There are times when you make discoveries about the nature of a city you thought you knew. It could be a city that you were sure you knew and didn’t like. I had such an experience a couple of weekends ago in Atlanta, Georgia.
A friend from college, on break from her Teach for India stint, invited me to her home in Atlanta. Having only spoken to her sporadically through WhatsApp and Facebook messages for a year, of course I agreed. Even though it meant that I would have to go to a city I didn’t like, at least I would get to spend time with my friend, right? So, once again I found myself on the highway to Atlanta.
Upon my arrival, we hugged. She introduced me to her mom whom I had never met before, and who greeted me warmly. She then had exactly three questions for me:
“Are you Ethiopian?”
“Are you South Indian?”
“You don’t do your eyebrows?”
She smiled knowingly, explaining that she would “take care of it.” She told my friend and I to sit down at the dinner table. She proceeded to produce a delicious feast, the likes for which I was not prepared: tandoor chicken (piping hot, which I was supposed to eat with my hands), homemade roti (a thin bread), fresh cucumber slices, and finally a goat stew with rice. This is the sort of meal that you want to take the time to savor. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t in the cards. My friend had a plan for us to meet up with her friends in Atlanta, and it was already late. So, as she murmured for me to eat faster, I felt the tips of my fingers burn on the chicken, choked down the roti and cucumber slices, and felt like I was just about on the brink of explosion by time I reached the goat stew with rice. When we were finished, we thanked and complimented her mom, slapped on some lipstick, and out we went.
My friend, her friends, and I ended up at a bar called Noni’s.
With its vintage-looking parking signs and Christmas lights strung along the building, a strange feeling washed over me.
A feeling of déjà vu. And as I entered the building and witnessed people dancing in-between the beat with arms flailing and bartenders wearing bright tees and frayed shorts, I suddenly realized where I was. My entire college career was spent among humans such as these. I know their kind. This was solid hipster ground. But what was it doing in Atlanta?
The next day, my face had a date with destiny. My friend drove me to a strip mall filled with Indian shops: Chinese food with an Indian twist, a dollars for rupees currency exchange, the biggest South Asian supermarket I have ever seen, and, where we were headed, her family’s full-service salon. I had an appointment with her mother to get a facial. Inside, I met more members of her family and other members of the staff who gave me an incredibly warm welcome. Then, I followed her mother into a dimly lit room, where she left me for a moment so I could take off my clothes, and put on a sleeveless terry robe. When she returned, her glasses rested on the bridge of her nose, and she had a face prepared for battle.
Do you know the expression “beauty hurts?” Well, I would say that it was applicable to what came next aka the best facial of my life. First, she covered me with some sort of liquid from the top of my face down to my chest. Within thirty seconds, it began to tingle. (I’m not entirely sure what the product was. However, due to the conversation that she had outside of the door during the five minutes it was on my face, I’m about 90% sure it involved bleach.) When she returned, she removed the product and proceeded to give me what basically equated to a Swedish facial massage. She kneaded my face into submission with her fists, pulled my face from the chin up with the palms of her hands, and pinched the apples of my cheeks hard into place. (I’m pretty sure that if you had this facial regularly you would never need a facelift. Ever.) Finally, she steamed my skin and scraped around the contours of my nose with some sort of instrument. By the end of the hour-long process, I knew how sculpted portrait bust must feel. And when I finally sat up and looked in the mirror and saw the “natural” glow radiating from my skin, I realized that I had indeed been in the hands of a master. After I got dressed, she instructed me to sit in a salon chair and “took care of it” using the ancient art of threading on my eyebrows.
On my final day, my friend took me to downtown Decatur (part of Atlanta).
We ended up at Java Monkey, a coffee shop where we overhead people debate about the effectiveness of NGOs, the greatness of OutKast, and what should be discussed at upcoming social justice meetings.
I was thrown back to a similar state of confusion to the one which I had experienced the other night. Was I in the presence of radicals? Again, Atlanta surprised me.
By the end of the trip, I realized that I don’t know Atlanta as well as I thought I did. Previously, I had only really experienced it in the suburban areas when visiting my extended family. Now I see that it is far more complex than I realized. And I am prepared to explore that complexity in the future.