AJC-Decatur Book Festival celebrates journalists, novelists, visionaries, and hip hop artists—reflecting a changing Atlanta

In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

This week, DAREN WANG, founder and executive director of the AJC-Decatur Book Festival, discusses Atlanta’s changing literary scene.

By Daren Wang

Daren Wang

As of this writing, the social-justice-loving, minority-favored candidate is trouncing the opposition in the polls with more than 88 percent of the vote, and we may at last be on the brink of voting our way into the 21st century.

No, I’m not talking about our over-extended presidential campaign—I’m focused on something nearly as important for the future of Atlanta: the naming of the Department of Watershed Management’s 12-foot rock-boring machine. After taking suggestions from the public, the water department offered up three names — Driller Mike (after Atlanta hip hop legend Killer Mike), Peach Beast, and Scarlett.

You might think that I, the executive director of the AJC-Decatur Book Festival, would be rooting for the literary-themed Scarlett, but you’d be wrong.

Courtesy of the AJC-Decatur Book Festival

Courtesy of the AJC-Decatur Book Festival

Margaret Mitchell’s bodice ripper Gone With the Wind and its idealization of the magnolia-scented South has loomed over the city’s literary reputation for far too long, and I, for one, will be happy to see it chewed up and spit out like so much granite bedrock.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of voting as silly. The British Natural Environment Research Council recently had to weasel out of a contest after the public overwhelmingly voted to name a $300 million ship “Boaty McBoatface.” For Atlanta, however, acknowledging that Killer Mike has more to do with our living identity than some tired vision of Tara is a joyous step into a 21st-century ideal.

Atlanta is home to so many vibrant and interesting art forms, sometimes it’s hard to keep track. Earlier this month, the National Poetry Slam came to Georgia. Slam, as defined by the National Poetry Slam website, “is a fast-paced competition where poets have a limited amount of time to impress judges randomly selected from the audience. Performers use all the tricks of storytelling, songwriting, theatre, stand-up comedy, and cold hard poetry to wheedle points out of the judges.” It is a genre-defying form, and its fans and practitioners defy being defined. Although the final round was hosted by the Georgia World Congress Center, the preliminaries were held over the course of a week in and around downtown Decatur.

AJC-Decatur Book Festival crowd. Courtesy of the AJC-Decatur Book Festival

Book lovers take over downtown Decatur. Courtesy of the AJC-Decatur Book Festival

For several days, the sidewalks of my town were alive with pierced, tattooed, transgendered, and brilliant performers. It was liberating and exhilarating to be among them. It was a preview of the kind of street life Atlanta aspires to. I daresay it brought to my mind Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.”

I don’t know that Killer Mike came out to any of the National Poetry Slam events, but he would have felt right at home if he did. Scarlett O’Hara? Not so much. Atlanta’s vibrant, thriving writing community can hold its own against any in the country, yet too many in this country still think of Gone With the Wind when they think of Atlanta and books.

The 11th annual AJC-Decatur Book Festival is this coming weekend, September 2-4. A few of the Atlanta writers we’ll be celebrating are Thomas Mullen, Jericho Brown, Joshilyn Jackson, Hank Klibanoff, Natasha Trethewey, Jessica Handler, Melissa Fay Greene, Tom Lux, and Kevin Young. Poets. Journalists. Novelists. Memoirists. Visionaries. Hip hop artists. These are the writers Atlanta should be celebrating.

Also this year at the Decatur Book Festival we are presenting the First Annual Judy Turner Prize in honor of our retiring board chair, Judy Turner. Judy has done quiet and steady work supporting the Decatur community for many decades, and because of that, the award will go each year to a book focused on community.

This year’s award goes to Ryan Gravel for his book Where We Want to Live: Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities. It is his vision, first outlined as a thesis at Georgia Tech, that serves as the blueprint for the Beltline. And, of course, the Watershed drilling project is part of the execution of that Beltline. Gravel’s vision has won over this city because it pulls together discarded and abandoned scraps of Atlanta into a bold and transformative future. He truly has created a map to the place where we want to live.

When I asked him about his vote, he said, “No question. Driller Mike.”

Georgia Humanities is a proud sponsor of the 11th annual AJC-Decatur Book Festival.

Daren Wang is the Founding Executive Director of the AJC-Decatur Book Festival. He has been a public radio producer and commentator. His novel, The Hidden Light of Northern Fires, will come out from St. Martin’s Press in 2017. He lives in Decatur with his wife, Eva Osmerg-Wang.

Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

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