Thomas Mullen’s biography opens with the confession that while his neighbors near downtown Atlanta “suspect not a thing, he commits murders, spins wildly convoluted conspiracy theories, travels through time, [and] reinvents the past.”
The part of the past he has most recently reinvented is not far from his front door. His new novel “Darktown” centers on the story of the Atlanta Police Department’s first black police officers, hired on in April of 1948. But Mullen is quick to point out that his story is not about the integration of the APD because in fact, rather than real integration there was – as one character puts it – “a better kind of segregation.”
“This isn’t like a police version of Jackie Robinson integrating the Dodgers,” Mullen told "City Lights" host Lois Reitzes.
In the Jim Crow era, black Atlanta Police officers were only allowed to patrol black neighborhoods and they were not permitted squad cars. Their beats had to be walked on foot.
“They couldn’t even set foot in the headquarters,” Mullen says, “because according to a Newsweek article that came out a year before, as many as one quarter of Atlanta cops were members of the Ku Klux Klan.”
The APD’s African-American officers had their own precinct set up in the basement of the Butler Street YMCA in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood.
The novel’s main characters are a pair of officers partnered together, war vet and Morehouse graduate Lucius Boggs, and the street-smart Tommy Smith. Both men are faced with bringing law enforcement to a deeply mistrustful community.
Asked whether he intended to explore the parallels between the racial strife in the novel and police brutality in contemporary America, Mullen responds “yes and no.”
Mullen began writing the book in 2012, finishing the first draft in summer of 2014.
“So this book was not a deliberate response to the recent spate of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement,” he says, though he acknowledges that race is an issue that is always present in our lives.
“In 2012, we still had Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, we still had a lot of racially coded criticism of President Obama,” he says. “And I think one of the fun things about historical fiction is that it puts a mirror on our own times. It allows us to find some of the historical roots in issues that are still playing out today.”
Thomas Mullen launches “Darktown” Tuesday September 13 at the Margaret Mitchell House at 7 p.m.