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I don’t have much patience for nostalgia. Too often it feels like willful distortion. But as we worked on this month’s crime package, I kept thinking back to the town where I grew up. The front door of our house locked only from the inside, so when no one was home, anyone could have walked in off the street and robbed us blind. No one ever did, though; I told myself that kind of thing didn’t happen in a small town. But of course it does. Crime happens everywhere.
In Atlanta, especially. You’ll see in our article the Homicide Report a rather disturbing list that puts us at number nine in a ranking of the country’s most dangerous big cities, based on the number of reported rapes, aggravated assaults, robberies, and murders. What the rankings don’t show are the historic drops in crime rates the city has seen in recent years, in almost every category. I’m no Pollyanna—there are parts of this city I would not want my car to break down in—but a list like this, taken in isolation, fails to capture a larger truth. Which is, it’s been generations since Atlanta, as a whole, has been this safe.
That’s what Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed keeps telling us. And yet his constituents don’t seem to be buying it. If we’re safer than we’ve been in years, then why do we not feel that way?
One explanation is social media. Twitter, Facebook, e-blasts, neighborhood message boards—all of these are effective ways to find out everything that’s going on. The problem is that, well, we end up knowing everything that’s going on. Facts are great, but they don’t necessarily lead to a larger truth. (See again that list of the most dangerous cities.) What good does it do me, for instance, to know when a neighbor three blocks away has his toolshed broken into? Or to know when someone down the street has a laptop stolen from her car? The six-word slogan “If you see something, say something” has become ubiquitous since 9/11, but to what degree does it blur the line between vigilance and paranoia?
Another explanation for the disconnect between perception and reality is crime itself—specifically, those much-publicized crimes where we look at the victim and see ourselves, but for the grace of God: the home invasion victim, the shooting victim, the murder victim. The more heinous crimes may be the statistical anomalies, but that’s small comfort when you pass a vigil or see a billboard offering a reward for a killer or, worse, you know such a victim.
There’s one more explanation, and that is this: Perception is reality. At least it is for one demographic in the city of Atlanta. For the infographics, we looked at all eighty-four homicides in Atlanta in 2013. Seventy-one of the victims were African American. Of those, sixty-two were male. Average age? Thirty. It’s clear to see some of us are not very safe at all.
This article originally appeared in our May 2014 issue.