A reluctant Atlanta transplant says goodbye to a city that became home
“It’s all downhill from here,” my father said.
It was the summer of 1998, and I was sitting in my apartment, not far from the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, calling my parents in New York to announce I would soon be returning to the States – something my dad had been urging me to do.
Had he really predicted that my life post-Florence would never measure up to this moment? I don’t remember how I replied. I only remember looking around my flat and feeling the push and pull of my two worlds as I watched my neighbor’s laundry flutter over our narrow, cobblestone street.
I’d wound up in Florence because I was an Italian major in college. Lured by the magic of a semester abroad in the Tuscan city of Siena, I was determined to go back and live in Italy. So I took off for the city of Dante right after graduation, living in Florence for several years.
But then I met an American in Italy — a fellow New York stater — and we fell in love. So after a few weeks at home on Long Island with my parents, I flew to Atlanta to join him for his new Stateside work assignment.
Where do you go when you leave the birthplace of the Italian renaissance? Unless it’s New York or Paris or heaven, you’re in a pickle. No place in Atlanta could match my final apartment in Florence, which had been at the top of a medieval tower with a nearly 360-degree view of the city.
But I learned something about myself during that grieving period. To paraphrase the Italian novelist Antonio Tabucchi, we become fused with the places we inhabit. Somehow, often unbeknownst to us, we carry those places around with us. We don’t ever truly leave them because they don’t ever truly leave us.
His idea resonates especially now because this month, I’ll finish packing up a literary hoarder’s worth of books, articles and mementos from my house in Grant Park and I’ll move to Connecticut to be closer to family. And once that’s done, most likely I’ll never return to Atlanta to live.
Click below to read more about how Bonner’s relationship with Atlanta changed through the years.
Its all downhill from here, my father said. It was the summer of 1998, and I was sitting in my apartment, not far from the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, calling my parents in New York to announce I would soon be returning to the States something my dad had been urging me to do. Had he really predicted that my life post\-Florence would never measure up to this moment? I dont remember how I replied. I only remember looking around my flat and feeling the push and pull of my two worlds as I watched my neighbors laundry flutter over our narrow, cobblestone street. Id wound up in Florence because I was an Italian major in college. Lured by the magic of a semester abroad in the Tuscan city of Siena, I was determined to go back and live in Italy. So I took off for the city of Dante right after graduation, living in Florence for several years But then I met an American in Italy a fellow New York stater and we fell in love. So after a few weeks at home on Long Island with my parents, I flew to Atlanta to join him for his new Stateside work assignment.
Where do you go when you leave the birthplace of the Italian renaissance? Unless its New York or Paris or heaven, youre in a pickle. No place in Atlanta could match my final apartment in Florence, which had been at the top of a medieval tower with a nearly 360\-degree view of the city. It didnt help that Mike and I initially lived in an area of Marietta so unlike Florence that it didnt occur to me one day when I set off on foot to catch a bus that the nearest stop would be three miles. Nonetheless, wherever Id have gone, I would have been in mourning for my Italian life. Driving around in the old maroon Monte Carlo Mike retrieved from storage, I would often weep quietly as he played Italian songs on the car stereo. But I learned something about myself during that grieving period. To paraphrase the Italian novelist Antonio Tabucchi, we become fused with the places we inhabit. Somehow, often unbeknownst to us, we carry those places around with us. We dont ever truly leave them because they dont ever truly leave us. His idea resonates especially now because this month, Ill finish packing up a literary hoarders worth of books, articles and mementos from my house in Grant Park and Ill move to Connecticut to be closer to family. And once thats done, most likely Ill never return to Atlanta to live.
_**Photo:** Oakland Cemetery. Chris Hunt_
**Hello Atlanta** I first stepped off the plane in Atlanta in July 1998 and was immediately struck by the hot press of air. This was back when airline passengers often deplaned directly onto the tarmac. What is that? I wondered. I felt as if the flight attendant had thrown a blanket over my face. It was, of course, the Atlanta heat. The plane had touched down around 9 p.m. but little of the days swelter had dissipated. Mikes apartment off Columns Drive in Marietta had the requisite patio seemingly every apartment in Atlanta has. Nice but it looked out over a parking lot. The apartment was in the suburbs near his job but far from anything that would feel familiar. In Florence, our life had revolved around meeting up in piazzas and walking to cheap mom\-and\-pop restaurants that served the most incredible food Id ever eaten. In Atlanta we went everywhere by car. Indeed, we were hemmed in by cars at every turn. I developed a visceral dislike of popular restaurants because their strip\-mall settings lacked ambience. Driving through the empty streets of downtown Atlanta left me frustrated by the wasted potential for a thriving city center. It was nothing like where I grew up, in the suburbs of New York City. I cringed as I thought about the famous New Yorker magazine poster of the world hanging in my parents bathroom, which showed the streets of Manhattan writ large in the foreground and the rest of the planet California, China, et al much smaller in the background. Perhaps I had made a mistake moving to Atlanta. That early period in Atlanta would be marked by many false starts. I spent those early years complaining with other transplants about how there was nowhere to walk in Atlanta, nowhere to window shop. Where were the squares where people gathered? The Beltline wasnt even a gleam in Ryan Gravels eye, back then. To compensate, we decorated our cookie\-cutter apartment with mementos from Italy, including a portrait an artist friend had painted of me back in Florence. The supernaturally large green eyes my eyes watched over me and our white\-carpeted suburban digs. Eventually, we moved to Vinings where we could walk down the hill from our apartment complex to the towns little shopping district. We enjoyed drinking on the second floor deck at the Old Vinings Inn, and wed wave to the train conductor whenever we were eating at New York Pizza Exchange, whose outdoor patio abuts a very active railroad crossing. Heres what I eventually learned about Atlanta: You can stumble around until you find your spot. And thats what I did. A turning point came when I finagled my way into an editorial position at a trade publication for the security industry. At last I was on my way to becoming a journalist. But after three years, we left Atlanta, somewhat in dismay over the regions failure to recognize the intown area as the necessary cultural and economic driver for everything else. We moved to Greenville, South Carolina, where I landed my first newspaper reporting gig. From there we moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where I got a job as a business reporter at a daily newspaper. But after five years, we got the itch to move again. When a job opportunity came up for Mike in Atlanta, we went house scouting one March weekend in 2008. As luck would have it, it was one of those periods in Atlanta when summer splashes out a little early. The weather was lush and tropical and so unlike Pennsylvania. I was giddy as we drove with the windows down through Cabbagetown and Grant Park. We ate calamari tacos at Six Feet Under and looked out on what would become one of my favorite places in Atlanta: Oakland Cemetery. Atlanta seemed so exciting that weekend, I felt as if Id washed up in some happening island nation. Many of the intown neighborhoods had been revitalized. We found a little Victorian cottage with a front porch in Grant Park and called it home. It took six months to wrap up my job and my life in Allentown before I could join Mike in Atlanta. When I finally did, I realized Allentown had put roots down inside of me, casting me in a permanent state of remorse over leaving, over what could have been. As if the city were a lover who had jilted me. I came to the conclusion that with each move I make, I gain something and I lose something. Its become the story of my life.
**Second time around** With the second residency in Atlanta, I put down roots in a major way. Thats because this time around, I became a mother, giving birth to Leo. I was also reborn as an aspiring creative writer. Atlanta is where I began a journaling marathon spanning multiple mammoth computer files and dozens of notebooks stashed in my car. Three a.m. would find me feverishly scribbling down my thoughts, which seemed to bubble up from a new source. Indeed, it was a new source: I began writing again 10 days before giving birth to Leo. It was an entirely different kind of writing from my news stories. A life was sprouting inside of me, and his little hand had hit the switch on Mommys creative impulses. After Leo was born, I returned to work as a reporter at Georgia Public Broadcasting. I wrote wherever I could: in the car while snarled in traffic, in parking lots, even at my church on Easter Sunday. Some days I couldnt stop writing. On a breezy, sunny spring day during my first year of motherhood, I sat on our front porch filling pages and pages of my journal while Leo slept at my feet in his carrier and I concluded, finally, that I knew what Id been chasing. Not a place but the writing life. What did I write about in my journal? A bit of everything short story ideas, journalism pitches, observations about motherhood and little Leo\-isms. At one point, I kept a running log of the words he knew. On April 25, 2014, the inventory of his vocabulary was as follows: Mamma, Daddy, water, book, ball, bath, duck, hello, more, all done, bye\-bye, no, oh no, truck, snow, blue, red, dog, cat, yellow, milk, rock, bike, up, down, cold, hot, bowl, flower, airplane, baby, fish, star, car and outdoors. I often found myself thinking, These are the days. I was motivated by one small little person who had remade my whole world and changed forever how I saw Atlanta. It was no longer not as good as New York or where I went after I left Florence. It became the city where Leo was born. All of this to say, my move to Connecticut is bittersweet. I know as I go toward something new, I am leaving something else behind. The something else Ive known for the past nine years. And that something else my life continues to evolve. Perhaps because I am a parent, I havent been able to put a stop\-work order on my Atlanta life. Maybe thats why I found myself crouching under a small bridge, not far from busy Ponce de Leon Avenue one day in April. Leo and I were trying to attract the attention of a pair of ducks floating on a creek that runs under the road near Fernbank. I dont even remember how we stumbled upon the creek me and my partner\-in\-crime are always on the lookout for Atlanta adventures but soon enough, we were throwing chunks of granola bars at ducks. We were enchanted. I marveled at the hidden, half\-suburban, half\-wild spot, sandwiched between Ponce, the PATH and the Candler Park golf course. Suddenly I wondered: Is there some Atlanta group that organizes creek outings? Was there a comprehensive list of urban streams in Atlanta they were working their way through? The big question was, would I have time to pack it in before I left? No, scratch that. The bigger question, quite frankly, was this: If Atlanta was the kind of city that might inspire a group of urban creek enthusiasts to seek out every little waterway peeking out of the asphalt, why in Gods name was I leaving a place like this? Especially for some locale in the frozen north where summer actually obeys the calendar and doesnt come until June. Where its too cold to swim after Labor Day, much less in October as you can in Atlanta. Where March doesnt arrive with a gush of tropical, heady heat and the bright white blooms of Bradford pear trees. Those are just the obvious amenities. How about the way mornings dawn here? I love that Atlantas relatively westward position so close to the next time zone makes it a dark, sleepy city late into the morning for much of the year. Ive learned this so well over the past five years of writing, rising in the fall and winter months long before first light and remaining cloaked in darkness for a few hours while Leo and Mike sleep. Writing, while in the distance, unseen, theres the occasional wailing and waning of the train whistle. So many other small things Ive come to love even the heat. I deeply appreciate the fact that Atlantans will take to outdoor patios at restaurants even if its 95 degrees out. Or that the band at my church, Our Lady of Lourdes, could sit in on Jimmy Fallons show if ever Questlove is sick. My profession, too. I somehow ended my Atlanta journalism career as a freelance editor for CNN. Now that I am leaving Atlanta, Ive got the best job. Isnt that the way? For me, yes for better or for worse.
**Leaving for good** Last month, I had whats become a typical Atlanta summer day for me a bit of writing while Leo was at camp, then an afternoon out and about in Atlanta, followed by a swim at the Grant Park pool. We went to Ponce City Market \(_photo by Steve Schaefer_\) and I headed for the restaurant called W.H. Stiles Fish Camp. As I prepared to order, I looked around at the cosmopolitan, diverse crowd assembled for shrimp poboys and Vietnamese salad, and I thought: Were leaving. Were really leaving all of this behind. Whatever it was I had planned, whatever fantasy I harbored about my future life in Atlanta, it all means nothing now. Id been preparing to move for months at that point winding down professional obligations, planning a new life in Connecticut, spreading the word among friends. But the busywork of everyday life had masked the truth: I would be leaving my city soon for good. _My city_. Later, we walked to the pool from our house, a lovely meandering stroll through my bungalow neighborhood, in the full Atlanta afternoon sun that Ive come to love no, crave. We splashed about the pool for an hour or so, and I saw the magic Ive seen in that ordinary public pool many times: some combination of sun and heat and water, the tilt of the light at 5 p.m., the joy of my little buddy, my own body sated by exercise. Everywhere I looked everywhere towering trees and lush, unadulterated greenery. I thought of a phrase from a Philip Larkin poem I had taught to my Clayton State University students this year: Time / torn off, unused. So much undone in the South that trip to New Orleans on the Crescent train from Atlanta, never taken. Or the visit to Jimmy Carters birthplace TBD, I guess. Yet, when I sobered up a moment from the summer excess, I remembered once again that home never leaves you. It goes with you wherever you roam. So homeward we go. Toward something as yet undefined but which we think might mitigate the fact that its been all downhill since we left Florence, so many years ago. I have no illusions that the grass will be greener in Connecticut. But itll look more like the grass I grew up with, and that gives me a measure of comfort. Im reminded of Mitt Romneys line, The trees are the right height. The Republican presidential candidate was widely chided during the 2012 campaign when he said it in his native Michigan. It was dismissed as a ham\-handed attempt to curry favor with Michigan voters. But his words never struck me as false. In fact, Ive found they haunt me especially at Christmas when I think about my family up in the New York area decorating for the holiday. Im thinking about family a lot these days, probably because theres someone else who needs to learn the proper height of trees and why older Mets fans are almost all former Brooklyn Dodgers fans. Leo, of course. When he was 2, he would pick up the phone and pretend to call Grandma. Because thats how he formed his initial connection with my mother through the telephone line. I need that to change, and theres only one way. Grandma who was born in the Dodgers original Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush is never moving here. So up I go, with my son and my partner in tow. To be sure, though, Im going to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder at Atlanta. Ill be surrounded by trees that are more or less the right height but longing for that heady gust of warm Southern air, fragrant with jasmine and magnolia trees and what was and what will never be.
[Click above to read more of our Personal Journeys.](http://www.myajc.com/personaljourneys)
**ABOUT THE STORY** Having moved around a lot as a kid, I related to Jeanne Bonners essay on leaving Atlanta. She artfully captures that sentiment of struggling to put down roots in an unfamiliar environment only to long for that place years later when she prepares to leave it. Its a story that many of Atlantas transplants will find familiar. **Suzanne Van Atten** **Personal Journeys editor** **firstname.lastname@example.org**
**ABOUT THE WRITER** **Jeanne Bonner** is a journalist whos produced stories for The New York Times, CNN, Marketplace and NPR. She has also published several creative nonfiction essays, including one for The New York Times about recording her sons first words. Her essay, I Come Bearing Gifts, Amore Mio, was awarded an Honorable Mention by Writers Digest in 2015. Shes lived in Atlanta on and off since 1998. This fall, she will begin teaching Italian at the University of Connecticut.
**ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER** **Bob Andres** joined the AJC in 1998. Born in San Francisco, he has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJCs metro photo editor, Sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at UGA and Cal State Hayward.