Mayor Dickens greets constituents at Fellini’s Pizza.

Photograph by Alyssa Pointer

Freestyling is Dickens’s forte. Stopping at Fellini’s Pizza on Ponce de Leon after leaving Burgess-Peterson Academy, he dices a meat-lover’s slice with a knife and fork as he fields random questions from restaurant patrons. One man, his hair dreaded and laced up in a bun, makes his way over. “You always been real,” he says. “Don’t lose that realness ’cause you got all these people around you.”

When you’re in the chief seat, everyone wants a piece of the action. Something Dickens hears often: Here’s all you need to do. To keep kids out of trouble, for instance, “they all need to learn robotics,” a stranger tells him, likely not realizing Dickens is a former tech company executive, familiar with the benefits of STEM education. Another time, I used to be in a gang. I’m gonna tell you how to stop these gangs. If you give me an hour, and then you give me a million dollars, or a job, I’ll solve your gang problem, he recites. “A whole lot of armchair experts.”

• • •

On the 2021 campaign trail, Dickens was “miserable.” He lost 20 pounds, his eye would twitch before debates, and he suffered restless nights. Anxiety crept in, he says, as he shouldered the pressure of edging out a slate of high-profile opponents, including former City Council President Felicia Moore and ex-Mayor Kasim Reed. “I talked to my pastor,” Dickens says. “I talked to this counselor, a friend of mine. It’s taught me to take breaks.” Deep breaths help before big events, too, he adds. “I thank God I didn’t crack all the way up.”

Once elected, though, Dickens put the weight back on, shed the anxiety, and started sleeping well—if five and a half hours a night can be considered a good night’s sleep. So far, the work has come naturally. “This is gonna sound arrogant, but I’ve lived in Atlanta just about my whole life, being born and raised here. I know this city so well that I know that, right now, I’m the best person for this job,” says Dickens. “Some nights, I’m like, How would somebody that wasn’t me deal with that?

Early on, Dickens is everywhere: After watching UGA football clinch the National Championship just before midnight on January 10, he visited a warming shelter for the city’s unhoused. On January 13, he was at One Buckhead Plaza announcing a new police precinct. In early February, he brokered a deal to end a yearslong legal feud between the city’s public housing authority and developer Integral Group. And on Saturday, February 12, he was at Forest Cove apartments in Southeast Atlanta, hugging local advocate Ms. Peaches and promising to relocate her and other residents of the notoriously squalid, federally subsidized housing complex—and then bring them back after renovation.

“I wouldn’t say he’s burning out, but his pace is very brisk,” Franklin says. “I don’t think it’s a rookie move, but I think it’s exhausting.” She’s reminded of Maynard Jackson, who “was young and very energetic as well.”

When you oversee a city of half a million people, self-care sometimes falls by the wayside, Lance Bottoms says. She warned Dickens that the main thing being the mayor has in common with serving on city council is that the officials park in the same garage. “It is such a heavy job; failure is not an option,” she says. Nevertheless, she urged him to “protect his peace,” saving time for himself and his family.

Dickens, who is divorced, concedes he sometimes has to remind himself not to be mayor to his 17-year-old daughter—to just be Dad. Their deal is that he’ll pick up the phone whenever she calls, even if he’s a bit piqued when she calls to negotiate her prom budget.

• • •

Dickens wakes up each morning and immediately scrolls through his phone to see if he’s slept through a “Signal 50”—the Atlanta Police code that someone’s been shot—well before he knots up his necktie and laces up his dress shoes. “When I first started,” he says, “it was happening every day.” Shootings are no longer daily, but the pace is still alarming—sometimes skipping a week, then striking twice in the same day.

He aims to prop up Atlanta’s demoralized police department by hiring 250 more officers in his first year as mayor, providing cops with better training in racial sensitivity and deescalation techniques, and fostering a healthier police-citizen relationship. But that won’t be enough to subdue today’s scourge of violence, he realizes. Gun violence abounds here. “I feel handcuffed by a lot in our state,” he notes. “I can’t control gun laws. I can’t [enact] rent control in the city. I can’t set a minimum wage through the city.”

Dickens knows he needs to work with the Gold Dome. Westmoreland recalls that, on the night Dickens was elected, the two were out getting Krystal burgers at 3 a.m., but by 7:30, Dickens was calling Georgia House Speaker David Ralston. Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan says the mayor excels at working with state officials so far, as evidenced by the standing ovation he received during his first official visit to the Legislature. “Right out of the gate, he’s really projected an attitude of wanting to work together and build a solid working relationship,” Duncan says. He admires the way Dickens studies issues thoroughly. “We’re all better decisionmakers when we dive into the details,” Duncan says. “That helps take us away from deep partisan corners and really stay focused.”

Indeed, like the left-brained guy he is, Dickens approaches policy issues with a microscope. What’s the root cause? he always wonders. “I’m not fixing [problems] two and three times due to a misdiagnosis,” he says. So far, his meticulous, mechanical leadership style marks a departure from the sometimes impulsive or political nature of administrations past. Maybe he’s cool now, but he’s still a nerd.

“I definitely feel like the mayor,” Dickens says of his new role. “It struck me one time when Mayor Bottoms and I were both at Morehouse or somewhere, and someone said, Mayor, and we both turned around. Only one of us was mayor.”

Two weeks in, at his first press conference at City Hall, it sunk in that he’ll be the first and last person to prod about all of Atlanta’s issues. “They can ask me about anything: about the [municipal] budget, about crime, about UFOs, anything,” he says. Nevertheless, he’s confident he’ll get used to the amplified intensity. Asking permission to use the bathroom, though, still feels foreign.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens
Becoming accustomed to constant security is part of Dickens’s new job.

Photograph by Alyssa Pointer

Security guards are now a constant presence. “I’m a Black man who grew up in Atlanta,” he says—not unacquainted with danger and violence. His protective detail, which roams around in multiple beefy, dark-colored SUVs, wearing dark-colored suits and orchestrating his movements via headsets, has to “clear” a restroom before he can use it, scout out possible lunch spots before he arrives, and otherwise monitor his every play. He can tell that the bodyguards, all Atlanta Police Department veterans, aren’t thrilled when he suggests something like, Let’s roll into Ponce City Market and get something to eat. Whenever his entourage arrives at a destination, and Dickens is ready to exit his SUV—after wrapping up phone calls or studying his notes or doing deep breathing exercises before an event—he knocks twice on the window, and a member of the executive protective unit opens the door.

Not everyone is pleased with the new mayor. So far, opposition has ranged from being called a racist by Buckhead cityhood proponents to being called out by peaceful protests over the demolition of the shared streets project downtown. But he’s faced conflict before as a councilmember, notably getting grilled on Twitter over his support for a proposed public safety training facility colloquially known as Cop City.

Michael “Killer Mike” Render, the Atlanta rapper and entrepreneur, who served on Lance Bottoms’s transition team, has known of Dickens since they were both in high school—when Render was a year behind Dickens at Mays rival Frederick Douglass High. While on the council, Dickens joined him and former congressman and onetime city councilmember Kwanza Hall to promote an antiviolence advocacy group the two had launched on the west side, Black Teens for Advancement.

Render says Dickens has “got swagger enough to be mayor, to be an influential leader on the ground. But this is the first time I’ve seen him really step out.”

Reflecting on Atlanta’s legacy of Black leadership, Render says different mayors have made different contributions. “It’s not [just] the emblem on the Rolls-Royce—you get the whole car,” he says. “You get the economic growth of a Black middle class and working class with Maynard [Jackson]. You get the true participation of private- and public-sector money with Andy [Young]. You get the know-how of people who have been groomed in [previous] administrations with Shirley [Franklin]. You get business-savvy people who understand a greater proliferation of private and public cooperation with Kasim [Reed]. You get products of the west side, with a decidedly Black community—in terms of Collier Heights and Adamsville—in Keisha [Lance Bottoms] and Andre [Dickens]. What [we’ll] get in Andre is eight years of great leadership. He’s not a bullshitter. He’s not full of himself and ego. His want and will to serve is greater than his want for fame and attention. He is exactly the man we need in the moment we are having.”

• • •

The learning curve for becoming mayor is steep, but Dickens is here for it. Westmoreland says, “He’s soaking up every minute of it, going 1,000 miles a minute.”

On the day Dickens visited Burgess-Peterson Academy, he had four meetings and one live-broadcast interview; stopped by two elementary schools; attended a workforce development summit with HBCU leaders, a corporate CEO, and federal officials; and spoke at a community meeting.

As Detective Rivers, who also protected Reed and Lance Bottoms, whips into a garage on downtown’s Central Avenue, Dickens reflects on his new role. On the campaign trail, “you’d be dreaming about all kinds of stuff,” he says. “But now, man, the work is so real.” Then, he taps twice on the window.

This article appears in our May 2022 issue.