Photo Credit: Spencer Jones
How My First Trip To Atlanta Taught Me To Find My Footing After Flailing
How can I describe Atlanta? It’s a Wakanda in The United States, with Black creativity, pride, and excellence on display. It’s conducive to walk up until a point. The airport is a labyrinth. There’s fantastic food and chocolate honeys as far as the eye can see. I intend to return in the future, and maybe see what else Georgia has to offer.
But let me rewind.
I went to Atlanta over Thanksgiving for a very specific reason, one which I will withhold in the interest of good taste. I had every reason to believe it would be a memorable experience, which it was, but not in the expected way. My anxiety was triggered to such an extent that for the first time in my adult life, coherent, fluid speech evaded me. All I could do was wring my hands, stammer a few words, and look at the floor; the opposite of what politeness dictated. I was a shadow of myself, and was disgusted by it. To some extent, I still am, because I can’t fathom presenting anything less than my best self at all times.
But one can’t flail forever; you’ve got to find your footing, and eventually I did.
I checked into the Reverb by Hard Rock, a trendy, self-service hotel in downtown Atlanta. I stayed there the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and returned three days earlier than planned, though I hadn’t budgeted for this eventuality. Between shuffling my limited funds, borrowing from a friend, and negotiating with the kind manager, everything worked out.
I loved the edgy-elegance of the hotel’s lounge areas, the bars, and the amenities in the rooms. But none of that erased the sadness I felt being alone in a new city, and while I had a few casual Facebook friends nearby, I really didn’t know a soul.
Whatever doubts I had about decency and compassion were gone with the wind in due course. Friends and strangers lifted me up in so many ways, and it’s largely because of them that my trip didn’t go up in flames altogether.
Atlanta is a city of manners. While eating at Rosie’s Cafe, I saw a waitress take a little girl to the bathroom so that the mother didn’t have to leave her other small children unattended. Strangers said “good morning” to me and answered questions with “yes, ma’am” or “no, ma’am.” “Baby” is traditionally reserved for romantic partners, but in Atlanta, it can be used in other contexts. Of course, it wouldn’t be a southern experience without somebody telling me to “have a blessed day.” These might seem like empty platitudes to some, but they were charming to me.
I befriended Jerry, the bartender at the hotel, who sensed the change in my mood on sight. He listened, made me a martini, and joined me on the other side of the bar when his shift ended. He was an older Black man, sensitive and wise, and gave me his number, so I could reach out as needed. His colleagues were also friendly, and we talked like we’d known each other for years.
When I went outside, I was very quickly reminded that it was November, so the cute summer tops could only be worn under a coat. I was warned that the temperature could drop, but I was in denial, figuring it couldn’t be as cold as what I left behind in New York. It wasn’t freezing, but there was definitely a chill in the air that persisted until my last day.
On Saturday, I dragged myself out of my hotel room for a taste of the nightlife. I took a Lyft to Mixx Atlanta, a lounge in a shopping complex, and ordered wine and chicken spring rolls at the bar. The DJ opened with early 2000s jams from my middle and high-school days, and I sang along. I couldn’t believe twenty years had passed since Always On Time by Ja Rule came out, but I still knew every word.
It was early yet, so there weren’t many people. A bewitching, well-dressed lady in her fifties or sixties (one can never be sure when it comes to Black women) told the bartender what she wanted, and the way they interacted suggested she was a regular. I liked her nails and told her so. Extending one hand my way, she purred, “what’s your name, baby?” Her voice recalled hot honey and bourbon; akin to fingers caressing the base of my spine. I may or may not have blushed. Smiling, I shook her hand and said, “Spencer. Nice to meet you.”
As the lounge filled with people, I danced and observed in turns. The music transitioned to current hits, and people got down. Some men with Snoop Dogg aesthetic danced in ways Snoop probably wouldn’t. There was another man with a face beat for the gods, looking fabulous in a bodysuit adorned with black sequins. People presented themselves as they chose, moved how they wanted, and nobody judged them.
The crowning moment of that night occurred towards the end. At the bar, a Black woman in sunglasses sidled up next to me. It was too loud for me to hear everything she said, but I leaned in just in time to catch, “you’re thick and and you’re beautiful. Remember your value.”
She didn’t even know my name, much less anything else about me, but her comment was timely. Remember your value. As someone who wrestles with self doubt, this was the reminder I needed.
Sunday brunch was at Suite Food Lounge, a multi-level venue with a DJ. After I finished some delicious chicken and waffles, two Black women slid into the seats on either side of me with choreographed smoothness. It took a moment to realize I saw them in the hotel lobby earlier, and they invited me to join them and their girlfriends in their booth. I thought perhaps they were Georgia natives, but they were in town from Maryland to celebrate a birthday.
A Corona was my first alcoholic beverage, but I was coaxed to go for something stronger, so a Tequila followed. We had to lean close to each other to speak, since the music was pretty loud. I asked why they invited me to sit with them, and one woman said, “you were alone at the bar, you have nice energy, and we like to meet new people.”
We talked about the kinds of women we liked, with Megan Thee Stallion, Taraji Henson, and Angela Bassett among the top choices. The festivities continued at the same lounge that evening, and we enjoyed dinner, hookah, and dancing. They had a flight to catch the next morning, so we couldn’t stay out too late. But I was happy to have found women like me.
There were other outings. Walks past Centennial Olympic Park, the CNN center, and the aquarium. I had ramen at Momonoki, and played games at an arcade with a Facebook pal who lived just outside the city. I learned new tricks at The Secret Garden, a pole dance studio filled with Black women of all sizes. I sipped an El Diablo at Red Phone Booth, a Prohibition- era speakeasy, courtesy of my friend, who was a member.
I ate brunch at The Flying Biscuit Café, explored Piedmont Park, and did indoor skydiving at iFly Atlanta on my last day. I was nervous, but those few minutes flying in a wind tunnel did wonders for my mood. I’d love to do it again, maybe while jumping out of an airplane.
My suggestion when you travel to Atlanta, or anywhere, is to be prepared. It’s good to have a set budget, but try to put aside more money than you’ll need. Bring cash in case your cards don’t work, and to avoid fees when using an ATM not affiliated with your bank. Not everyone needs to know your itinerary, but it doesn’t hurt to send it to a few people just in case. Invest in a portable cell phone charger, even if your battery lasts a long time. Unless you don’t mind spending money on taxis, or relying on others to drive you places, make sure your license is up-to-date. A classic New Yorker, I waited till I was thirty to learn how to drive, and my license expired two years ago. If you’re going to drive in Atlanta, expect traffic and some very dark roads.
I have one other important suggestion, which isn’t related to travel exclusively. Don’t be afraid to lean on your close friends. As Black people, we feel we have to shoulder turbulence alone, so that we don’t inconvenience others. But this isn’t healthy or rational, in fact, it’s destructive. All kinds of people stepped up for me when I was in Atlanta, but Black people went above and beyond, and they know exactly who they are. They messaged me. They listened patiently with open minds and hearts. They let me cry on the phone. They embraced me even from many miles away.
Atlanta offered plenty of distractions, but my thoughts invariably returned to the sore point more than once. There was plenty of would have, could have, and should have, which wasn’t helpful. In the absence of concrete answers, I fell into one rabbit hole after another, filling in the gaps with my own conclusions, assumptions, and fears. It’s simply the way my mind works, and a consequence of being sensitive to a fault.
Falling on my backside in Atlanta wasn’t the plan, but it sparked necessary growth. I emerged intact, and now I know how to proceed in future. For that, at least, I’m grateful.