By Sean Dietrich
ATLANTA—I don’t do big cities, but I don’t mind Atlanta.
If you were to force me to pick my favorite American city, I wouldn’t pick one because I don’t like being forced to do anything.
My mother used to force me to eat tapioca pudding as a kid, the texture reminded me of old-person snot and I refused to eat it because I couldn’t understand how the same advanced civilization that invented bacon, airplanes and the Thigh Master, came up with tapioca.
But like I was saying, if you asked me nicely to pick a favorite major American city, maybe I would pick Atlanta. Because I have history here.
Right now I am driving I-285, through Atlanta’s congested traffic. The long line of vehicles moves five feet per hour. It’s miserable.
I have plenty of time to remember all kinds of things in this gridlock. Things like, for instance, tapioca.
And I can recall an era before smartphones, when newspapers were works of journalism, before they got swallowed by internet agencies who produce articles entitled: “TWENTY-ONE REASONS WHY BOTTLED WATER WILL KILL YOU.”
And I remember when the Atlanta Journal Constitution was the highlight of my day.
We lived in Atlanta for a hot minute when I was a boy, and each morning I would be the first to retrieve the newspaper. My uncle thought this was hysterical.
“You’re fetching the paper?” he said. “That’s a pretty good trick, Fido. How about next I teach you to shake, roll over, and tee-tee on command?”
But I already knew how to do those things.
So I would open the paper to read my favorite columnist. Then, I would cut out the column with scissors because it was the brightest spot of my day.
Later, when my uncle would shake open his newspaper, he would find a gaping hole where 600 words used to be.
You don’t forget things like that.
Also, the Atlanta Braves. I remember them. We went to games at the old stadium—where finding a parking place was like surviving the apocalypse.
I remember the smell of infield dirt, and popcorn, and the sound of a crowd. I remember sitting behind home plate once, close enough to see the forearm hair of Greg Maddux.
It was in Atlanta where my cousin and I saw real honky-tonk bands, and listened to the blues for the first time.
The first beer joint that ever served me was just outside Atlanta. There was a
blues band playing. I lied about my age.
The bartender was a sweet old woman with skin like boot leather. She knew I was a kid, but the joint was empty, so she gave me one half glass. No refills.
It was a different world back then. That sweet woman would be doing hard time if she tried that today.
Now that I’m an adult, I mostly visit town on business. Sometimes I eat at Truett’s with my uncle, or I go antique shopping with my cousin. I’ve seen Willie Nelson play at Chastain Park, and I like to take in ball games at Suntrust Park. But for the most part, I don’t think about Atlanta much, nor about what it meant to me.
Until I get stuck in traffic.
The older you get, the more important the little pieces of your past become. You find yourself wanting to remember the itty-bitty details. Things you didn’t even know you cared about. Because they are not just memories, they are part of you.
Things like the kudzu in Jonesboro on a June afternoon. The tiny church your friend Jaron and his granny used to go to. The old stadium where you would watch America’s team lose.
The way your cousin would say during a ballgame: “Hey, you know the difference between Michael Jackson and the Atlanta Braves?”
“Nothing. They both wear one glove but never use it.”
You remember how your aunt brought your mother here when she was sick, and the doctors at Emory saved her life.
And how you drove your mother home a year later, listening to an audiobook on cassette while she slept.
You’ll never forget the lost kid you were. No matter how old you get. Fatherless and awkward, a little chubby, listening to blues in a beer joint on a Saturday night.
And the bartender, puffing her cigarette, who said, “You know what I like about the blues? It’s honest music, it don’t pretend that life’s a bed of roses.”
You remember jogging to the end of a driveway every morning, shaking open a damp newspaper to see what an old columnist friend had to say.
And wishing that one day, if Heaven smiled on you, maybe you’d write the same kinds of things to a lonely child who needed them.
No, you don’t forget places like Atlanta, and you never will.
But you will always hate tapioca.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.