Last week while I was roaming through a book store, I stumbled upon a hidden gem. Well, a hidden gem in my eyes at least, considering where I come from. Right there on the shelf in front of me stood a fascinating book of photos of my "adopted" hometown of Atlanta. I say "adopted," as I wasn't born in the South, but those seven years I spent down there changed my outlook on life.
While the book primarily explores Atlanta's hip-hop scene, flashbacks to the long nights staying up until the wee hours of the night flooded my brain. Memories of cruising down North Avenue with friends, down the shady part of Piedmont and over to the park, looking in bewilderment at all the makeshift rap posters stapled to telephone polls, and the skyline at night while driving down I-75/85 reminded me why I love Atlanta. In a sense, it's a different kind of city-lover's city — it's got its share of rough edges, softened with Southern hospitality.
And when "the ATL" gets blindsided with snow and ice (no matter how small the amount, despite exaggerations by its people), I'm confident that my city is resilient. Yet when a tornado swept through the downtown area in 2008 — nearly three years to the day — I knew my city was vulnerable. It took many months for every window to be patched, each road sign to be replaced. Yes, it could've been much worse, and I can only help but wonder what people with connections to Japan are going through now. It's one thing to see a neighbor file for foreclosure — and another to hear that a friend's home has washed away, family members yet to be found.
Junot Diaz is just one of people I'm talking about. In a recent piece for Newsweek, the writer waxed poetic on his utter fascination with Tokyo, and Japan in general. He recalls his trip there with a friend who needed to return home for open-heart surgery. And while I've explained my love for Atlanta, Diaz sums up on my overall feelings for cities in general:
It is a strange thing to love a city. In the end because no city is entirely knowable. What you love really are pieces of it. You are like Dr. Aadam Aziz forever peering at sections of his beloved through the perforated sheet. In Midnight's Children the sheet was finally dropped and the beloved revealed, but with cities that never happens. That is perhaps part of the allure, what brings us back to the cities we love: our desire to accumulate enough pieces so we can finally have it whole within us. But to love a city is also to love who we were at that time we fell in love. For me, my love for Tokyo is intertwined with my love for my best friend, who did, in the end, survive his surgery.
Cities produce love and yet feel none. A strange thing when you think about it, but perhaps fitting. Cities need that love more than most of us care to imagine. Cities, after all, for all their massiveness, all their there-ness, are acutely vulnerable.
Sure, I made the decision to leave Atlanta, for personal reasons. And there are loads of nooks and crannies of the city I've yet to discover. Regardless, the next time I go back home, I want to wrap my arms around it, and embrace the place I love. It may not be the same forever.