The Problem of Atlanta and Hollywood’s Lazy Media Tropes

Americans need to interrogate their failure of moral imagination, and pop culture needs to participate.

Jenara Nerenberg
4 min readMar 18, 2021

I sit at a juxtaposition as an interracial family advocate and mental illness media strategist and the killing spree of six Asian American women in Atlanta leaves me in paralysis.

The murderer’s horrifying behavior was a hateful choice he made, not the result of mental illness, as much as people try to make it so. It is not about having a bad day or being mentally unwell. This was a man who engaged with every other facet of life and chose, of his own volition, to commit murder against vulnerable targets.

Mental illness has been the scapegoat for far too long, an easy coverup for the urgent problem at hand: terrorizing moral judgment and consequent action, tainted by the filth of racism, sexism, white supremacist thinking, and other forms of bigotry.

As such, we must challenge the social norms, stereotypes, and beliefs we hold about mental illness. Everyone knows someone with depression, anxiety, or bipolar, and the majority of the time they are our friends, colleagues and neighbors. So why, when tragedy hits, do we jump to some monster-like conception of what it means to be mentally different?

As with racial stereotypes, ill-informed depictions of mental illness plague Hollywood and the media. For example, research by Heather Stuart at Queen University shows that closeups in films amplify scary-looking facial expressions of characters with mental illness as a way to make them appear far more violent than they are in real life. Psychologist Otto F. Wahl found in his research that 72% of mentally ill characters are portrayed as violent as compared to the actual 12% number in real life.

Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen speaks about how the imagery we immerse ourselves in begins to feel like our reality, especially when there are gaps in our knowledge, and then said imagery fills those holes. And when it comes to race and mental illness, both are areas where viewers tend to…



Jenara Nerenberg

Author, Divergent Mind (HarperCollins). Journalist at UC Berkeley & Garrison. Founder, The Neurodiversity Project.