Coates was inspired to write Between the World and Me following a 2013 meeting with sitting United States President Barack Obama. Coates, a writer for The Atlantic, had been reading James Baldwin's 1963 The Fire Next Time and was determined to make his second meeting with the president less deferential. As he left for Washington, D.C., his wife encouraged him to think like Baldwin and Coates recalled an unofficial, fiery meeting between Baldwin, black activists, and Robert Kennedy in 1963. When it was his turn, Coates fought with Obama over how his policy addressed racial disparities in the universal health care rollout. After the event, Obama and Coates spoke privately about a blog post Coates had written in criticism of the president's call for more personal responsibility among African Americans. Obama thought the criticism was unjust and told Coates not to despair.
As Coates walked to the train station, he thought of how Baldwin did not share Obama's optimism, the same optimism of the civil rights movement that believed in the inevitability of justice. Instead, Coates saw Baldwin as "cold", without "sentiment and melodrama", as he acknowledged that the movement could fail and that requital was not guaranteed. Coates found this idea "freeing" and called Christopher Jackson to ask "why no one wrote like Baldwin anymore". Jackson, the book's editor, proposed that Coates try.
Between the World and Me is Coates's second book, following his 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle. Since then, and especially in the 18 months including the Ferguson unrest leading up to his new book's release, Coates somberly believed less in the soul and its aspirational sense of eventual justice. Coates felt that he had become more radicalized. The book's title comes from a poem by Richard Wright, which, although now published in numerous collections, was first published in the July/August 1935 issue of the journal Partisan Review. Despite many changes in Between the World and Me, Coates always planned to end the book with the story of Mabel Jones. The only endorsement Coates sought was that of novelist Toni Morrison, which he received. Between the World and Me was published by Spiegel & Grau in 2015.