Sunday, March 30, 2008

Driving Miss O'Hara

"Scarlett had always liked Atlanta for the very same reasons that made Savannah, Augusta and Macon condemn it. Like herself, the town was a mixture of the old and new in Georgia, in which the old often came off second best in its conflicts with the self-willed and vigorous new."
--Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
Yesterday, I found myself particularly sentimental about my former home, Atlanta. I don’t know why I found the capital of the Peach State on my mind, but I couldn’t seem to keep from reminiscing. Perhaps it was the warm spring air or the sight of blooming flora that got me thinking. The catalyst is not as important, however, as the content of my thoughts.

So it was ironic that I accidentally found “Driving Miss Daisy” on television last night. I’d never seen the movie before, but it’s set in Atlanta, and it was heartwarming to hear the street and place names that I knew so well.

It seems that I miss Atlanta far more than I thought I would. The first 22 years of my life were spent in Georgia, and it has been difficult to adjust to a new place. It’s funny, in a way I feel homeless and in a way I feel that I have two homes.

This time last year, I would not have thought that I'd have these feelings. I was certainly apprehensive about leaving my friends, but I was also excited about living in a new place. For much of my adolescent life, I plotted on getting out of Georgia; only now that I've escaped do I realize how attached I was to the place.

In time, I know that I’ll come to know Washington as well as I know Atlanta, but it’s starting to dawn on me that Washington can never and should never replace Atlanta in my heart. I often wonder now, whether I was overly critical. Don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets about my relocation, but it has been a sad realization to know that while I can visit Atlanta, it will never be the same as it was. A chapter in my life has been closed, and I suppose my feelings are a desire to revisit some of my favorite paragraphs.

There's a song out there that reminds us that "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," and I certainly agreed with the statement before moving to Washington, mainly in the sense indicated by another line in the song, where they "paved over paradise and put up a parking lot." This practice is commonplace in America, but is probably more so in Atlanta than in other places. A thought that occurred to me while watching "Driving Miss Daisy," was that it must have been hard to find filming locations that showed an Atlanta of the past. I have heard and read that one of the things that makes Atlanta a progressive city (at least for the South) is the sense of an inferiority complex.

Atlanta is surrounded by the agrarian South. Many rural Georgians claim that Atlanta isn't really part of the state. In their opinions, it's very un-southern. Of course, in my opinion, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Still, in order to prove to itself and to outsiders that it is not merely a product of its geography, Atlanta tries extra hard to make sure it's included in the list of modern, world-class cities. Atlanta feels the need to prove that it's a real city, and as such much of the historic architecture has been replaced by the gleaming steel and glass towers that mark it as the largest city between Washington and Miami.

However, because it grew up during the age of the automobile, it lacks the density of cities like Washington and Baltimore. Similarly, its efforts to modernize itself have, in many respects, robbed it of the charm that can be seen in other southern cities like Savannah and Charleston.

I've never really thought of myself as southern. I lack the characteristic accent of my fellow north Georgians and I am appalled by the racist history of the southland which many consider a matter of heritage. There is no denying it, however, Atlanta is southern and I am starting to realize, now, how southern I really am. The American South is often characterized as a place of hospitality, and I know that idea comes from the deference southerners give to respect for authority and keeping up appearances.

Atlanta is a city filled with people not only from Georgia but from around the world, yet there is a pervasive sense of politeness in the town. Traffic is tamer and strangers even chat on the subway. I suppose culture can still be shaped by geography and history even in these days of mobility and international trade.

Perhaps the realization that I am coming to is my way of dealing with my own history. I don't think that I've completely come to terms with my feelings, but I am starting to understand that perhaps I was too harsh in my judgment of the South. I doubt that I'll ever live there again, but now know that I will always carry the memory of growing up beneath the "southern skies" that Glenn Campbell was so fond of.

I suppose that this periodic sentimentality, perhaps similar to the 'Ostalgie' of East Germans, indicates that my being a southerner means more than drinking sweet tea (or trying to up here in Yankee-land) and calling my professors by their appropriate title.

Regardless of my introspection, my geographic choices have long been a study in contrasts. The aforementioned feelings of Georgians about Atlanta probably stems from those same attributes alluded to by Margaret Mitchell above. Atlanta is a decidedly southern city with a notably non-southern feel. Now, I live in a state which most southerners (myself included) think is northern, despite being located south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Still, most Marylanders consider the Old Line State to be a southern one. And the city which I moved here to live in, Washington, DC, was derided by John F. Kennedy as a city "of northern charm and southern efficiency."

I suppose I'll come to terms with these feelings eventually, but for now, it should suffice to say that I miss Atlanta and I'm not yet acclimated to Washington.

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