What makes us Atlantans

The doctor who sees himself as American first, Atlantan second, and Korean third

Kelly Ahn
Ahn relaxes at home in East Cobb.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Kelly Ahn
Age 52
Internal medicine physician

I moved here in 1974. I was maybe eight years old. We came to Atlanta from Michigan because my father got a position at Emory Medical School as an ob/gyn. We had emigrated from South Korea when I was nine months old. My father was the beneficiary of a visa program that allowed professionals into the country.

We moved to Atlanta in the summer. I had never experienced that degree of heat before. I remember my subdivision in Stone Mountain where we first moved: It was kind of all-American to me. The kids were out in the street; we were all riding our bikes. And the teachers were very welcoming. There was no “Oh, you’re Korean” type thing. I was just the new kid in elementary school.

There were some occasions where we’d be out at a shopping mall, and I’d be called slanty-eyed and chink. But it didn’t define my feeling about the community. I’d go to Stone Mountain and see Confederate flags, and I’d realize that stuff was happening, but being so young, I didn’t really register it.

When I was in eighth grade, we moved to East Cobb. I went to Westminster. I was one of two or three Asians in the class, and I remember some of the white students questioning me in a tone that was skeptical, like, “Are you a Communist from North Korea?” I mean, I’m from South Korea. In retrospect, I see that this kind of stuff was going on, but I was too focused on my grades and doing well in high school.

Looking back, it was almost idyllic for me as a child up until high school and graduating. But now, the climate has changed. To me, the quintessential Atlanta is the hospitality, which to me means a warm welcome to a visitor or a stranger, regardless of ethnic or economic or social background. You’re warm to whomever walks through your door. Now, it’s not as warm and welcoming.

I haven’t experienced anything personal, but the atmosphere that’s been created has made me uncomfortable—to see how intense the confrontations are between different people and how extreme the ideas are about immigration control. I’ve become more careful around law enforcement. It’s become more stressful, and you have to be on your guard. Of course, the tribalism that exists now is not specific to Atlanta.

I went to Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate and then to Emory medical school. My plan was to be in private practice in Atlanta and put down roots here. To me, Atlanta is the perfect town. It’s not too big, and it’s not too small. The richness of culture it has now is incredible, and it’s a great place to raise a family.

I’m trying to think of who I am first. I’m an American first, an Atlantan second, and a Korean third. I really feel quite proud of this town. But even though I may feel that way, when I’m out in the community, I’m seen in the reverse order—as an Asian first. That’s frustrating, but it’s understandable. When you’re judged by outward appearance, that’s the natural first place that anyone looks, including me. I can’t blame anyone.

I think of an Atlantan as someone who’s on the cutting edge, who’s an innovator. I’ve always thought of this town as a leader, not a follower. I think of Atlantans as being proud of their heritage. Someone who has a positive outlook and a warm and welcoming kind of attitude.