For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Keisha Lance Bottoms—mayor of Atlanta—describes her hopes for the future of the city, state, and country. (Bottoms was interviewed on March 20.)
My mom normally comes to help me every morning. She hasn’t been here in several weeks because [my son] Lance asked her to stop coming.
I went to Sam’s Club on Thursday. A woman asked me what I was doing there. “The same thing you’re doing.” I have four kids at home. My husband makes grocery runs on his way home from work. But I knew we needed to stock up with a family of six. I’m now cooking three meals a day. But my personal adjustment pales in comparison to what’s happening. People are dying.
Watershed employees and public works employees are showing up every day and making sure the water system is working, that trash is picked up. IT people are getting laptops assigned to people. For as many people as we have who can, they telework. We have just as many making sure our city can function.
I have a great network of really good friends. We’re sending humorous memes to each other. A lot deal with homeschooling. They’re not fit for me to put out there.
My kids didn’t know how much they would miss school. This is my son’s senior year of high school. My kids miss their teachers. People are dealing with real challenges right now. I’m just reminding myself to stay calm. Be prayerful. And try to create some sense of normalcy in our household.
I’m still setting my alarm clock so I can get up before my kids. I lay there and say my morning prayers. I’m fortunate, I have a treadmill at home. I’ve actually been able to walk on my treadmill every day since I’ve been home. I try to get up on the treadmill for 35 minutes, go through my emails and catch up on news. And then start making the rounds to wake my kids up. They have to log in to their classrooms by a certain time.
My daughter likes to log in early. Yesterday, I was in the middle of doing interviews and talking with my team and making decisions. My daughter said I was supposed to have lunch an hour ago and now it’s over. The day before that, she said my schedule says we are supposed to take a walk today. Okay, let’s take a walk.
As the capital city, we have the responsibility to lead in a different way. Knowing we are doing the right thing. There’s part of me that’s the leader of the city, but also the leader of a team and making sure our people can keep their spirits up and make sure our employees can keep going as we need them to as well. Just making sure that we’re making the right decisions. I am a morning person, so there are some decisions for me that, to be sure they are the right decision, I have to save for the next morning. That’s why you see a lot of these executive decisions the [following] morning. Preserving personal wellness while trying to do it on behalf of the city can be challenging.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Holocaust and the diary of Anne Frank, how people’s lives changed and they had to go in hiding. When I think about that, this is a minor inconvenience. There are people who live across the globe with disease and war. I’m in a house with AC and a backyard and two dogs who get to run around and play. It’s made me grateful just about the little things—going to a restaurant, getting your nails done, going to the store. These conveniences we take for granted our entire lives. It’s given me a perspective, another layer of empathy.
My prayer is we will be back in some sort of normal. And that we will be more prepared and proactive as a country. Pandemics—this could very well be the first of many. We’ve seen how unprepared we are as a country.
When does my day end? When I go to sleep, my brain doesn’t shut off now. It’s been difficult for me to sleep because I wake up during the night thinking about issues. I’m thinking a lot about the folks who are going to be out of work and missing paychecks. I’ve been chatting with a lot of mayors across the country. Some things we are leading on, some things we are following on. We are in this shock period. But at some point, people are going to start running out of money to buy groceries. How are we prepared to respond to that while also keeping in mind that we are an organization that is responsible for city services? The balancing act of how do we provide and be compassionate for our community while we still function as a city and meet the needs of our residents.
We are going to get to the other side of this. We are a resilient city. We are a resilient country.
I encourage other people, Check on folks. I drove to my mother’s house, and she stood outside my car. I hadn’t seen my mother in a few weeks. Which isn’t normal. My grandmother would quote the Bible: “Be anxious for nothing.” You hear from people all the time, “This, too, shall pass.” I had to write that on the wall in the mayor’s office to remind myself. We’re going to be alright. When I need to take a breath and clear my mind, I’ll go and sort some shoes. This too shall pass.
Interview edited for length and clarity.