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Black Detroiters Moving to Atlanta for New Opportunities

Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his 'dream' for African Americans in Detroit. Today, he'd probably be preaching from his hometown—where many Detroiters have fled.

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Smiling Faces

But networking and making friends was difficult.

"The reason I love Detroit is it's a city where we wear our heart on our sleeve," she says. "We don't have time for the B.S." But in Atlanta, "There are a lot of users. Folks will tell you what you want to hear, as long you're helping them. But when it comes to a reciprocal relationship, you have to be really careful."

She adds that Detroiters keep it real, while she's met many "fake" people in Atlanta. One in particular was a former neighbor who drove a luxury car and lived in a nice house. "She was getting evicted, but she was bragging about the celebrities she was working with and name-dropping."

Though the Mercers "felt alone," they persevered. She attracted clients, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Coca-Cola. And in 2008, her husband, now 46, started Mercer Protection Agency, hiring its 40 security officers for clients such as CBS, the city of Atlanta, the American Diabetes Association and entertainer Steve Harvey.

Last year, the Mercers bought a house in upper-middle class Johns Creek, where their children attend one of Georgia's top-rated school districts.

"Moving here was one of the best decisions we've ever made," says Mercer. "Our kids have opportunities that they wouldn't have otherwise."

Son Darrell Jr., 15, "is a budding entrepreneur" who's active in one of America's largest chapters of the student organization DECA. Events enable him to network with CEOs and executives.

"In Atlanta, you're able to see Black wealth and success," Mercer says. "It's the norm. You're seeing successful people who look like you. That does a lot for your self esteem."

Likewise, daughter Ashley, 14, will attend an acting workshop this summer after expressing an interest in film. In addition to Tyler Perry Studios, Atlanta is also headquarters for CNN and Nickelodeon, while many movies and sitcoms are filmed there.

"If you're in the film industry," Mercer says, "Atlanta is like the Black Hollywood of the South."

Showcasing this fact are Detroiters in starring roles. On Atlanta-based Bravo TV, they include former Miss USA Kenya Bell on "Basketball Wives"  and business consultant Toya Bush-Harris in "Married to Medicine."

Sometimes, entertainment powerhouses are just a table away, says Mercer, who met filmmaker Tyler Perry in a restaurant in 2007.

The Mercer's youngest daughter, Mya, 12, wants to become a chef in a city where, Mercer says, "the dining options are profound."

Mercer adds, "We're able to dream bigger in Atlanta."

Yet she credits her hometown for her success. "Detroit made me the person who I am. I'll always be proud to say I'm from Detroit."

They return about once a year to visit family. Driving through the east-side neighborhood, where they owned a house from 1996 until 2006, is "sad, because the 48205 area code is one of the most crime-ridden areas of the city."

In contrast, the Mercers' safe, manicured neighborhood bustles with people jogging, bicycling and walking dogs.

Safe and Secure

A healthier, active lifestyle is one aspect of Atlanta that Mercer's brother has enjoyed since leaving Detroit three years ago.

"In Detroit, I was unemployed for eight months and couldn't find any work," says Oscar Pasley, 30. "I took a chance. When I first got down here, I found a job at Applebee's within the first week." Five months later, a frequent customer hired him at a worker's compensation insurance company.

"I advanced really quickly from entry level to being a supervisor—in two-and-a-half years," says Pasley. "I love my job."

Now, he says, "This is the best move I've made in my life."

Meanwhile, he reconnected with his Pershing High School sweetheart on Facebook. They married, and Ashleigh, 28, left Detroit for Atlanta with her two children, ages 5 and 11. His 8-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother in Detroit, spends summers in Atlanta.

The Pasleys live in what he calls the "ritzy" suburb of Alpharetta, among professional athletes. The region's famed trees, mountains and lakes keep the family active, too.

"Last year, we visited state parks for hiking and relaxing," he says. "This year, we're going to the beaches. Growing up in Detroit, … it doesn't seem like there's a lot to do with kids. You have to worry about crime and your kids' safety. Here, it's not like that."

He also loves that his children are growing up where "the people down here are health nuts. There are jogging trails and bike lanes everywhere. We try to be health conscious and in shape. The kids' schools offer healthy meals and don't allow them to bring sweets to school."

Another plus, Pasley says, is, unlike racially polarized Detroit, their community is a melting pot of Whites, Blacks, Indians and Mexicans. "It's very harmonious."

Still, Pasley is proud of his Detroit roots.

"The city made me," he says. "I wouldn't take back the time I spent there. You have to do what's best for our kids and keep them in an environment so they don't have to go through the same struggles, so they can learn and prosper."

He plans to buy a house and open an auditing firm someday. "This is where I'm going to stay rooted."

College Bound

Attending Atlanta's historically Black colleges and universities is another lure for Detroiters.

"It's always been my dream since fifth grade to attend Clark Atlanta University," says native Detroiter Delizha Manassa, 18. "But as I got into high school and started reading about Morehouse College, I learned that was the school that I wanted to attend."

When he interviewed there, he says, "Getting the whole brotherhood feel was just awesome. With all of the success that some of the men who come out of Morehouse have (such as King, Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson), I want to be one of those men one day."

Attending Morehouse on the 50th anniversary of King's march is "mind-blowing."

"I'll be the first male in my family to graduate high school and attend college," says Manassa, who lives with relatives in Virginia to escape struggles in Detroit.

Manassa plans to study computer engineering. Then, he dreams of attending graduate school at Harvard University before working in cyber security for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"I'll be in the percentage of the young Black males who are willing to show that there is a better way," he says, adding that he wants to someday take care of his grandmother, Celia Manassa, 62, who lives on Detroit's east side.

"I've seen her struggle from the time that I was young. I lived with her on and off for all my life, for the 16 years that I lived in Detroit. We've had some trials and tribulations that would have made any normal person want to give up and break down."

Growing up in similar circumstances is his cousin, Key'isha Manassa, 18, who plans to attend Clark Atlanta University in September.

"I'm excited to see a whole new city," says the Michigan Collegiate High School senior. "I'm going to seize the opportunity and enjoy it. I don't want to live around abandoned houses anymore."

Manassa says she has a response for critics.

"I hear a lot, 'Oh, why do you have to go so far to pursue your education? You can get a business accounting degree here.' I tell them, 'This is something I want to do for myself and that will make me happy. I have to pursue my dreams for me, not for you.'"

Detroit Hope

Detroit NAACP chapter president, the Rev. Wendell Anthony, believes, "Detroit is coming back."

He points to the major revitalization plans downtown and an influx of suburban professionals. "In a few years, Detroit will be the place to be. There's a lot of hope and opportunity here."

For now, though, Vanessa Lynn has found her hope and opportunity in Atlanta. In the short time she's been there, things finally have turned around.

"If you're not going to hustle, you can stay in Detroit," she warns. "With Atlanta, you've got to hit the ground running."

She landed a good "day job" with benefits. Walmart stores nationwide sell DVDs of two of her plays, "Affairs" and "Unequally Yoked," which she says has ranked in the Top 20 of Amazon's African American Cinema bestseller list for more than a year. Her play, "Deranged," starring actress Robin Givens, was produced last month at Detroit's Music Hall. And she's selling her new book, "Beyond the Chitlin' Circuit: The Ultimate Urban Playwright's Guide," inspired by the annual conference she'll host in December.

Meanwhile, television network executives attended the recent screening for the DVD of her play, "Boss Lady" (in Walmart stores July 9).

She hasn't given up on Detroit, though.

"My big dream ultimately is to open my own theater complex. I would even consider doing that in Detroit."

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