The Atlanta Narrative
Growing up as a kid from Atlanta’s sprawling suburbs, I for many years viewed “the city” as a place that was foreign. It was a place that my family and I ventured for doctor’s appointments and Braves games, or for the occasional school field trip. It was flyover-territory, so to speak, for long drives to relatives or vacation, but little else. In fact by the time I moved into the Georgia State dorms at the age of 18 in ’02, I probably couldn’t find my way from Downtown to Midtown without a map. Despite living in the defined limits of Metro Atlanta my entire life, Atlanta proper might as well have been a foreign country.
And as my worldview as a young man went, a scary and dangerous one at that. I can remember being 17 and leaving Lakewood Amphitheater after a show (note: I will always call it Lakewood) and upon missing the onramp onto Interstate 85, proceeded to find myself lost with 3 friends on Lakewood Freeway (note: I will never call it Langford) heading west. Eventually stopping at a gas station that years later I would come to not live particularly far from, we called our parents, who informed us that we were perhaps minutes from death if we failed to flee. Apparently we had stumbled into downtown Baghdad only a half hour from home.
A decade later and a seasoned veteran of urban life, I’ve come to understand the city not as a place that’s foreign and dangerous, but rather as one that’s vibrant, diverse and alive. I’ve come to learn the complex street grid by name and by memory, the parks by their quality of parking, and the restaurants by their smell, taste and wait time. But even as a proud, proud resident of this city I’m honored to call home, I’ll still think from time to time about our Lakewood adventure….and unfortunately there’s a sobering reason why: because our suburban parents’ panic was not entirely misplaced.
Atlanta is not a utopia. It’s an eclectic and constantly-changing mesh of people from near and far – some of them born here, many who’ve transplanted – who in many cases are doing amazing things. From innovative restaurants to thriving music and arts, the city is slowly building what one might call an identity, one that I think will gradually allow it to become one of America’s great cities. But as I think we all must admit, for every new hip gallery, there’s an old neighborhood still impoverished. For every Wonderroot there’s a 30 Deep. And for every Old Fourth Ward Park, there’s the stark reality of continued gentrification, continued segregation (yes), and continued policies leading us to fall behind cities like Charlotte (on transportation issues) and New Orleans (on education reform).
The FEED project was founded upon a clarion call of civic pride and with a powerful ethos that Atlanta is awesome—and here’s where you shouldn’t misunderstand my point….it is awesome in countless exciting ways, but it’s far from perfect. It’s a novel that isn’t finished, a painting half-complete. Atlanta’s the next great restaurant down the street, only they’re still working on the kitchen.
And that’s what makes a project like FEED so important, because none of us are exempt from our presence in that story. We’re either working for good, working for bad, or standing on the sidelines, which by definition contributes to the bad. Whether someone’s lived here for twenty years or two, he’s a resident of this city. She’s someone with the capability to contribute to the problem….or to the solution.
In short, we Atlantans are part of a narrative—one that started long before we arrived here and that’ll conclude long after we’re gone. It’s a story that’s been written by great Atlantans like Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph McGill, William Hartsfield, Shirley Franklin and Andrew Young, but also one with staring roles for Lester Maddox, Bill Campbell, Brian Nichols, the idiots who designed the Connector, and the suburban voters who rejected MARTA. It’s the story of a city that rose from the ashes of war and snagged the Olympics with little more than sheer grit, but that along the way housed segregation and still tolerates inequality, even racism.
Bobby Kennedy once said that “it is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped,” and I think the shaping of cities is not altogether different. New York didn’t become New York by accident, it did so because people made it that way. Cleveland didn’t become Cleveland by accident….you get the idea. What will people make of Atlanta? In my opinion that’s the foundational question of a project like FEED, which if I have one wish will be something that not only helps people realize that, yes, they are Atlantans, but also inspires them to emulate the best of what’s happening here.
There’s much to be done. So collaborate, learn, serve, donate, get off the beaten path, explore your city, register voters, attend your community meetings, and become a character in this Atlanta narrative…because it’s being written with or without you, as we speak, for better or worse.
In addition to being the proud husband of FEED Atlanta founder Melonie Tharpe, Wesley Tharpe is the Director of Programs at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. A native of Fayetteville, current resident of the Old Fourth Ward, and graduate of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the University of Georgia, Wesley is an avid reader, Hawks fan, Bourbon connoisseur, coffee house snob and pizza eater.