My 24th Birthday in Atlanta
Disclaimer: This post comes a full three weeks after my trip. And the way I would’ve written about it while there, one week after, and now three weeks after has most likely changed. Nonetheless, this Pen Sunday is about spending my 24th birthday in Atlanta.
Hartfield Jackson International is the busiest airport in the United States. However, when I landed there on February 12th there was nothing that convinced me that could possibly be true. I’ve been to big airports. Heathrow, Dallas Fort Worth, LAX. I’ve been to small airports. Mesa-Gateway in Arizona, Hector “International” in Fargo, North Dakota, Pueblo Memorial in Colorado. And at best, Hartfield Jackson seemed to best fit somewhere in the middle tier between them all. The busiest airport in the US? If that’s what they say, but it wasn’t apparent to me. The feeling of a hidden truth that was invisible to me was my first impression of Atlanta. This feeling would remain with me for the rest of my trip.
I stared out at different patches of woods as I waited in the Uber/Lyft lot. Blocky apartment buildings and homes with wide lawns were scattered about with roads running between them in a way that reminded me of Minnesota. Atlanta is coined ‘The city in the forest.’ From everything I could see, that was true. Atlanta has also been coined ‘The Black Mecca’ of the United States, and only judging from the group of predominantly Black people waiting with me for their Uber’s, that seemed to be true so far too. But I’ll have more on that later.
My Airbnb host recommended I take Marta since it would be easier and cheaper, but I’m not one to take public transport when first arriving in a new city. My process is just to get there. So I climbed into my uber and less than ten minutes later was stuck in a full line of traffic.
I have a knack for staying in odd places. I never do it on purpose, but it’s one of the things where the place seems normal online, then shifts to a little odd once I arrive, then shifts to abject horror on the faces of people when I describe to them where I’ve stayed. This Airbnb was no different.
I entered through the side gate into the backyard as instructed by the host. The basement area of the house is where I would be staying, and the door to it was open, but I would need to be shot dead before I wander into a stranger’s house in the deep south uninvited. Airbnb or not.
When I solo travel I often write myself ‘Travel Guidelines.’ Little things that I think of on the road that serve as…well, a guideline…when traveling. What came to mind for this trip was:
Don’t do anything that significantly increases your chances of being on the news
And so I sent a text to the host that I was outside. She responded that she was just finishing my room and it’d be another five minutes. No worries. Feeling more assured than I had been one minute ago, I set my bag down by a tree and wandered to the back of the backyard; until soon the ‘yard’ part of it stopped. Meaning there was the yard: Mowed grass, a couple of benches, a tree, etc; but then beyond that, were pieces of a chainlink fence and an opening into an adjacent section of forest. Again, this was familiar to me from my time spent in northern Minnesota, where everyone’s backyards bleed into and become the woods sooner or later, so feeling at home-ish I decided to walk to the tree line and check it out.
And what I discovered on my way there is the exact type of ‘odd’ I can’t seem to stop coming across. Because where the ‘end’ of the backyard should’ve been, was a wide hill that led down into what looked like the once-upon-a-time structure of an old house. But without any house remnants, so it was just a huge square of missing dirt about 6ft deep. Almost as if someone took a lego-shaped brick directly out of the Earth.
So I turned around and waited on the bench by my bag.
“The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) is the principal public transport operator in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Formed in 1971 as strictly a bus system, MARTA operates a network of bus routes linked to a rapid transit system consisting of 48 miles of rail track with 38 train stations. MARTA’s rapid transit system is the eighth-largest rapid transit system in the United States by ridership.”
For the second time in less than two hours, I called Atlanta’s business into question. Because as I walked the cold, empty, halls of the Oakland City Marta station, I could’ve sworn there should’ve been at least someone else around. But there wasn’t. Only when I sumitted the escalator to wait for the train into downtown did I see a handful of other people waiting. And once again, everyone there was Black.
[In fact let’s make a NOTE: That for the rest of the locations/events I describe throughout this post, assume the majority of people around me are Black. This isn’t the type of note I would usually make, but if you’ve never lived in a predominantly Black area or city (which I haven’t) then it can’t go unstated of what it feels like to always look around and see regular everyday Black people just going about their regular everyday life.]
I took the Marta train from Oakland City station to Peachtree Center (downtown), Midtown, and Arts Center (uptown*) and back every day while on my trip. I never saw more than 30 people waiting for the train at any one of the stations. Morning, day, night. I couldn’t tell if I was too early, too late, too…something. But whenever the train pulled in, every one of the cars would be full. The city always seemed to be one step ahead, and two steps left of whatever I was expecting. It made me feel like I was missing something. Like whatever I heard about Atlanta was located in the exact place I just looked away from.
I spent the next few days doing what I always do when discovering a new place. I put my headphones on, changed into some comfortable shoes, and got to walking. Day one was a ‘free’ day. I got off MARTA downtown with the single abstract goal of checking things out, seeing how I feel, and trying to catch the vibe of the city.
Downtown Atlanta reminded me of Los Angeles. There was a gritty brashness to it. It’s seeing modified SUVs with spinning rims and green lights, bumping bass, and black windows cruise past worn-down buildings. Or the occasional Ferrari revving through a stoplight just to get stopped in traffic on the other side. The largest difference however was that here, everyone walked as they had somewhere to be.
I continued up to the legendary Fox Theatre and Olympic Park (Atlanta hosted the Olympics in 1996, ushering it in as an ‘international’ city) and kept going until I eventually found myself on the Georgia Tech campus. I stopped to rest and eat at what could best be described as a plaza, and had possibly the best rosemary chicken and chicken soup I’ve ever had in my entire life. After bagging my chicken to take outside, the cashier told me to “Have a blessed day.” Right, this is the south. I thought. I didn’t know what the proper/expected response was to that, so I just replied “You to.” and carried on; feeling one-hundred percent sure that was incorrect.
Regardless, this first ‘Right, this is the South’ moment jumpstarted my thinking about the framing of my birthday trip to this city. What do I really know about the south? God? The civil war? Backcountry living? All I really know is what I’ve heard. And so I began to ask challenging questions. Of myself, race, history, this country, the south, and God. Or perhaps more accurately, Atlanta herself began questioning me.
I’m a west coast, suburban, lightskin (but racially ambiguous if we’re being honest) black kid with a white mother and a Black father. Would that even be accepted here? How would it be perceived? How different would my perceptions or experience with/about race be if this is where I grew up? What would my school experience be like? What would it mean to be raised in a city with so much racial history/significance? A field trip to a civil war battleground would have to impact you differently than a field trip to the local science center. Right?
I didn’t know.
My second day in Atlanta was my birthday. I turned 24 years old. I wanted to wake up early, but because of the time change from the West Coast, waking up at 9 am my personal time, meant noon in Atlanta. It was a cold day. I talked to my mother and my grandparents on the phone. And my grandmother told me a story about how she wrote a letter to Atlanta’s mayor’s office as a school project when she was a girl. They sent her a booklet of photos in return. She thought it was a pretty city. And it was. The Atlanta skyline reminded me of Chicago. Chicago’s skyline is Chicago’s but still. In the United States, take all the pretty skylines you can get.
I returned my rented bike but into it’s bike-rack, after a short-lived bike experience around Piedmont Park. I was shockingly underdressed for how cold it was while riding. And so I made a note to myself to consider not spending any more birthdays in cities where it’s still cold in February. Feeling my experience outside for the day was over, I found a cozy bar by the park to warm up and call home for the next few hours as I wrote in my journal, drank some rum, ate some wings, and watched the first half of the Superbowl. Happy birthday to me.
On the MARTA home, a woman dropped something out of her purse. I don’t know what it was, but it landed right at the feet of a group of 3 teenage boys. One of the boys pointed to it and said “It’s right thur ma’am” in the deepest, most southern drawl voice I’ve ever heard up until that point. None of the boys made an effort to pick it up. I thought that was strange, but the woman took no issue with it as she got out of her seat to grab it.
My third day in Atlanta was the closest iteration to what I had in mind when I first booked my plane ticket. I started in the early afternoon at Piedmont Park. The weather was warm. And over the next several hours, I crossed a highway to Atlantic Station (which I had read online was no more than a glorified mall) and found that to be true. Before turning around and walking all the way back to Ansley Park, through Piedmont Park, and over to Virginia-Highland on the east side of Atlanta. There, I stopped in a bookstore.
Throughout this walking, more questions, inspiration, and ideas would pop into my head. I’d see the Atlanta skyline from a new angle, or see a group of ten Black people exiting a high-end restaurant and I’d try my best to envision what my life would be like if I moved here. The night before, I had gone online and found an Atlanta writing group. One that’d help with getting managers or agents. The group covered all the forms of writing I was most interested in. Books, scripts, and poetry. And I decided if I were to move here I’d need a sign. (Since that one wasn’t what I was looking for apparently).
I exited the book store an hour or so later with a copy of “Things Fall Apart.” And it was there in Virginia-Highland when I realized that suddenly, the majority of people around me were white. It reminded me of Portland, the quaintness of it. And by the end of my trip, I’d understand that while Atlanta is 50% Black (and proud of it) the city is similar to others in the US in that white people live over here, and Black people live over there. Even if the integration seemed ‘real’ while walking the streets downtown, the truth remained that different races still lived separately. Once when I was in college a professor drew a Venn diagram on a whiteboard. One side was labeled “Race” the other was labeled “Class.” He went on to say that the world could be understood using only these two circles.
The sun showed the first signs of setting as I made my way through the Old Fourth Ward. I walked a trail to a skate park (donated by Tony Hawk) intending to take a right and head back towards downtown, but the trail kept going, so I decided I would too. And that’s how I discovered the Beltline.
“The Beltline is a former railway corridor around the core of Atlanta, Georgia, under development in stages as a multi-use trail. Some portions are already complete, while others are still in a rough state but hikeable. Using existing rail track easements, the Beltline is designed to improve transportation, add green space, and promote redevelopment.”
This was the Atlanta I felt when first booking my plane ticket.
So many different people on the trail. Talking on phones, on a date, with their families, passing a wall of murals, enjoying the setting sun behind the skyline. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Latino, it didn’t matter. Everyone was using the trail. So much life. I walked it for what must’ve been two or three miles before finally, the walking of the day caught up with my legs. I was tired, content with what I’d accomplished for the day, and was ready to go home. And so I did. Feeling proud that I’d finally captured “an Atlanta moment.”
My last day in Atlanta came and went. I went to the Museum of High Art, walked through the multi-million dollar homes of Ansley Park, saw a Black woman tending to a garden of a presumably rich white person’s house– (which stood out to me given the context of the south) this woman was just doing a job…but it felt more to it than that. Was I projecting that? Or did it actually mean something since this was the south. I was unsure.
I continued walking until I came upon a group of Black and Latino landscapers. I passed along minding my own business when one of them stopped me and said “Buenas tardes.”
“Buenas.” I answered.
“Eres un estudiante?” He said, referring to the backpack I’d been carrying around for 3 days.
“Si.” I answered because it was easiest. “Que esta haciendo?” I asked him. He shrugged and looked around at the dirt site. “Trabajando.” He answered because it was easiest. I nodded. Our interaction seemed complete. “Hasta luego.”
“Ciao.” I replied.
At the end of the day, I stopped at a bar nearby another MARTA station. Bars are easy places for solo travelers because it’s one of the few locations, unlike a restaurant per say, where you can spend as long as you want there without getting too much of an odd look. Once you eat at a restaurant, you’re expected to leave within a reasonable amount of time, (in the US at least), and so I was content to find a spot on the bar rail and yet again, open up my notebook and kill a few hours before taking the last train home.
I ordered food and a drink and the bartender asked if I wanted grits for my side. And who am I to deny grits in Atlanta? So I said yeah and asked the bartender if he was from Atlanta. He wasn’t, he moved from South Carolina 8 months ago. I asked him if the city seemed quiet to him. Where were all the people? He checked his watch and answered ‘probably the Beltline.’ Which, had someone asked him that question yesterday at the same exact time, the Beltline is where I would’ve been. He went on to say that although the bar was dead now (just me, him, and one other on the rail) the place would be packed at 11 pm. And it dawned on me.
I’d been experiencing Atlanta wrong. Atlanta is a driving, car-centric, sprawling city. I walked everywhere for 3 days. I woke up early to make the most of my day, feeling fully content to go home a couple of hours after sundown. In Atlanta, the night didn’t start until 11. It’s sorta funny, isn’t it?
He asked me how the grits were and I said good. I finished my drink and went on my way. Knowing that my time in Atlanta was over, and feeling that way too.
I woke up early the day of my flight feeling like I had seen everything I wanted to see in the city, so I made my mind up to spend the day in the airport waiting for my flight. I showered, packed, and on my way out saw three different Black people, two girls, one boy, around my age who (I assume) were staying in different rooms of the Airbnb. Here I was, four days into my trip thinking I was the only person in the Airbnb, and on my way out the door I run into three complete strangers who acted like they’d been there their whole lives.
I wanted to just stop them and ask, “Do you think this place is strange? Why and how are you making that dress in the kitchen? Why is everyone dressed so proper? What is that hole in the backyard? What am I missing about this place? How come every question I have feels like the only answer is hundreds of years of history and more questions? Where have you been this whole trip? Why are all of the MARTA station bathrooms locked?” But I didn’t. My trip was over.
As I sat at the gate back to Phoenix only three things went through my mind. One, I still felt as if the ‘real’ Atlanta was something I had either missed or misunderstood. The south was definitely different, and the city had challenged me in a unique way. And this trip had felt like a bookmark in something I couldn’t understand yet.
Two, I’ve never felt so clear about who I am and where I was raised in contrast to a place I had visited.
And three, the court case was officially closed. I had gone to Atlanta looking for answers, and I found the only one that truly matters:
I needed to get back to LA.