Geniuses Unite: An Atlanta lawyer becomes a MacArthur Fellow

Jonathan Rapping received a ”genius grant” in September

When Atlanta lawyer Jonathan Rapping got the call in early September informing him that he was one of 21 2014 MacArthur Fellows—a recipient of the so-called “genius grant”—he was instructed to tell only one person and that he would never know who nominated him. When we spoke two months after the award had been made public, Rapping had fielded requests from media outlets but hadn’t heard another peep from his new benefactor. “At some point,” he said, “I’ll get a check?”

As a MacArthur "genius," Rapping will get $625,000 over five years.
As a MacArthur “genius,” Rapping will get $625,000 over five years.

Photograph by Scott Areman

Several checks, in fact, quarterly over the next five years, totaling $625,000. Although Rapping hasn’t earmarked exactly where the money will be spent, some of it will go back into the work for which he was nominated. A former D.C. public defender, Rapping moved here in 2004 to head up training for Georgia’s public defender system. In 2007, he and his wife founded the Southern Public Defender Training Center, which sought to train and mentor public defenders to better serve the indigent and drive criminal justice reform. The nonprofit was eventually renamed Gideon’s Promise after the 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright. Today the organization counsels more than 300 lawyers in 15 states, most of whom are in the South. And last year, Rapping partnered with Maryland to implement the Gideon’s Promise model statewide.

Thing is, Rapping can do pretty much whatever he wants with the grant. There is no foundation oversight of the spending, no strings attached, which is a big part of what makes the genius grant so appealing—and so mysterious. “I get the notice in the mail informing me that I now have x amount of dollars in this account,” says 2011 MacArthur Fellow and Georgia Tech alum Shwetak Patel. “It looks like some Nigerian money scam.”

Patel says that in the rich field of computer science, the award’s extra financing was less life-changing than the access it granted. Days after the announcement, he received an invitation from the U.S. secretary of energy, whom Patel had been trying to meet for months. Still, despite the sudden windfall of friends and groupies, Patel wanted advice on how to handle the newfound fame and the flood of investment requests—wisdom that could come only from a fellow genius.

Even though 918 Fellows have been named since 1981, the hands-off approach of the Chicago-based foundation hasn’t exactly fostered a lot of . . . fellowship. There is no annual convention or secret club hidden in the mountains. Fortunately, the Internet has enabled the geniuses to connect on their own. In fact, last October, a group of fellows gathered in Chicago for a rare conference. One of the attendees was Atlanta sculptor and 2010 recipient Elizabeth Turk, who says communing with so many driven, innovative, and intelligent people from so many different fields is inspiring. “That’s the best part of the whole deal,” she says.

Turk’s advice for Rapping is to reach out to other fellows. Patel recommends stepping back for a month or so to just enjoy the honor and prepare for a barrage of “genius jokes.” Sitting in his downtown Atlanta office, still waiting for the room to stop spinning and for that first check to come in, Rapping has already learned how to handle that last one: “I tell them, ‘If you didn’t realize I was a genius before MacArthur said it, there’s something wrong with you.’ ”

This article originally appeared in our January 2015 issue.