Lee Osorio: Every citizen is central to the story Atlanta is telling together

"As [English Avenue] experiences a phoenix-like rebirth that Atlanta is (in)famous for, it’s too late for many."

Lee Osorio
Lee Osorio

Photograph by Stephanie Eley

This essay is part of a series—we asked 17 Atlantans to tell us how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has impacted their lives in honor of its 60th anniversary. Read all of the essays here.

Walking my dogs, a block and a half from my house, I notice them. Wearing clothes too heavy for the warm spring evening, too formal for hanging out on the corner, they sit in uncomfortable folding chairs in front of trucks and trailers that hold lighting and sound equipment, wardrobe, hair and makeup, and other performers important enough to rate a dressing room. They are background actors. Extras. The ones always at the edge of the frame, out of focus. Present, but only as bodies. Interchangeable and unimportant to the story being told.

On that same corner, just days before, 44-year-old Loquez Bell was fatally shot. I had stopped mowing the lawn to catch up with my neighbor, who has lived in her house since the ’80s, when we heard the shots. Ten or so. Close. It was six o’clock in the evening. We paused our conversation, briefly, then kept talking. We’ve grown as inured to this kind of shooting as we have the shooting of movies.

The neighborhood I live in is called English Avenue. The northern end is a mile and a half from West Midtown, the southern end two and a half miles from the State Capitol and City Hall. Mercedes-Benz Stadium is in our backyard. Yet despite this proximity to Atlanta’s centers of privilege and power, the neighborhood has for too long been a background player in the story of this city. There in plain sight, but deemed unworthy of attention. Poverty and addiction have ravaged the neighborhood. A third of the lots are empty or the homes sitting on them abandoned, boarded up, falling apart. Gun violence is far too common.

Things are changing. Organizations have teamed up with the city to turn abandoned lots and properties into affordable housing. Neighbors like the Friends of Mattie Freeland Park, “Mother” Mamie Moore, and her daughter Annie are working with organizations such as Park Pride to create green space and build community. Rosario Hernandez teaches neighbors how to build gardens. Mayor Dickens just announced an infill MARTA station that will open beside the soon-to-be-built BeltLine.

But as my neighborhood experiences a phoenix-like rebirth that Atlanta is (in)famous for, it’s too late for many. Unlike on the film sets that have become ubiquitous here, in real life there are no background actors. There are very real costs to acting like there are. My hope for the future is that we remember that every citizen is central to the story we as a city are telling together.

Lee Osorio is an actor, playwright, director, educator, and audiobook narrator. He received a Suzi Bass Award in 2018 for Best Male Lead Actor for The Life and Death of Richard II.

This article appears in our June 2024 issue.