At First Iconium Baptist Church in East Atlanta, Emanuel Biggs was family.
Rev. McDonald holding a photo of himself with Emanuel Biggs
Photo credit: Dessa Lohrey
“Emanuel was one of us. He was a member of the church; he was a member of the family,” says Rev. Tim McDonald, senior minister. At church dinners, Emanuel brought his king-sized appetite. At other events, you might find him dancing at the center of a circle of cheering parishioners. And he’d be seated in the back many Sundays, singing the hymns. He even had a running joke with Rev. McDonald that one day, Emanuel would marry his daughter Nikki. “Oh, he was very likable,” says McDonald. “The thing is, when people are not used to people with mental challenges or just homelessness, period, there’s a lot of fear.” But Emanuel Biggs found refuge at First Iconium.
Emanuel was a familiar face to many people as he made his daily trek of East Atlanta Village and the stretch of Moreland Avenue between United Avenue and Reynoldstown. He did so for decades. Emanuel lived with mental illness that sometimes caused him to behave erratically, but “he never caused harm to anybody but himself,” according to Rev. McDonald, who knew him for more than thirty years.
Emanuel spent most of his time on Moreland Avenue, a harsh and dangerous place for pedestrians with five lanes of traffic hurtling by the nearby I-20 exit ramps. Emanuel would often sleep in a covered area outside the church and get regular showers there. Rev. McDonald even served as his primary contact when vagrancy charges landed him in jail. In his photo in the church directory, he wears a crisp plaid shirt and a serious, guarded gaze.
On several occasions, people tried setting him up with housing, but it never stuck. Don Schanche, who plays music at First Iconium, recalls visiting him in a rehabilitation facility a few years ago after Emanuel was struck by a car on Moreland and survived.
“I said, ‘Emanuel, why don’t you try to stay in a nice place like this instead of the street?’ And he said to me, seriously, ‘Don, I’m an adventurer and a wanderer.’”
Emanuel was crossing Moreland Avenue near McPherson late the night of October 24, 2022, when a vehicle struck him, this time fatally. He was 60 years old and one of three pedestrians to be killed this year in this manner within a single block of Moreland Avenue alone. The street is part of Atlanta’s High-Injury Network: 10 thoroughfares that account for one in three pedestrian fatalities in Atlanta and one in five of its severe pedestrian injuries.
Moreland Avenue: Google street view, January 2023
The news story about Emanuel Biggs’ death is brief. It does not say that he grew up in Reynoldstown with eight siblings, attending Bass High School. It does not say that as a teenager, he earned the affectionate nicknames “the hulk” and “Hercules” for his surprising strength. It does not say how he took to the streets as a teenager after a series of family conflicts or how an early paint-sniffing habit contributed to his mental decline. It does not say that he loved to sing but was terrible at it or that his favorite songs were “Que Sera Sera” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Or, that although he spent many of his days alone, he considered the Baptist Church down the street to be his family.
“He said, ‘I feel loved here. I feel cared for here,’” says Rev. McDonald. “‘No matter what happens to me, this church is my home.’ And I wanted him to feel that way. He was just my friend.”
Read Don Schanche’s tribute to Emanuel Biggs in the AJC here.