So what is about Atlanta that makes me dislike it so?
I thought about it, and came to a whole BUNCH of conclusions – a range of assorted things that irk me on a daily basis, every time I step out my front door and go to interact with the city. But then I thought – is there some underlying thing which foments my daily dismay, some underlying cause of which all these irksome things are only symptoms?
I think the answer is yes, and I think the answer is this: Atlanta is in the throes of a perpetual identity crisis.
I think about all the cities I mentioned last time I posted: New York, Las Vegas, Austin, St. Augustine. I think about a whole bunch of other cities that I’ve visited: New Orleans, Chicago, Nashville, Milwaukee. And when I think of them, I think of specific things which identify them, at least to me. You know those maps for kids that have a bunch of major U.S. cities marked on them, and where each city is, there’s this picture which kind of shows you what that city has to offer: like New York has the Statue of Liberty, and Orlando has Disney World? That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.
And while Atlanta usually has something on those maps, that something is usually a giant peach.
What kind of identity is a peach?
My wife says Atlanta is just trying to offer something different for each individual. I think that’s admirable. I also think it’s impossible. Whether you’re a person or a city, I say figure out what you are and BE THAT. Las Vegas has a lot to offer people, but it is defined by the Strip. New York is among the greatest cities in the world, because it embraces its metropolitan air: its overabundance of skyscrapers, taxicabs, and multilingual inhabitants. Austin is a the quintessential college town situated at the heart of a bustling Southwestern city, where you can see a hybrid parked right beside a rusty pick-up sporting a gun rack.
Atlanta, though. What is Atlanta?
Is it an “international” city, what with its enormous airport and international businesses? Well, we do have communities of first and second generation citizens, and visitors from around the world. But they come and go, and most people from other countries tend to stick to themselves. If we are an international city, I get no sense of it. Most of the people I interact with are very white or very black – and very American.
Is it a cultural city? Well, we have museums, theaters, a zoo, lots of festivals, and plenty of places to hear music. But they all seem to pale in comparison to other museums, et. al. that I’ve visited. It seems rare to me that we actually get a top tier museum exhibit, or a once in a lifetime show at the Fox. We have the Georgia Aquarium now, and that’s something, but I want more. I want a museum that approaches the Smithsonian, theaters that can compare favorably to Broadway, festivals like SXSW.
Is Atlanta a Southern city? A lot of great cities embrace their “Southernness”, but Atlanta, at the heart of Dixie, sometimes seems to be ashamed of its history. And some of that I understand – but could there be some way of positioning ourselves such that we recognize the past and embrace the lessons learned from it?
Is Atlanta a sports city? A decade ago, I would have said sure, what with the Braves consistently making the play-offs and the Falcons actually making the Super Bowl. Lately, even though everyone in Atlanta seems to be a fan of some team or another, most of the teams based in Atlanta or near Atlanta are doing only fair-to-middling to outright shitty. There are shots at glory – like Georgia’s College World Series appearance last year and the Hawks’ current shot at the play-offs – but these always seem to be losing propositions.
Is Atlanta a business city? This comes closer to hitting the mark, I think, than anything. We are, after all, the home of Coca-Cola, CNN, UPS, Home Depot, Chik-Fil-A, and Delta Airlines. But, unless you’re an employee of one of these companies, does their proximity to you affect you substantially more than it would if you didn’t live here? I can watch TCM in Las Vegas. I can drink a Coke in New York. Besides, how many of the metro area’s 5.5 million people actually work for a “name brand” business?
The fact that Atlanta can be construed to be any of these things, with NONE of them standing out, means we’re having an identity crisis. We’re all of these things without being any of them.
And this identity crisis, I believe, contributes to the odd contrasts and utter stupidity that I find when I go out: some people don’t know how to behave, politicians don’t know how to govern or manage money, hostilities arise from misunderstandings and misconceptions, and everything seems like a tug-of-war. If you want to get all macrocosmic, then it’s like Atlantans are all pawns in some great power struggle – except that no one knows who the powers are, no one understands the rules of the game, and no one knows what we’re struggling over.
As I said, I love the life I’ve built for myself and my family. I value my friendships and business relationships here. Hell, I like my actual HOUSE and the street I live on. I just wish the city I lived in was a city that I could point to and say, “Yeah. Here in Atlanta, this is what we do. This is who we are. ”
Hopefully, Atlanta can figure out what its identity is. Other than a peach.