Atlanta—It’s late March. Overcast. Chilly. A lot of pollen dust in the air. My windshield looks like the trees have been committing immoral acts upon it.
The Braves have their first home game of the season tomorrow. The town is buzzing.
I owe this city a lot, but I’ve never figured out how to make good on what I owe. Atlanta and I have history.
When we first came here, I was a boy, and I wasn’t sure how I liked it. We stayed in my aunt’s house, in the county seat of Clayton County.
Back then, this place didn’t feel like a monstrosity. Not to me. It was like several small towns quilted together. And I grew to love its patchwork.
I remember going to Fulton County Stadium to see the Braves. In those days, the Braves were experts at losing. But it didn’t matter. A ballgame is its own reward.
I remember once, we were leaving the stadium, I stared through the windshield at a sea of taillights. I’d never seen so many vehicles in one city before.
“Wow,” I said. “I’ve never seen that many cars.”
My cousin laughed at me and said, “Well, well, well, country come to town.”
I spent some summers in Atlanta, as a young man. It was here that I met a young lady who I thought was sweet on me. Our romance was a flash in the pan, we parted friends. She might read this, so I ought to mention her.
As a grown man, I once drove through Atlanta rush-hour traffic with a forty-foot camper attached to my truck. The camper had dual axles and bad wheel bearings. I had white knuckles.
I heard a loud pop. The trailer swerved. I used an ugly word. Cars honked and sped around me. An eighteen wheeler almost ran me off the road.
I pulled over at a liquor store that had iron bars on the windows. There was a group of young men listening to loud music in souped-up Cadillacs. They gave me frightening looks.
An old man drinking from a brown paper bag eyed my flat tire and said, “Geez, I thought I had problems.”
The reason I owe Atlanta is because of my mother. She got sick. We didn’t think she was going to make it. She moved here to live with my aunt, and made frequent trips to Emory University Hospital Midtown.
She was in and out of exam rooms, her body became a pin cushion. Her condition worsened.
I made all-night drives from Florida to visit when I could. Every time I saw her, she looked skinnier. And every time I drove back home, I cried.
Once, I visited at her worst. I’ll never forget the night. The Braves game was in the background, playing on a TV. We sat on a sofa. I was drinking Coca-Cola.
My mother started talking about her last will and testament. Then, she said, “Sean, I want you to promise me you’ll take care of your sister.”
My Coke suddenly tasted like bile. “Don’t talk like that, Mama.”
“We need to discuss what’s going to happen if I don’t make it.”
It was at that exact moment that Mike Hampton hit a home run. At least I think it was him. Because pitchers did not hit home runs. Pitchers are worse at bat than your grandmother.
The TV crowd went nuts. But I didn’t care. My mother was lean, her face was gaunt, and she had a port in her neck.
Who’s Mike Hampton?
My mother pointed at the TV and said, “Hey, I think something important happened on your game, you’d better turn it up.”
I wanted to cry, but I wouldn’t cry in front of my mother. I wanted to run, but there was nowhere to go.
She turned up the TV. The sound of a crowd swelled. Mike Hampton jogged the bases like a king. And I wished God would do something.
When I left for the Panhandle the next morning, I wondered if I’d ever see her again. She kissed me on the cheek, and I watched her get smaller in my rear view mirror. It was awful.
And now for the rest of the story:
A year later, her condition vanished. She made a full recovery. Small-town docs still can’t explain it. But I can.
It was because of cutting-edge treatments given by merciful doctors at Emory University Hospital. It was because of their kindness. And because of prayer.
Today, I went for a walk through Midtown. I passed Emory University Hospital. It’s large. And it’s sacred to me.
I was interrupted by a buzzing in my pocket. It was my cellphone. A text message.
It read: “Well, well, well, country come to town.”
One day, maybe I’ll figure out how to pay you back, Atlanta.