Atlanta is a city once called Terminus—a name that rivals only Nitro, WV for unalloyed industrial-metal awesomeness in these United States. But the city was restless, and full of shit. It changed its name to Atlanta, even though, as even my brain-damaged little brother once noticed, it’s nowhere near the fucking ocean. “Which way to the ocean, brah?” he asked. I pointed east, from Cincinnati. “Which way to Atlanta?”
Yes, Atlanta could have been Terminus, but it turned out to be Goodie Mob minus Cee Lo at best, Raven Symone’s overappreciated fourth album at worst. Like the city itself, I was restless and shit-stuffed when I touched down.
“I threw a wish in the well/Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell,” a bass-heavy, purposely slowed down Carly Rae Jepsen sang as I deplaned at Atlanta’s supermassive Hartsfield-Jackson airport. “I looked to you as it fell/And now you’re in my way,” Jepsen continued, sounding eerily like the serial killer from Silence of the Lambs. (“Put the lotion in the basket!” ricochets through my head.)
Right now the long trek from plane to baggage claim stands between me and a long weekend in the ATL. “I’d trade my soul for a wish.” Indeed, right now I wish that this airport wasn’t longer than fucking Game of Thrones. This place has characters on characters. “Pennies and dimes for a kiss/I wasn’t looking for this.” Well, in my case the airport’s shuttle turned out to be the “this” I failed to envision, resulting in my idiotic and painful schlep from Gate Bumblefuck to baggage, consuming a full 20 minutes instead of five. During the interminable commute from plane to exit I promised to make Shlomo’s 27 minute BBC mix tape, containing his twisted refraction of Jepsen’s iconic song “Call Me Maybe,” the soundtrack for the next 30 minutes, the opening refrain to my temporary Southern existence.
“Your stare was holdin’/Ripped jeans, skin was showin’.” I can say Carly got this one right because everyone in the airport seemed to be living in some sort of transportational coma, as my fellow transients adopted a glazed stare that could pass for eroticism or indolence, depending. As I soon learned, it’s just a cocktail of Type 5 Diabetes and freebase Krispy Kreme that creates this somnambulatory effect.
Sure, someone from Cincinnati, Ohio (Northern Kentucky for some observers) probably shouldn’t throw stones at a burgeoning metropolis like Atlanta. In Cinci we think chili is fucking fast food; we also think it’s the same thing as ground beef and tomato sauce, and that it deserves to be oozed over pasta. Basically, we think we’re on the verge of inventing spaghetti, but haven’t quite cracked the code yet. It’s sad. Well, fear not, Clement has no desire to throw stones—boulders yes, stones no.
When I finally reach baggage claim, my ride, ToM editors Ryan Reft and Alex “Sayf” Cummings seem more interested in discussing the spatial layout of airports and their “semiotic meaning” for “working class bodies” than driving me anywhere. When I ask about public transport to the airport, like light rail, Cummings begins frothing at the mouth, like a rabid dog or someone unaware of the proper way to consume Alka Seltzer. To be honest, I only caught every other word because I’m too busy trying to figure out how godawful hot it is outside. Needless to say, there is not light rail.
“Hot night, wind was blowin’/Where do you think you’re going, baby?” Exactly the question I am wondering when we walk out to the car. It feels like hot dog’s breath on my neck; the breeze reminds of working in a kennel for quadriplegic dachshunds. Still, Atlanta’s sprawl has a certain rolling charm, or at least from 30,000 feet it does. What treasures await us this weekend? What artifacts of ATL existence will we uncover? What hipster bar has the best Old Fashioned made out of Kool Aid? “Hey, I just met you, And this is crazy,” Jepsen’s altered voice intones, “But here’s my number, So call me, maybe!” Atlanta, no maybes, I’m here—call me.
The New South, the “city too busy hate,” Split Wet Beaver, Gate City, Gaytown—such nicknames have long attested to Atlanta’s prominent place in the new southern amalgam. While historians Kevin Kruse and Matthew Lassiter have demonstrated the dubious nature of this claim, Atlanta remains the capital of the modern South. Like a Dixie land Chicago, it has plenty of diversity but little sense of integration. Okay, it’s not uniformly true. In Little Five Points you might see black and white young’ins in their mid 20s and early 30s casually rubbing their sleeve tattoos, playing a fiddle in the alley like some kind of 1930s hobo or wandering the aisles of American Apparel searching for that “perfect t-shirt.” East Atlanta Village also has its share of integration, though it also has the occasional shooting. What did Killer Mike say? “Even though it’s blacktop from the mayors to the cops, Black blood still gets spilled.”
This kind of disjunction encapsulates the city. Atlanta’s magnificence seems at once obvious and obscure, a metropolis with a deep history that lays largely in ashes beneath its rebuilt exterior. Simultaneously the New South capital and a crown jewel of black America, yet in and around the city, whites and blacks live separate lives. Greenery everywhere, but few public spaces in which to enjoy it; a city desperately in need of public transportation but, as evidenced by recent elections, resolutely against it. On Saturday nights the heathen descend upon the town’s watering holes and Sunday morning these same sinners kneel asking for God’s providence and forgiveness. As the Drive by Truckers might attest, it’s that Southern duality thing.
On arriving in the Big A, I was shuttled to the tender bosom of East Atlanta, a neighborhood as well-known for sightings of Andre 3000 cashing in Scoutmob coupons at Dollar Sushi night as it is for cold-blooded murder. This bustling beachhead of gentrification brings together an eclectic mix of punks, drunks, librarians, and budding Manhattan Institute-style neocons, stockpiling guns to fight the onslaught of the life-threatening graffiti brigades. It is the new white Atlanta at its very cuspiness.
Still, Republican suburbanites find themselves bewildered as to why anyone would want to live there, while the erstwhile masters of the neighborhood’s middle class hatcheries begin to wonder if it’s time to leave as soon as the wee baby Seamus pops out.
My minders seemed uncomfortable early on in the visit—particularly “Sayf,” who evoked a North Korean tour guide in his evasive answers and relentless adherence to an official, booster-ish script about the city. “Oh, Buckhead? It’s shit. Carpetbagger?! Nah, not in Atlanta.” As soon as the bags were dropped they hurried me off to the Old Fourth Ward, a neighborhood that allegedly was once the heart of black commercial and religious life in the city. A scale replica of MLK’s famous Ebenezer Baptist Church notwithstanding, the “O4W” appeared to be little more than the latest out-of-the-box, no-assembly-required cluster of hipsters that every American city—even the execrable Richmond, VA—can somehow manage to order off eBay. There were tight pants, there were lesbians; kitsch was laughed at.
They must sell the blueprints for this stuff in the Sears Roebuck catalog, because ATL has a video “barcade” much like Brooklyn. It has a hilariously snazzy and upscale “Harold’s Chicken and Ice Bar,” apparently franchised out of Chi town’s legendary glory hole. There’s Vesuvius pizza, with a “secret” speakeasy tucked away behind a moving bookcase/door. I can’t remember where I’ve seen this before, but I’m cranky about it. Probably during my long (and successful, if grad school is about manufacturing misery; unsuccessful if it means anything else) sojourn as a grad student in NYC.
It’s like that old scene on the Dick Cavett show, where Yoko says that James Thurber stole his drawing style from John Lennon, and John is all like, “Uh, well Mother…”
Get me back to Cincinnati.
Yes, Atlanta is a city that believes its own bullshit. Or more than half believes it, if not quite completely. It’s kind of like its notorious pastor Eddie Long, who tells congregants that they can get rich by loving the old JC and dropping a hundy in the offering plate. His own glittering bank account lends credence both to God’s providence and the wisdom of Eddie’s own creed, but there must be a nagging doubt in there somewhere, about whether Atlanta’s future of violence and traffic congestion will be the unmitigated glory its pious people have been promised.
At least Atlanta gets Eddie. The little-city-that-could-not-quite-be-Atlanta, Charlotte, NC, remains defined by its disgraced pastor Jim Bakker, who won fame by spending desperate pensioners’ donations to air condition his dog house. And ATL does have Creflo Dollar, so they get points for that.
And it’s not like its totally devoid of its own history. Head on over to Grant Park where you can sit back and watch the Cyclorama, a giant moving painting of the Battle of Atlanta. It looks straight out of a brochure from the ‘70s—the fucking 1870s. To be honest, it’s sort of like going to the planetarium for the Pink Floyd laser show but getting there and realizing, nope its Nathan Bedford Forrest T-shirt night. “First one hundred customers get to deny ‘white privilege.’”
But wait, there’s more. While you’re picking hipster pretentiousness out of your hair over at MLK’s spot, saunter over to Margaret Mitchell’s home. Her tiny apartment remains open to the public though considering she wrote white people’s favorite Civil War novel, her housing accommodations might make one pause before pursuing a career in writing. “As God is my witness I’ll never be hungry again.” Well actually, if this is how it all ends I think I’ll stick with digging ditches or turning tricks. Is it weird MLK’s crib sits caddy corner from the home of a novelist who glorified the “Old South”? Yes, it’s right up there with Charleston, SC, where every monument reminds us of caucazoidian superiority. Whose idea was it to have a massive statue of John C. Calhoun overlook Charleston’s Holocaust memorial anyway? Does irony not exist in historic southern cities or am I just wallowing in Drive by Trucker southern duality bullshit?
Yet, as far as I can tell from my brief tour of Atlanta’s hipster archipelago, its people can look to the future with hope. Atlanta is a thriving city, in the sense that it’s not full of people talking about how much cooler it was in the 1930s, or 1950s, or 1970s, or 1980s (we’re looking at you, NYC). Partly that’s because for a lot of people in Atlanta life in the 1930s would not have been so wonderful in the slightest. But its motto is Resurgens and its mythology is all about wanton, pointless destruction and subsequent self-reinvention—a good combination for the early 21st century.
For all its faults, Atlanta is a place where “the Corner of Gay and Gay” is an internationally recognized landmark, and it boasts an impressive array of colleges and universities, even if some occasionally go out of business. Atlanta faces the Southeast the way New York faces the world, as an imperial city—a big, dense hunk of real estate, around which thousands of lesser rocks orbit. Except in Atlanta’s case the orbiting pebbles and satellites are Augusta, Ranlo, and Rock Hill, Birmingham and Erect, while New York’s are Paris, Amsterdam and Dakar. Shirtless no-accounts and slack-jawed misfits from the hinterland of Alabama and South Carolina come to seek their fortune in the big city™, whose most salient quality is its (relative) bigness. In this way, Atlanta is an all-purpose go-to place, sort of an Applebee’s to the Hooter’s of Nashville, a city that is self-aware enough to be “tacky yet delightfully unrefined.”