‘Coronaman’ Is the Horror Spoof PSA Georgia Needs

The distance between Atlanta City Hall and the Georgia governor’s office is only a block, but the two levels of government couldn’t sit farther apart when it comes to the issue of whether to reopen businesses in the novel coronavirus pandemic. When Governor Brian Kemp decided, reportedly unilaterally, that he would be ordering most businesses to reopen in May, it caught Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms by surprise. She has been imploring her residents ever since to ignore the governor and comply with the shelter-at-home guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, headquartered right there in Atlanta.

“I may not have the legal authority to override the state,” said Lance Bottoms in an column in The Atlantic. “I do have the right to use my voice to encourage people to exercise common sense, listen to the science … and stay home, if at all possible.”

Her crusade to keep Atlanta residents alive has inspired at least one Atlanta filmmaker to rise to her defense. Bobby Huntley II’s short trailer “Coronaman”— a parody of the classic 1992 horror film “Candyman”— recently went viral on social media by using horrific and comedic images and messages to stress how deadly the virus can be, especially for African Americans. The two-and-a-half minute video, which functions more as a PSA, spoofs the trailer for the upcoming “Candyman” remake, produced by Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Us”), but recasts the titular villain as the novel coronavirus threat.

The “Coronaman” video plays out almost note for note like the “Candyman” remake trailer, though the storyline is almost the inverse of its source material: The original Candyman was a black man who was lynched during the slavery era whose specter stalks and haunts mostly white people who dare to traverse inner-city Chicago of the early 1990s — namely by venturing into the now-defunct Cabrini-Green public housing projects. In Huntley’s film short, Coronaman is more of a wraith that stalks and haunts black people who dare to test the shelter-at-home protocols by venturing out into Atlanta’s gyms and barbershops.

In one scene, the nameless main character, played by Diezie Sahn, tries to convince his partner (also nameless), played by Danielle Maner, that she could get her nails done at a salon, to which she responds, “Keisha said no” — echoing the hashtag slogan  #MayorKeishaSaidNo accompanying the clip on social media, referring to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Lance Bottoms recently shouted out Huntley and his flick on comedian Rickey Smiley’s radio show, and Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions shared the video on Twitter. It’s a not-bad opening act to pave the way for Huntley’s first feature-length film, also set in Atlanta, called “La Vie Magnifique De Charlie,” scheduled to be released later this year. The “Charlie Movie” is a “celebration of black girl magic,” said Huntley, that also touches on issues such as depression, sickle cell disease, and other health problems afflicting black communities.

CityLab spoke with Huntley about his film and its impact as Georgia concluded its first week of reopening during the pandemic.  

What were your goals in terms of grabbing the attention of Mayor Lance Bottoms, or at least steering more attention toward her coronavirus plight?

I was trying to be as middle-of-the-road as I could with my messaging, but I also had to be very specific and targeted with my words, in terms of what I felt and what our culture was feeling about this moment. I understood given her position that she can’t be just about a specific type of group. She has to be about the whole entire city. So I was trying to be careful to not do anything that would portray her platform in a negative way. I was trying to be as political as possible while being true and authentic to the seriousness of what’s going on, especially to African Americans.

That she not only received it, but, in her words, loved it and thought it was funny, and that it got the message out there — out of everything and all of the celebrities talking about it and sharing it on their platforms, that’s what I’m most proud of.

One critical take could be that while your video is aimed at African Americans, they’re not the ones clamoring to break the stay at home order, who are protesting at the capitol or otherwise outside acting trifling.

Well, it wasn’t really about being trifling. It’s about — well, it was a few things. The first thing is I understand that black people often handle trauma and terrible things with humor. So I knew coming in through entertainment and humor and artistic expression, to share my message would probably be the best way to do it. All day we’re bombarded with bad news about the leadership of this country, and at some point any person would just check out, black out, and not want to receive it — just shut down from everything and start to backslide into doing the things that are probably not best for themselves or for the people around them.

I just wanted to offer a gentle reminder, where you could smile, you could laugh, and think, ‘Oh, this is funny, this is interesting, this is cool, but there’s a real message in there.’

How long did it take you to pull this together?

I wanted to do it originally over a month ago, but I realized it just was not the right time. It was still new and terrifying to people that the death rates were rising by the minute. To try to make light of it, it probably wouldn’t have reflected well for me. I couldn’t think of any other scripts or anything else to do, but then finally some weeks went by and then the word came out that the governor of Georgia was opening up the state. With Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms trying to remind the citizens that it’s not quite safe yet, and to please stay home, I just saw her as a black woman trying to save us [who has been] encountering complete disrespect. I felt that as an artist and as a black man, I couldn’t just sit here and not do anything. So I brushed off my initial idea I had and I centered it around her calls to stay home, which is common sense.

I called my actors, who were on standby initially from the first go-round, and they were ready to go. I sent them scripts and said, OK, we’re shooting tomorrow. And that’s what we did. We decided last Thursday (April 23) and we put it out Sunday (April 26) and now here we are.

How were you able to shoot this and adhere to social distancing, especially with the CDC’s watchful eye right there in Atlanta?

We definitely took as many of the safety precautions as we could on set. We had masks, gloves, hand sanitizers and all those things. And we practiced social distancing as much as we could. We actually shot in shifts. We would have actors coming in and out of the set so it was not too many people in a space. If you noticed it’s only the outside scenes where you would see multiple people. But inside there were only one or two people. There were some moments where I really wanted to push for physicality. I wanted them to hug or have an intimate moment, but I knew we couldn’t do that just yet. And so I just had to find a way to express that through the distance between my two lead actors. And they did a phenomenal job with it.

I have to ask: Can you decode the string of letters the nurse spouted in the scene where the lead character is trying to break their line of defense (pictured below)

I’m gonna try to keep it clean. It was something along the lines of, “I Don’t Give A F What Kemp — that’s Governor Kemp — Said You Better Stay Your Black Ass In The MF-ing House.” That’s based off of memes that have been going around that I thought were brilliant. It’s just a funny cultural thing. A lot of people got it and enjoyed that. It was just a little nugget that I put in there, and I’m happy that people picked up on it.

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Why Georgia’s Service Economy Is Reopening Now

During the last week in March, Georgia processed more claims for unemployment insurance than the state did in all of 2019. In the span of seven days, workers made 390,000 new jobless claims, and the Georgia Department of Labor says the state issued nearly $42 million in unemployment benefits.

Then the full force of coronavirus closures struck state coffers. Over the course of about three weeks in April, Georgia has paid out some $600 million in unemployment claims, according to the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. The state has processed more than 1 million jobless claims, blowing past records set during the Great Recession. It’s unclear how much money is still left in the state’s unemployment trust fund, which started the year at $2.6 billion — but without intervention, it may last only a matter of weeks.

A course correction may be coming. On April 20, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp announced that he would lift the state’s stay-at-home order for certain conspicuously non-essential businesses, including health clubs, hair salons, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys. Those businesses could re-open this Friday. Restaurants, meanwhile, can resume dine-in service as of Monday. The establishments that the governor just whistled open account for a huge share of those new jobless claims. Workers in restaurants and retail alone make up about a third of the state’s workforce.

Critics have hammered Kemp’s decision to reopen the economy as “reckless” and “insane.” This weekend, business owners across the state are allowed to ask their employees to clock back in, even though Georgia has not yet met the so-called gating criteria outlined by the federal government for ending social-distancing protocols. It’s not just a question of red tape: Testing has revealed more than 21,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Georgia, a number that continues to climb. More than 1,000 new cases were identified since April 21. The state’s coronavirus case count is the 10th worse nationwide; its death toll stood at 872 on April 23.

In Albany — a small town in the poorer and predominantly black stretch of rural Southwest Georgia that has lost 110 residents to the pandemic — local leaders spoke with dismay about Kemp’s decision to reopen jobs. Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said that people should continue to shelter in place and practice social distancing. “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do something,” Cohilas said.

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough agreed. “We are not ready for this,” he told NBC News this week. He said that Kemp’s decision to prevent local leaders from issuing more restrictive orders where necessary was misguided and irresponsible. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, the state’s biggest city, has also shared her concerns about the reopening order.

Public misgivings about Georgia’s scheme even reached the White House. In a surreal spectacle on Wednesday, President Donald Trump casually threw Kemp under the bus for acting with the haste demanded by the president. Nevertheless, two other GOP-led states, South Carolina and Tennessee, plan to follow suit.

Some Democratic lawmakers in Georgia worry that the governor’s real priority in reopening its service economy is flattening the curve of public benefits. “The first thing that came to my mind when Governor Kemp relaxed the shelter-in-place order was: What happens to people who are currently on unemployment?” says Georgia House Representative Dar’shun Kendrick, who represents the state’s 93rd district. “What happens if they fear for their safety and don’t want to go back to work?”

Opening gyms and barbershops might not be a solution that saves Georgia’s economy — not when the state’s schools remain closed for the rest of the academic year and office buildings must stay shut. But the move could serve the state’s bottom line. Employees will be removed from state unemployment rolls when they return to work, of course. Workers who are worried about coronavirus exposure might also lose their benefits if they don’t go back to their jobs.

On Wednesday, Kendrick issued a letter to George Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler to find out exactly how the state aimed to navigate unemployment benefits going forward. The letter asks whether workers who worry for their safety — or the safety of the people around them — will lose their benefits if they refuse to go back to work. Kendrick says she hasn’t received a response.

“It’s our jobs as elected officials to make sure that the health and safety of Georgians is not being jeopardized unnecessarily in exchange for Georgians to be able to survive financially during these troubled times,” reads the letter, signed by Kendrick and 20 other Democratic state house representatives.

It’s an open question as to how Georgia officials will choose to interpret the governor’s missive, according to Alex Camardelle, senior policy analyst for the nonprofit Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Under normal circumstances, an employee who’s been released or furloughed can’t keep drawing down unemployment benefits if they get offered their job back but don’t take it. But plenty of reports find that this is the signal coming from out-of-work barbers, beauticians, servers, and others.

“If the state narrowly defines suitable work and doesn’t include the implications of the virus and what that means for a workplace, then that might put those workers who are drawing unemployment insurance in a precarious position, where they would have to either lose their unemployment insurance or go back to work in an unsafe environment,” Camardelle says.

Under normal circumstances, exemptions apply, and they might in this case, too. But neither the governor’s office nor the state’s department of labor has issued any clarification about what the order means for shops that feel uncertain. A spokesperson for the  Georgia Department of Labor told Atlanta’s NPR affiliate that fears over Covid-19 may not be a reason to qualify for unemployment. Workers should file a new claim if they get fired for not returning to their old jobs, assuming they reopen. (CityLab’s requests for comment were not answered.)

Sorting out this coronavirus conundrum on a case-by-case basis isn’t a reasonable way to proceed, Kendrick says, especially when the states have been mobbed by so many claims.

Low-income job losses are clustered around metro areas in Georgia. (Urban Institute)

The test of the state’s safety net has already arrived. In Atlanta, where many restaurants have been closed for dine-in service since before Kemp issued such an order on April 1, plenty of restaurants have already decided against reopening any time soon. Many in the restaurant scene are waiting for more guidance. They and others in the service industry, including nail salons and tattoo parlors, must weigh the risks of exposure against what is likely to be a tepid response from customers. Few restaurants have signaled any appetite to open their doors next week.

In Georgia, workers in the food, retail, and hospitality sectors make up a huge chunk of the record-smashing new jobless claims. New research from the Urban Institute shows that job losses in the hospitality and food services sectors lead in almost every part of the state, with low-wage job losses concentrated in the metros of Atlanta, Brunswick, Savannah and Statesboro.

These workers are more likely to be black or people of color. In Georgia, 19% of African-American workers were employed in the service industry in 2018, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A maneuver to sidestep benefits would fall disproportionately on black workers who lack reliable access to health care, another factor in their decision about going back to work.

What happens if the piggy bank goes belly up? It’s happened before: During the Great Recession, the federal government picked up Georgia’s tab for unemployment benefits after the state trust fund dried up. Georgia had to repay that loan, Carmadelle says, and it did so by cutting future benefit periods from 26 to 14 weeks for a time. “When we’re on the hook, Georgia has a tradition of putting that burden on workers, rather than raising the revenue,” he says.

It’s not a matter of if but when for the trust fund — and not just for Georgia, but for every other state, too. So far, Republicans in Congress have been unwilling to approve spending for state and local governments sought by Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says that these funds will be a significant part of the next spending package sought by Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says that it would be better for state and local governments to go bankrupt.

Leaders in Georgia may be on the same page as McConnell. Before the pandemic arrived, Kemp sought to cut back state spending by $300 million. Camardelle says that the state’s position on the safety net is informed by deeply entrenched cultural myths about dependency. Tropes rooted in racism and sexism drive public policy debates in Georgia. With its avenues for raising revenues limited — Georgia was the first state in the nation to cap its income tax rate — the state will have to either rethink its financial philosophy or resort to even more draconian austerity measures.

Cutting off unemployment benefits for low-wage workers who don’t want to put their bodies and loved ones at risk would be an example of the latter. For Georgians, it’s not a question of not wanting to get back to work. Kendrick — a small business owner and attorney who advises other small business owners — says that people are anxious to end their lockdowns and return to the job. But she doesn’t know anyone, or any business, that is eager to open their doors at the height of the pandemic.

There’s no poll in Georgia to show where residents stand on the issue. But national surveys reveal overwhelming support for maintaining sheltering practices as the virus rages. Four polls from HuffPost/YouGov over the last month put the share of Americans staying home at 86% to 89%, with the share that supports state orders to shelter in place at 77% to 81%.

Before workers in Georgia make any decision about going back  to work, they need more information up front, Kendrick says. They need to know whether opening up is safe and whether their customers will be there. And they need to know whether the state has their back if they choose to be cautious.

“The whole reason for getting rules up front is so you know how to play by the rules,” Kendrick says.

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The Quest for a New Black City in Georgia

Updated: 2018-02-28

DEKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA—Roughly 25 people are holding court in the Greenhaven headquarters, all of them bound together by an unclarity about the name of the place where they live. Standing before them is Kathryn Rice, an urban planner who heads the Concerned Citizens for Cityhood of South DeKalb Inc. (CCCSD).

“Where is South DeKalb? What are its boundaries,” she asked them, but none could give an answer.

“I bet you can name the tallest building in South DeKalb, though, right?” she asked. Just about everyone blurted out “The jail!”

Indeed, the DeKalb County jail is the largest building in the area known intimately as “South DeKalb,” which is not a city or any kind of official jurisdiction. North DeKalb is where all the major businesses, office parks, hotels, restaurants, and skyscrapers are. Almost all of the major economic development over the last few decades has happened in North DeKalb, while South DeKalb, which is majority African American, struggles with just having its basic needs met, like landscaping and litter-pickup. Rice is leading a team of businesspeople and civic leaders to change the South DeKalb dynamic by turning the region into its own, self-contained city.

The city, named Greenhaven, would be the second-largest city in Georgia after Atlanta, if formed. It would be 87 percent African American—a larger percentage of black residents than even the city of Atlanta has. And while the notion of solving local problems by creating a freestanding city may sound extreme, it’s the new normal in the Atlanta metro area. At least ten other cities have formed anew since 2005 in the region, in a cityhood movement that is rendering this part of Georgia a new American frontier. But Greenhaven has had no such luck. Right now its supporters have had little success in even getting their city proposal approved for voters to decide on via a ballot initiative.

Greenhaven might be the greatest test yet for the cityhood movement. Its proposed population of 300,000 would make it many times larger than other recently-approved cities, in the 50,000 to 70,000-person range. Some state lawmakers have cited its large size as their reason for opposition. Others have said the city wouldn’t be economically viable. But to Rice, the exploding cityhood movement around her has already left many black people behind, and she can’t understand why the people of South DeKalb haven’t been granted the same fortunes as people in other parts of the region.

DeKalb County Jail (Brentin Mock)

Wednesday, February 28, is a key deadline for Greenhaven. It is the last day to move any bill out of the state House of Representatives before the legislative session ends. If no legislator carries a bill for Greenhaven by that date, then Rice’s team will have to wait until the legislature convenes again, next year, simply for the right to call a vote.

Of the other cities that have been approved in DeKalb County in recent years, all of them were granted the right to vote on cityhood within two years of submitting their proposal. This is Rice’s fourth at-bat in trying to make Greenhaven happen. CityLab reached out to several state legislators representing DeKalb, who haven’t yet responded to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, in North DeKalb, yet another majority-white neighborhood, Vista Grove, is poised to become a city, and they have a bill currently pending that has a good chance of passing. But most of the DeKalb delegation are against Greenhaven.  

When the cities to the north municipalized, they took major chunks of revenue away from the county. Meanwhile, the county still covers those cities with the services it provides, and those cities get to keep its tax dollars within their borders. This means that while the unincorporated parts of DeKalb County share their resources with the cities, the cities do not have to share all of their resources with the rest of the county. Wrote Sam Rosen for The Atlantic on Atlanta’s cityhood movement last year:

For those left behind in unincorporated parts of these counties, however, the cityhood movement has been disastrous. Data on the overall economic impact of the movement doesn’t yet exist, but the withdrawals of wealthy enclaves have left county governments with a recurring and unpleasant choice: raise taxes or provide less.  

These losses have exacerbated racial inequality in an area that was found, in a landmark 2013 study, to be one of the nation’s worst for economic upward mobility. All of these new cities, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in 2015, “have become mostly white islands of safety and affluence. What’s remaining is heavily black [and] less well-off.”

Given that many of the people in South DeKalb work and shop in North DeKalb where the business clusters are, the south is, in some ways, subsidizing the lifestyles of people living in the north.

Economic development would be the Greenhaven priority if Rice can successfully get the proposal on the ballot this year. Part of Rice’s presentation at the Greenhaven headquarters that Thursday night included an appeal from Ron Bivins, a local businessman who once opposed municipalization. He came around, however, after he found he couldn’t get the county to bite on any of his economic plans for South DeKalb. Those plans included pitching Amazon to set up its new headquarters there and also possibly a new Major League Baseball team and stadium, since the Atlanta Braves took its facilities out of Atlanta to a northern suburb in Cobb County.

Listening from the audience, Evan Anderson, a young black man who lives not far from the Greenhaven office, said that those economic prospects sounded great, but he had concerns about how they’d change his neighborhood and cause displacement.

“It just sounds like to me that if you bring all these baseball stadiums and stuff that this place would lose its identity,” said Anderson.

Rice showed them a copy of a glossy promotional pamphlet titled “This is DeKalb,”which the county’s chamber of commerce uses to profile the premeire destinations around DeKalb. It did not include anything found in the areas where the people at this meeting lived. The two major properties that did exist in South DeKalb—the Centers for Disease Control and Emory University— were just annexed by the city of Atlanta. Closing the book, she calmly tells the group, “To DeKalb County, we don’t have an identity.”

Formal opponents of the proposal include Ed Williams, the chair of a group called Citizens Against Cityhood in DeKalb. Williams said in an interview that he does not believe south Dekalb would suddenly attract new companies just because it turns into a city, and he says the reason is because of a theory called “Black belt economics.”

According to this theory, “If the population of a neighborhood or community goes over 40 percent African-American, then significant investments tend not to be made in that community,” said Williams. “You won’t get a Radisson or a Hilton hotel or any of the top-line food stores, and that’s just a fact.”

Another opposing group is Neighbors Against Greenhaven, or NAG, which believes that if South DeKalb becomes a city, property values will decrease—a common belief for areas that have been designated as a “black neighborhood” or “black city.”

For Rice, all of that is getting ahead of the game. Right now, proponents are just looking for the ballot, so that the residents of South DeKalb can determine for themselves what they want.
Georgia’s only requirements for new cities are that the people proposing a new city have established a non-profit or company, conducted a feasibility study, drafted a city charter, and secured a state legislator willing to introduce a bill on the city’s behalf.  

So far, the Greenhaven team has amassed nearly 600 signatures for a petition asking the state to let them have this ballot vote. The sampling size for a population of 300,000 is roughly 400, a threshold that the Greenhaven team clears easily, but so does the opposition. Williams has a survey of South DeKalb residents with 500 people saying they oppose becoming a city. For Rice, this is all more the reason why the county deserves to vote on this.

Said Rice, “If the people decide they don’t want this, then fine, but for now we just want the ability to discuss, debate, and decide. That’s all.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that, according to their web campaign, NAG fears their property values, not property taxes, could decrease if Greenhaven becomes a city. It has also been updated to clarify the nature of Ed Williams’ objections to Greenhaven.

This is the first in a series of CityLab pieces about Greenhaven’s cityhood movement. Stay tuned for more coverage after the legislature’s deadline.

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