There’s a long-running joke that it doesn’t matter if you’re going to heaven or hell: you’re connecting through Atlanta. Atlanta is a two hour flight away from 80% of the US population. Many other major metropolitan areas split the passenger load with at least one other airport: There’s JFK and La Guardia in New York, Dulles and Reagan in Washington, DC, Heathrow and Gatwick in London. In Atlanta, there’s only Hartsfield-Jackson.
The Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was built on the grounds of the abandoned Atlanta Speedway in 1925, land where cars used to circle faster and faster but ultimately go nowhere transformed into the world’s busiest airport, with 107 million passengers passing through in 2018. It’s had the highest number of passengers in the world for over twenty years, every year. As far back as 1930 it was the third-busiest airport in the US, behind New York and Chicago. During WWII, run as the Atlanta Army Airfield, it set a new record with 1,700 takeoffs and landings in a single day. In 1941, Delta chose Atlanta as its hub over Birmingham, Alabama, and the airline is now Georgia’s number one private employer.
The Atlanta airport is one of the top three places I’ve ever cried. I’ve cried with the rawness of leaving mid-fight with my mother, with the finality of a long-overdue breakup, with the grief of saying goodbye to my childhood dog for the last time, with compounding guilt of leaving my persistently aging grandmother behind.
Mostly, I cry when I’m going through security. Everyone is too busy with their own IDs and luggage to notice or care. I’ve stopped by the time I hit the ticket scan. Bureaucracy is grounding.
The airport mirrors the city in its sprawl. You can walk it, but most people don’t. The Plane Train, the underground automated people mover, connects the terminals. Each of the lettered concourses is marked by the NATO phonetic alphabet (“C as in Charlie”) except for Concourse D as in David. D as in Delta would be too confusing when over two thirds of the flights are operated by the airline. A new train comes every 108 seconds.
Outside of the airport, Atlanta is not known for its excellence in transportation. It is on the top ten list of cities with the worst traffic in the world. Despite increased investment, public transit ridership is declining. Atlanta is a driving city. It’s encircled by I-285, the Perimeter, which outlines the city and launches you spring-loaded to Birmingham or Greenville or Tampa or anywhere else. It’s a hard boundary that defines the city and you as a person in it. You either live inside the perimeter or outside, ITP or OTP. ITP is Atlanta. OTP is the suburbs. I always take I-85, the sixteen lane artery of traffic weaving through the heart of the city. My parent’s house (OTP) is 40 minutes from the airport with no traffic.
Though ATL, with its terrazzo floors and soft jazz covers of Earth, Wind, and Fire, retains the mall quality of most airports, it asserts its character through its 148 dining options. In addition to standard chains like TGI Friday’s To-Go and Aunt Annie’s, ATL has the Varsity and Paschal’s. There are outposts of favorites from Midtown and Virginia Highlands and Athens. There’s Terrapin and Sweetwater on tap. Ludacris’s restaurant, named Chicken+Beer after his 2003 album, greets passengers with a cardboard cutout of moviestar-era Luda in Concourse D.
I arrive two hours early before every flight, partially because I’m an anxious person, but also because I like to eat and drink the things I won’t get to have for a while: cheese dip or fried chicken or grits. It’s not that Atlanta is the only place you can get those things, or even always the best versions of those things, but I’ve lived far away for the last decade. Food you grow up with tastes better at home, even in the airport.
I am usually done crying, but still deep in the grasping disorientation that only leaving home can give you, as I find a single seat at a bar. There’s a bareness to it, like my roots are exposed and dangling. I’m an easy target for conversationalists, already cut half open.
People tell me their secrets. Quick intimacy is facilitated by a total lack of accountability. There is no attachment to the city you’re in during a layover, and only a minuscule chance that you’ll see someone you know, or that anything you do or say will ultimately matter. The risks are low, but the stakes feel high. You’ve relinquished your control of time and place. It’s a calculated exchange, simultaneously destabilizing and liberating. Time feels empty, especially if you’re moving across time zones, where it can be “lost” or “gained.”
I’ve heard about marriages, children, relationships, the things people are running from or to or are shattered to be without; petty complaints, hope and regrets. “They drive me crazy but I love them so much.” The sandy-haired mom on her way to visit her son, who bought me a margarita and told me with equal parts pride and sadness that he’d become the man she never knew he could be. The baby-faced, barrel-chested college kid who was going through a breakup with his high school sweetheart, feeling a new kind of pain for the first time.
“Georgia On My Mind” is a sweeping tableau of homesickness. Written in 1930 by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, the most famous version was recorded by Ray Charles, a Georgia native, in 1960 and made the state song in 1979. It’s won two Grammys, one for Charles’s rendition, the other for Willie Nelson’s. But, it’s Ray Charles I hear when I miss home. Despite other reaching arms and tender, smiling eyes, it’s Georgia, the whole day through. The song is a wistful ache for home and for the kind of peace found only in dreams. An old sweet song that lets you fill in your version of the South, of home itself. The true picture is blurred through a romantic film. The longing is what resonates. Charles said as much. In his autobiography, he says that neither Georgia nor a woman named Georgia were on his mind when he sang the song. He recorded it because he thought it was beautiful.
I miss the South the most in the summer. I live in California and wear sweaters to the beach. I miss the weight of heat, the heaviness of humidity, the textured air and summer storms and the post-rain green. I miss the Chattahoochee River. I miss my grandmother, and her best friend Ruth who makes me pound cakes with the good butter. I miss basements that open into backyards for barbecues on Sundays and sneaking out at night when school is out.
Missing Georgia is cresting the hills through Decatur at night and meeting my brothers at Waffle House at midnight on Thanksgiving and, no matter where I go, there always being a plate for me.
That the state song about being absent from it suggests the tragedy is innate. And for Georgia, it is. To love Georgia, or any Southern state, is to hold opposing ideas in your heart: that the South has systematically limited rights for marginalized people in ways that are unforgivable, and yet, that there is something beautiful at its core worth preserving and nurturing. It is to cling so fiercely to the idea of grace, because if there is no grace, then there is no hope for progress. You have to believe that you are currently living an urgent history, that we are all part of a longer narrative where there is room for both rage and redemption. Otherwise, what’s the fucking point?
From any major airport in the continental United States, I could be home in less than eight hours. From the other side of the world, it might take a day, but probably less. That is the gift of the Atlanta airport. I know I’ll leave home with cheese straws flecked with cayenne that will crumble in the air and grease-stain my backpack but be worth it anyway. I’ll dry my eyes before I sit at the bar and order a tall Sweetwater 420 that tastes better than any California pale ale because the first one I had was snuck out of a garage fridge and split with the neighborhood boys in the middle of cul-de-sac near my childhood home. I’ll order a fried chicken sandwich and a side of mac and cheese. It’s too much food but I’ll eat it all and feel sick on the plane. Leaving makes me feel awful anyway, so I might as well seek comfort in the shattery crisp of breading and viscosity of melted cheese. While I’m eating, someone will make an innocuous comment about their flight. I’ll take a long sip and ask them where they’re from.