I used to think being from Atlanta and from Georgia were different. They’re not.
It was a Friday night. Two friends and I were at a restaurant in Buckhead, filled with well-heeled Millennials and Gen Xers. At some point, I excused myself to go to the restroom. I shut the restroom door behind me and entered the only stall, closing it as well. Not even 10 seconds had elapsed when I heard someone else in the bathroom on the other side of the stall door. They started banging on the door, hard. I could tell that there was more than one person. One of them said, “Hurry the f**k up! Don’t you people realize this is a whites-only establishment? What the f**k is wrong with these people?!”
I had always described myself as a native Atlantan, not a native Georgian. To me, there’s a difference. For five generations, my African American family has been a part of the tapestry of Atlanta. For four generations, we have attended Morehouse College and Spelman College. My father was an OB/GYN at one of the last remaining predominantly African American hospitals in the nation, Southwest Community Hospital. In addition to his private practice, he taught at Morehouse School of Medicine. African Americans thrived here. So, I was safe, right?
That feeling of safety—the illusion of it, at least—had come at a price. In 1979, when I was three, my father purchased a home in what was then a mostly white neighborhood in southwest Atlanta. When my parents went to the closing table, the sellers tried to abort the sale. Why? They hadn’t realized the buyers were black. When their attempt failed, they returned to their former neighborhood to apologize to their neighbors for selling to an African American family. When we arrived to move in, we were met with the face of white flight. Nearly every yard had a “For Sale” sign.
As scarring as that memory is, it also fostered in me the notion that all of the people who were intolerant of African Americans were gone. They had moved to the distant suburbs, leaving behind an oasis for African Americans and those that did not fear living with us.
But on that night, in that Buckhead restaurant, I saw my safe place crumbling. I felt so naive.
BAM! BAM! BAM! “Get the f**k out! This is a whites-only establishment for Jesus Christ! What the f**k is wrong with you?” I had no idea what I would face when I walked out. Thoughts flooded my mind. There were no cameras in the restroom. It would be my word against theirs. Who would believe me? I could feel my heart beating. I could hear my breaths. My mind told me not to open the door. My mind told me I had to open the door. I was thinking much too fast. I was thinking too slowly.
I opened the door expecting to be attacked. Appearing before me was the antithesis of the stereotypical image of a racist. This racist was a young white male, barely out of his 20s. This racist had movie star looks. This racist was well-groomed. This racist had no hint of a Southern accent.
After staring at me for what seemed like an eternity, he walked past me. I don’t know why it did not escalate. I didn’t care. I just wanted Atlanta to be the progressive city I thought it was three minutes earlier.
“The racism that permeates our society can be found everywhere”
When I returned to the table, I explained to my friends what had just transpired. The sous chef, a personal friend, offered an apology. Management apologized as well and indicated that they would escort the racist off the property. Then, to my surprise, they escorted the racist over to my table and said that he wanted to apologize. Midway through his apology, he said, “F**k it! I don’t have to apologize to you people.”
The next day, I felt completely drained. I did not want to talk about what happened or give it any more energy. Still, I found myself reexamining Atlanta and the things and people I hold dear. First, it caused me to think about my daughter. She is nine and watches the news with me every morning. She sees the reports of police officers killing unarmed black men. Last year, I was stopped by police. Instinctively, I kept both hands on the wheel. Instinctively, I did not make a move. As a black man, I don’t have the liberty to make hasty moves or look around. I must sit still. Perfectly still. As instructed, I retrieved my license and registration. The officer glanced at the backseat. Something in his expression changed, and he quickly returned my documents. “Have a nice day, sir,” he said. When I turned around, I saw my daughter, tears streaming down her face. The entire top of her shirt was wet. She thought I was going to be killed. I simply cannot tell her about what happened that night in Buckhead. She would not be able to sleep.
I am an adjunct pre-law professor at Morehouse College. That night in Buckhead also got me thinking about the way I teach my students—young African American men. I want them to reach the highest pinnacle of success possible. But situations like this dampen my spirit. Will they go off to law school and return to a state like Georgia, where African American lawyers are rarely appointed to the judiciary? Will they make a mistake in the practice of law one day and receive not a warning or slight reprimand like their Caucasian counterparts but instead be stripped of their license to practice law? I wonder every day how to guide them knowing that the deck is stacked against them.
Atlanta changed for me that night. I learned that Atlanta is not a bubble. Atlanta, as it turns out, is inextricably linked to Georgia—and to America. The racism that permeates our society can be found everywhere, even in the city where my family, and so many other African American families, found a welcoming home. There is no longer a reason to tell people I am from Atlanta, as if Atlanta is somehow better than the rest of the state. In the future, I’ll explain that I am from Georgia. I realize now there is no difference. There never was.
Winfield Ward Murray is a practicing attorney with the federal government and an adjunct professor at Morehouse College.