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 Saturday, July 12, 2014
 

California, Beta Test State, Part Six: On My Way Back to Georgia

 

It had been a tiring week of making sweeping generalizations based on anecdotal evidence, but I had enough energy left to make just a few more.

We had made a stopover in Dallas. Dulles Airport has people on hand to guide you if you can't find your way around. They wear cowboy hats. I thought that was quite corny. But in the same synapse fire I also thought, "If Atlanta airport employees were to wear headgear from the same era, what would it be? Klan hoods?"

Atlanta is often described as a city without an image. That's because most cities promote themselves on some aspect of their history: Dallas is cowboys and the Old West; Boston is Harvard and Irish immigrants; New York is Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty; Milwaukee is Germans and beer.

Our town, unfortunately, would be somewhere between sharecroppers, plantations, and segregated lunch counters. Those are all tough sells if you want to attract businesses, tourists and new residents. Even any reference to Gone with the Wind is muted, because it harkens back to those other things. I only recently found out about Joel Chandler Harris, who compiled the Uncle Remus stories that became the Disney movie Song of the South. Song of the South, the first feature length film to combine animation and live actors, the film that won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Song with "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," is now also buried, never released in its entirety on home video, because it's "racist." There's a reason I've never known about Joel Chandler Harris and his home here, the Wren's Nest, and that it wasn't the destination of an elementary school field trip: He's now portrayed as a white man who profited hugely from the theft of African-American folk tales, and so we must never speak of him.

So instead Atlanta is now a city that not only by appearance, but also by how much of its history it chooses to embrace, was essentially founded in 1970. The Allman Brothers, the B-52's and R.E.M. may as well have been the first residents. But if jettisoning our history means we aren't represented at the airport by people in dopey hats, maybe it's all worked out for the best.

(How did this conversation go at the Visitor and Tourism Bureau?

"Maybe we could promote ourselves on our agriculture. How about cotton? The Big Cotton Ball!"

"COTTON? WHAT?! THAT'S RACIST! SHHH!"

"Oh, sorry. How about, um, peaches, although California and South Carolina actually produce far more of them?"

"Yes! The Big Peach! I like it!")

"The City Too Busy to Hate" motto was invented after the climax of the Civil Rights movement to restore our tarnished image, and I would really be curious to trace the etymology of the phrase "Southern hospitality" to see if it isn't the same.

We landed in Atlanta. I went to baggage claim. Rather than appearing excited to be home, everyone stared silently into the distance, looking rather glum. An airport employee leaped onto the baggage carousel and shouted, "These bags are coming out at a high rate of speed! You could be injured! Step back! Step back!" Really? Some canvas bags going one mile an hour are a threat? I mused the absurdity of this to a fellow traveler, who continued staring forward, barely grunting an acknowledgement I'd said anything. No one was glancing around at each other so as to say, "Is this woman serious? Who put a bug up her butt? Why is she shouting at us?" Maybe they were just quietly grateful they weren't being mortally wounded by one pound fabric bags full of socks. I collected my luggage without breaking any bones and went outside to look for a shuttle to the parking lot.

Listening to N.W.A. and Ice-T, I'd always heard about the foreboding presence of the LAPD. Granted I was in Hollywood and not Compton, but I noticed I would only see a police car every two or three hours. Here at the Atlanta airport, there were five vehicles sitting by the curb, apparently waiting for friends, and three Atlanta police cars, blue lights on, edging up the driveway, the lead one angrily commanding through his loudspeaker, "Move your vehicle! Move your vehicle!" There was also a sign on the curb that said, "No standing." This would sound like a big joke if I didn't have a cousin who's doing 20 years on a standing rap (okay, NOW I'm joking). I started feeling less like I was returning home than being channeled into the penitentiary system. Morgan Freeman was surely somewhere in the shadows taking bets on how long I would last in this joint.

I saw a really pretty black lady on the curb, and did a double-take. Her eyes instantly dropped to her iPhone and her body language stiffened, because of course she was in danger of being raped right there in the no-standing zone.

After 10 minutes no shuttle appeared, so I called the number on my receipt. The attendant said, "Where you at? I got two buses out there right now!"

"I'm here on the curb where I was dropped off. I'm right here under the sign for American --" The signal went dead. That bitch had hung up on me in the middle of my sentence! I called back four or five times and no one picked up. After an hour I deduced the shuttle wouldn't pick me up where it had dropped me off, I had to go across the street, down the sidewalk, around the hill, to space number 12. Because no one could decide what kind of hats they would wear, there was no airport help staff to hip me to this.

As the plane had been descending in the night and the lights of Atlanta came into clearer view, I had just hoped that as I returned to familiar surroundings and routines that the broader perspective I had gained over the past week wouldn't quickly fade. That's why I'm writing it down now. Thanks for reading.
 
 

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