"IT'S ATLANTA!" screamed the two-inch headlines last Tuesday, and my hometown was momentarily paralyzed by a wave of disbelieving amazement and joy.
The Olympics are going to be held in Atlanta!
For those who have never lived there, it must be difficult to understand just how important is the International Olympic Committee's decision to rebuff Athens and hold the centennial of the modern Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Former Georgia Gov. George Busbee touched on it when he said that "the Olympics will be the biggest and the greatest thing that has ever happened to the economy of our state and the skyline of Atlanta."
But the significance of the international spectacle goes beyond money and real estate--it has to do with Atlanta's identity and self-esteem. For a city known primarily for peach trees and Scarlett O'Hara, the prospect of being placed alongside Rome, Berlin, Stockholm and Tokyo is dizzying.
The Olympic games are the most important symbol of Atlanta's evolution from provincial mill-town to modern metropolis since (dare I say it?) William Tecumseh Sherman.
As Atlantans undertook to rebuild their gutted city 125 years ago, they had to grapple with being a symbol of the country's most backward cultural, social and economic leanings. Now Atlanta considers itself the capital of the "New South"; while the rest of the South became embroiled in violent reaction against the Civil Rights movement, booming Atlanta boasted of being "the city too busy to hate."
ATLANTA'S debut on the world stage is particularly stimulating to me because I was, until very recently, something of a self-hating Southerner. Despite being a third-generation Atlantan, I tried as hard as I could to make sure nothing about me--not my accent, not my political beliefs, not my musical taste, not my style of dress--could possibly betray me as Southern. In my mind, the entire Northeast was a cosmopolitan Manhattan and the entire South (except, of course, for my neighborhood) was a 1980s-era Mayberry.
These views were reinforced by several aspects of my upbringing--notably, my schooling. My integrated neighborhood schools, part of the urban Atlanta Public School system, exemplified the best progressive leanings in Southern society. Yet no teacher ever hinted at the importance of that. My friends and I were taught in detail about the South's civil rights abuses, but were practically never exposed to similar phenomena in the North. We understood every aspect of the "white flight" from our own schools, but never heard a whisper about the Boston busing fiasco. I figured that race relations in the North were like one big Sesame Street--everyone a cheerful next-door neighbor.
I blame some of my embarrassment toward "Southern culture" on television's shallow, cliched view of Southern people and places. Look at shows like "The Dukes of Hazzard," "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Hee Haw." Even "Matlock" and "Designing Women," which at least depict intelligent characters, depend on quaint Southern accents, romanticized Southern situations and hackneyed Southern expressions for their appeal. Face it--no one expects the sophistication of "L.A. Law" south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
MY NEWFOUND appreciation of Southernness began to arise around the time I defected to Cambridge. In place of Southern courtesy (a cliche grounded firmly in reality), I found scowling store clerks, irate motorists and pedestrians engaging in mortal defiance on city streets. I realize now that a part of me really does thrive "down home."
Atlanta's lack of Cambridge-style frenzy does not mean it is a sleepy, podunk town. With a rejuvenated down-town, sprawling suburbs, rapid commercial growth and substantial improvements in infrastructure, Atlanta truly deserves its newfound spot on the Map of Important Places. Thanks in large part to Atlanta, the vocal twang once associated exclusively with Aunt Bea and Opie no longer automatically marks one as the product of a cultural backwater.
That explains the fuss over the Olympic Committee's announcement. After years of having their progress go unrecognized by the rest of the country, Atlantans are excited about stepping into the spotlight. The games themselves will undoubtedly represent an economic boon to the region. But the real significance is validating what Atlanta has already achieved.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution writer Mark Bradley came the closest to the way I feel about the Olympics when he wrote--perhaps a touch over-optimistically--"Forget being merely the hub of the New South. An Olympiad and its attendant fallout could make Atlanta a hub of the New America."
Atlanta may not be Athens--or even Berlin or Tokyo--but it is nonetheless deserving of the committee's recognition. Athens represents hide-bound tradition and a sclerotic inability to break away from the past. Atlanta represents vitality, mobility and a constant eye on the future. Not to mention the best peach cobbler and pecan pie on Earth.