This column first appeared on August 26, 2006 in the Weekly Trust newspaper.
By Farooq A. Kperogi
As regular readers of this column already know, I have relocated from Louisiana to Atlanta, Georgia. This relocation explains the change in the name of this column. But why should the name of this column change to “Notes from Atlanta,” and not “Notes from Georgia”? Georgia is, after all, the name of the state of which Atlanta is only the capital—just like Louisiana is the name of a state where I used to reside and write this column from.
Well, the answer is straightforward. When I used to live in Louisiana, I lived in a quiet, little-known, mid-sized city called Lafayette (which locals love to say has the sophistication of a big city and the warmth and intimacy of a small town) that does not have instant name recognition beyond the American Deep South. It therefore made sense to me to name my column after the state instead of the city.
But Atlanta is a different city. It is not only the state capital (unlike Lafayette which is only the third biggest city in Louisiana) of the most prosperous state in the American South, and one of the most prosperous in the nation; its name is probably more popular than the name of the state it is capital of. That explains why I had no hesitation attaching the name of the city to my column. Well, but who cares?
Although I had visited this charming, exquisite—and, yes, intimidating!—city that its inhabitants fondly call “Hotlanta” (actually pronounced something like H-AA-T-L-A-N-A), I cannot resist being held spellbound by its lavish architectural beauty, its infectious energy, its ornate drawing rooms and manicured gardens, its awe-inspiring skyscrapers and delightful skyline, its high-speed express ways, its meandering main streets and, above all, its pleasant and energetic people.
After only a little over two weeks here, I perfectly understand why the state of Georgia is dubbed the “Jewel of the South” by Americans.
This is a state of robust variety, gaiety and contrasts. Nature, culture and history intermingle here with a vibrancy that is sure to delight and tickle the admiration of just about any body who loves people and society. This state is a thoughtfully composed symphony of natural and synthetic wonderments. Like someone I met here remarked, quite correctly in my view, Mother Nature not only generously smiled on Georgia; she pampered her like an only child!
However, one of my friends from Europe, in what I consider a reluctant praise, told me he couldn’t live in Atlanta because the city is “too new,” too flashy, too disconnected from the past, too preoccupied with the present, and too arrogant and self-assured about its future. Strange, isn’t it?
But he is partly right—and partly wrong. True, there are scarcely any buildings in this city that bridge the past and the present; no buildings dating back to several centuries exist here. It’s all modern, even postmodernist, architecture, unlike many European cities—and even other American cities.
And the reason is not far to find: During the American Civil War, precisely in 1864, Atlanta was literally burned down to smithereens by federal forces. It was the war headquarters of secessionist Southern states.
But, like the mythical Phoenix, it emerged from its ashes and became one of the most flourishing cities in the United States. In spite of its “newness,” however, Atlanta is still steeped in history. History hounds can visit several places of historical significance here.
I am not, however, going to bore my readers with place descriptions here. As a reader of travel narratives myself, place descriptions bore the pants off me. I find them self-indulgent and denuded of social and historical content—which are my reasons for reading travel literature in the first place. I imagine that this is the case for most people who are concerned with cultures, social history of places, and the contemporary struggles and realities of the real living people of particular places.
Atlanta occupies a special place in the United States not just because it is home to CNN, the world’s first 24-hour cable television; or because it is home to Coca Cola, the world’s first bottled drink (introduced in 1886); or because it is the birthplace of Martin Luther, the icon of the American civil rights movement and first Black man to win a Nobel Prize; or because it is the national headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control, the United Parcel Service (UPS) and the American Cancer Society—all central institutions in America; or because it is the 9th biggest and the third fastest-growing city in the United States; or because it is home to the world’s biggest and busiest international airport. All of these—and many more too numerous to bother with in a newspaper column—do make Atlanta important.
But more than that, this city is the symbol not just of what is called the New South, but is an embodiment of the historical and cultural dialogue between the Old South and the New South. In very simple terms, the American South refers to states that attempted to secede from the United States between 1861 and 1865. This, of course, precipitated a bitter and sanguinary civil war in which the federal government, called the “Union” in American history books, emerged victorious.
The war was fought, according to mainstream American history, over the abolition of slavery. The Southern states didn’t want slavery abolished because their economy depended on it. The Northern states, on the other hand, had advanced beyond agriculture and could afford the luxury to prick their consciences and remind themselves that slavery was abhorrent. Georgia was one of the states that wanted slavery in perpetuity.
After the war, the South was devastated and reduced to the economic backwaters of the United States. The Old South was not only comparatively economically backward but was glued to the emotions and sentiments of the Civil War and the cultural singularities that stood out the South from the North.
States of the New South are the economically prosperous states that have not only come to terms with their new realities but have embraced them. Georgia intersects the New and the Old South.
In this lavishly prosperous and modern city, people have not lost the cultural uniqueness that makes them “Southern.” People still beam broad smiles at strange faces, address everybody “sir,” or “ma’am”—even if they are their social inferiors—and call total strangers “my darling,” “my sweetie,” “my love,” and such other words of endearment that we ordinarily reserve only for people who are intimate to us. Personal warmth, politeness, chivalry, community, and family values are still much cherished virtues here.
However, Atlanta is not all perfect. It has its own ugly sides. There is, for instance, a subtle, even suppressed, but nonetheless strong racial tension in this city that American Blacks love to call a “chocolate city” on account of the significant numerical strength of Black people here. (Chocolate is a metaphor for the color of the Black skin).
The mutual suspicion and distrust between black and white people here is palpable. It is manifested in the (voluntarily) racially segregated housing in the city and in the crying—I think obscene is a better word—economic disparity between blacks and whites.
Downtown Atlanta swarms with Black beggars like flies on a decomposing carcass. And all they usually beg for is a quarter, that is 25 cents. (A hundred cents make a dollar.) It is not only embarrassing; it is deeply depressing. It makes even the most confident and self-assured person of African descent to suffer from feelings of low self-worth because the status of black people here directly or indirectly has a bearing on every black person in the city.
For instance, it is infinitely frustrating asking for directions if you are a new black resident in the city. People, both black and white, mistake you for a beggar (well, they call beggars “panhandlers” here; some way of conferring dignity on an absolutely shameful thing!) when you stop them to ask questions.
The best way to find directions here if you’re Black, at least from my personal experience, is to be bold, dispense with civilities and pleasantries, and directly make your inquiries. That sets you apart from the army of Black beggars here.
And asking a black male for directions can lead you to a little trouble here. He may turn out to be a beggar who would insist on being paid for his “service,” and could get violent if you disoblige him. I have been a victim of this situation at least twice since I have been here. There appears to be a mass madness (if there is any such thing as that) among Black people in this city.