The past year of Keisha Lance Bottoms’ life has been, to borrow one of the Atlanta mayor’s favorite euphemisms, interesting. When she’s got nothing nice to say about a situation, Bottoms, diplomatic Southerner that she is, reaches for this damningly anodyne descriptor. It’s all in the delivery. Consider, for example, the fact that in the middle of a pandemic killing black Georgians by the thousands, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp had the nerve to sue to block a mask mandate from going into effect in the city of Atlanta — and only the city of Atlanta. “He sued me, personally, which was interesting,” Bottoms says. “And what was really interesting about that is the fact Van Johnson, the mayor of Savannah, had gone out first with the mask mandate.”
Over the past 12 months, Bottoms has not only had to shepherd her city through a deadly virus while battling a governor determined to undermine the public-health measures she put in place, she also had to negotiate a fragile peace between protesters and police when demonstrations over the death of George Floyd turned destructive in late May. Bottoms issued an emotional plea to the community, only to see the detente shattered barely two weeks later when an Atlanta police officer shot Rayshard Brooks, an unarmed black man, in a Wendy’s parking lot. Through it all, she’s been raising four children, dealt with a Covid-19 outbreak in her own home, and been vetted to be Joe Biden’s vice president, while conducting the other business that comes with running the biggest city in Georgia.
Bottoms acquired the kind of resilience needed to reckon with the highs and lows of a year like 2020 early in life. She was born in Atlanta in 1970, the daughter of the R&B singer Major Lance, an American Bandstand performer and opener for the Beatles who helped give Elton John his start when he opened for Lance on a European tour. She remembers watching women jump up onstage to rip her father’s clothes off at the Torch, a club in England, and tagging along with him to daytime meetings at the Blue Flame, a legendary Atlanta strip club. “It seemed quite, quite ordinary,” Bottoms says of her childhood. “It would be nothing to come home from school and there would be bags packed at the front door and we’d be off to wherever he was going off to — if he was going to Europe for two weeks, then we’d be in Europe for two weeks.”
Despite his fame, Lance struggled to make money off of his music, and eventually it just wasn’t enough for the family to survive on. When that happened, Bottoms’ mother took two jobs and went to cosmetology school at night to help keep the family afloat, while her father turned to selling cocaine. When she was eight years old, she came home to a police raid from which her dad was led away in handcuffs. For Bottoms, the arrest was devastating and it sharpened a sense of how unjust the criminal justice system could be. “I would visit him every weekend in prisons across the state, and there were men who looked like him and little girls who looked like me going to visit their dad. And that always struck me as something that just seemed so unfair.”
When she eventually set her sights on law school, and entertainment law specifically, it was with the idea of avenging the injustices visited on her father — or at least making sure that other artists didn’t suffer a similar fate. “My dad and I would talk about that,” she says. “I would go back and I would get all of the money from the record company that he never made.” Instead, she ended up working first in juvenile court, representing children, then as a magistrate judge, before she got the idea of running for superior judge. Bottoms lost that race but mounted and won a bid for the Atlanta City Council. In 2017, she emerged from a crowded field of candidates to become mayor.
In her first year, Bottoms was left to contend with a federal corruption investigation left over by her predecessor, a high-stakes fight for the city to retain control of Atlanta’s airport, and a massive cyberattack that virtually shut down the city government for nearly a week. She managed it all while shoring up progressive bona fides — issuing an executive order refusing to house ICE detainees at the city jail and later appointing the city’s first director of LGBTQ Affairs.
Even as that first year felt like a baptism by fire, it couldn’t have prepared her for 2020. Bottoms recalls the surreal moment in early March when she realized things were about to change very quickly. She was on the plane coming home from spring break with her family, and she ran into Kandi Burruss — Real Housewife of Atlanta, ex-member of the R&B outfit Xscape, and Masked Singer champion. Burruss and her family were all outfitted in masks, the only people on the plane wearing them. It seemed like a novelty at the time, but only a few days later Bottoms was hosting a briefing on the virus with one of the top infectious-disease experts in the country offering a sober assessment of the situation facing Atlanta. “I just remember looking around the room, and I wish I had a more descriptive word, but the room looked shook,” Bottoms says. “He essentially said to us, ‘If you don’t close the city down within the next 48 to 72 hours, it will be too late.’ ”
Georgia’s first death from the coronavirus came a few days later, and the state — in part because of a superspreader event that overwhelmed a rural hospital — soon had one of the highest death rates per capita in the nation. Kemp moved quickly to close schools, bars and nightclubs, and ban gatherings of more than 10 people. “In the early days, we were working closely with the governor’s office,” Bottoms says. “But at some point, we started moving faster than the governor’s office.” In April, as the public health emergency was being politicized nationally, Kemp changed tactics and declared businesses in the state could reopen. “It would be disingenuous to say it didn’t hamper our relationship,” Bottoms says, “but we never let it stop us from working together.”
In July, as that power struggle with the governor was on-going, Bottoms’ family was touched personally by the virus. She knew something was wrong when her husband was abnormally fatigued. “He couldn’t complete a sentence without drifting off to sleep,” she says. A testing backlog in the city meant it took almost a week to confirm they’d contracted the virus. Her teenage son was asymptomatic, she herself only had mild symptoms (“a little coughing here and there”), but months later, her husband is still feeling the lingering effects. “He lost 20 pounds in probably four days. He still has the fatigue and the headaches, and his sense of smell didn’t leave when he had Covid, but it now comes and goes. You know, the long-hauler stuff.”
Bottoms got the news shortly after attending a funeral for Rayshard Brooks, the 27-year-old man confronted by police after he fell asleep behind the wheel of his car at Wendy’s drive-thru, and just a few weeks after the George Floyd protests had rocked the city, leaving a string of buildings vandalized and at least one cop car burned. At a press conference, flanked by rapper and progressive activist Killer Mike, Bottoms begged the protestors to go home. “It’s enough,” she declared. “We are all angry. This hurts. This hurts everybody in this room. But what are you changing by tearing up a city?” And, in a moment that slingshotted her into the national spotlight, Bottoms went on to speak emotionally about the conversation she’d had with the eldest of her four sons.
Earlier that day, Bottoms called 18-year-old Lance. She knew he wanted to be out protesting, but she demanded he come home. “There’s the mother side, but then there’s the mayor side,” she says, reflecting on the moment months later. “Because I know that our officers, they’re working longer hours, they’re fatigued, their patience is short. Even the best officer, you’ve got to remember, they’re still human. When they’re fatigued and their patience is short and they’ve been working 12, 14, 20 hour shifts, things begin to happen — and at that point, I just wanted my son home.”
Bottoms’ decision a few weeks later to fire the officer who shot Rayshard Brooks was followed by an announcement that the District Attorney would prosecute him for murder, which was answered in turn by a strike of the Atlanta police department. If all of that weren’t enough, Bottoms is now grappling with a sharp rise in violent crime. With 157 homicides, 2020 was the deadliest year in decades. Figuring out how to turn things around will be the biggest challenge of 2021 — the last year of Bottoms’ first term. She’s pledged to run for re-election, a commitment reinforced by her recent decision to turn down a position as the head of the Small Business Administration for Biden.
SBA administrator is a slightly lower-profile job than the other one Bottoms was in consideration for — the job that ultimately went to Kamala Harris. “The vet was quite interesting,” Bottoms says, before admitting, more bluntly: “It was quite uncomfortable. You are asked about everything — I even got asked questions about high school . . . the address that I used in high school: Whose address was it?” She was determined to see the process through, convinced that if she was on the ticket, she could put Biden over the top. “I kept telling him, ‘If you put me on the ticket, I am sure we will win Georgia,’ ” she says, laughing. “So, obviously, he didn’t need me on the ticket to win Georgia.” Still, she says, when the results came in, “I had a nice smile on my face because I thought, ‘I told you we could win this state!’ ”