I was born in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, in St. Joseph’s Infirmary—right in the middle of the current boundaries of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. I lived there until I was five, when my mother and I moved to Alabama. I returned to Atlanta more than 20 years later, and that’s where I started my editorial career, met and married my wife, and went back to school to finish my bachelor’s degree. I ultimately decided to leave again and settle in North Carolina, but I never left Atlanta in my heart; so when I wrote my first novel, Blood Family, I set it in Atlanta. I had my doubts about writing Atlanta-based fiction while living elsewhere, but I told myself that if James Joyce could write Dubliners while living in Zurich, Switzerland, it was okay for me to write about Atlanta from one state over. I cannot imagine Blood Family being set anywhere else but Atlanta, with its complicated and tragic racial history, its relentless pursuit of material success, and the undercurrent of darkness flowing beneath its skyscrapers and superhighways.
As research for my next novel, I’m reading Bound for Canaan, a history of the Underground Railroad. The book says the Underground Railroad was “the country’s first racially integrated civil rights movement.” The Railroad surely paved the way for our next civil rights movement, in which activist John Lewis had his skull fractured during a nonviolent protest in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Lewis went on to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia’s Fifth District, which he still represents today. After Lewis described Donald Trump as an “illegitimate president” for being elected with Russian help, Trump responded two days ago by saying “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”
I experienced Trump’s remarks as an insult not only against a true American hero whose whole life exemplifies the difference between talk and action but also against my hometown. I thought back to the seven years I spent in Atlanta as an adult. Yeah, crime was higher than I wished it was—my shitty old Buick Park Avenue got stolen there, while parked between a Volvo and a Mercedes, no less—but I never felt unsafe. I never felt like my neighborhoods were falling apart. I remember enjoying the sight of families having cookouts in Grant Park, and hating the sensation of sweating my ass off while jogging up and down the bike path beside Freedom Parkway (on a summer afternoon, like an idiot), and grooving on all the vibrant graffiti and murals and tats and piercings and music in Little Five Points, and trying to act like I knew what I was doing while volunteering as an adult literacy tutor in the Fulton County Public Library, and experiencing pure delight upon getting the singing weather report from Tyrone the crazy weather guy on MARTA.
Atlanta’s on my mind even more today because it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. King, too, was born in Atlanta, and as a child he sang in a choir that performed at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind, an event that Flannery O’Connor dramatized in her short story “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” He left Atlanta to go to seminary school and then to pastor his first church in Alabama, but later he returned, and Atlanta was still King’s home when he was assassinated in 1968. It was his home, and it’s John Lewis’s home, and it’s my home from afar, the same way that Dublin was Joyce’s home even while he lived in Zurich. My home from afar has now been added to the long and ever-growing list of people, places, and things insulted by Donald Trump.
Trump’s fundamental approach to life seems to involve devaluing others while assigning himself near-infinite value—an approach that my mother used to call “big me, little you.” Those of us who know Atlanta understand its true value in a way that a New York billionaire never could. Speaking as a writer, I know that Atlanta is a rich, fecund setting for stories that explore the mystery underlying the quotidian world around us, and that’s why I expect all my novels to be set there from now on, the tweetings of a reality TV star notwithstanding.