The Political Education of Killer Mike

By. Donovan X. Ramsey, GQ

Killer Mike didn’t want to go to the press conference but felt like he had to. It had been a long day already. He woke up thinking about how a Black man named George Floyd had been lynched in Minneapolis just the day before, and Mike was busy traveling around Atlanta’s Westside in a food truck he and his friend T.I. had recently purchased, “shaking hands and kissing babies” to create some buzz. But then T.I. got a surprise call from Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was soliciting the rapper’s help to ease tensions after a peaceful protest in downtown Atlanta started turning into a riot. T.I. asked Mike if he wanted to come along. Mike said no at first, according to T.I.: “Absolutely not” and “It’s not our motherfucking job”—but T.I. wore him down over the course of an hour, and Mike felt duty-bound to support his friend. Which is how Killer Mike ended up at city hall to speak on live television, standing alongside legislators and law enforcement, still wearing a T-shirt that said “KILL YOUR MASTERS.”

He spoke extemporaneously and said what was in his heart, touching on everything from his personal relationship with the police to Atlanta history to public policy and a potential path forward.

“I’m mad as hell,” Mike told the room full of reporters. “I woke up wanting to see the world burn down yesterday because I’m tired of seeing Black men die.” He also repudiated the violent protests: “It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization.”

He added, “Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize.”

Mike’s stance against violent demonstrations, especially in the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., who famously said, “A riot is the language of the unheard,” was unconvincing to many people, including myself. It’s a side of King that’s often overlooked by history—and a phrase Killer Mike himself quoted in 2015 when addressing the riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died from spinal cord injuries while in police custody. Now here Mike was taking another tack, saying Atlanta is “cut different” from other cities.“If we lose Atlanta,” he asked, “what else we got?”

The speech went viral almost immediately. Some praised it as sensible and right on time; critics said his shaming of protesters was out of touch and that the speech was overly sympathetic to a police apparatus broken beyond repair. The mixed reaction is a testament to the deep divisions that exist in this country, even among people who tend to agree on most things. It’s also a testament to who Killer Mike is as a person and as a personality. People like their public figures to fit into neat boxes—conservative, liberal, capitalist, socialist, rapper, activist. Killer Mike is hard to put in any single one, and by his own design. He is as comfortable talking to Joe Rogan as he is to Charlamagne Tha God. He is as critical of centrist Democrats as he is of Republicans. He’s just as willing to debate the likes of Trump-supporting provocateur Candace Owens (at a televised summit in Atlanta, hosted by Diddy) as he is veteran reporter Joy Reid (live on her morning MSNBC show) and will go to war with anyone.

Mike has been that way his whole life—a mix of ideas, beliefs, and styles all competing in one large body. It’s this very eclectic nature that has made him one of hip-hop’s most nimble figures. He crossed over from trap music to agit-rap as one half of Run the Jewels because, in his words, Why not? The duo released their fourth studio album, RTJ4, in June, and the project has been heralded by critics for its timeliness and raw power. Rolling Stone called it “perfectly apt for 2020 America.” Craig Jenkins of New York magazine wrote that RTJ4 is “an album of prickly, prescient conversations and explosive noise.”

The album is a showcase for Mike’s many faces. He’s enjoying the spoils of his riches one moment and apoplectic the next. On “holy calamafuck,” he rhymes, One time in the big ol’ South / Lived a li’l chubby kid with a big ol’ mouth / Lame writers gave him big ol’ doubts / Now the same lil’ boy in a big ol’ house. On the very next track, titled “goonies vs. E.T.,” he’s out for blood: Ain’t no revolution that’s televised and digitized / You’ve been hypnotized and Twitter-ized by silly guys / Cues to the evenin’ news, make sure you ill-advised / Got you celebratin’ the generators of genocide.

In recent years Mike has become increasingly known for his activism in politics. It started in August 2014, when he appeared on CNN to discuss the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the unrest that followed. People responded to his charisma and eloquence, even if they ignored the warning coming out of his mouth: “Whatever this country is willing to do to the least looked-upon…to Black people, to those males, will eventually happen to all Americans.”

He became a surrogate for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2015, stumping for the senator at rallies around the country and sharing Sanders’s vision with Black voters. Mike continued to speak up about social issues after Sanders lost the primary in 2016, leading to his very own Netflix series, which premiered in 2019.

Trigger Warning, starring and executive-produced by Mike, is like a roller-coaster ride through his busy mind. Over the course of six episodes, it follows Mike as he conducts IRL social experiments, attempting to put some of his most revolutionary ideas into practice. In the first episode, he tries to shop at only Black businesses, to varying degrees of success. In another, he creates his own church, one free of the prosperity gospel and white Jesus. And in another he helps Crips and Bloods launch their own legitimate businesses. The final and perhaps most layered episode of the series sees Mike experimenting with the concept of utopia as he and a small crew of volunteers attempt to form a secessionist community in rural Georgia.

It’s funny and instructive, swinging back and forth between documentary and satire. Watching it, one has the feeling that Mike is both dead serious and having a lot of fun stirring shit up. “He is a genuine character, and he’s a complex character as well,” says El-P, his Run the Jewels partner. “I think that Mike deserves for people to understand how complicated he is and how much depth he has.”

It’s a sentiment shared by just about everyone who knows him, from his old friends to his new ones. Former Ohio state senator Nina Turner met Mike in 2016 while campaigning for Bernie Sanders. The two became fast friends, “like sister and brother” almost immediately, she says.

“Michael is an intellectual, and he’s a man of the people,” Turner says, placing him in a lineage of Black teachers and activists. “He comes from the best tradition of the Talented Tenth, but also from the Ella Bakers, Fannie Lou Hamers. You can have all of those things in one person, and he personifies all of that. And to know Michael is to see those various dimensions play out, in glory and majesty and purpose and love, for Black people.”

In early June, on the day of the Georgia primaries, I show up to Mike’s home in Atlanta, a big and stately house hidden behind a wrought-iron gate. He likes the place because it’s “far enough the robbers don’t want to come but close enough that if my sister call me I can get there.” I expect an assistant or a publicist to greet me at the door, but Mike does instead. He’s a little taller than I am, and I’m six feet tall, but he’s heavier. Piercing eyes and a furrowed brow make him look mean and impressive when he’s not smiling—and he isn’t when he answers the door. He looks a little like my uncle Roger, my mother’s youngest brother. Then he smiles and invites me in, and the resemblance is solidified.

After a quick tour that included a neatly organized shoe room full of clear storage containers and Nike boxes, and a gun closet that’s under construction, we sit down at his kitchen table. Before we can get into it, his phone starts blowing up. A friend of his in prison calls to check in. Then another friend, a prominent Atlanta strip club owner, calls him from the voting booth, confused about the way a ballot question is worded. Next is his daughter, who needs exactly $248 for a new cell phone. (He makes her commit via text to 40 hours of work at his barbershop before sending the money.) Chris Paul, the NBA star, calls at one point, eager to discuss politics.

He promises to call everyone back and offers me a drink from the bar and a perfectly rolled joint from a pile he keeps on the table. I decline both, despite the voice in the back of my head that says that I should just enjoy the free weed. I eventually submit to his Southern hospitality and accept something, a Topo Chico, and he’s finally put at ease.

Before he became Killer Mike, Michael Render was born in Atlanta in the spring of 1975. It was a sweet time in the city. Voters had just elected their first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, and things were looking up as Jackson set policies in motion to make Atlanta’s moniker, the City Too Busy to Hate, a reality. When he expanded Atlanta’s airport, for example, Jackson insisted that 25 percent of all contracts be set aside for “minority firms.” (“You can have 75 percent of this project or you can have 100 percent of nothing. What is your choice?” Jackson reportedly told white contractors.) The policy was a boon for Black businesses and Atlanta’s Black professional class, both of which, alongside Jackson’s aggressive move to more fully integrate the Atlanta Police Department, added to the city’s image as a Black mecca.

Mike grew up on the mecca’s Westside. His neighborhood, Collier Heights, is yet another testament to the Atlanta Way. It was a village of more than 1,700 single-family homes—financed, designed, and constructed by middle-class Black Atlantans for other middle-class Black Atlantans. His neighbors were doctors, lawyers, businesspeople.

His family was cut from a different cloth, though. His parents were young when they had him, so he was taken in by his grandparents, who owned a small home at the edge of the Collier Heights enclave. The village raised him—a wild-child mother, a straitlaced father, grandparents who grew up in the Old South, each embodying their generation’s values.

“My grandfather could be best described as a libertarian,” Mike says. “He wasn’t big on affiliating himself with anything, but he believed in small government. Fishing licenses were an abomination to him,” he adds with a laugh.

Mike dismissed his grandfather’s rants about wildlife regulations when he was a boy (“Granddad is fucking bucking!”), but time has given him more perspective. “My grandfather could catch 100 fish,” he says. “Twenty-five might be for our home, and he gave the rest out in fives to family and neighbors. For him, it was a matter of taking care of yourself first, then your family, and then taking care of the community.”

Whereas his grandfather promoted rugged individualism, his grandmother organized around the collective. She believed in the power of social service and was a card-carrying member of the NAACP and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “While she was raised on a farm and independent,” Mike says, “she still believed in a society where government can help provide.”

He gets worked up when he talks about his grandparents. They’re his heroes: two people born in the Jim Crow South who navigated its everyday indignities and horrors to carve out a private peace. That’s what he got from his grandparents. The rest he got from Collier Heights, Adamsville, Bankhead, Cascade Heights, Greenbriar, the West End: the Westside.

Mike says he can show me better than he can tell me, so we hop into his everyday ride, an all-black Dodge Hellcat. Although his wife, Shana, has been driving the car and there’s a jar of edge control in the passenger seat, it exudes masculine cool. I know next to nothing about cars, but the sight sends me spinning down another Southern-culture rabbit hole. I think to myself that it looks like a Black cousin of the General Lee, the Confederate flag-adorned muscle car famously featured on the ’80s sitcom The Dukes of Hazzard. It seems like a rude comparison, but I can’t help it when we’re on the road and Mike starts speeding like he’s Bo Duke outrunning Boss Hogg. Just the good ol’ boys. Never meanin’ no harm.

As it happens, it’s primary day in Georgia, a brutal day that would later be described on Politico as a “hot, flaming mess” after citizens are forced to line up for hours to pick their party’s candidate and answer important ballot questions like Question 6: “Should every Georgian that has served their sentence for a crime they committed be allowed to have their voting rights restored?” We drive past a polling place and Mike gets recognized almost immediately. People in the line, mostly Black voters of all ages, point and wave. That’s Killer Mike. Mike waves back like he recognizes them too.

Mike has spoken candidly before about running for office someday, and as we drive around I ask him a theoretical question about what policies he would put in place if he were running the city. He dives right in, like a candidate on the campaign trail. Here’s Killer Mike’s platform: He would insist that a city that is more than 50 percent Black, like Atlanta, do more than 50 percent of its business with a Black-owned bank and create incentives for graduates of Atlanta public high schools to go to the city’s historically Black colleges. He’d also help city employees finance homes in Atlanta to keep them from moving to the suburbs, and he’d make the 16 Fortune 500 companies that call Atlanta home commit to public works.

What about the police? I ask.
“What about police?”
Are we going to defund the police?

“Well, this is the thing. I don’t know if anybody’s ever going to defund the police. I would demilitarize the police. Police do not need to literally look like occupying soldiers,” he says. “In Atlanta, I would focus less on creating a police state and go more back to the community policing.… I would make sure that our police are involved in our communities in a non-police way, meaning coaching, assistant coaching. I would strengthen the Police Athletic League dramatically, because my interaction with police should be more like the Police Athletic League and less like you’re stopping me because three of us are standing on this corner.”

A few minutes later we pull up at the home of William Murray, Mike’s former art teacher from Frederick Douglass High School, who continued to mentor him after he graduated. Mr. Murray is already outside, in his sprawling vegetable garden. He’s a small, light-skinned man with a plush beard and a full head of curly white hair. He’s wiry and moves with the speed of a much younger man. He’s not expecting Mike, let alone a reporter, but he doesn’t seem to mind our sudden appearance. In fact, he starts telling us a story as though we’d been there all along:

As a child, William Murray would finish his work so fast that his elementary school teacher would send him out on illicit errands, including picking up the teacher’s lunch. Later on, he says, that same teacher tried to spank Murray, as was allowed at the time, but the boy was clever: He was saving receipts from his errands all the while, and the spanking was averted. That, says Mr. Murray, is how he learned to organize.

On the way to our next stop, Mike explains to me how Mr. Murray taught high school art for decades despite owning a successful funeral home. Over the years he mentored Mike and scores of other students, teaching them painting, photography, history, and how to grow their own food. “He didn’t invest five years into me for me to fail or be silent in a time of need,” says Mike. “He ain’t teaching me gardening just so I can grow food in my yard. He understands I have a podium.”

One of the more interesting contradictions lurking inside Killer Mike is that he is a proud “compassionate capitalist”—a small-business owner and landlord with multiple barbershops, a restaurant, and about $2 million in property across Atlanta. But he’s also backed democratic socialist candidates like Bernie Sanders, who, Mike has said, operates in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Killer Mike says he has “love and respect for police officers,” but on songs like “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” from Run the Jewels 2, he rhymes, Where my thuggers and my Crippers and my Blooders and my brothers? / When you niggas gon’ unite and kill the police, mothafuckas? / Or take over a jail, give them COs hell / The burnin’ of the sulfur, goddamn, I love the smell.

The most infamous example of Mike’s mixed messaging came in 2018, when he decided to sit down with NRATV, the former online broadcasting arm of the pro-gun organization. The conversation, which, he says, was supposed to be about Black gun ownership, devolved into an exchange about the National School Walkout and youth-led anti-gun protests following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “I told my kids on the school walkout, ‘I love you, [but] if you walk out that school, walk out my house,’ ” Mike says during the interview. “We are not a family that jumps on every single thing an ally of ours does, because some stuff, we just don’t agree with.”

He didn’t know it yet, but the NRA would use that short sound bite to blast protesters, posting it on Twitter a little past noon on March 24, 2018, as the student-led March for Our Lives took place in D.C.

Mike apologized soon after. “I do support the march, and I support Black people owning guns. It’s possible to do both,” he said. “To the young people that worked tirelessly to organize, I’m sorry adults chose to do this. I’m sorry NRATV did that. I’m sorry that adults on the left and the right are choosing to use me as a lightning rod.”

Still, the damage was done. Mike doesn’t apologize for sitting down with the NRA, however. He believes, at his core, that Black Americans should find allies wherever they can. “The greatest gift Atlanta has given me is to be able to judge people solely by the content of their character, because all my heroes and villains have always been Black,” he tells me. Mike repeats this a few times throughout the afternoon. He doesn’t say it about the NRA directly, but it speaks to how he measures allies and enemies. “You may start off with Professor X,” he says, “but Magneto got a fucking point.”

As we cruise around, I ask him if he plans on voting for Joe Biden in November. He demurs, asking me if Biden plans on signing H.R. 40, the bill that would establish a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations for Black Americans, before launching into an impassioned monologue:

“I don’t give a shit if Joe Biden the person is moved to the left. I don’t give a shit about liking you or you liking me. What I give a shit about is if your policies are going to benefit me and my community in a way that will help us get a leg up in America. That’s it. Because we deserve a leg up, and I’m not ashamed to say it.

“We fucking deserve it. My great-grandmother, who taught me how to sew a button, was taught how to sew a button because her grandmother was enslaved. The daughter of a slave taught me and encouraged me to write, read, sew buttons, take care of myself. So why the fuck am I going to accept anything? I don’t give a fuck if you kneel in kente cloth. Give a shit. What have you got for me?”

It speaks to the philosophy that undergirds all of Killer Mike’s political ideas and positions. Before anything, Mike is a Black man from the American South who is deeply skeptical of how much a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal power structure built on the evils of capitalism will do to ensure his freedom. So he’s willing to embrace methodologies and tactics from across the political spectrum to see what works.

“Why do we all have to be categorized and put in a box?” T.I. asks in defense of his friend. “Why do you want somebody to only be one way, the way that you need for them to be for you, but fuck everybody else? That shit don’t make no sense to me. It’s not realistic.”

“If you talk to Mike, he’ll call himself a mobilizer,” says El-P, “because Mike very much takes his ability to have a voice seriously. At the same time, he recognizes that he’s not the last word on all of this. And he’s also not constrained by philosophical perspectives. This is a guy who’s not frozen in ideology. It’s mobile for him.”

Mike is for Black banks, Black businesses, Black guns, Black colleges, Black homeownership—all things Black Americans can do here and now without passing a law or asking for permission. He’s also for using Black voting power to wrest everything we’re owed from the government. It’s Black nationalism with a hint of socialism and armed to the teeth.

Atlanta is no utopia, but it is perhaps the American city where this vision is best realized. Blacks make up more than half of its population, and that people power has led to the election of six Black mayors since 1973. Atlanta’s leaders have worked closely with the business community since then—companies like Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta, and UPS, all based in Atlanta—to create opportunity.

Despite that, there’s still extreme inequity in the city. According to a report from the Brookings Institution, Atlanta’s jobless rates in 2017 sat at 11.5 percent for Black residents and 2.5 percent for white residents. Last year, a Bloomberg article called Atlanta “the capital of U.S. inequality for the second year in a row.” An analysis of census data from 2018 revealed the average income for Atlanta’s top 5 percent of households exceeded $663,000 while families in the bottom half of the population earned less than $65,000—a ratio of more than 10 to 1.

“It is the Black city that, far from perfect, has worked,” Mike insists nevertheless. “It worked during Reconstruction. It worked through Jim Crow. It worked for the last 50 years with Black leadership—controversial at times, other times as smooth as a sewing machine, but it has worked at every stage. At every stage, Blacks in Atlanta have found a way.”

In the 1980s, Atlanta became a major hub for cocaine trafficking, a development that went hand in hand with the rise of its smokable derivative, crack. It was cheap, easy to make, and lucrative to sell, and it took Atlanta by storm, especially throughout Mike’s beloved Westside as boys his age seized an opportunity to make money.

“Nobody who was intelligent wouldn’t have,” says Mike of drug dealing. “When I was 12 years old, I figured out they would pay me $50 if I sit around my cousin’s apartment and shit and yell out ‘12’ when you see [the police] coming. What 12-year-old ain’t going to do that?” Mike was in business for himself selling crack by the time he was 14 years old.

Selling drugs gave him independence, a way to get the things he wanted without having to bother his grandparents, who were, by then, raising him and his two sisters. He hid the spoils of his work, new sneakers and clothes, at friends’ houses so his grandparents wouldn’t know what he was up to. His mother knew, though. She had become something of a queenpin herself, supplying cocaine to dealers in Decatur.

One day, she pulled him aside and schooled him on the game: “Don’t work for no nigga, don’t be a bitch,” Mike remembers. “Don’t let motherfuckers front you shit. Take your own. Don’t talk. Don’t tell.” By then, Mike’s father had already joined and left the Atlanta Police Department. His instructions to his son on how to survive were just as simple: “You see the police riding north, just walk south. If you know it’s their day, give them their day.”

He carried those lessons with him throughout his teen years, especially when he’d get his ass kicked by Red Dog (the brutal Atlanta police unit created to Run Every Drug Dealer Out of Georgia). He avoided major charges and got away with his life.

Mike picked up wisdom along the way. He watched how hustlers, Westside legends like Fat Steve, moved. They flipped their money by reinvesting in the community. They started businesses and bought up abandoned properties, sometimes whole blocks, just to keep the neighborhood secure from outside influence. They warned Mike and his friends to level up and stop dealing out of projects, which they jokingly referred to as “traps.”

“Some white, gentrifying developer didn’t teach us this was the thing to do,” Mike says. “This is what the fuck we saw all Black men do when we were kids.… The men that worked for the city too. They got paid, drove dump trucks, they owned multiple homes. They had rental properties. They knew how to do their own handyman work. This is what we do.”

By the time graduation approached, he was more interested in music and going to college. He got into Morehouse, Dr. King’s alma mater, on a scholarship and attended for two semesters, but it wasn’t for him. He liked rapping too much and, seeing a music scene on the rise in Atlanta, wanted to find his way into the industry. “I needed to prove that I could be a rapper,” he says.

So Mike did what he knew how to do and hustled. He linked up with some friends, bought recording equipment, and produced a mixtape. All of it finally paid off in 1995, when he met CeeLo of Atlanta’s Goodie Mob. Mike gave CeeLo his demo, and the two quickly became friends, connecting on music and the social issues explored on Goodie Mob’s first album, Soul Food. “He was young and a hungry MC,” CeeLo says. “He was highly intelligent, he was articulate, he was passionate, and he was consistent.” At Morehouse, Mike had met a couple of guys named Teeth Malloy and Nikki Broadway while rapping in a dorm room. The two would go on to form a production duo called the Beat Bullies, and they helped introduce Mike to Big Boi of OutKast shortly after.

“He was just an all-around good guy, man. And he was fun,” Big Boi says. “Came to the studio, was very observant, and was really into what we were doing.” Big went on to give Mike a record deal. Mike made his big-label debut on “Snappin’ & Trappin,’ ” off OutKast’s 2000 LP, Stankonia. A year later, he delivered an unforgettable feature on an OutKast single called “The Whole World.” The song won OutKast—and Killer Mike—a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.

Mike is amazed when he considers his unlikely ascent. “I’m the son of a fucking 16-year-old girl who they wanted to push out of school because she was pregnant and a ‘bad example’ to the other girls,” he says. “I ended up being taught by the same teachers that taught her at Frederick Douglass High School; attended Morehouse; left to become a rapper; ended up becoming a rapper; have all along been active as an organizer, a mobilizer; and learned how to be a businessman on the way.… Where the fuck does that happen at? That’s an Iceberg Slim book. That’s a goddamn BET movie. But that’s for real, you know, that’s for real. So I got to believe everything is possible. I’ve got to.”

His aspirations—whether they be in music, TV, politics—are all integrated into who he already is. There is no big plan. He sits on the board of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and drops in on classes at Morehouse not out of ambition but because, to him, it’s the right thing to do. His guiding passions in life are smoking good weed, “singing and dancing for a living,” and “fucking off in the Blue Flame,” his favorite strip club. Killer Mike contains multitudes, but if you had to boil him down, you’d get a concerned citizen who just happens to be a rapper.

Mike and I end our tour of the Westside at Bankhead Seafood, the restaurant he bought in 2018 with T.I. and local business mogul Noel Khalil. It’s a large brick structure on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. It’s been given a fresh coat of paint and branded with a new logo, but it’s still no-frills. It could be any fish spot in any Black neighborhood in America. I find myself inspired as Mike explains that the 50-year-old business almost closed its doors for good before he and T.I. decided to keep it going. They not only bought the restaurant but purchased the recipes from its original proprietor, Helen Brown Harden. That’s how you honor those who came before you, Mike says, and maintain the integrity of the business.

I don’t know if Mike’s success story could happen anywhere but Atlanta. It seems impossible to replicate, let alone scale up, for all the little Black boys coming up on the Westside today. That won’t stop Mike from trying, though, because—for all the theory he’s read and plans he’s heard—his way, the Atlanta Way, is the only way he’s seen actually work.

A few days after we met, an Atlanta police officer killed a 27-year-old Black man named Rayshard Brooks. According to video footage, Brooks was asleep in a Wendy’s drive-through when he was approached by police responding to a complaint. A struggle ensued, and Brooks attempted to run away with an officer’s Taser. It is unclear why the situation escalated so quickly after 41 minutes of peaceful interaction. What is indisputable, however, is that Brooks ended up dead, with two bullets in his back.

The officer who fired the shots was relieved of duty immediately, and he was later charged with felony murder and aggravated assault. The officer’s lawyers have stated that his actions were justified. Atlanta police chief Erika Shields resigned from her post within hours of the incident. The rapid response didn’t stop protesters from shutting down a nearby interstate, and the Wendy’s where Brooks was killed was burned to the ground.

I call Mike a few days after. I want to know what he thinks, what he makes of this happening in a city he went out on a limb to defend. I also want to know if, in light of the shooting, he would take back his warning to not “burn your own house down for anger with an enemy.” I want to know if he’s changed his mind.

When he picks up the phone, he’s cagey at first, uncharacteristically formal and short. After some loaded “How are you’s” and throat clearing, I finally find the words to ask Mike how he feels about all that’s happened.

“I don’t…I don’t know how I feel,” he responds, at a loss for words. “I don’t.” He’s afraid for his city, afraid that “national political agendas” and “evil policemen” are infecting the decisions being made and, ultimately, the course that’s being set for Atlanta. “I’m afraid that 50 years of Black mayorship may burn to the ground because of things that are out of my direct control,” Mike adds. “I’m afraid all that legacy may be lost because of political maneuvering and the inability for us to reform policing in a progressive way fast enough. That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Regardless, Mike is steadfast in his belief in the Atlanta Way. When I ask what can be done, he goes back to the basics: He talks about the need to hire police officers from within the communities they serve. He talks about swiftly holding cops accountable for their misconduct. He talks about casting votes for progressive leadership to achieve justice and long-term social change, and he says that he’ll use whatever influence he possesses to make that vision happen, to set an example for his city and the rest of the nation.

And what if that doesn’t work? I ask.

“If it doesn’t work,” says Killer Mike matter-of-factly, “then we’re doomed.”

Donovan X. Ramsey is an Atlanta-based journalist. His first book, ‘When Crack Was King: A People’s History of the Crack Epidemic,’ will be published by One World, an imprint of Random House, next fall.

A version of this story originally appears in the August 2020 issue with the title “The Atlanta Way”.

Photograph by Christian Cody
Barber: Megan Mincey
Grooming by Jasmine Harris
Styled by Marty Mc’Fresh