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April 16, 2017

MEISEL | Hotlanta

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“Hotlanta” is a groovy Allman Brothers track. It also nicknames a humid sprawl with an area of about 8,300 square miles which has generated its fair share of Confederate battle-flag toting libertarians and trap superstars.

For the past 20 years, the city has risen in notoriety, mostly for its music culture. Outkast’s Southernplayalistikcadillacmuzik includes a tongue-in-cheek sketch announcing that despite its states’ racist flag, Atlanta is “the new Motown of the South.” I doubt Andre and Big Boi knew how true those words would 20 years later, when Lil Yachty and Migos top the charts with no signs of fatigue in sight.

Donald Glover cemented a vision of Atlanta as a haze of concrete. In his world, the Southern city carries an exquisite pain and a glamorous harshness, backlit by violence and drug use. Buckhead restaurants and backwoods deals go hand in hand. Parks full of old oaks and cemeteries full of dead slave owners, the city is a fever dream of heat and lights. Atlanta comes closer to defining a visual tone of life for the city than much else has in a long time.

That being said, Donald Glover’s pet project offers a version of this city that we expect. But with this specific image, we assume this heap of glass skyscrapers and red clay can’t become any other kind of place than what the TV show depicts. Atlanta is many different places. Flannery O’Connor writes Atlanta as the prime host for a Southern brand of white nightmares, where rural and suburban whites encounter their racialized fears in parables of hypocrisy and agony. An undercurrent of death lingers underneath her urban scenes, and it tends to boil over.

Atlanta noise band Algiers carries a similar mix of religiosity and dread. They have gained clout in the past few years, toting Marxist politics and industrial beats cut with gospel and punk. Although references to the metropolis are limited in their music, they act out forces and traditions that could have come from nowhere else. Algiers’ music casts Atlanta in a 100-degree summer, in a monochrome fog, in a blackout with no lights left to keep it pretty. They produce a hellish sound that howls and weeps. It holds the history of the southeastern town in a digital, frantic light.

Atlanta has always been where the outside wanted to keep the inside away. Public transit stretches only so far out into the suburbs. The train stops at what white residents deemed a safe distance away from them in the 60s. No one has bothered to build it further since.

I look in Flannery O’Connor’s stories and consider how much has changed. In my mind: very little, for the good at least. Racial divisions in Atlanta are stronger than ever. Communities are still segregated. The white suburbanite teenagers speculate in awe about what goes on underground. Heroin and amphetamines pour through the city’s infrastructure.

Growing up in the city’s shadow, I saw Atlanta and its surroundings as a place I needed to flee. I couldn’t understand where I lived beyond its faults. That’s not to excuse the faults of the Georgia suburbs, such as pseudo-kindness and late-capitalist apathy, but where else have I felt the sun on my skin or the aroma of the grass in a way that felt both unique and familiar?

Granted that clogged airports and highways make Atlanta departures difficult, I’ve never left this humid mass without the signature pang that accompanies each instance of leaving home. My inner rationalist might argue that home is a variable dependent on circumstance and environment. Yet the mud and clay you come from carries a specific scent. You know the feeling when it’s there. Home can haunt you. Origins can be the source of demons. They can echo a past you’re tired of confronting. But if we don’t examine how places and people have formed us — both the good and the bad — we do a disservice to ourselves. We obscure one of the only paths to explain our vulnerabilities to each other, driven instead to build an exterior against whatever influence our pasts hold over us. This is the risk I take if I forget the sources of myself. And I don’t plan to.

Stephen Meisel is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at smeisel@cornellsun.com. His column  Appearances appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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