In November of 2009, more than five years before I joined The Atlantic, I got an unusual request. I’d been going back and forth for more than a year with an Atlantic blogger, down in his comments section. “Mind shooting me an e-mail?” he asked.
That’s how I came to know Ta-Nehisi Coates. He was working on an essay on Detroit at the time. He had guessed, correctly, that I was an academic. (I’m still not sure what gave me away—wooden prose, or excess verbosity?) And he was wondering if I could answer a few questions.
He’s never stopped asking questions. Over the years, I’ve been lucky to call him my friend, and, more recently, my colleague. And with the news that he’s been named a MacArthur Fellow, I can now call him something else—a genius.
But genius is a peculiar thing. The MacArthur Foundation says it gives the grants to those who display “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.” There is no question of Ta-Nehisi’s merit as a writer—his latest book proved an instant bestseller and sparked ongoing public debate. He made himself one of the blogosphere’s most distinctive voices. He’s stitched together a remarkable résumé as a journalist, punctuated by his stories for The Atlantic on Obama, reparations, and incarceration.