Welcome to Atlanta

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A continuous curtain of water battered my car for the first thirty minutes I was in the great state of Georgia. Coming from Southern California where it never rains, it seemed like an unnecessary show of force. Okay, I get it, you have water here. A few minutes before I was attacked by extremist clouds, I photographed a bright blue billboard with an anatomically correct peach that offered an official welcome from Nathan Deal, who was not the owner of a car dealership or host of a game show, but the governor. This sign was strategically placed over a highway rest stop that I thankfully had the foresight to patronize, otherwise, I would’ve had a repeat of what will forever be known in my house as the ‘Arizona incident.’ Five days ago, when I left my home in Los Angeles, I got caught in an epic, two-hour traffic jam somewhere near Flagstaff. And, while surrounded by a sea of idling cars on historic Route 66, I was left with no choice but to open my car door and hover my pants-less body over the steaming hot pavement until I heard drops turn to a cascade and then back to drops.

But that was then. Having crossed the state line, I was a mere hour away from my final destination, Georgia’s gleaming, golden-domed capital, Atlanta, and I wanted to make a good impression.

At its birth, Atlanta was the proverbial end of the line of the Western & Atlantic Railroad and now, short of 200 years later, it marked the end of my ambitious cross-country trek. Only this rain was really trying to wash me away. I barely could make out the brake lights on the semitruck ten feet in front of me. I considered pulling over into a town called Tallapoosa, but I couldn’t bear the thought of another delay. While driving through Oklahoma, I kept making unscheduled stops it set us back an entire day. I was on a quixotic quest for postcards. Yes, I’m that friend that sends postcards from enviable places like Oranjestad, Cancun and Paris. On this, the occasion of my first and only time in Oklahoma, and I wanted to continue the tradition and share the milestone of my road trip with those dear to me, but it was hopeless. I tried pharmacies and big box stores, but they only offered postcard stamps, which are rendered useless without a postcard. I made a last-ditch effort the Cracker Barrel, where, in the absence of a postcard, I consoled myself with a chicken tender platter. It saddened me to think that no one had thought to take a nice photo of Oklahoma City, print it on a card and scrawl in tacky font, Hello from OKC! Not only because it meant I couldn’t show off to my coastal elite friends that I had made it to the depths of the middle of the country, but also that Oklahoma didn’t believe in itself enough to think that they are worth a postcard.

There was a lovely Walmart employee, whom I asked about the existence of Oklahoma postcards, and she summed it up for me succinctly:

“Ma’am, you’re in Oklahoma.”

Anyway, the time I spent on this endeavor wasn’t what set me back, exactly. I believe it was the cuisine of said Cracker Barrel that vehemently and violently disagreed with my hippy-dippy Valley-girl stomach lining by the time I got to Little Rock. This forced me to spend an extra night quarantined in a room at a La Quinta Inn, while my wife visited the Bill Clinton Presidential Library. At least she brought me back a t-shirt.

So, no, I wasn’t making anymore unnecessary stops.

I held on to my steering wheel for dear life and drove, ever so slowly, with the windows of my Hyundai as opaque as cotton.

“I can’t see anything,” I complained to my wife.

“I don’t think there’s much to see anyway,” she replied and then collapsed back into her seat to continue her Dramamine-induced nap.

Good thing, too, she popped those pills, as this car ride was quickly turning into a Carnival Cruise in the eye of a hurricane. She was the raison d’être of this epic journey and cross-country move. A new job was waiting for her in Atlanta’s prestigious Emory University, which some people refer to as ‘the Ivy of the South’, especially when said people are trying to entice you to leave UCLA. As for me, I’m a travel writer. I can work anywhere. Plus, I’m used to being told where to go. So, when she said Atlanta, I set the GPS to Peachtree Street.          

Giant puddles had now collected on the highway, and while I was careful to maintain my speed, dare devils in monster pick-ups created huge wakes that covered my windshield leaving me as blind as Ray Charles singing Georgia On My Mind.

Oh, so this is how I’m going to die?

Apocalyptic downpour was not on my Bingo card, nor that of my west coast friends. There was much consternation about this impending road trip, but none of it had to do with being waterboarded by Jesus. Instead, they came up with every other worst-case scenario, from being run off the road by a militia group, to getting arrested for a minor traffic infraction to being called a spic at a rest stop only after making sure I had a valid vagina to use the women’s bathroom. And that was what they thought would happen driving through San Bernardino County.

It was exhausting to talk about moving to Atlanta with Angelinos. First because they insist on calling it Hotlanta and second, they think everyone east of Las Vegas sounds like Colonel Sanders. I had to be like, that’s Kentucky you guys, don’t be racist, the people in Georgia sound like Scarlet O’Hara.

I’m kidding, of course. They sound like Andre 3000.

On one of my last nights in Los Angeles, I was at a dinner party in Santa Monica and, when the topic of my cross-country road trip was broached, the dining room turned into the White House’s Situation Room. They took it upon themselves to war-game every possible scenario. I fielded questions like, Is New Mexico a blue state? and Do you know any lawyers in Birmingham? as guests looked at maps on their iPhones to figure out where on I-40 I would encounter the most danger. I attempted to tamper down their hysteria by reminding them that I pass for white, but, after laughing heartedly at my naiveté, they went back to their doom planning.

“Listen, Mari,” one of the husbands said, making everyone else quiet down and perk up. “It’s important that you have your paperwork…”

“She’s a citizen, Greg!” his wife interrupted.

“I know that! I’m saying her documents. Her license, registration, insurance card. Have it all in order and on the ready,” he said while refolding his cloth napkin. “The Highway Patrol is going to take one look at your California license plate and assume you have pot in the car.”

I politely smiled at his suggestion and assured him that his scenario was not possible because not only was I not dumb enough to be caught transporting weed across state lines, but also my car did not have California plates, or plates from any state for that matter. It was plate-less.

Silence befell the room.

In Los Angeles County, when you purchase a new car, the dealer doesn’t bother with those temporary paper-plates where they scribble arbitrary end dates with a thick black sharpie. They figure you have enough proof with the temporary registration you’re supposed to keep in your glove box. So, I was to drive across America in a brand new, gleaming white, Hyundai Elantra with nothing more than a neon yellow cardboard sign that advertised the Keyes dealership from Van Nuys in the space where a legitimate license plate was supposed to be displayed.

“I’m fucked aren’t I?” I said to the glum faces around the table.

At the end of the evening, as I was saying my goodbyes, a friend pulled me to the side, and with tears in her eyes, she pleaded not to be a martyr for the LGBTQ community.

“When you get pulled over,” she whispered, “pretend to be sisters.”

But we never had to. After Arkansas, I drove without incident through a tiny piece of Tennessee, a corner of Mississippi and all of Alabama. Through my window I saw vast expanses of land. After being sardined in Los Angeles, witnessing so much space was unsettling. At times I felt like I was an American settler on a reverse Manifest Destiny journey, planning out entire communities on empty fields. Do people know about this? I thought. We could build a tiny home for everyone in America and still have space for a humongous shopping center with a Starbucks and a Chipotle. But one could only take so much of nothingness. I was more than ready to lay eyes on a skyscraper or two.

Years ago, I had driven into Atlanta from Florida, which offers a completely different perspective of nothingness. There is a smattering of cows, prisoners plucking oranges in groves, vast swampland, and vultures trying to eat alligator roadkill. There is also plenty of reading material from the billboards advertising fetuses, the bible, something called Yeehaw Junction, in addition to divorce, personal injury and criminal lawyers, which may all come in handy at varying moments of your road trip. Then, once in southern Georgia, it’s peanut farms and roadside Waffle Houses before you see the golden spire of the Bank of America tower signaling you’ve arrived at the capital of the New South. Arriving by airplane is no more memorable. You have to be sitting in the right seat and the right time on the right route to see a building far, far away. After five days of endless fields and plains, I was voracious for a sign of life and hopeful that the western side of Georgia had an interesting perspective to offer, but the storm kept it all hidden. Like a good Christian woman, the state made me wait for it until I got to Atlanta proper.

The rain subsided to not only reveal the peaks of tall buildings, but the lushness of my new city. Dogwood trees were full and bright; grass carpeted the ground, everything was green. The sun peered out at just the right angle to create a rainbow and I finally relaxed my shoulders.

We made it.  

With my wife fully conscious now, I circled the city to take it all in. Literally, I circled it because that’s the shape of I-285 and what delineates what locals consider to be inside of the perimeter of Atlanta proper. I exited for a quick bite in East Atlanta Village, because I’ve been listening to rappers tell me all about Zone 6 for years. Without a Waka Flocka sighting, I continued on to Druid Hills, which is also in Zone 6, but admittedly with less street cred. I was pretty sure the houses were former plantations, but I didn’t spot a single woman in an antebellum dress, so hooray for progress. I drove through Virginia-Highland with a glimmer in my eyes. This neighborhood is exactly my speed and when I demanded an explanation as to why we didn’t consider this place for our lodgings, my wife showed me the average rents on her Zillow app. Oh, I said.

I drove into Downtown for a closer look and found it was busier than I remembered, with line of riders waiting to board a huge Ferris wheel and entirely too many children running through Olympic Park’s Fountain of Rings. I got a little lost trying to get to Georgia Tech, but I made it to the fancy high-rises in Buckhead without a problem.

Exhausted and nearly out of gas, I was ready to head home. My new home, that is. And take possession of those coveted keys I’ve been dreaming about for five days.

“One last stop, I promise.” I said to my wife while turning into a Walgreens in Midtown.

The automatic doors opened, triggering a doorbell sound, and there, to the far right of the registers I spotted what I needed. It could’ve been that I was delirious from the drive, but when I saw a turnstile filled with Atlanta-themed postcards, I was over joyed. There were ones with the downtown skyline, others with the Georgia Dome, they had Piedmont Park at sunset and even ones of Stone Mountain, which I chose to leave those behind, just like we should leave behind the Confederacy. I took my stack to the register and smiled wildly at the woman ringing up my cards one-by-one. After every beep that confirmed the postcard was added to the tally, she flipped over each card to inspect the photo, even as the line behind me grew.

“I didn’t know we had these,” she said.

These postcards resided not ten feet from her, but I guess when you work in a store with an inventory that include 30,000 SKUs on ‘As Seen on TV’ products alone, items will tend to blend into the background.

“They’re for my friends in California,” I said, smiling like someone having a mental break.

She flipped over the card she scanned to reveal a whimsical graphic design that read, “Greetings from Atlanta Georgia.” The world Atlanta took up three-quarters of the entire space and within each of the seven letters, a clever designer embedded photos from around town. Some of which I already identified on my drive, others that I was certain I would venture to see one day.

She said, unafraid of losing the sale, “You know, you can find nicer postcards Downtown.”

I explained that these would work just fine, and she continued on with the process.

She followed up with, “Is that where you’re from? California?”

“Yeah, I just moved here today,” I replied proudly.

“Everybody here is trying to get over there and you’re out here doing the opposite. Do you need stamps?” She asked smiling back at me.

“No.” I paused for a moment before trailing off. “I got those in Oklahoma City.”

I inserted my credit card into the payment machine, quietly deciphering if I had been politely insulted. 

“Well, welcome to Atlanta,” she said handing me a plastic bag filled with of postcards.

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