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New worlds are waiting for you in Atlanta—and Clarissa Brooks is building her own

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As told to WeTransfer

Reading time7 minDateFeb 16, 2022Published byClarissa Brooks
Photography by Nate Ryan

The writer, abolitionist, and community organizer reflects on Atlanta’s ravenous penchant for personal growth, the Black youth who hold heavy ambition for the future, and the community of dedicated writers that surround and elevate her work.

You may hear people referring to Atlanta as a Black Mecca. Inspiring, yes, but I do think there’s a specific type of experience that’s often referenced. There’s much more hidden throughout the city—a broader underbelly of Atlanta that showcases a wider, more diverse range of Black experiences. Today (and every day), acknowledging those experiences rules much of my work as a journalist.

I am someone whose story has never been told by legacy organizations, those behemoths who have the power to shape and drive culture. I’d like to do better focusing on telling the stories that no one else might think are important. But still, they remain.

There’s a quote that’s written on the board directly in front of me. “To make people feel.” That’s a running sentiment in my own work—I want people to feel the weight of the story that’s being told. To understand the weight of what’s being unsaid. To see what’s been ignored for the comfort of others, and to realize how it impacts our ability to live and survive.

My story with the city of Atlanta starts in 2014. I’m originally from Charlotte, North Carolina, but I later moved to the city to attend Spelman College. While there, I started working as an organizer and I’ve been doing that ever since. When I say organizer, I’m referring to someone who leads and establishes key movements in the city and across the country. We’ve been doing the work for a long time with a consortium of HBCUs, activists, and other organizers that live and work in Atlanta. Shutting down highways and getting on local politician's nerves since 2015. That’s the play.

I want people to feel the weight of the story that’s being told. To understand the weight of what’s being unsaid. To see what’s been ignored for the comfort of others, and to realize how it impacts our ability to live and survive.

Photography by Nate Ryan

I was a part of the AUC in Atlanta (Atlanta University Center Consortium). And even now as a writer, I often still report on college activities. The world should know that there’s a fire in students in the AUC—to be honest, there’s a fire in Black college students generally. I was talking to a few students recently, and I was like, “Are y’all going to take action, or do something?”

And they, very clearly, were like, “Yes. If we don’t get some sort of response to our demands, we’re going to continue to do what we need to do.” And that feels like a very different tone than how it felt when I was in school. And I’m proud of that evolution, and that ambition.

There are five HBCUs in the AUC, and their legacies are very important to me and others here in the city. As we reference—and celebrate—how Atlanta is this Black Mecca, it’s necessary to note that the history of Atlanta’s HBCUs are wrapped in Black political history. And often, in an idea of respectability that can often rule each university. You might need to act / talk / be a certain way to have a place there, even as a Black student.

I certainly didn’t fit that mold when I arrived at Spelman. I think I would have self-described as the poor Black kid that just happened to get in. I was shell-shocked at the cultural differences, even within Black folks—like, I didn’t grow up the same way that other folks did, and I often carried a lot of insecurities about it. Now older, I feel proud of myself for being as gracious with myself as I navigated those challenges while in school. It’s not like I wasn’t coming into a personhood that wasn’t already there, right? By the time I left Spelman, I had met many alumni who were also queer and who were differently-abled. The stories existed.

A huge tenet of my organizing group in college was writing. Even in the midst of writing student demands to our administration, we were also reading each other’s op-eds. That’s the type of community that feels really hard to find, especially because writing (as a practice) is a very singular endeavor. But we had that. You could send me your draft, and we could get on the phone together, and I did my best to support you throughout both the brilliance and the messiness of your work. That community was rare, and it felt as if it was built on the best possible foundation in Atlanta.

Most days, I’m proud that I kept writing at all. Imposter syndrome, et al. Sometimes I don’t feel as if I’m great at anything, and then some days I’ll be like, “Actually? I’m the baddest bitch that ever existed.” It can be very isolating to exist between those two binaries.

Creativity has never been about spontaneity for me; it’s about discipline. And from my perspective, it’s a discipline that’s born from immensely caring about the craft. As a journalist, it seems as if my most creative work comes in the moments when I’m hesitant to write. It’s born from a place of burden and responsibility. I have to make sure it’s done to the best of my ability.

This is a great place for folks to figure themselves out. The city requires you to figure out your shit.

Photography by Nate Ryan

When I’m feeling low, I tend to think about how Black women writers have often gone through similar experiences as myself. Toni Morrison—the queen of all queens—often talks about how she dedicates immense time and energy towards her work, and that can never be taken from her. So that’s my plan. You can ask me any question about my story, and I can respond with the answer because I’ve put so much time into researching it. Blood, sweat, and tears drive this work.

I care very deeply about the South in general, but Atlanta is home to a few convergences that are important to me—things like understanding the specificities of class, or Blackness. And the city has also been the only place that I could be openly queer, in a specific way that feels safest (and best) to me. Even going home to Charlotte doesn’t feel the same as it does in Atlanta, where I can go anywhere with my partner and feel fine.

This is a great place for folks to figure themselves out. The city requires you to figure out your shit, and—more specifically—to make whatever you love into something that can become your expertise. I really care about writing, and while at Spelman I was able to get on my shit and say, “Sure, I can get these bylines, no question.” Getting a byline in Teen Vogue in college is a really wild experience, but it just wouldn’t have been possible without the people that surrounded me.

The best thing about Atlanta is the care that’s come from the Black folks that live near you. I know all of my neighbors, and they know me. We even have each other’s numbers—during the uprising in Atlanta, I would call to check on my neighbors and see how they were doing. It was a tough few months, but it really shocked me how easy it was to coalesce as a community.

Atlanta isn’t as big as New York or LA. I know that—I'm not going to get lost in the sauce here in my city. But maybe, I can make connections with folks that I wouldn’t be able to do in a bigger town. Atlanta is the place to nurture those small dreams into futures that you build with your friends.

And sometimes, it’s an idea that can’t exist anywhere else. When you live in a city that seems uninterested in the mainstream, you have a lot of space to build other worlds.

Atlanta is waiting.

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