After reading Between the World and Me, novelist Toni Morrison wrote that Coates fills "the intellectual void" left by James Baldwin's death 28 years prior. A. O. Scott of The New York Times said the book is "essential, like water or air". David Remnick of The New Yorker described it as "extraordinary".
Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that Between the World and Me functioned as a sequel to Coates's 2008 memoir, which displayed Coates's talents as an emotional and lyrical writer. Coates's use of "the Dream" (in reference to paradisal suburban life) confused her, and she thought Coates stretched beyond what is safely generalizable. In particular, she felt that his comment on the 9/11 first responders was phrased so as to be easily misread. Kakutani felt that Coates did not consistently acknowledge the racial progress that has been made over the course of centuries. Some parts read like the author's internal debate. Benjamin Wallace-Wells of New York said that a sense of fear for one's children propels the book, and Coates's atheism gives the book a sense of urgency.
On November 18, 2015, it was announced that Coates had won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. NPR's Colin Dwyer had considered it the favorite to win the prize, given the book's reception.
The book topped the New York Times Best Seller list for nonfiction on August 2, 2015, and remained #1 for three weeks. It again topped the New York Times Best Seller list the week of January 24, 2016.
The book was selected by Washington University in St. Louis as the book for all first year students must read and discuss in the fall 2016 semester.
Tom Eley and David Walsh, writing on the World Socialist Web Site, criticized Coates's book as narrow, parochial, nationalist, and dystopian. They said that the book was not a protest of the reality of the vast majority of Americans, as it left out discussion of key social conditions such as poverty.