Leaving Atlanta

  • Tracy Thompson
12:00 p.m Saturday, March 2, 2013 Local

The memory is fuzzy — I was 8 or 9 — but it was a morning in the early 1960s. I was waiting to cross U.S. Highway 29 just south of College Park on my way to my school bus stop when a northbound orange and white Atlanta Transit System bus unexpectedly glided up and halted.

The doors opened with a pneumatic whoosh; a gaggle of adult faces looked down. “Goin’ downtown?” the driver asked. Suddenly struck mute, I shook my head. The driver chuckled, said something to a person behind him, and the doors whooshed shut. The bus went on, leaving me hardly able to breathe for terror and excitement.

Goin’ downtown?

I was a country girl fascinated with cities, and Atlanta represented the outermost limit of my universe. On a clear day, peering through Daddy’s binoculars, I could just make out the tops of its southernmost skyscrapers from the hayloft of my grandfather’s barn. The glimpse was both thrilling and unsettling — a reminder that my childhood universe was a fragile bubble, and that a scary but enticing world lay outside. So far, all I had were glimpses: trips to downtown Rich’s with my mother, who knew her way around that gloomy maze of streets that later became Underground Atlanta, Saturday visits with my dad to Alonzo Herndon’s marble-floored barber shop in the Hurt Building.

Names like “Selma” and “Medgar Evers” were in the air. But in Atlanta, the big event of 1965 was the 25th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone With the Wind,” held at the site of the original premiere, the Loew’s Grand on Peachtree Street. I loved the dresses, but even then I found the Scarlett-Ashley-Rhett love triangle tedious. What really gripped me, in a way I could not put into words at the time, was the movie’s meta-message: the overwhelming sense that momentous events had happened right here, and not that long ago.

But where did I fit into that picture? What I knew of my family’s history was not the stuff of romance. U.S. 29 had brought my mother’s mother up to Atlanta from the boll weevil-devastated cotton fields of Opelika, Ala., after World War I. She had found work at the old Nabisco plant in southwest Atlanta and died of pneumonia in the pauper’s ward at Grady Hospital in 1929, leaving behind two little girls — my Aunt Dede, 7, whose father was dead, and my mother, 3, whose father was God knows where.

My father had come to Atlanta from Gadsden after World War II to work for a fledgling company called Delta Air Lines, where he met my mother. He built a house for her next door to her adoptive parents’ farm on West Point Road, which paralleled the railroad and U.S. 29.

I grew up hearing stories from Grandma about how during the Civil War the Yankees tore up our stretch of railroad and bent the heated rails to make “Sherman’s neckties.” Grandma said she heard this story from her mother, who as a child had seen it happen — right across the street from the house where I grew up. But by then, I’d devoured “Gone With the Wind,” and Margaret Mitchell had never mentioned our part of town. Nor had any of the books I’d read on the Battle of Atlanta, or anybody at the Cyclorama. It was a good story, but it didn’t fit with the official version. Oh well.

That was just one small example of “cognitive dissonance,” the term psychologists use for the vague unease we feel when what we see and experience doesn’t quite fit with what we believe, or want to believe. Cognitive dissonance has long been one of the South’s principal exports: Our region, where so much of our nation’s history has happened, is also home to generations of (white) Southerners who have devoted themselves to ensuring that only a carefully vetted version of that history is remembered.

Atlanta’s public relations was another example. I counted myself lucky to have been born in “the world’s next great city” — but by the time I was working as a reporter for this newspaper in the 1980s, I had to admit that despite its impressive buildings, Atlanta did not really feel like a city. Leaving the office late at night, I drove through a downtown populated by winos and a few tourists hoofing it from a parking lot into the safety of some hotel or restaurant. Atlanta had few of the amenities that, thanks to Delta Air Lines, I’d seen in Boston and San Francisco and New York City: public spaces, walkable attractions, spacious parks, a vibrant nightlife.

By then, I’d also come to see “Gone With the Wind” for the historical distortion it was — not in its details, but in its underlying depiction of a South of benevolent slaveholders, so utterly at odds with the moral clarity of the civil rights movement I’d witnessed growing up. As for Tara, I’d spent four years as a reporter in Clayton County, regularly fielding calls from out-of-towners looking for the original. They never wanted to believe me when I told them it didn’t exist. Deep inside me, there was an 8-year-old who didn’t want to believe it, either.

Human beings are products of the places and the people they come from. Southerners are, if anything, hyper-conscious of this; we are proud of being defined by our history. But which history? The history we learned as children? The assumptions and stories we picked up from our elders? The history we learned later, in school — or maybe un-learned? The attitudes and beliefs enshrined in books and movies? I knew I was a Southerner. But what exactly was that?

And then in 1989, I left Atlanta, and such questions took a back seat to other concerns: a new job, marriage, children. In those 20 years, my visits to Atlanta consisted of the occasional drive-through or plane change.

But in the late 1990s, a distant cousin sent me a book he had written about the Thompson family history. On the second page, there was a bombshell: Our mutual ancestor, a Campbell County tenant farmer, had been a staunch Unionist. My cousin had gleaned this from records in the National Archives, just down the road from my home in Maryland. I went downtown to look for myself and discovered dozens of variations of my ancestor’s tale — stories of fierce guerrilla warfare in the woods of what is now south Fulton County, neighbor informing on neighbor, fathers disowning sons, death threats.

Anyone who has ever fallen down the rabbit hole of Civil War history will know what happened next: I went on a research bender. In the memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman I found another bombshell: Grandma’s story had been true. Sherman, a meticulous note-taker, had preserved for posterity the exact dates — Aug. 28 and 29, 1864 — the section of railroad involved (“from East Point to Red-Oak Station”) and the recipe for “Sherman’s neckties”: “bonfires were made of the ties and of fence-rails on which the rails were heated, carried to trees or telegraph poles, wrapped around and left to cool.”

The united Confederacy I’d always assumed existed in my part of the South was false; that story from Grandma I’d always doubted was true.

I never did find my ancestor’s farm. But along the way, I found something better: a new way of understanding my native region. It was, like me, still struggling to understand its own history, while moving at warp speed into the future. This was more than family history; this was a book.

And so I set out to rediscover this region I called home — and in the summer of 2011, I finally returned to Atlanta. This was where my journey had started, and where it would end.

Some things hadn’t changed. Manuel’s was still there — in fact, I think some of the guys at the bar hadn’t budged — and many old friends from my AJC days were still around, if somewhat grayer. Conversations seemed to pick up, effortlessly, from where they had stopped; Southerners are a kind of tribe, and Southern newspaper people are a tribe within a tribe.

But the central business district had abandoned Five Points, the skyscrapers I remembered were dwarfed by more glittering towers, and walking down Peachtree Street I caught snatches of half a dozen foreign languages — Spanish, French, something I thought might be Vietnamese. There were more black faces than I remembered, which wasn’t my imagination: While I’d been away, Atlanta had replaced Chicago as the black capital of the nation — the result of a massive re-migration of African Americans back to the region so many of their ancestors had called home.

Everywhere I looked, I saw what money could do: in the Midtown skyline, in the gleaming buildings that had sprouted on the Morehouse campus, in DeKalb County, where the mansions would have made two of the south Georgia courthouses I’d explored back in my reporting days. I also saw what the lack of money could do: miles of Southside neighborhoods pockmarked by overgrown yards and foreclosure notices, punctuated by the occasional gated community or some upscale retail development.

The gap between rich and poor, which had once followed a recognizable north-south/black-white axis, was now an untidy, multi-ethnic patchwork. And the landscape of my childhood was obliterated. The house on West Point Road, my grandfather’s barn, his muscadine vines, that towering grove of red oak trees — all bulldozed and replaced by an ugly warehouse. The house in Riverdale where my parents had hoped to retire was gone, too; in its place was a red-dirt landscape of half-built roads and weedy lots, the detritus of a real estate venture gone bust.

I saw a city that had sprawled heedlessly, where the growing gap between rich and poor was as nakedly apparent as anywhere in the nation.

In that sense, Atlanta hadn’t changed at all: It had always been a city of business — fixated on profits and instinctively averse to anything that sounded like “regulation.” That ornery and sometimes self-destructive individualism was a very Southern trait. But so was the friendly vibe I still felt — the neighborliness, the waiters and salespeople who actually seemed to care about my welfare and, not least, the writers’ community that had endured and was waiting to welcome me back.

And there was something else: a sense that, once again, massive change was looming — and that Atlanta was beginning to adapt. The realities of drought and climate change were forcing leaders to think regionally, not just locally; the Beltline Project was demonstrating that “urban planning” wasn’t some liberal conspiracy to deprive people of their cars but a creative response to strangling urban sprawl.

On my last day in Atlanta, I went to Oakland Cemetery and stood for a while in the pauper’s section, where my mother’s mother is buried somewhere, looking at what had become an unfamiliar skyline. A day or so earlier, the AJC had run a feature story about some event at the Margaret Mitchell Museum, with a picture of people dressed up in hoop skirts and Confederate uniforms. So powerful is the pull of the old myth — and yet, in some ways, “Gone With the Wind” really is a true picture of the South, in ways its author may not have intended. That’s because it’s fundamentally a story of community, and the ways in which its powerful bonds survive wrenching social change.

“I’ll never be hungry again,” Scarlett O’Hara vows. “No, nor any of my folks.” Here is a character tragically lacking in insight, in love with an insipid fairy tale and enamored of the fast buck. She survives and prospers because of her innate resilience and her very deep, very Southern, sense of community. It’s not a bad description of this city, warts and all. And as I looked at that skyline, it seemed to me that finally, I might be seeing what was really there.

Journalist Tracy Thompson returned to her native Atlanta in 2011 to write a book about the city and place she left more than two decades earlier. Today, she writes an exclusive piece for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her journey home, and the reflections it inspired.

Thompson is an accomplished journalist. A graduate of Emory University, she began her career at the AJC in the 1970s before moving to Washington, D.C., to write for The Washington Post. “The New Mind of the South” is her third nonfiction book. She writes with authority and insight, and her work represents exactly the kind of sharp reporting that we strive to bring AJC readers every Sunday.

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