There used to be two Georgias; now there are a dozen Atlantas
By Tom Baxter
Oh to have Gertrude Stein back, if only for a day. It was she who said once of Oakland, “There’s no there, there.” What wonders of grammatical compression might she have concocted in an age when the very concept of thereness is under stress?
The Southern Baptist Convention is considering dropping the “Southern.” The St. Petersburg Times has retired one of the most honored mastheads in newspaperdom to become The Tampa Bay Times. Texas A&M and Missouri will kick off next fall in the Southeastern Conference, and Kansas (where I spent a pleasant spell last fall as a fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics) may join the Big East.
These signs of cultural dislocation ought to be of special interest in Atlanta, a city which historically has been monumentally nervous about its sense of place.
A Japanese consul told me once that when tourists from his country came here, they generally called ahead to ask how they could obtain three things. They wanted to visit the plant that made Georgia Coffee, a popular brand marketed by Coca Cola in Japan; they wanted to play a round at Augusta National, and they wanted to tour Tara.
They would be somewhat bemused, he said, when told the canned coffee drink was actually made in another country, they couldn’t get in the gate at Augusta National, and Tara was imaginary. Nothing sums up the municipal neurosis better than that story.
Atlanta’s biggest selling point has always been about where it is in relation to everything else, more than anything particular about the place itself. Generations of Atlanta boosters have labored to put the city on the map, only to see the map turn squishy as this new century takes wing.
They birthed a larger “Atlanta” which at one point was gobbling more acres faster than any metro area in the recorded history of the world. Now the big counties which surround the city are like rowdy brothers grown into college linemen, still trying to fit into their bunk beds.
There used to be, so the big thinkers said, two Georgias. Depending how you slice it, geographically, demographically and economically, there must by now be a dozen or so Atlantas. Maybe there’s too much there, there. In any case it becomes an ever-greater challenge to see all of it, as its visionary foremothers and fathers did, as one big beautiful thing.
But that is central to what I’ll be about in this space. I’ve spent a significant portion of my career acting as a sort of counterpoint to the local news, as national editor at the AJC and later a political writer covering stories as farflung as Austin and Johannesburg, but rarely close to home. Not to say I haven’t covered a few mayor’s races and stood around the Capitol long enough to develop bad feet, also. But perhaps because of years spent wrestling with the metro desk for headline space, I’ve tried to approach even those stories with a different and larger perspective.
So there’s a sense of things coming full circle in joining forces again with Maria Saporta, who was local before local was cool. And it’s an honor to be back on the same page with so many of my fellow print orphans.
As a licensed pundit, I claim anything from the folly of presidential primaries to the crazy things they put on television in Alabama during campaign season as fair game. But the heart of what I want to write about is closer to home. It’s how Atlanta defines itself and fits into the bigger picture, in a region with a growing number of rivals and a nation where it has lost much of its status as an economic dynamo.
I’d love to know any thoughts you have about how to go about doing that.
What with the TSPLOST vote and the elections to fill the metro area’s newly drawn districts, this election year will have a lot to do in determining the “there” those who follow us will think of, when they think of Atlanta in the future. It’s an exciting time, and I’m happy to have the chance to write about it.