A Bellwether for Future Cities

Atlanta in Conversation

Adriane Lentz-Smith and Ben Tran in conversation

I often tell people that I am grateful for the norms that Atlanta set for me in looking at public life—who I expected to see active in politics.

Atlanta used to be my hometown, and it has been much on my mind this year. In recent conversations about the future of voting, ghastly outbreaks of racist violence, or conflicts over monuments and myth, the city looms large. Although I have not lived there for almost three decades, I continue to sort through all the ways in which Atlanta taught me to think about place, possibility, race, and inheritance. In June, I sat down with another former Atlantan, Vanderbilt professor Ben Tran, to discuss how this eclectic, sprawling city served as a template for our thinking through the contemporary moment—and for anticipating what comes next. —Adriane Lentz-Smith

Adriane Lentz-Smith: We were both raised in and around Atlanta, and I have spent much of my time since leaving metro Atlanta both announcing myself as southerner and asking, “What does that even mean?” As I ponder that question in this place, at this time, I thought you might be able to provide some insight.

Ben Tran: I have been thinking about this quite a bit, especially after the 2020 presidential election and the Warnock and Ossoff victories in their senate races. These were significant victories that came from tremendous work and tireless organizing. Georgia was pivotal in delivering Biden the presidency and swinging the Senate towards Democrats. These results fulfilled the promise of a changing Atlanta and Georgia, which people like Stacey Abrams had long anticipated. There is potential for political change and agency, but the structures and the history of the South were such that these victories couldn’t even be celebrated. So to be a southerner, for me, is to imagine possibilities and work towards change against the racist forces of the past and present.

To be a southerner, for me, is to imagine possibilities and work towards change against the racist forces of the past and present.

You could not have planned it better. If somebody went into a room and said, “Hey, how are we going to keep Georgia from being a swing-vote state away from the Republican party?” then you would immediately call into question the results of the election—launching the insidious campaign of the “big lie” that continues well into 2021. Next, as Georgians rebooted and prepared for the Senate runoffs and the Democrats won, Senator Ossoff was barely declared victor, when—immediately—the January 6 Capitol riots occurred. These events and conspiracies stole the spotlight, violently so, undermining the electoral process. It felt as if the events were coordinated. Then we were coming to terms with what was going on: voter suppression—the reality that the fight for the democratic process would have to continue in a very difficult and arduous way—when the March 26 spa shootings targeting Asian American women happened. It was already exhausting, and then the shootings happened.

Atlanta is, in many respects, a bellwether of American cities. This is apparent in this past election and its aftermath. We didn’t get to celebrate. We barely had time to take a breath, that’s the thing. I am still reeling from the March shootings. There are so many implications, and it says a great deal about Atlanta, the South, and the United States.

ALS: And the response to those shootings also says something. Perhaps about the oversimplicity with which we talk about racism and racialized violence. And sexism and sexualized violence—and where those things overlap.

 BT: Specifically the police authorities who would not deem it a hate crime or denied that race was involved. Even the complexities of the Asian American victims: there is not enough language or wherewithal to necessarily talk about how this story and these people capture many of the different layers and complexities of Atlanta. We have to talk about race beyond black-and-white binaries, while also confronting prejudices that sex workers face.

ALS: The layers and contradictions and tensions are tremendous. When people expressed shock that the Warnock and Ossoff victories were possible, I suspected that they had not paid attention to the freedom movements and Democratic organizing in Georgia over the past many decades. But if folks seemed surprised by the deadly and vicious response to those victories, then they also haven’t been paying attention to politics over the past many decades.

BT: I suspect that this relates to the way that we understand the South in such simple narratives. I live in Nashville, for example, and it has experienced a tourism boom. Lots of John Deere tractors, cowboy hats, and cowboy boots—that is the image that the tourists want and the city sells. But even Nashville is changing in a way that no narrative has yet to account for—like the Kurdish population here, or the different groups of immigrants who moved to Nashville, or the international students that come to the different universities. They do not appear in cultural representations or political planning. To think back to Atlanta, even Atlanta’s self-designation as “The City Too Busy to Hate” just doesn’t cut it. It fails to capture the difficulties of the daily struggles and the forces that create those struggles.1

“Too busy to hate” suggests that you are hustling all the time, and Atlanta is a city on the hustle. I have a lot of issues with the term “neoliberalism” because of its vagueness, but Atlanta was the proto-neoliberal city. Everyone is driving everywhere, service industry jobs are the big thing, there is no public safety net, limited public transportation. This is another way in which Atlanta is a bellwether for future cities, too, but also a product of its past—of slavery, of the labor relations that characterized Jim Crow. Add to it all the hustle, that proto-neoliberal hustle, that draws companies to it.

Illustrations by Jade Orlando, 2022, licensed exclusively by The Bright Agency.

ALS: When I try to explain Atlanta’s hustle, or the particular version of the global city it has become, I point to the 1996 Olympics and its weird opening ceremonies with all the giant chrome pickup trucks. I think the Washington Post called the ceremonies “grandiose, hyperbolic overstatement.”

BT: Absolutely. It’s as if we’re all hustling in chrome pickup trucks. The Olympics also ushered in demographic inversion of the suburbs and the inner-city gentrification. In other words, those have flipped by now. In preparation for the Olympics, Atlanta cleared out the Techwood housing projects, as well as other public housing. The Olympics gave license to build different sports venues and Centennial Park—to clear out the west side of downtown and to start the gentrification which has continued to this day.

Atlanta had been vying for the Olympics, for many, many years. They finally got it, and, as you said, the image put forth was these silver pickup trucks. They served as a sign of the development the city wanted, but that development also ushered in all these other processes that push people right out of the city. I was a freshman in high school when the announcement came that Atlanta won the 1996 bid. At that time, Clayton County—Jonesboro, Riverdale—was where white middle-class and working families lived. But now it’s the complete opposite. There is not much public transportation there. If you don’t exit off the highway into Clayton County, you don’t have to see it. You can’t see it. In many instances, it is where people who have been abandoned by the city and by public services have had to go to. Land does not appreciate there, home values don’t appreciate, and so on and so forth. The Olympics was a pivotal point for this. Not to say that the Olympic organizers wanted it this way, but they wanted a particular kind of development and image branding for the city. And they got it.

ALS: What was your Atlanta like? How did you experience the city?

BT: I grew up in Hapeville, and Hapeville is south of the city, right by the airport. The town had a Vietnamese Catholic church community. The community was located there because unskilled workers who didn’t speak English well could find jobs with contractors for the airlines and airport, be it catering or cleaning or mechanical stuff, whatever. So there was this Vietnamese enclave, and when my parents moved from New Orleans to Atlanta, they decided on Hapeville and joined that church.

The social mobility I had growing up was tied to my ability to move around the city. It took me 1.5 to 2.5 hours each way to get to school because I went to school at St. Pius on the northern edge of the city, and then to North Atlanta High School in Buckhead. It involved long bus rides and multiple MARTA [rapid transit] stops. It was a crazy commute, and stressful. I got shingles my freshman year in high school. But at least it was possible. Counties further south did not even link up with Atlanta’s public transportation system.

North Atlanta was a predominantly Black school with two magnet programs, International Baccalaureate and performing arts. It was diverse, and there was a lot of great talent that came out of there. It was a remarkable school in many, many ways. I would love to ask all the students from all over Atlanta why their parents chose to send them because at the time I did not think about how hard it was for some families to send their kids from the south side of town, south of I-20, up to Buckhead. That commute is hard even if you had a car. If you didn’t have a car, busing was even crazier. But the payoff was worth it. Because of school, I kind of transgressed the city’s segregation, and I do think that is an important aspect of an education.

ALS: I’m still sitting with your observations about place and displacement, gentrification and change. The versions of Hapeville and Atlanta that you grew up in, have they changed a great deal?

BT: Not all parts of them. Part of Hapeville is an artists’ colony right now. When I was growing up, the city was so proud of being Jeff Foxworthy’s hometown. He was Hapeville’s best-known son. And then it’s home of Chick-fil-A. But it was really a city that got swallowed up by the airport. Most of the kids I grew up with, our parents worked in the airport somehow. They worked in ticketing, baggage claims, maintenance or whatever, but everyone was connected to the airport. It was an airport town.

ALS: When I think of Hapeville, I think of Chick-fil-A and the Ford Taurus plant.

BT: That Ford plant is now a “Porsche Experience Center.”

ALS: It gussied up!

BT: It gussied up. Like Atlanta! I have found comparisons to Tulsa helpful, particularly right now. The 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. The whole controversy with the commemoration of Black Wall Street intrigues me because even the museum going up there serves, in part, as a tool for gentrification and draw for development. But there aren’t adequate reparations that accompany it, and the people who are still living that history are pushed farther away, physically or psychologically, community-wise. Atlanta has a similar story. The development that they have wanted since the 1990s—to become this international southern city—comes at that price.

Another way to talk about place, development, and change is to think about Atlantans’ relationship to food. Atlanta is a city that loves to eat and drink, and the food reflects that. It reflects the range, complexity, and diversity of Atlanta—which have long been there because of communities of color. In Atlanta, the civil rights history and struggle remain ever present, with MLK, Spelman and Morehouse, debates about Stone Mountain being the most visible and iconic. And the immigrant communities also are always there and present, especially through food. Yet, both the celebration of civil rights and the celebration of food can be so easily instrumentalized that we don’t see the very processes—again, like gentrification and development—that put those celebrations to market use. Yet we don’t necessarily know more about these communities—why and how they ended up in Atlanta. So for example, if I asked where good phở is in Atlanta, most Atlantans could probably tell you their favorite Vietnamese spot. Or they could tell you about a good Korean restaurant, or that they love the Dekalb Farmer’s Market. But if I asked them about the history and significance of the Vietnamese or Korean communities in Atlanta, I don’t know if they could tell you much more.

Both the celebration of civil rights and the celebration of food can be so easily instrumentalized that we don’t see the very processes.

Then again, communities have also refashioned interstitial—or even formerly central—spaces as their own. For instance, I don’t like strip malls, but there is something democratic with strip malls. I mean, I don’t like the aesthetic, it’s environmentally not good, the blacktop parking lots are nightmares. But strip mall spaces are affordable so that mom-and-pop stores can thrive. Those strip malls have made different corridors possible. Buford Highway is a prime example, along with other corridors in counties like Gwinnett to Clayton. Those strips off of the shopping malls have found new life, even though the malls themselves have experienced various downturns. The deaths of malls have meant a great deal in Atlanta, but in Gwinnett County, for example, the malls and strip malls are now occupied by Asian entrepreneurs who have turned these spaces into significant and unexpected centers of cultural life.

So on the one hand, certain movements or histories or ethnic foods have been instrumentalized and commodified in a way that occludes the histories of these communities. But, on the other hand, there is contingency. We talk about the borderless-ness of the city and the way the city keeps stretching, but it stretches and changes in ways we can’t anticipate.

ALS: So there is something about its weird amorphous geography that allows people to slip in and make what they will of the space and infrastructure.

BT: These overlooked spaces have possibility. However, those overlooked spaces within the city are becoming less and less. The real estate is running out. Atlanta is such a new city. Driving around, I see all kinds of new construction, and the cityscape continually looks different.

ALS: Chasing the future without reckoning with present or past?

BT: It is a sterilization of this history entangled in violence, racism, and racialization. I have lived through it not knowing that I was doing so. That’s the thing about growing up in the South. I didn’t know that things could be different. Of course you can’t. Double consciousness at its most basic. Any American city’s story has these components to it, but you never know how different things could be until you’ve left—until you’ve traveled to different places, by car and plane, or by books.

I really like this question. So, yes, it’s chasing the future without reckoning with present or past. And in Atlanta, such development has occurred because of its commercialized nature. When I look back at Atlanta, I am struck most by how intense the corporate influences on the city are. Think Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, and Home Depot. We can see it now with the corporate sponsorships for the zoo and aquarium, and the Olympics served as an inflection point of this, too. Again, these are private–public partnerships that end up privatizing or exploiting public resources—another way in which Atlanta is a proto-neoliberal city.

What we have been discussing in this conversation is a particular narrative of development that has been wanted and desired. In Atlanta, that reflects everything from gentrification to even architecture and the lack of urban planning across counties. The striking governmental arrangement of the city is that there is no greater governing body for all the counties—so traffic will continue to be a problem, water will be an issue. Yet for all that, Atlanta is a shining southern city in terms of its cosmopolitanism.

ALS: And perhaps both exemplar and bellwether for how layered histories of racism and race-making domestically and abroad work with development and corporate interests to make a globalizing city.

BT: One thing that we have not touched on is how Atlanta has fortified itself as a city and its relationship to the rural areas. In other words, state government versus the mayor and her office. The city is home to all these remarkable women who run the show. It makes me so proud to call myself an Atlantan.

ALS: I often tell people that I am grateful for the norms that Atlanta set for me in looking at public life—who I expected to see active in politics. The range and diversity of Black folks, across classes and subcultures. Black nerds, like myself. Black hippies like the rap group Arrested Development. I’m even grateful for the complex and exasperating things around racial or intellectual identity because knowing how to maneuver around complex and exasperating situations is also a skill.

BT: That’s another thing we haven’t even talked about: the amazing artists, especially musicians, that have come out of Atlanta. It’s just mind- boggling. I went to a performing arts school, so I saw the training, I saw the hard work, I saw the dedication, and I love what those artists have created. I have always said that southern cities that don’t have music are kind of boring. You have to have a musical component to your identity, a strong one. And Atlanta’s is not country or jazz. It’s hip-hop, with a strong connection to the southern parts of the city where we grew up.

When I listen to that music now, even somebody as late as Donald Glover who carries the legacy of the previous generations of musicians, I recognize that I have some of that southern hip-hop sensibility. Whatever comes out of negotiating whatever the city throws at us. As a scholar who works on Asia and Asian Americans, I am definitely not a scholar from California because I have such a different way of negotiating things. Similarly, looking at Asian American Studies in the past year, it has been interesting to see how University of Minnesota, after George Floyd, produces a particular kind of Asian American scholar versus California or elsewhere. My way of negotiating things came from growing up in this percolating diversity that had no way of articulating itself yet and trying to figure things out. And things were not so obvious; they were open and still contingent—still restricting, but there was a possibility.

ALS: I love the phrasing of “percolating diversity.” And I feel grateful for these final reflections on how place has shaped your sensibility as a scholar. I have been in a loving argument with my Atlanta since I left it. Thank you for taking the time to think with and about our hometown.

BT: You’re welcome. The southern cities keep pulling me back in.

Adriane Lenth-Smith is Associate Professor of History, African & African-American Studies, and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. Her article, “’The Laws Have Hurt Me: Violence, Violation, and Black Women’s Struggles for Civil Rights,” appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Southern Cultures.
Ben Tran is Associate Professor of Asian Studies and English at Vanderbilt University where he teaches courses on racialization and capitalism, blackness and the Asian Century, and land and dispossession. He is the author of Post-Mandarin: Masculinity and Aesthetic Modernity in Colonial Vietnam (Fordham, 2017).