It was a usual Wednesday for Tonee Valentine, a professional piano player in Concourse A of Atlanta’s Hartsfield–Jackson international airport.
Valentine’s hands slid across the keys, his black brimmed hat bobbing. Amid the noisy and chaotic travel hub, the pianist provided rhythm.
Author and motivational speaker Carlos Whittaker, on an hour-long layover en route to Nashville, noticed. He saw the pianist “playing his heart out,” opened Instagram and began recording. Whittaker, with a following of more than 170,000, panned to the meager contents of the blue tip bowl atop the piano and went up to give money. That’s when the two struck up a conversation, Whittaker asking if the pianist would participate in his podcast “Human Hope.”
“He asked me: Do I have hope in humanity?” Valentine, whose real last name is Carter, told The Washington Post. “And I told him no. I didn’t see it.”
“Of course, that changed,” Valentine added.
Within minutes, Whittaker’s following and strangers began sending money through cash apps, contributing more than $10,000 in a half-hour and $61,000 in two days. Messages flooded in, people sending their appreciation of Valentine’s talent and passion.
But Valentine, at first, didn’t know. Before he left to catch his flight, Whittaker revealed that humanity had taken notice of Valentine.
The 66-year-old musician has since gained more than 10,000 followers on Instagram and has become a destination for fans flying into the airport.
“This guy, Carlos Whittaker, blew into my life like a tsunami,” Valentine said. “I was having a typical day at work, and now, I’ve been blessed by this man and his followers.”
Whittaker was also caught off-guard: He wasn’t expecting Valentine’s backstory.
When Whittaker started talking to him, Valentine shared that he received nightly dialysis treatment for kidney disease. Despite the hours-long time spent hooked to an IV, he told the Instagram star that he had it much better than others.
“He’s just so happy and joyful,” Whittaker told The Post. “He kind of has this smile that he does when he plays where his mouth is halfway open like he’s laughing. It’s just his energy is very impactful.”
Unbeknown to Valentine, Whittaker told his hundreds of thousands of followers to send money. While Valentine resumed his performance, Whittaker’s phone started ringing with Venmo notifications like a slot machine.
About half an hour later, Valentine returned to his table, where Whittaker filmed his reaction to the news.
“They just deposited $10,000,” Whittaker said.
Valentine, confused, asked: “Who’s they?”
Whittaker explained that “170,000 strangers ... loved your piano playing. I asked them to give you money, and in 35 minutes — because you’re a great human being, and you’re changing people’s lives when you do this, and you’re so sincere, and people love you — I got it in my Venmo.”
“Come on, man,” Valentine repeated in shock. “Are you kidding me, man?”
This is not the first time Whittaker’s followers, whom he calls his “Instafamilia,” have contributed to helping others: They’ve funded a pregnant woman living in an RV; a woman with epilepsy who wanted a seizure-alert dog, and lodging for inner-city Brooklyn children camping in Alaska’s wilderness, Whittaker said.
Inspired by the generosity of Whittaker’s online family, Valentine said he intends to pay the money forward instead — although he said he was considering getting his car’s oil changed.
So, how does one become an airport pianist?
Valentine has been able to play the piano since he was 5, realizing he was going to be a professional player when at age 6 he saw singer and songwriter Ray Charles perform. At 20, he got his first gig at a nightclub — paying $22. Eleven years and 87 countries later, Valentine had traveled the world as a pianist on cruise ships, he said, returning to playing at a local restaurant. That’s when a man approached him with an offer: There was an opening at the airport. Valentine declined, but the man asked him to try it out for an hour.
“I tried it for an hour, but I stayed for three,” he said. “I was having such a good time, 13 years later, I’m still there.”
At the airport, the audience “is in a good mind-set,” Valentine said.
“They’re going to see loved ones, they’re going on a business trip, they’re going on vacation,” he said.
Valentine has a box in his bedroom full of notes from people thanking him for his performances at the airport. His set changes depending on the crowd, transitioning between oldies and modern hits with ease. When a child toddles by, Valentine switches to “Baby Shark.”
“If you need some classical, I got that,” he said. “If you need some gospel, I can do that, too. If you need something to shake your booty at, I got you, too.”
For 16 hours a week, Valentine hopes to share some melody in a place that, for some, can feel inharmonious. Whether it’s for an Instagram audience of hundreds of thousands or for a weary passenger grabbing a bite between flights, Valentine plays.
“Some people are listening, some people aren’t,” he said. “But for me, it’s not a big deal, because I enjoy playing the music. I play for one person like I play for 300. It doesn’t matter.”