I am waaaay behind in the Gone with the Wind read-along, having just passed page 200. I think I’m supposed to be somewhere in the page 500 range by now, but with traveling and the job search, I’ve been unable to keep up. Although I’m enjoying the book, I also admit that I’m anxious to get through it: I feel a bit like I’m approaching that long stretch of highway that crosses the desert. You know, “No Rest Stop for 200 Miles”–that sort of thing. I love the desert, but when I’m traveling across it to get somewhere else, it seems endless. After I finish Gone with the Wind, I have One Hundred Years of Solitude to read, and I am excited to pick it up. I think I had better get used to feeling this way: it’s going to happen quite often with all these terrific challenge books I have lined up, not to mention the few books I still want to get through just for my own selfish pleasure.
One of the things that strikes me about Gone With The Wind is how very much the spirit of this book remains alive here in the South in general, and in Atlanta in particular. Everyone’s been talking about Scarlett–to me, Scarlett is Atlanta. Mitchell makes this parallel in the book:
“Atlanta had always interested her more than any other town because when she was a child Gerald had told her that she and Atlanta were exactly the same age.”
“Like herself, the town was a mixture of the old and new in Georgia, in which old often came off second best in its conflicts with the self-willed and vigorous new.”
Mitchell also writes about Atlanta:
“The people who settled the town called successively Terminus, Marthasville, and Atlanta, were a pusy people. Restless, energetic people from the older sections of Georgia and from more distant states were drawn to this town that sprawled itself around the junction of the railroad in its center. They came with enthusiasm. They built their stores around the five muddy-red roads that crossed near the depot. They built their fine homes on Washington and Whitehall streets and along the high ridge of land on which countless generations of moccasined Indian feet had beaten a path called the Peachtree Trail. They were proud of the place, proud of its growth, proud of themselves for making it grow. Let the older towns call Atlanta anything they pleased. Atlanta did not care.”
I came here from Texas ten years ago this month, on the tail-end of the post-Olympic population surge. If I wanted to, I could walk right over to the Marta station and get on a train that would drop me dead-center at Five Points Station, where those “muddy-red roads” used to meet. Now it’s all concrete and tall buildings, but I’m here to tell you that Atlanta hasn’t changed all that much. Take, for example, the fact that our governor was elected for his original term in 2002 on the promise that he would bring the Confederate emblem back to the state flag. Oh yes. The argument often given for doing such is that the Confederate emblem is a symbol of Southern pride, and that the idea it might offend some people is the argument of a bunch of sour Yankees who want to keep the South down. Mm hmm.
Atlanta, like Scarlett, is beautiful–on the surface. Scratch that surface, and you’ll find a city full of contradictions and trouble. Consider the Olympics: most cities who throw their hat in the ring to host the Olympics do so because they want to draw people–and business–to their cities. Atlanta was wildly successful in doing so, but you never saw a population more resentful of it, either. (Scarlett and and the hapless Charles Hamilton come to mind.) When I first came here, the usual outcry I heard from Atlanta natives was that everybody was from somewhere else all of the sudden. To vent their frustration, they would do fun things like vote down referendums for road expansion. “Road expansion will bring in more people, so we don’t want it.” That was their reasoning. Problem was, the people had already arrived, and that’s why the road needed to be expanded. Or how about this: I have a friend who lived out in an area just west of Atlanta–a suburb, if you will–and to get to his house, I had to cross Nickajack Road. Up until right before the Olympics (my friend lived there at the time, so I have a witness), the road was Ni*#erjack Road. In this day and age, right? Yes. Right. It’s true that many people in Atlanta–natives–are appalled by such things, but there’s also a good portion of the population that still seems to have what I’ll call a high tolerance for it. It’s baffling, but one senses that at the base of it is just plain stubbornness. They don’t want to go back to owning slaves and plantations by any stretch, but by the same token, they have no shame. They can believe in civil rights yet still want that emblem on the flag.
At present, Atlanta is one of the country’s most empty cities, both in terms of homes and commercial space. Atlanta wants to be a center for bio-tech, but the state legislature has put significant laws in place that block stem-cell research, a crucial component to much of the work people want to do at Emory, Georgia Tech, and the CDC. And perhaps you heard that we almost ran out of water in 2007? Some people would have you think this is only because water from the Chattahoochee is being diverted by the Army Corps of Engineers to save sturgeon in Florida–it has nothing at all to do with the lack of city planning! When it rains and Lake Lanier goes up a foot, people seem to believe the crisis has passed–even though the lake is still down fourteen feet from what they call “full pool.” The crisis has not passed, but I walked down a street last week where people were testing out their new sprinkler systems, getting ready for summer.
It’s the same twisted logic that Scarlett uses to keep herself believing that Ashley Wilkes loves her and that the South cannot be licked by the North. Somehow if you’re stubborn enough and believe hard enough, things will work themselves around to the way you want them to be. That’s Scarlett. That’s Atlanta.
*image from powells.com