I lived, very briefly, in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a temporary working assignment, and I’d taken it partly for the extra money and partly as a way of exploring my Georgia heritage and the old familiar stomping grounds from my father’s stories. It ultimately didn’t illuminate much in that direction, as the city had changed so much that my father could hardly connect my reports with actual places, and it was still 1997, just after the Olympics, when the city’s whole essence was rippling from that mess.
There were far too many buses, a leftover from ‘96, and I lived in Midtown, over a pizza joint at 1136 Crescent and next to a cigars-and-martinis pretension hole not far from where Margaret Mitchell was run down by a taxi. There was a giant plain of empty fields to the south, and a strange dead space of about ten square blocks around the dead grand hotel, the Biltmore, a result of some huge collapsed real estate project. It was an unfamiliar landscape, and I never quite felt at home there.
I did not bring a car, thinking I’d be in a city, but back then, Atlanta did not function like a city, but rather like dense suburbs disguised as a city. Public transportation wouldn’t take you directly to the upscale Phipps Plaza, for instance, and you had to walk quite a ways from the nearest drop-off point to get there. I did far more walking than any normal Atlantan, which was fine with me, as I love to walk and love to explore the world that way.
I had a friend down there, or rather an employee under my charge with whom I had a fair amount in common despite the difference in our ages, and she liked to roam and ramble, too, so we set out on a few choice adventures. Her name was Yolanda, she was originally from Aiken, and she was an art student and, delightfully, a bit of a nerd.
We dined at Dante’s Down The Hatch, explored the desolate downtown after working hours, and were chased, giggling, out of the Marriott Marquis after passing ourselves off as guests to take in the stomach churning view from forty-seven stories up what was, at the time, the tallest open interior space in the world. There was fun to be had.
One day, we took the MARTA up to Buckhead to go to a bookstore, and as we were wandering around afterward, we approached an intersection on a busy street where all the cars were waiting at a light. We were in the shadow of a building, and I stepped out, then Yolanda stepped out. A strange noise came from the cars, a sort of thunk-thunk-thunk that was spread across the whole line of traffic.
“Did you hear that weird noise?”
“What noise?” Yolanda asked.
“A sort of thunk-thunk-thunk from the cars.”
“What? What was it?”
“Everyone pushing the lock button in their cars.”
“Why would everyone suddenly lock their doors?” I asked.
Yolanda rolled her eyes, then pulled at a tuft of her wild hair.
“What? They don’t like your hair? Who locks their door because they don’t like someone’s hair? My hair is much more lockworthy than your hair! It’s all lopsided today and—wait, are you saying—wait, what?”
“People in Buckhead lock their doors when they see you. It’s just a thing.”
I was in disbelief.
“Because you’re black? But, but you’re an art student! You’re a nerd, for pete’s sake! What a bunch of bullshit! Are you sure they don’t do it for everyone?”
She shrugged. I, on the other hand, was in just the mood for an experiment. We backed up from the intersection, back into the shadows, waited for the traffic to clear and then clot again, and I walked out of the shadows to emerge at the crosswalk.
As to plan, she came out from the shadows and stood next to me.
Clunk, clunk, clunk. Locks thumping in doors. We tried it again, at different intersections, in different configurations. Just me—nothing. Yolanda—clunk, clunk, clunk. The two of us together—clunk, but a little less.
“That’s bizarre,” I said, and I was feeling angry and sad at once. “Does this happen all the time?”
“Not all the time. More in certain places.”
“But you weigh, like, a hundred pounds and make animated artwork. What do they think you’re going to do?”
“Doesn’t that make you want to jump on their cars or something?”
“To what end?”
Well, I didn’t know, either. We tend to think the racism that really counts is the big stuff, the burning crosses, the hollered “nigger,” the jobs blocked and the opportunities lost, but I’d never really directly witnessed the smaller, more insidious racism at work, the kind that just goes “clunk,” because you are not like the person in the car.
You are not like us. We do not know what you’ll do next.
You wonder, really, if you asked the people in all those cars at a party if they believed in racist things, or if they harbored racist ideas, or if they thought, on any level, that we’re not all worthy of equal treatment, and I suspect people would say no. In the moment though, the little nervous twitch, the flicker of doubt, played out in an unconscious movement to reach out for the little button that’ll bring security, and—
Clunk. You know, just to be safe. You never can tell these days.
Sometimes, that’s more than enough to do the damage, particularly when the thing reached for isn’t the little button to lock the door, but a trigger.
Sometimes, it just goes—