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Athens, GA

Illustration by Patrick Dean.

Southerners love words. We love drawing them out, making them up and pronouncing them creatively. We especially love proper nouns. And though we’re not especially renowned for being trailblazers in the field of etymology, we children of the South know certain secrets about how to hang a handle on a man, woman, chicken or whatever needs naming. There’s a lot in a name. And when it comes to our towns and cities, we know well the technique of optimistic evocation, i.e., giving something a fancy name in the hopes that it will live up to it, and thus do its own name justice. We call upon names like Cairo, Memphis, Macedonia and Bethlehem. This approach works on kind of a backwards logic – I call it the Dada of Dixie – and it’s successful once in a blue moon. Most often, though, a Southern town will seem to immediately shirk whatever airs its ancient name imparts. It might even tear off, screaming, in the opposite direction. To wit: My hometown of Manchester, GA, christened in 1909 after the celebrated British city of industry, remains a one-horse railroad town that’s been struggling for survival ever since Goody and Playtex pulled the plug on the town’s two major factories 15 years ago, sending many of her inhabitants to travel through a bleak Shiloh, GA (whose name means “Place of Peace”) to work for nickels and dimes at a poultry abattoir.

A name, however heroic, cannot and will not magically inoculate us against the inherent tragedies of existence – which brings us to Athens, GA, a place I love. Now, I’m determined not to get going here about ancient Greece and how our Athens compares to that other one. Grandiose, allusive meanderings like this are best left to PR firms, travel mags and chambers of commerce. After all, it’s the actual thing that’s being named that lives, breathes, grooves and moves. Our fair city has her own mojo rising and we need to not forget that. With this in mind, let us now turn towards the praises of Athens, GA, population 110,000, east of Atlanta, west of the Atlantic Ocean, and about as far from Greece as you can get, in almost every way imaginable.


Athens is the home of the Human Rights Fest, the Twilight Criterium and AthFest. It’s the place where you gotta be careful where you de-seed, because if you’re not, you could end up with a SWAT team in your front yard. Athens is fertile, fecund and receptive. It’s a city that sustains. And let me tell you about sustenance: I’ve eaten pecans in the Athens winter, figs in midsummer, scuppernongs on the cusp of autumn, honeysuckle in early spring, and they were all free for the taking. I’ve harvested chanterelles from public parks, copped endless meals at endless art openings, and once even spotted a clump of psilocybin mushrooms nudging up through the rotting hardwood mulch in front of UGA’s Park Hall. That last event resulted in seven hours of navigating the hallways of always with a Catahoula dog and my two goggle-eyed buddies, all of us about to graduate, suspended high above Athens’ darkened streets on a trestle that more than bore our weight. I’ve bailed friends out of jail for their avant-garde graffiti art. I’ve seen grown men square off and slug it out in a Holiday Inn parking lot while their wives watched in horror. And I’ve watched a moment in time expand across weeks as Tibetans constructed ephemeral sand mandalas downtown. Like a good-enough mother, Athens has welcomed and sustained us all.

This is a town of multiplicities, too, where many amazing things are tangible all at once. There are Sufi gatherings, house parties, trapeze performances and UGA gamedays. In Athens, you can frequent a bona-fide Thai massage therapist who smokes hand rolled cigarettes, eats BLTs, and lives in a tree house. In my 15 years in this town, I’ve seen some beautiful chaos theory enacted. I once saw a drunken man accept Christ as his personal lord and savior in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. I’ve watched a hawk swoop down on a squirrel and dismember him bone, pelt and flesh in one of the ancient oaks on North Campus while, nearby, renegade kung fu students tumbled in the grass. I’ve attended poetry readings by Pulitzer Prize winners, followed by a trip to Barnett’s for smokes and a lucky numbers book. This is a town that Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Patti Smith, Rudy Ray Moore and Bob Dylan have all blazed through, at one time or another. And, as if we could ever forget, it’s where our golden boys turned a birthday party jam into a 27-year alt-rock saga.

Worthy of a pilgrimage, she’s got her own patron saints, too: John Seawright, Linda Phillips, Coleman Barks, Meghan Burke, Vic Vickery, Angie Grass, Arvin Scott, Rick The Printer, all Melted Men, past and present, Vernon Thornsberry, Andy Cherewick, Jim Herbert, Larry Munson, Bruno Rubio, Dexter Weaver, Vic Chesnutt, the R.E.M. boys, Judith Ortiz Cofer, the Pylon crew, and so many, many more. This can be a charmed, saintly place, the kind of place where grassroots benefit concerts help out local artists saddled with too-huge medical bills. Anarchic homebrewers call Athens home, as do poet-chiropractors, brotherly sausage vendors, barkeeps who write novels, wise old women and friendly old men who build birdhouses and squint into the distance, because they can see what’s comin’ down the line, and it ain’t too pretty.


Social inequity is forcing the working class out of old, working-class neighborhoods. Gentrifiers flip houses and the demographics change. The poorest of the poor move on out or maybe down to Athens’ hidden shantytowns, tent villages and bridges – last refuges for the local proletariat struggling to hang on. It’s a land split by poverty and wealth, where many people go hungry while many others feast. It’s also a place where more than a few resourceful citizens dumpster-dive, and where Food Not Bombs and soup kitchen volunteers slip loaves of bread into the hands of the hungry. Athens is a town in danger of becoming another suburb of Atlanta, or – even worse – of itself. Like America, it’s a place where anything that took time to develop and grow can be erased overnight by expansions, sprawls and malls: its very soul threatened by its own comeuppance.

Ah, but souls and cities change and grow like anything else, and Athens is a place of much beauty and creativity, where the vibrant heartbeats of her inhabitants kick out a McCoy Tyner-and-Bud Powell-on-LSD polyrhythm, and who knows where that will take us? There’s more than enough good people here, people who want to ease humanity’s suffering. Maybe someday soon we’ll get it together and make social justice viable. After all, this is the town where independent filmmakers set up their projectors in empty parking lots and waive the $2 admission fee for their friends, so nobody ends up paying. Nobody complains either. Dance parties ensue. It’s a Dixie Dadaism stronghold. It’s a place where people work hard, make art and always have time to say hello to strangers. Home of the decent meal, reasonably priced, and endless possibilities, it’s Athenstown, baby, the A-T-H, where the whole shack shimmies. Welcome home.


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