The Sad City Atlanta
I grew up in Atlanta, G, but it wasn't until around age 15 before I first discovered the scene downtown. There isn't much for a high-schooler downtown—except perhaps Teen Night at the High Museum or the occasional concert. The Georgia Aquarium and the Coke Museum are both tourist attractions you visit two to three times. But driving around—particularly at night, which is when most teenagers have time to drive around and prefer to drive around—offers some sense of escape. I'd reckon every Atlanta teenager with the experience of driving late-night for driving's sake has felt the same psychic sense of despair that I have; the gnawing sense you're seeking some higher sort of purpose but just can't find it.
After theatre/dance rehearsal, many of my theatre friends simply recline down on the couches behind the theatre in the sort-of basement of the Chaddick building, the place next to the tech workshop and behind the backstage area of the theatre. One particular day, I remember stretching out completely, listening to a discussion happening between one friend and another. Both were talking about Atlanta, and a recent concert that was happening downtown; Music Midtown, perhaps. I remember making the comment "Atlanta is an incredibly sad city," and having this girl look back at me in sincere agreement, "Yeah.."
In the show Bojack Horseman, Bojack Horseman describes LA as tar pit, only to find out that he's the tar pit all along, sinking deeper and deeper into inward despair and psychic distress. I have observed a similar quality instilled within Atlanta's flashy tall buildings and vibrant night life. What underlies Atlanta's reflective silver-gilded walls is a growing city with an ever-ambiguating sense of identity. It is within that doubt of self-identity, as evident as its tall postmodern skyscrapers to its gentrification and loss of integrity, where the turbulence stirs, the psychological anguish of the city.
In "World's End," Neil Gaiman visualizes the dreams of a city—as if the individuals of a city formed a sort-of "hive mind," like ants do, and that hive mind had its own consciousness, and could actually—literally—sleep, and dream. The dreams of the city were strange, almost absurd: the dream was set in a city with Lovecraftian "Cyclopean" architecture, with pale walls and buildings. The people are ghost-like—grey spirits who don't react much with one another, or the person who, in the story, happens to get trapped in the dream. Time is irrelevant, and the trapped individual searches endlessly for an escape. He only finds his escape when Dream (the character manifestation of the concept of "dream") appears to him and points him in the direction of a black subway train—something about consciousness. The man moves out of the city, to a village, where he meets the narrator. What I enjoyed most about this parable is its articulation of the societal unconsciousness—the ghostlike nature of the everyday, and our desire to escape that boredom and unconsciousness. To be clear, what I mean by "boredom" and "unconsciousness" is the psychic boredom I've been talking about in recent articles, and the "unconscious" state Wallace talks about in "This is Water," and "Good Old Neon" and throughout Infinite Jest and The Pale King, the unconsciousness encouraged by the capitalism of a post-industrial society now rife with distraction and escape.
Over the summer, I went on a helicopter tour around Atlanta. It was just me, a friend, and the helicopter pilot, coasting high above the city at around 200mph. It cost me $200, the tickets did, for 15 minutes of flight for two people. It was incredible, and worth it. I had two minimum wage jobs over the summer, paying $7.5 an hour each. I worked approximately 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, but I went overtime many times. It was hard work—being a CSR (customer service rep) is excruciatingly boring. You're constantly working, the job is tedious and repetitive, and you're paralyzed in autopilot. The minutes tick by slowly, and you have to block out the feeling that you're wasting your life cranking a wheel for the larger machine of capitalism. But at my second job—working at Domino's Pizza—I would occasionally look out the window and see the bright blue sky with incredibly white clouds. And there were the two buildings, the King and Queen buildings, right next to this brilliant blue sky.
I promised myself that I'd find out what the world looked like from way up there—I even made it the focus of my novel. During the 15 minutes of flight, I saw the city for what it's worth. Everything is shrouded in this dense forest, and it becomes suddenly obvious that the city has three main areas of high-density skyscrapers. There's the governor's mansion. There's a pool on that roof. That's what the tops of these beautiful skyscrapers really looked like: flat. Most of the buildings are, as the pilot told us, health insurance or real estate or something. Oh, but there's a couple of extremely large stadiums.
When I walk up to my high-school in the morning I imagine what it all looks like from 200 feet up, 10,000 feet up.
Consider a city whose notable features consist of its airport, its Coca-Cola museum, and its Cold-War Era highway. The entire place is seeped in both consumer-based drive, and post-war (Cold War and "War on Terror") fear! The highway is the base of Atlanta's poor transportation system, although MARTA does a substandard job. If you don't own a car here, you're fucked. Thus Atlanta's air pollution has gone through the roof, and its citizens are psychologically reinforced to drive in a big circle, Interstate 285. Is it a coincidence that The Walking Dead picked Atlanta to film a city with myriad zombies trapped within the confines of its downtown?
And above, the Gordian-knot of highway interconnectivity, lo:
Although Atlanta does feature its fair share of green space, parks, fields, etc. (being located in the middle of a forest), the downtown parts are dominated by parking spaces. And boy is the parking business lucrative! Over the summer, I took a personal field-trip to an office space specializing in helping facilitate parking garages. There's a magazine called "Parking Magazine," more than 50 pages per issue with glossy vibrant pages and bold text and interesting features, solely about parking garages. It's tough to walk around from place to place, especially when carrying a heavy bag. Coffee shops close down around 9:00pm, and rarely do you find a place to do late-night soul searching other than the Waffle House. The coffee shops in Atlanta don't have much character to them—if it's not Starbucks, it's a high-end (or apres-garde) "contemporary" coffee shop with ultra-modern hip design and plenty of media and merch to buy into. No one talks to one another, everyone's listening to earphones. The apartments downtown are expensive, meaning most people live farther away from the downtown area. That is to say, most people gather here in this downtown, isolate themselves into their work, and return to their homes far away. And since the individuals comprising the city of Atlanta are so disconnected from one another, the city itself is disconnected; suspended in its own self-alienation and industrial growth.
Atlanta is a postmodern city, a mix of high and low culture with no sense of identity, an exemplum primi of the post-information age. Jack Keuroac's poem The Beat Generation comes to mind, when he's describing the scene of a beat generation jazz-fest.
The last part is Keuroac describing this young drummer madly crashing down upon the cymbals in a glorious, "fantastic crash of sound." It ends with "The boy is 12 years old; what will happen?"
If you need a weekend read, I'd suggest Casey Michael Henry's "Et Tu, Too?: Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp a Butterfly" and the Revival of Black Postmodernism"
I guess that's it about Atlanta. I grew up surrounded by this city, but strangely, I feel nothing leaving it behind.