“Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.”
— William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman
I knew I wanted to move to Atlanta one evening six years ago while riding in the backseat of my now-best-friend Jane’s car as she ferried us through the city’s backroads on our way to a Whole Foods. Back then, I had never been to a Whole Foods, hadn’t even heard of it, nor had I heard of aloe juice, which was why we were driving there in the first place. Jane, whom I had met for the first time a couple hours before through a mutual friend, insisted that we head across town to Whole Foods because, she said, I absolutely had to try tequila mixed with aloe juice. The closest I had come to drinking aloe juice was slathering it in lotion form on my sunburned face during the summer, and the combination of that lotion smell combined with Jose Cuervo frankly sounded disgusting to me. But I kept that to myself because I wanted to do as Atlantans did, even though in the proceeding six years of knowing Jane, I would never witness her mix one again. To do as Atlantans did, I’d learn soon enough, involved three-dollar PBR tallboys and whiskey sidecars—a much more welcome combination.
I visited Atlanta by myself for the first time when I was twelve years old. I spent the night at my grandparents’ house and was miserable the entire time. They took me to a Falcons football game and seemed exasperated when I had trouble keeping up with them among the tens of thousands of fans crowding the newly minted stadium. Afterward, my step-grandmother eyed me with slight disgust as I gobbled up greasy onion rings and a cheeseburger at The Varsity, the city’s landmark fast food joint and the largest drive-in restaurant in the world. Growing up, the only geographical aspirations I ever harbored were for London—so that I could meet and marry Prince William, naturally. After that tear-filled trip to see my grandparents, I knew at least where I never cared to move: Atlanta.
In high school, I had ventured to Atlanta for its sprawling shopping and big-name concerts but never stuck around long enough to explore any authentic municipal scenery. By then, I had latched onto the image of Atlanta as little more than a concrete cesspool, an uninformed opinion that I carried with me to college in my hometown, where I inexplicably looked down on the hordes of Atlanta-bred students who filled the freshman dorms. In my boho late-teen brain, I had figured they were coming to Athens to finally escape the small college town chokehold.
Halfway through my Whole Foods-based excursion with Jane, we entered Inman Park, the city’s first planned suburb developed in 1890, which I had never seen before even though I was living only seventy miles north in Athens, Georgia, at the time. Nevertheless, my impressions of Atlanta were similar to that shared by most other people I’ve met who’ve never visited: that it’s a culture-less, soulless haven of highways and big box stores. But then, I saw it that evening for the first time: Inman Park lush with Queen Anne Victorian mansions and old-growth trees, bathed that evening in dusky light. The movie-perfect neighborhood looked nothing like the sprawling, mall-happy, traffic-choked metropolis that stereotypes Atlanta. And perhaps because it was so picturesque, and located smack dab in the heart of the city, the sight of it from the backseat of Jane’s sedan took me aback. I swooned.
Until that point, I had seen Atlanta in the words of Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there.” But here was the there, I discovered on that ride. Then we got drunk on tequila and stayed up until three in the morning. I hadn’t had that much fun in months. I was sold.
Surprisingly, not long after moving into a litter box-sized studio apartment with a leukemia-doomed feline named Fancy Pants, Atlanta began to change everything for me. At least that’s how it felt, as though the city were rearranging my entire life. Perhaps that’s because I simply never banked on adulthood happening here; it was in neither my diaries nor daydreams. The imagined possibilities of my adulthood took place in London, New York, Chicago—anywhere but the place that I had moved. Now in my late twenties I realize that it isn’t so much of a surprise, life not looking anywhere close to our adolescent blueprints of happiness.
But it was happening nonetheless, and the changes began when Fancy Pants died, which was sad enough that I wept, though not unexpected. Meanwhile, for the first time in my life, I was living by myself in a new city, making new friends, and seeing what life was like in a completely different place. I suppose a lot of people do this in college, but I had stuck in my hometown for those four years and was never that socially adventurous there. Thus, Atlanta briefly offered an intoxicating anonymity as I got to know the city. Even though I knew that other cities were much hipper and more impressive-sounding, I began finding my place in the mix and carved out my own city map of sorts. I began navigating around what would eventually become my haunts and refuges, backroads and shortcuts, personal landmarks and attractions.
I discovered my favorite place in the city driving alone. It was sitting across the road from me as I waited at a stop light. The place is called the Atlanta Beauty Spot, and it consists of a strip of weathered grass the size of a putting green demarcated by an oversized wooden sign bearing its municipal name. It moved me the first time I noticed it because it was just like Atlanta at large in its charming effort to repurpose blight and make significant the minimal. Then there’s graffiti-littered Krog Street bridge I drive under every time I go to my favorite bar, a divey, tucked away smoke pit. My favorite jogging path winds through the park where I twice broke up relationships during an implausibly passionate phase, and past the bench atop a gorgeous oak-speckled hill precisely where the conversations happened.
The first breakup, a handful of falls ago, an ex-boyfriend gently sat me on a bench to talk me down from my hysterical confusion at his announcement that we “probably shouldn’t see each other anymore.” The second time around, during the spring, I gently sat another ex-boyfriend on that same bench to sputter out a crude explanation of why we “probably shouldn’t see each other anymore,” and the entire time, even through my tears, I kept thinking about how that bench must be cursed for me and that if a man ever suggests we take a walk through that park again, I’d be wise to turn on my heel, make for my car, and never call him again. Still, each time I jog up that hill I think of both of them because it’s impossible not to, because of how strange it is that two emotionally significant partings happened in the exact same place. But that’s just the type of thing that would happen in Atlanta. Whereas a place like New York is known for its size and atmosphere of anonymity, Atlanta is a deceptively small big city, where events always seem to happen at the same handful of places among a predictable cast of characters who, like myself, haven’t left its predictable confines.
In that way, the city is filled with all the kinds of ghosts and deja vues I’ve chronicled in this column, complete with its own particular set of rifts and wars. These days, the entire city is practically a diorama of past relationships, with artifacts of romance and heartbreak scattered throughout. It’s a perfect coincidence that the breakup park was also the site of the Battle of Atlanta, when the city famously was burned to the ground during the Civil War. There’s even a commemoration sign right besides the infamous bench. I remember this because I read it over and over again during both breakups in an effort to stop myself from crying.
In the seven or so years that I’ve lived in Atlanta, long since rebuilt in the hundred and fifty or so years since U.S. General William Tecumseh burned the city to the ground, I’ve often fantasized about doing the same—scorching it and never looking back. Not all the time, mind you. I’m not a Southern pyromaniac with a flair for Civil War history or a typically violent person, to say the least. It’s simply what happens living here, that dramatic brand of daydreaming when you feel stuck somewhere but can’t quite find the gumption to leave because it’s nice enough, it’s easy enough, and it’s so incredibly comforting. But it also can make for a difficult relationship because what develops is a reluctant love, an avoidant attachment, like the way that I’ve cozied up to Atlanta and still wish every now and then that I could burn it to the ground Sherman-style and start over.
In Atlanta I have both grown up and grown to love the place, however reluctantly. I was never supposed to stay here. So now I’m left wondering whether it’s possible to burn down your own home and march on.
Cristen Conger is an Atlanta-based writer, a podcast co-host of Stuff Mom Never Told You, and the internet's unofficial Curator of Lady Knowledge. Her work specializes in all things women, gender, sex, and getting laughs. Not always in that order.