U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spent Friday and Saturday in Atlanta to meet with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mayor Andre Dickens and HBCU leaders. He also met staff from the Atlanta Passport Agency and Diplomatic Security’s Resident Office and gave the undergraduate commencement address at Georgia Tech. 

The theme of his visit centered around Atlanta's status as an international hub for global health, commerce and diversity.

But the Secretary arrived during a difficult week in Georgia.

On Wednesday, a 24-year-old man shot five women at a doctor's office in Midtown Atlanta, killing CDC employee Amy St. Pierre and sending police on an eight-hour manhunt. He was arrested and charged with murder.

Then on Thursday, in the Southwest Georgia town of Moultrie, a 26-year-old man fatally shot his mother and grandmother before heading to a McDonald's restaurant where he killed a manager and himself.

Additional shootings happened across the weekend, prompting the publisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to publish a full-page op-ed about the violence on page A1 of Sunday's edition.

A meeting at the CDC

Sec. Blinken's Friday visit to the CDC included a look at the organization's operations center and its museum. It also coincided with the announcement by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky that she will leave her post in June, citing the need for a transition after three years of pandemic. That same morning, the World Health Organization announced that the global health emergency for COVID-19 will end on May 11.

In his remarks at the CDC, Blinken opened with a mention of the shootings and sent condolences to the family of St. Pierre, whom he described as "someone who dedicated her career to working on maternal health issues, and I know was a treasured member of this community." 

He did not recount the CDC statistic that children and teens are more likely to be killed by guns than in car accidents, but was emphatic about the dangers of synthetic opioids, which are a leading cause of overdoses and deaths among American adults ages 18 to 49. He also plugged the formation of a new Global Health Bureau within the U.S. Department of State, mentioning that CDC employees are in 60 embassies around the world and calling the agency a "critical partner" to his agenda.

"Last year, we seized enough fentanyl to kill every single American citizen," he said in a transcript provided by the State Department. "So the State Department is working aggressively to build an international coalition to help more effectively deal with the fentanyl challenge ... The precursors that go into making fentanyl often are manufactured somewhere else in the world. They wind up coming toward us, turned into a synthetic opioid, and then they wind up on our streets and kill Americans. So we need global collaboration, global cooperation, as part of dealing with this challenge."

According to data from the Georgia Department of Health from 2019 to 2021, drug overdose deaths in the state increased by 61% and fentanyl-involved overdose deaths increased by 230%, representing 2,404 and 1,294 lives lost respective in 2021.

A roundtable discussion with HBCUs

On Saturday, Blinken met with historically Black college and university presidents and executives of the Atlanta University Center Consortium, including Clark Atlanta University President George T. French Jr., Morehouse College President David A. Thomas, Morehouse School of Medicine President Valerie Montgomery Rice and others from Spelman College. 

He also met with fellows from the Pickering Program, which prepares young people for careers in foreign service.


Coffee with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens

Before heading to Georgia Tech, Blinken met with Dickens at the Refuge Coffee Co., on the campus of the Woodruff Arts Center, two blocks from where the shooting occurred Wednesday.

This meeting was open to the press, but without a question and answer opportunity.

"As the mayor was saying, you’ve got the busiest airport in the world," Blinken told those gathered. "You’ve got so many people coming here from around the world who want to experience Atlanta ... And the work that the mayor is doing, the city’s doing to make Atlanta a hub — an international hub — for commerce, for culture, for innovation — is a very powerful thing. And we want to be a part of that."

Refuge Coffee started in Clarkston, Ga., an Atlanta suburb called the "Ellis Island of the South" for its large immigrant and refugee population, and expanded to mobile service and the Atlanta location.

"Refuge Coffee ... is giving a platform to new arrivals to our country to get some skills, to get some training so that they can better integrate the country," Blinken said.  "We’ve met with some refugees who are here working at Refuge Coffee from Afghanistan, from Syria.  We both know — and we were just talking about this — that the entire history of our country is welcoming people from other countries.  Every single one of us, unless you’re a Native American, came here from somewhere else.  And the work that Atlanta’s doing to support that, to support refugees as they get integrated, is something that we’re proud to partner with at the State Department."


Georgia Institute of Technology 2023 Commencement Address

Blinken finished his trip at the podium in front of thousands of graduates at Bobby Dodd Stadium, paying tribute to members of his family who immigrated to America and also to the service of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter as he struggled with his Georgia farm after returning from the Navy: 

"The first year, the farm earned $280," Blinken recounted. "But Jimmy found something different in Plains — something that he’d been missing for years that he hadn’t been able to put his finger on: a sense of community. And as he and Rosalynn turned the business around, he threw himself into local service: getting involved in the Lions Club, the Boy Scouts, the school, hospital and library boards, in his church. Then he decided to run for a state senate seat, and the rest, as they say, is history.

"Class of 2023, you have a mantra here at Georgia Tech: 'We can do that,'" the secretary said. "And it rings true for so many of our shared hopes and ambitions — far beyond this campus."