Lena said a reluctant good-bye to Frank and Frankye and departed with her mother and "aunt." Before they left Fort Valley, Lucille insisted they stay with a relative of hers who lived in town. Lena found him fat and repulsive. But Edna and Lucille saw no harm in going off and leaving eleven-year-old Lena in his care. She recalled the consequences in her second memoir. "Back in Macon, those good women had told me: 'Don't be a bad girl....Don't let a boy touch you.'...But you haven't been told whether you're to blame or it's the other person's fault. All you know is that if somebody touches you it's bad." Horne did and said nothing. But many years later Marcia Ann Gillespie, a writer and editor who worked with Horne on an aborted third memoir, could see the scars of that childhood trauma: "So much of her behavior was that of someone who's been abused."
Lena's relationship with Edna had grown so strained that she feared confiding in her. Grandmother Cora's upbringing came into play: At any cost, she had to be seen as a good girl—one who never got involved in anything unsavory, even if it wasn't her fault. Privately, though, she despised the man, and the incident drove a further wedge between her and her mother—in fact, between her and the world. "I became very secretive," said Lena. "I became very suspicious of everyone."
Once they'd reached Atlanta, Edna tried, in her fumbling way, to be a good parent. Thanks to her moneyed suitor, she enrolled Lena in dancing school. At her eleventh birthday party on June 30, 1928, the girl gleefully demonstrated the snakehips, a dance created by Earl "Snakehips" Tucker, a famed black vaudevillian. Lena walked to grade school, encountering some southern-style friendliness on the way. Years later she told of passing white men on Peachtree Street; they patted her on the head and said, "What a cute little nigger you are!"
As usual, any sense of home she may have felt was soon dashed. Edna's career had petered down to almost nothing; now she seemed more interested in living as a kept woman. Off she went to Miami with Lucille, again leaving her daughter in foster care. One of her guardians was the mysterious "Aunt May," who belittled Lena for the slightest infractions. Two other caregivers, a black couple, passed her off to their housekeeper. She made Lena perform punishing chores, and nothing the girl did was good enough. After Lena had stepped out of the bathtub, wet and shivering, the housekeeper beat her with switches cut from a backyard tree.
Lena lived in dread. Once more she avoided telling her mother of the abuse. But neighbors heard her cries and informed Edna when she came back. Instead of offering comfort, Edna scolded her. According to Gail Lumet Buckley, "Lena felt that Edna was embarrassed about the neighbors knowing something she did not."
In early 1929, Lena finally escaped the South and its violence. Edna gave up on trying to manage a preteen girl on the road, and she sent her daughter home to Brooklyn for good. Lena was relieved. Immediately she began a semester at P.S. 35, a junior high school, then progressed to the integrated Girls High School, one of the city's most prestigious institutions. Lena played basketball there and gradually made new friends. The Great Depression had come, but its worst effects passed over the privileged Horne household.