A Letter to Atlanta

Dear Atlanta,

I have walked your streets. I have seen the splashes of colorful graffiti adorning your walls and I have languished in the torturous and disorienting trudge of your traffic. I’ve talked to folks in the red-clay streets of the southern suburb of Clarkston, just outside the perimeter, where the American Dream towers from afar like something shining and new. And I’ve talked to folks arcing their necks to see the skyscrapers up and down Peachtree Street, looming and beckoning like some futuristic metropolis. I have walked down the central drag, admired the towers and sculptures and the worlds of fantastical art and culture within this city, products of the human imagination contained in each of us.

I don’t understand you, Atlanta, but I appreciate you, in all your honesty and brutality, bless your heart.

1400808_10101655762186269_470048246_o

A piece of public art seen along the Atlanta Beltline, a recent municipal project here.

This city is more than a little bit sneaky and subversive. The coolest spots are sometimes tucked away, behind (quite literal) trick bookcases and hardly recognizable side alleys. There seem to be decrepit streets emerging in every direction, but they are speckled with commercial projects  “being worked-on” and lovingly imagined but yet to be realized city markets (one on Krog street, one on Ponce de Leon), which color my neighborhood with an expectant aura, a buzzing energy and incipient, burgeoning potential for growth. There is a dedicated ’20s club dressed up like a speakeasy, a cavernous Paris on Ponce antiques store lined with curious oddities and remarkable trinkets, and underground clubs with names like MJQ, and The Graveyard, where the drinks flow like water and the dancing is unbelievable.

It was here that I re-earned for myself the confidence that I have something in me that is valuable and precious. It is here that I reignited the hope and inspiration in me to write for a living. I found warmth and comfort and acceptance here from people who, like me, were searching for a way to live with meaning in the world. In the year-long volunteer program I was a part of, I found camaraderie with other young people engaged in the same struggle I was. Having all recently left college, we, like so many others, were all faced with the imposing question: “What now?” And now, well into my life on the other side of that experience, I continue to face that same burning question.

After the volunteer program, I was suddenly thrust back into the job search, and I picked up the first promising job I could line up for myself, at a community newspaper, and worked my ass off for them, but this project didn’t work out for me  in the end. A couple friends and I had settled into a new intentional community with each other, and set up a foothold for ourselves in a new neighborhood. We helped each other get on our feet, and through the transition into new jobs and new roles. Some stayed with their organizations, others moved home, and a few of us stuck it out in Atlanta. I still see and talk with them all the time, and they remind me of good times.

But  now, I am working in the heart of the city, observing it from the inside out, as a valet in a hotel here. It was so strange to go from the outskirts to the interior, and to see the city through the opposite lens. Where before I would write stories of struggling, hard-bitten entrepreneurs, new Americans and former refugees for my non-profit organization, I was now writing for myself only, and solely when I had the chance between shifts of parking cars.

work long hours, and living off tips is thrilling but unpredictable, and I find it difficult to find time to devote to my life’s passion. This is a shared state of affairs for many if not most mid-twenties millennials. We are an under-employed, over-worked, tweaked-out, tech-addicted, narcissistic generation, but give us some credit. We were mostly raised by our iPods, after all.

Here in Atlanta at least, we young people breathe in and out a spirit of reckless agitation and righteous fury, touched with a glimmer of edgy self-expression and provocative invention. There are arts festivals and parades nearly every weekend throughout the summer, scattered among Atlanta’s many neighborhoods. We are just as likely to be celebrating through the weekend as we are to be working hard at our regularly-scheduled jobs during the week. There are more than enough fantastic concerts in the pages of Creative Loafing than I could ever scratch the surface of, especially on a volunteer’s budget. Every other person is an aspiring musician, poet, or artist on the side. Our generation of movies, like Frances Ha, explore the neuroses and ambitions of our generation, and paint engrossing portraits of lost artistic souls just trying to make it in the city (a timeless tale.)  This story is the prevailing story of the emerging adults of the new millennium.

Atlanta_rose

A rose in front of a house in Old Fourth Ward, my neighborhood in Atlanta.

And after all, why not? This is, after all, the hotbed of the Civil Rights movement, where young people struggled and fought to redefine the old boundaries of a dated society, and actively, mostly non-violently, challenged the prevailing prejudices of America. Atlanta, you have been my friend in the midst of these torturous twenties, where nothing can be taken for granted and the future is a big neon-colored UNKNOWN. Your confusion mirrors mine, and your extremes match my own, the pulse of which I am becoming more familiar with every day. Atlanta, you bleed extreme joy, extreme anguish, personality, and a deep, almost religious fervor and spirit. You are as grounded as the cold pavement of your streets, if sometimes a little bit fumbling and polite.

I am glad to be here, in the urban capital of the South, and I am glad to have learned from and with you, through the Snowpocalypse, and the most recent election, and the emergence of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones as national obsessions. I was here for the National Championship in the Georgia Dome, and I saw Muse and Sting and Dave Matthews perform in Centennial park. I mourned with my colleagues during Sandy Hook, and I watched with horror on the day of the Bostan Marathon bombing. I have searched for jobs here, and I have searched for houses here, and I have explored your coffeeshops and restaurants. I am so lucky to have found myself here. Atlanta, you have been a difficult friend, but the kind that is endlessly rewarding to know. And I’ve enjoyed spending this piece of my twenties with you.

Anyway, that’s all I really felt like saying. I hope you’re ready! Spring is here! It’s pollen season. The leaves are coming back. Let’s enjoy this warm weather, and celebrate the fact that we are alive and young, and that our future awaits us, and that really, truly, anything CAN happen, and here in Atlanta, it probably will.

Affectionately yours, Justin

The Lights are Calling Me

In the two years of restaurant work following senior year, and extending in my life far before that, music has been such an important source of strength for me. It has sustained me and awakened me, and it has piqued my intellectual curiosity and comforted my pain. It has been my guardian angel.

Throughout four years of college, I never my quit my shift as a rotation DJ at the local radio station. This entailed extremely late hours, little recognition, and long walks in the snowy Kansas winter to reach the Shack, a ramshackle building at an obscure corner of campus. I would delve myself deeply into a nearly endless library of music, playing them over the studio speakers at as high volume as I could muster without shattering my eardrums.

 As a rotation DJ, I had access to the entirety of KJHK’s stacks and stacks of music, both CDs and vinyl, not to mention our own music or the nearly-unlimited selection we could stream through the station’s computer. I would watch my view of the sunrise from the tiny window of the DJ booth overlooking downtown Lawrence, down the western side of Mt. Oread. I would toil through late nights between the hours of 2 and 6 am, spending hours weaving songs into and out of each other, one after the other, and keeping my eye out for the flashing white light that meant I was receiving a listener’s call. It was overwhelming at times, and I am sure that my tracks sometimes did not flow as well as I would have liked. But it was a necessary and enriching escape for me from the intensity of college life, and I occasionally would receive a call from listeners who appreciated my music selection. It felt good to accompany the occasional early-morning runner, or late-night lonely soul, with good beats and a voice on the other line.

 I delved into endless catalogues of various and indescribable music, plunging into the depths of the shelf devoted to electronica, and even occasionally flirted with the stacks of metal. Always, I was aided by the words of DJs who had come before me. They used to write reviews of every album the station would receive, and tape them to the front of the CD’s jewel case, accompanied by star ratings and personal opinions. Someone, at some point in the station’s history, had listened to and reviewed every album there, and they could provide hints and clues as to which songs would rock the hardest or jam out the most.

And when things in my life became challenging, as they often did, I found it was the music that inevitably pulled me through.

But after the Shack was replaced by a modern, state-of-the-art studio towards the end of my senior year, and I DJ’ed my final rotation show, I said farewell to my beloved KJHK and returned to the real world. As a dishwasher in a restaurant, music kept me company while working 8-hour shifts, and my fellow restaurant workers had a great collection. You can always expect to hear the best music from the speakers of a bustling restaurant kitchen, where the energy and tempo of the music is the best company you keep while chopping vegetables, picking basil, or manning the industrial dishwasher. It was songs like these, and songs like Lights, by Ellie Goulding, that spoke to me most deeply, and kept me sane during that time.

Lights is shimmering, pulsing, and sensual. It is about the call of city lights, the itch to be alive, and the urge to dance, laugh and cry. Ellie expresses the sensitivity and fear that it takes to move to a new place, and to build for yourself something brand new, with people you have just met, and to seek love and joy, while embracing your flaws. Her lyrics of “turning to stone” speak of a vibrant soul calming her firing nerves, picking up the pieces of her shattered self, and mustering the courage to fight on.

 Image

In my two years at the restaurant, it became clear to me that I couldn’t stay there forever. I knew that this wasn’t the work for me. I knew that this wasn’t my dream. I knew that there was so much more to see and to do in the world. I felt, in the depth of my soul, the passion and call to follow my dream and reach out for what the world has to offer. And it was Ellie Goulding that became the soundtrack of the months leading up to my eventual move to Atlanta. Just as the lights were calling her, in the song, the lights of Atlanta were calling to me.

If it is music is that kept me going through my darkest moments, both before and after college, it is music that will carry me into the future.

Now here I am, working in Midtown, across the street from the historic Fox theater. I am going to see Ellie Goulding perform there in exactly one month. Her light show, her reverberating sound, the texture and depth of her voice, and the cheering crowds await me.

Artists like Ms. Goulding, who inspire and guide us young people, deserve to be celebrated. We owe them our lives. Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep tinkering in the lab at night, keep writing your raps and sonnets, and keep weaving melody and harmony and instrumentation and beats and effects. Do it for us. We love you.