Thursday, January 31, 2008

Atlanta - a History Lesson

I am from Atlanta. Before anyone reading this gets offended, I want everything I say to be understood as coming from the perspective of an Atlantan writing about my own place of birth. My mother was from Atlanta, as were her parents, so I am not just a transient son, but truly an Atlanta native.

Atlanta is not a Southern city. It has Southerners in it, but so does New York, Los Angeles, and practically every city in America. As they say, you can take the man out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the man. But Atlanta is not a Southern city. I truly believe if it were so very Southern, it would have served as the capital of the Confederacy in the Civil War. It was more strategically placed, more developed in infrastructure, and also a capital of one of the largest states in the Confederacy. But Atlanta was not trusted then. It was not trusted because it was founded by Northern railroad money as a depot (it's original name was Terminus). It was destroyed, and then it was rebuilt with Northern investors (among them, ironically, William Tecumseh Sherman, its destroyer). In recent years, it has been revitalized and renewed by money from all over the world. It is a city full of transients, and while (as I said before) many of them are Southerners, plenty of them are from everywhere else, too. Compare it to Savannah, Georgia, a beautiful genteel city full of Southern history, Southern ways, and Southerners (and not so much of anything else). Charlotte, North Carolina, is one of the largest Southern cities - it is still largely Southern in its makeup, and it even has rocking chairs in the airport. But to understand why Atlanta is not a Southern city, it is necessary to ask anyone from the "true South" (the rural South) if Atlanta is a Southern city. They will kindly oblige you with a "Heck No" if they're being respectful.

I actually had a roommate hating me within a few days of my moving in because I did not join him in trying to convince our NJ roommate that the South was perfect, and indeed Heaven on Earth. I simply asked him, "Have you ever been to South Georgia?" he asked me something rather crude that should not be repeated to basically inquire whether I was trying to prove my Southerness, to which I said "I just want to know if you've ever been to South Georgia." He informed me he had, once. For about an hour. To that I explained "Then you do not know what the South really is."

My point to him was that the South, wonderful as it is, definitely has its flaws. In the places outside Atlanta, there are farmers who struggle to get by, and people who think going off to college means attending the local community college, or if they are going a long way off, the small university an hour from home. Let me be perfectly clear in saying I do not look down on the very different mindset that I observe among Southerners as compared with the more cosmopolitan perspective of Atlantans. I just see them as very different. Again, one coversation with anyone from South Georgia makes it clear that Atlanta is not in the South. The common dividing line for the North and South historically is the Mason-Dixon line, but in South Georgia they tell people from Atlanta it's the "Macon-Dixie line" (Macon being a city an hour south of Atlanta). They just don't like those "city ways" or "them Atlanta Yankees" and don't mind telling anyone as much.

I love Atlanta. Ask my wife what she sees in my eyes every time we visit and I see that beautiful skyline. I do not write this post to attack where I grew up. I just know that Atlanta has as many roots from non-Southerners as Southerners. And that ain't so bad.


le35 said...

I didn't understand what Rob told me about Atlanta not being southern for a long while. I'm a western girl who grew up in Utah. People in south Georgia call me a Yankee. (I'm not one of those either.) After traveling around the states some, there's a feel to a western city like Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, or Phoenix. There's a feel to a southern city like Savannah or Charlotte. There's also a feel to a northeastern city like New York or Boston. Atlanta feels more like New York or Boston than like Savannah or Charlotte. Atlanta really is not a southern city.

Robert said...

Yes, Atlanta definitely feels more like New York or Boston to me than it feels like Charlotte or even Nashville. I felt the same way about Dublin, Ireland, when I went there: it's not really "Irish" so much as cosmopolitan. It felt very different from the rest of the country. Cities, once they reach a certain size, lose a lot of their local culture and become more worldly. Atlanta has become a city where few people are "from" there anymore, but instead most simply live there, and then only for as long as that particular job lasts. Still it has some great qualities that I enjoy very much.

le35 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Julie Pippert said...

I think there is a generic thing to big American cities, on the surface. I think these large cities are often populated with people from elsewhere, as well, which lends more to that feeling of generic. Add in the loss of mom and pop and rise of generic chain retail, and it even architecturally looks the same. There's an architectural movement that researches the effect of generic architecture on regional culture. Very interesting.

Still. Some of the underlying regional culture remains.

When I lived in Atlanta I found it very typical cosmopolitan big city. However, eventually, I found it Southern. I ran across ideas and ideals I identified with the South. Some of them were surprising to me. Some were shocking. Some were nice.

In Boston, I found another city that seemed quite big city typical. But again, eventually I found it rather New Englandish in its ideas and ideals. Some were surprising, some shocking, some nice.

Robert said...

Julie, you've nailed a lot of how I feel about Atlanta. My main point in saying it is not Southern, though, is to point out what I have personally observed people from the South say and feel about it. And the history of the city explains a lot of that to me - it was not trusted enough to be the capitol despite being the most logical place strategically and logistically. When I mistakenly said to some Southerners that Atlanta was "the capitol of the South" many of them would scoff at the notion and remind me that no, Richmond was "the capitol in the War". I love it, nonetheless, and I certainly see some of its Southern qualities, but I'm from there. I see Boston as one gigantic college town - full of energy and history and culture, but not just one culture - but it definitely feels New Englandish to me. It is a great town to visit, and that's one of the reasons we started our honeymoon there. But I'm sure if I spent enough time there, I could see more of its generic qualities. I just think I see it has more of its own flavor than even Atlanta. Maybe I'd see it as more generic if I spent more time there and in the surrounding cities of the area.

Thanks for the comments.