From New York Magazine:

It had been nine days since the young white supremacist Dylann Roof had massacred nine black churchgoers in Charleston, and Coates, whose great theme is the intractability of racial history, had helped to orient the debate, to concentrate attention on the campaign against the Confederate flag: Even casual tweets he sent out were retweeted hundreds of times. The television behind the bar was tuned toPresident Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, which was just about to start. The broadcast was muted, but Coates noticed the tableau: “There’s a sister over here to the left, she’s natural, no perm, and a very black dude, and then an African-American president.” Coates imagined how this would appear to a 4-year-old white boy: “That’s the world as he knows it,” Coates said. “So all these people saying that symbols don’t mean anything — that’s bullshit. They mean a lot.” Coates has often been a critic of the president from the left — of his instinct to submerge race in talk of class, of his moralizing to black audiences. “I’m going to make a prediction,” he said. “He’s going to say something incredible.”

When Obama began his first campaign for the presidency, Coates was all but anonymous, a journalist in his early 30s who had worked mostly at alt-weeklies and mostly for short stints. But in 2008, he was hired by The Atlantic — to write longer pieces, then to blog — and eventually his commentary formed a counterpoint to the White House line. Against the optimism of the Obama ascendancy, Coates offered a bleaker view: that no postracial era was imminent, that white supremacy has been a condition of the United States since its inception and that it might always be. “ ‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies,” Coates writes to his son. While the president talked about the velocity of our escape from history, Coates insisted that the country was still stuck in its vise. Last year, he wrote an Atlantic cover story titled “The Case for Reparations,” probably the most discussed magazine piece of the Obama era, which detailed the persistence of structural racism — racism by government policy — into the present day. When Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and then Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Walter Scott in South Carolina, it was Coates who seemed to most adeptly digest the central paradox of the time: how, within an increasingly progressive era, a country led by a black president could still act with such racial brutality. In late December, when Funny or Die published a fake text-message chain between the president and his daughters, it had its fictional, radicalized Malia Obama coolly insisting, “I wish Ta-Nehisi Coates was my dad.”

The sudden shift after the massacre, in which southern politicians turned against the Confederate flag, filled Coates with both awe and perplexity. “I mean, I tweeted this out, but I didn’t expect it to happen: ‘You talk about how this makes you feel. Then take down the damn flag,’ ” Coates said. “And hell, they did it! It turns out that was actually what was in motion.” He shook his head. “Shit!”

That Sunday, the Times would give Coates a small role in focusing attention on the flag. More essential, the paper reported, were the public gestures of forgiveness that family members of the victims had offered to Roof. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” the daughter of a slain 70-year-old woman told her mother’s murderer at his hearing. These gestures had moved conservative Christians in a very religious state. Coates believes in the power of social structures, not in the politics of emotion. The consensus account — in which Strom Thurmond’s son State Senator Paul Thurmond looked into the eyes of black fellow citizens at a church service after the massacre and decided that he could no longer defend the flag — reeked of myth. Even the public forgiving, so soon after the slaughter, seemed unreal. “Is that real?” Coates said, watching the service. “I question the realness of that.”

Coates is not a Christian. The heavy force in Between the World and Me — what makes it both unique and bleak — is his atheism. It gives Coates’s writing urgency. To consider the African-American experience without the language of souls and destiny is to strip it of euphemism, and to make the security of African-American bodies even more crucial. It also isolates him from the main black political tradition. “There’s a kind of optimism specifically within Christianity about the world — about whose side God is on,” he said. “Well, I didn’t have any of that in my background. I had physicality and chaos.”
Coates was still wondering about the Charleston family members, Christians forgiving. He splayed his fingers over his brow and covered his eyes, so that as he talked he could not see. “Is it aspirational?” he wondered. “Like, I say, ‘I forgive you’ because I think I’m supposed to?”

On the mute television, something was happening. The ministers were standing up and smiling. To their left, the first African-American president of the United States had lifted his head. He was singing “Amazing Grace.”

“The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates”, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine