Travel Journal: Atlanta

When I drove into Atlanta the first time it was pouring rain.

I’d been on the interstate all day and I’d never been to the south before. Hot summer day with humidity so thick it made your clothes and your hair stick to you — the kind of weather that breeds bad smells and rain. West Virginia had been too long — ugly mountain after ugly mountain — and Virginia had been a short but welcome swath of beauty. North and South Carolina were dull, rather flat — they felt distinctive, but in an apathetic way.

When I hit Georgia, everything shifted. Driving south on I-85 you simultaneously hit a lake and a state line, and the shores of the lake are swaths of red mud, and you realize you’re seeing southern dirt. And almost as soon as you’ve taken that in, you’re over the lake, and the water’s stretching out around you, and then on the other side there’s the Georgia line, and you realize in a visceral way you can taste in your mouth that you’re in the south. It just feels different.

Off the highway a few miles into Georgia there’s a gas station in the middle of nowhere, off the exit for Carnesville, Georgia — a tiny little town with one empty state road and a lot of overgrown weeds. The gas station was built for an era long gone — an exaggeratedly tall sign but no flashy advertisements, peeling paint, a gas pump that clicks and thunks. Standing on that faded pavement and smelling gasoline — the first time my feet touched Georgia — I found something I’d been looking for but hadn’t known I’d lacked. That place felt like every southern song I’d ever loved. Words jotted down between capping the gas tank and heading back for the interstate — “I’ve found the south and it’s glorious.”

That was where the love affair started.

Soon after it started to rain — dark clouds that opened up and dumped on the highway; lightning flickering across the sky. The thunder’s louder in the south, and the raindrops are bigger. It stopped raining in the interim of highway heading into the city, when suddenly the road split into more and more lanes but the skyline wasn’t yet in sight — a good fifteen miles of pre-urban sprawl — but it started again right before we hit the city limits. When I pulled off the highway and onto the streets I cracked my window, just enough so I could slip my fingers out and curl them around the top of my car, hold them outstretched, feel the southern rain on my skin, let it run down my arm. The streets were flooding. Windshield wipers clicked and clicked and the leaves hung heavy on the trees, laden with water. There are lots of trees in Atlanta. It’s a city filled with green.

That first night I didn’t see the skyline — just city neighborhoods with southern houses and sodden roads. The house where I was staying — a neatly trimmed southern affair — had a rooftop balcony, and when I stood there and looked out, I could see the tops of one of the skyscrapers between the treetops, and I stood there and stared at it. I saw the skyline the next day, in pieces, and saw the full thing the day after that. It was broken to me slowly, and I took my time with each piece — just stood and drank it in.

I’ve seen the skyline many times since, but it’s never lost that magic. If anything, I think it’s gained more. Moving towards it through the grid of streets, or flying towards it on the interstate. Every time I see it something within me rises.

Atlanta’s this big sprawling hub of tall buildings. When you drive through it on I-85, it feels like it goes on forever — your vision is tunneled by the highway, but the buildings just keep coming. You see them on the horizon, coming up fast, and then you’re almost on them, but they keep coming and coming and coming. Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead. The highway runs alongside them, then curves into the city, and suddenly there are buildings on both sides, and still they’re coming. So much gray and silver rising up towards the sky. It’s stunning in both the day and the night.

In rush hour, there’s traffic everywhere. So many cars. So many people. If you hate being stuck you can hardly bear the standing still. At night, though, in the dark, the streets are almost entirely empty — whole highways for you to fly down, with the buildings all lit up and rising on either side.

But go a few blocks from the center of the city and suddenly you’re in quiet southern neighborhoods, with gentle streets and tall trees and lovely Southern houses. Atlanta’s a city of contrast — it doesn’t feel like a jungle of steel and concrete, but instead like the best of both worlds. I stayed in Reynoldstown — a neighborhood that used to be bad, apparently, but is getting expensive now. It’s east of Cabbagetown and north of Grant Park, and bordered at the top by railroad tracks. There’s a railroad yard on the edge of the neighborhood with more shipping containers than one can count and graffiti all over its concrete fences. So much graffiti.

The first Atlanta night I slept like a baby in a top-floor bed, underneath a roof that was wet from the rain. The first Atlanta morning was hot as hell, and humid — humidity so thick you could almost hear it dripping; the kind that hits you like an oppressive wave when you venture outside, fills up your lungs with soup. I loved it anyway — sitting under the locust trees on the back porch playing all those southern songs I knew and loved on a borrowed guitar, because what does one do when one meets the south besides this? Good food, wood floors, bare feet, dry mouth from trying to avoid the city water. I slept for three nights in that house and I mourned with I had to leave.

That was June. Since then I’ve been two more times — made that drive into the city twice since that first entrance in the pouring rain. The second time I came in it was almost 9pm on a Sunday night, after fourteen hours of driving straight through seven states. I was exhausted and restless all at the same time, but the city gave me life. I drove again to Reynoldstown — same neighborhood, but staying in a different house — came in on Moreland, one of the eastern thoroughways, a street that changes from rough to gentrified and back again, and which probably crosses the place where Sherman’s army marched out of Atlanta after they burned the city in 1864 (I suspect, but can’t currently confirm). So many ragged, sweaty, dirty soldiers.

Sleeping softly in the gentle southern night; so tired my body melted into the mattress, tangled itself in the sheets and then lay perfectly still.

Little Five Points, the rough bohemian neighborhood where five roads converge and people who look like they’re on drugs and long-haired hipsters (who haven’t gotten the memo about Asheville) hang out outside of bars and edgy record shops. So much hip and angst all in one place. I drove through it on my way into the city, went down a couple nights later to check it out. Everything non-flesh in that neighborhood was painted, and everything flesh was tattooed. I sat in a coffee shop with my camera on the table, took pictures in the dusk. Some long-haired boy and messy-haired girl made out in a parking lot just past a street light, seemed to stay there forever with his hands on her back, and some dude walked through the dark in a pair of mirror shades.

Most of the culture I encountered was lest edgy. Indoor markets, with their echoing rafters and the smell of good food cooking — the hard choice of smoothies or a fried catfish sandwich. Greasy fingers, feeling southern. Good southern diner food — more pancakes than a body can eat in two meals for less than ten dollars, and all the syrup you want, and art on the walls. Farmers markets in the sticky Georgia morning, the humidity becoming more and more oppressive as you walk through it, leaving your skin covered in a thin film of sweat, and the trees above you so deeply, richly green. Buy a bottle of lemonade, fresh pressed while you watched, poured into a cup filled with ice. Makes your insides feel alert and alive, makes your taste buds sharp. Hold the cup against your damp face and feel the coolness and breathe. Keep walking through the market because you don’t want to leave.

There are good people who live in Atlanta. Smart people, ambitious people, kind people. Your average southern man goes out of his way to hold doors. The startup scene is strong, and filled with people who like intellectual stimulation. You’re nearly guaranteed good conversation if you’re there long enough. Late-night meetup talking philosophy in a tavern with naked brick walls and vintage posters hanging. Long drinks of water with condensation on the glass, lots of feeling alive.

That second time I hated leaving even more than the first. When you fall in love separation is painful, and I’d fallen hard.

The third time I wasn’t even supposed to go down, decided to take a trip at the last minute, was endlessly glad I did — I don’t need much convincing to go to Atlanta, only an excuse. I stayed in Buckhead, woke up every morning and looked out at the edge of the skyline, slept at night in the harsh glow of streetlights. On that third trip I flew down I-85 in the middle of the night, walked through Midtown in the dark and took pictures, filmed video on the edge of the train yard, ate dinner at the top of a tall building with a view across the entire city, just to celebrate being alive. I stayed for eight days and it was glorious.

There’s a strange mix in the city of cool metro and pure southern. The houses are southern, the food’s southern, there are southern gas stations on the corners, and there’s usually a southern man to hold the door. But the city itself is made largely of implants, non-natives, and it’s built physically of cold steel, and it feels like any city — charming, but modern and cool. It isn’t overwhelmingly one or the other, just hovers somehow as part of both. Somehow this makes it even better.

Driving out of Atlanta, at the end of every visit, you head north on I-85, through those 15 miles or more of exit lanes and traffic, and then the road opens up and becomes again a normal interstate — four lanes and 70-mile-an-hour speedlimits that nobody follows. Atlanta’s out of sight behind you and you miss it, but you’re still in Georgia, can still feel the south around you and taste it on your breath. The trees are lush and green and the topography’s distinct and the dirt when you can see it is red with clay.

An hour and a half north you get to Carnesville, with its lonely gas station and its weeds and its run-down buildings and its state roads and its southernness. And just beyond that you hit the lake, and the state line, and you see that red Georgia dirt again, but instead of filling you up with joy it makes you sad, because you’re leaving it. And then in the space of just a breath you’re in South Carolina — and the state feels different; a distinct shift — and that distinct feeling of the south is still borne within you, but outside of you it’s gone.

. . .

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