Back in the early aughts, soon after I returned to Georgia after spending a decade elsewhere, I wrote a personal essay in which I referred glancingly to the fact that I lived in “intown Atlanta.” The editor of the publication struck the word “intown” from that description. To her, Atlanta was just Atlanta.
Me, I’ve lived here long enough now that I split hairs. There’s metro Atlanta, which probably encompasses the top third of Georgia these days. And then there’s OTP (Outside the Perimeter), which refers to everything outside I-285 . That’s probably where your cousin lives, or the person who was a friend of a friend who got married in 1994. No, I haven’t ever met them. In fact, I might actually live 30 miles from them, since I live ITP (Inside the Perimeter).
And then there’s intown Atlanta, which, in my idiosyncratic definition, refers to six or seven very specific neighborhoods inside the perimeter that blossomed 1890- 1930.
And then there’s southeast Atlanta, that quadrant of Atlanta located south of I-2o, more grit than grits, where I’ve lived for over sixteen years, where I’ve occasionally been part of a guerrilla band of neighbors that paints over graffiti on vacant storefronts.
This summer, I’ve had the opportunity to read proof for a couple of stories of mine that will be published over the next few months. Both of those stories are Georgia stories, a state of affairs that surprised me when I read them over. How did I get here? I never planned to inhabit this patch of writerly dirt! (This shows a pretty willful disregard for facts; just what did I think I was going to write about instead?)
Each of these stories is set in Atlanta, the City too Busy to Hate — the city I have for much of my life loved to hate. They’re both set, more specifically, in a gentrifying neighborhood in a sort of fictional-but-resembling-the-real southeast Atlanta.
One, “Bubble,” will be out some time this month in Front Porch Journal:
What they’re doing strikes him as oddly like shopping. It is shopping, of course, but sometimes it seems like a particular kind of purchase, one he’s more used to. It’s almost as if the two of them are pushing a shopping cart together down broad, well-stocked aisles. They’re searching for particular brands promising certain things.
Sheila won’t ever find a shampoo that makes her hair as shiny as the hair of the TV models who tout it, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to stop hunting, The house they are looking for is just up the road. When they find it, it’ll be perfect.
“There’s a For Sale sign,” she says. “Up there. Do you see it?”
Once upon a time, watching her select shampoo was the most intimacy he could imagine.
The second, “The Latch,” is forthcoming this month as well, in Michigan Quarterly Review:
— The neighborhood had changed so much, hadn’t it? she continued, once she had twisted back and was staring again out the window. Her movement had sobered her up or loosened her tongue, Kyle wasn’t sure which. The previous owners had taken that house down to the studs. She waved a hand. Before that, it had been a crack house. How long had he said he’d lived around here?
“I stripped at least seven layers of paint off every single piece of woodwork in the house when we first bought it,” she continued. “With dental picks. Seven layers. One of them was magenta.”
Because Kyle lived in a house where the trim in the bathroom had been painted gold by Melinda, he could believe this. He murmured politely, the same way he agreed with customers at the restaurant, who looked at its brick walls and exposed ductwork and sometimes made the same sort of observations. That the neighborhood had changed; that they themselves had lived there long enough to be a part of its transformation. As if the fact that they were spending twenty-five bucks on an organic roasted chicken breast sitting in a pool of balsamic vinegar reduction somehow proved they had had a hand in any of the changes they were pointing out; as if any of those changes were germane to anything that actually mattered in the long run.
Daily, as part of my Atlanta life, I get in my car and drive north, across I-20.
Better, people who live in southeast Atlanta say when they talk about what lies on the other side of that overpass. Better schools, better grocery stores, better services, better streets, better restaurants. Folks in this neck of the woods are always talking about pulling up stakes for those greener pastures.
Daily, I get in my car and drive across I-20, past this sign:
Middle age may very well be the recognition that in the end you have to settle somewhere. Have to choose something. Even not choosing becomes, in the end, a kind of choice.
Eventually we each of us find a patch of land to call our own.
I never expected to, but I live sixty-some odd miles from the place where I started first grade.
And sixth grade.
Sixty-some odd miles from where I graduated from high school.
And from college.
During my footloose twenties, whenever I lived elsewhere, my heart turned over every single spring, because I missed the exuberance of spring here.
This particular patch of dirt!
In some ways I know it like the backs of my hands.
It is my phantom limb, my ball-and-chain, the setting for my stories.