Atlanta, famous for the busiest airport in the world, the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr, Dirty South hip-hop culture, a burgeoning film industry, and 71 streets with “Peachtree” in their names, is also a literary hub. It is bolstered by the largest independent book festival in the US, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Decatur Book Festival, and the Georgia Center for the Book, not to mention the century-old Atlanta Writers Club. Such community, however, underscores a motif running through much literature set in or written about the city – that divisive ol’ challenge of how to turn change into progress.
Like all Southern cities, Atlanta’s history is steeped in racial tensions and politics. Booker T Washington’s famous Atlanta Compromise Speech at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition argued, “In all things that are purely social we can be separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress”, the “we” being post-Civil War blacks and whites. WEB Dubois, who taught at Atlanta University, disagreed with Washington’s “accommodationist strategy”, later writing the poem A Litany of Atlanta in response to the city’s 1906 race riots. Many factors led up to these riots, not the least of which were increased rights for blacks and a booming growth in the city that created competition between the races for jobs and services. But local newspaper reporting of alleged assaults of black men on white women, The Atlanta Georgian and The Atlanta News (both now defunct), in particular, helped incite the white-against-black mob violence. Rebecca Burns’s Rage in the Gate City dutifully chronicles these riots.
And then there’s Scarlett O’Hara, the scrappy, civil war-ruined heroine of Margaret Mitchell’s iconic 1936 Gone with the Wind, a novel that rivals, globally, the Bible’s popularity. Replete with antebellum décor (gender roles included) and an undeniable racism that turned the Klan (minus the white sheets) into heroes, it is as much a love story between Scarlett and the Old South as it is between Scarlett and Rhett. Jennifer Dickey’s 2014 A Tough Little Patch of History: Gone with the Wind and the Politics of Memory is candid in her assessment of how factions of Atlanta endorsed Mitchell’s romanticised view of the past in order to depart from the city’s modern New South image and to promote “heritage tourism”. Mitchell wrote while living in “The Dump,” an apartment in the stately Peachtree Street home now of The Margaret Mitchell House and Museum, a mere five and a half miles from another Atlanta literary landmark, The Wren’s Nest, former home of Joel Chandler Harris. Harris’s contentious Uncle Remus character, the product of the journalist’s long hours spent listening to the animal stories of slaves, first appeared in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings—The Folklore of the Old Plantation.
Flannery O’Connor’s short story The Artificial Nigger, included in her 1955 collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, follows Mr Head and his grandson who venture from rural Georgia into urban – and shocking – Atlanta.
Although Mr Head’s racism might be its own punishment, their experience of the city reads like a descent into hell, O’Connor’s allusion to Dante very apparent. Ironically, it is the black lawn jockey referenced in the title who promotes the grandfather’s realisation of suffering and his feeling a “mercy that covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair”.
O’Connor’s emphasis on redemption, rather than racial guilt, echoes throughout Mary Hood’s 1986 collection, And Venus Is Blue. These seven stories and novella, conversely, explore the city’s heedless outward expansion as rural general stores and community centres are replaced with outlets and malls, the Old South made new, but for Hood’s blue-collar protagonists, not necessarily shiny. In Amanda Gable’s The Confederate General Rides North, Atlanta (or its suburbs) represents both a psychological and historical space. And although set in Atlanta, in Joshilyn Jackson’s sixth novel, Someone Else’s Love Story, fate and faith – even miracles – are at much more at stake than race.
Other literary works explore privilege and power shifts. Years after Atlanta native James Dickey wrote the poem Looking for the Buckhead Boys, in which the elite Atlanta neighbourhood of Buckhead symbolises an Atlanta long gone, Tom Wolfe published A Man in Full. Wolfe’s hugely popular and controversial (he was, after all, a transplanted New Yorker) novel allegedly took some shots at Buckhead, although his protagonist, Charlie Croker, embodied the entrepreneurial spirit that defines Atlanta (and perhaps even emboldened Scarlett O’Hara herself in her struggle out of poverty).
More recently, Susan Rebecca White set her novels Bound South and A Soft Place to Land in well-to-do Atlanta, where, despite their best efforts, her female protagonists are particularly, and sometimes humorously, inscribed into roles. Across town, Pearl Cleage explores the power struggles within Atlanta’s black community with her West End novels. Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Driving Miss Daisy, is the first in his Atlanta Trilogy focusing on Jewish residents at the turn of the century. Embedded in Jessica Handler’s poignant memoir about grief, Invisible Sisters, is the story of moving to Atlanta with Jewish parents determined to participate in the civil rights movement. And Anne Rivers Siddons’ novel Peachtree Road follows a group of genteel Atlantans as the civil rights movement begins.
In the 70’s, Siddons, Bill Diehl, Pat Conroy, and Terry Kay were protégés of Atlanta Magazine founding editor Jim Townsend, after whom the prestigious Townsend Prize for Fiction is named. Townsend himself was inspired by Ralph McGill, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Church, A School and anti-segregationist former editor and publisher of newspaper The Atlanta Constitution. Also influenced by McGill, Celestine Sibley wrote over 10,000 articles and many books, including Peachtree Street, USA. (a portrait of Atlanta). Meanwhile, The Atlanta Child Murders challenged Atlanta’s 1960’s moniker of “The City Too Busy to Hate” when more than 20 black children were kidnapped and killed between 1979 and 1981. Two novels, Toni Cade Bambara’s Those Bones Are Not My Child and Tayari Jones’s Leaving Atlanta, confront, and give lyrical voice to, this volatile piece of Atlanta history.
Statistically, 1970’s Atlanta was one of the most violent cities in the US. While the Atlanta crime rate has decreased over the last several decades, most neighbourhoods remain racially separated, remnants of the Old South lingering. It turns out that the zombies of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, a comic book series, are often walking in Atlanta, a city already familiar with ghosts, and for that matter, apocalypse (just ask Scarlett).
The work of former US poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, an Atlanta (well, Decatur) resident, offers an insistent examination of history and memory and race that encompasses the story of her mother’s murder in Atlanta. Just last year, Atlanta’s Alliance Theater staged a production based on Native Guard, her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, and each performance featured an impromptu dialogue between a community leader, occasionally Trethewey herself, and the audience. Complete strangers – of all backgrounds – talking to each other about race and violence and the sins of the past? Now that’s progress.
- Anna Schachner is an Atlanta writer and the editor of the literary journal The Chattahoochee Review.
- Burial for a King by Rebecca Burns: a look at the chaos that followed Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, while the city prepared to (successfully and peacefully) host his funeral. (Recommended by jsbayne)
- The Temple Bombing by Melissa Fay Greene: an examination of the bombing of a synagogue in Atlanta in 1958, and the wider context of civil rights struggles in the city. (Recommended by jsbayne)
- Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: The Saga of Two Families and the Making of Atlanta by Gary Pomerantz: an account of the city’s history between the end of the civil war and its hosting of the 1996 Olympics. (Recommended by jsbayne)