ATLANTA—I don’t do big cities. But if you were to force me to pick my favorite American city, I wouldn’t pick one because I don’t like being forced to do anything.
My mother used to “force” me to eat tapioca pudding as a kid, the texture reminded me of snot and I refused to eat it because I couldn’t understand how the same advanced civilization that gave us bacon came up with mucus pudding.
But if you were to ask me nicely to pick a favorite major American city, maybe I would pick Atlanta. Because I have history here.
Right now I am thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about this city because I am standing in a 32-mile long line in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, awaiting airport security to strip search me.
We in the crowd of air passengers have been dutifully removing our belts, earrings, shoes, dentures, and insulin pumps, waiting to get past the Transportation Security checkpoint and board the plane. But I just tripped the metal detector for the second time, which is a lot like winning the lottery.
A friendly veteran TSA representative informs me that she is eager to help me through the frisking process. “Halt and put your hands where I can see them, sir,” she says in a helpful voice. “Now.”
So I have plenty of time to remember things during this moment. Things like, for instance, gag-inducing tapioca.
And while I’m being fondled by TSA, I’m also thinking about the days when the Atlanta Journal Constitution was the highlight of my life, back when newspapers were still newspapers.
We lived in Atlanta for a hot minute when I was a boy, and I loved the AJC newspaper. Each morning I would be the first to retrieve the news. My uncle thought this was hysterical, a kid fetching the paper.
“That’s a pretty good trick, Fido,” he’d say. “How about I teach you to shake or pee in the yard on command?”
But, of course, I already knew how to do those things.
Each morning I would shake open the paper to read my favorite AJC humor columnist. Then, I would cut out the column with scissors because his words were the brightest spot of my day. Later, when my uncle would open his newspaper, he would find a gaping hole where six hundred words used to be.
No, you don’t forget things like that.
Also, the Atlanta Braves. They were everything back then. They still are. We went to games at the old stadium—where finding a parking place was like surviving a Biblical apocalypse.
I remember the smell of infield dirt, and popcorn, and the sound of a crowd. I feel lucky to remember what the sporting events were like before things like pandemics came along.
I still remember sitting behind home plate once, close enough to see the forearm hair of Greg Maddux.
And it was in Atlanta where my cousin and I saw real honky-tonk bands, and where I listened to the blues for the first time. The first beer joint to ever serve me was just outside Atlanta. There was a blues band playing. I lied about my age.
The bartender was a sweet old woman with skin like boot leather. She knew I was a kid, but the joint was empty, so she gave me one quarter of a glass. No refills. I felt like a big man that day. It was a different world back then. Today, that sweet woman would be doing hard time in Leavenworth if she tried a stunt like that.
Now that I’m an adult I mostly pass through town on business. Sometimes I eat at Truett’s with my uncle, or I go antique shopping with my cousin. I’ve seen Willie Nelson play at Chastain Park, and I used to love taking in ball games when the world was normal.
But for the most part, I don’t think about Atlanta much, or about what it meant to me.
Until I get stuck in airport security. I’m thinking a lot about this city right now, standing in an international airport in my stocking feet, holding my pants up.
The older you get, the more important the little pieces of your past become. You find yourself wanting to remember the itty-bitty details. Things you didn’t even know you cared about. Because they are not just memories, they are part of you.
Things like the kudzu in Jonesboro on a June afternoon. The tiny church your friend Jaron and his granny used to go to. The old stadium where you would watch America’s Team lose like anemic dogs.
The way your cousin would say during a ballgame: “Hey, you know the difference between Michael Jackson and the Atlanta Braves?”
“Nothing. They both wear one glove but never use it.”
You remember how your aunt brought your mother here when she was sick, and how the doctors at Emory saved your mother’s life. And how you drove your mother home a year later, listening to a James A. Michener audiobook on cassette while she slept.
You’ll never forget the lost kid you used to be, no matter how old you get. Fatherless and awkward, a little chubby, listening to blues in a beer joint on a Saturday night, with your watered down quarter glass of cheap suds.
And the bartender, puffing her cigarette, who said, “You know what I like about the blues? It’s honest music, it don’t pretend that life’s easy.” Then she hacked and said, “Slow down on that glass, son.”
You remember jogging to the end of a driveway every morning, shaking open a damp newspaper to see what an old columnist friend had to say. And you recall wishing that one day, if Heaven smiled on you, maybe you’d be a writer and pen the same kinds of things to similar boys, or anyone else who might need good words.
No, you don’t lose the love for towns like Atlanta, and you never will. Although you will always hate tapioca pudding.
And airport security, too.