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Rheta Johnson: Country mouse in a city trap

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

ATLANTA -- In 1994, I borrowed the truck that hauled the loaner bed to the thinly disguised doublewide I was renting outside of Atlanta. 

 

I had a new job as columnist for the newspaper I'd grown up reading and revering. When the old Isuzu rumbled by the Georgia Welcome Center on moving day, I blew its horn out of happiness. 

 

It wouldn't last. The happiness. The job lasted seven years. 

 

After that, after seven years that seemed more like seven decades, I loaded my U-Haul and drove home to Mississippi, weary and wiser and vowing to stay out of this city unless I had to fly somewhere that forced me to use the Atlanta airport. 

 

I was treated and paid well at the newspaper. Its political and philosophical stances were as close to my own as I could have hoped for in a Deep South journal. I got to know Celestine Sibley, one of my all-time newspaper heroes. I had editors who were as competent and helpful as any in the business. The column eventually had its faithful readers. I moved from the rental doublewide and bought a lovely home with a river running beside it and a swimming pool in the backyard. 

 

It was the city itself that baffled and discouraged me. I simply never found the password for entering and negotiating its labyrinth streets, never could identify the hotels and skyscrapers. I was out-of-sync with city life. Best I could manage was to embrace my inner rube. I left my heart in Mississippi. 

 

The traffic in and around Atlanta deserved its reputation. There was no time of day or night to avoid it. Courteous drivers were as rare as hen's teeth and the roads full of rage. Once, during an investigation of a traffic fatality, police at the scene found an extra body in the tall grass. 

 

And I couldn't get used to the total and pretentious disdain many of my new acquaintances held for any place outside of the metro Atlanta area, including rural Georgia, and especially my Mississippi. The same people who admired the art, music and literature of the Southern "hinterlands" were not prone to visit them, unless on some Garden and Gun-style, acquisition field trip. 

 

There was no use trying to dispel the ignorance and prejudice with fact. People who know everything can't be bothered.  

 

I've been back to Atlanta, of course, in the past 13 years. Vows come with perforations for bending. You can't live in the South and avoid Atlanta indefinitely. Conventions, conferences, book fairs and friends drew me. I have even had a few good times. 

 

I don't think much about my Atlanta years until I find myself here. Then it all comes flooding back. The conversations that began and ended with "I've never visited Mississippi. Why would I?" The forays to some hot new overpriced restaurant too loud to enjoy.  

 

People don't speak on the street as they do in other Southern cities -- Memphis and New Orleans come to mind. There it is, that total indifference to strangers, which some of my city friends would argue beats the suspicion you find in small towns.  

 

It is a preference, l realize, like red or blue, day hours or night. I know many feel as uncomfortable outside of the city as I do in it. And so I'll leave them to it. 

 

 

 

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