My kids’ suburban Atlanta childhood is light-years away from mine

A writer muses on how drastically different his children's lives are from how he grew up in Kansas


Photograph by Getty Images

The Georgia humidity had let up for 48 hours, but now my shirt was sticking to my back like plastic wrap. Discomfort piled on annoyance.

I had the small dog clenched in my sweaty left armpit as I barreled toward the cars. Large dog was already in the back of my wife’s SUV. Medium dog was leashless, barking in the driveway.

Where the hell were the kids? Were they still in the house with Aunt Cookie, who lives in our upstairs guest bedroom? If so, all of them needed to vacate pronto. Or maybe everyone had already been wrangled into another car by Ellie and Bri, the 20-something couple who also live with us.

Either way, time was running out, and I was supposedly in charge. The potential buyers with the 12:45 appointment were already parking their silver Mercedes on the street. We were set to close on a new house in three days, and our current home was still on the market.

Wait, did we get the birthday gift into the car? In one hour, we were due at the home of my daughter Rae’s new best friend—the friend whose grandfather is the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard, founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan. Her friend’s cousin is turning five, and her father, current Wu-Tang member Young Dirty Bastard, is our host. My country ass doesn’t know much, but I know you don’t show up to a genuine Wu-Tang party without a beautifully wrapped present for the birthday girl.

I remember a friend’s sixth birthday party when I was growing up in Kansas. It was held at a Burger King, and I wore my gray cowboy boots for the special occasion. I gave him a blue football with yellow laces, and we took it outside to play a pickup game in front of the restaurant, the smell of the cheap rubber ball blending with the aroma of flame-grilled burgers.

My childhood at age seven was nothing like my daughter’s now. My world was defined by fire and brimstone belching from the pulpit at Spring River Assembly of God. I didn’t know a Black person, and I sure as hell didn’t know what a lesbian was—much less consider a happy couple as part of my family. The idea of gay marriage rarely came up and, if it did, it was a sin worthy of eternal damnation.

My parents didn’t cuss and did their best to shelter me from stuff that other kids knew. On the school bus, I saw a middle school kid flip a classic bird at another boy. When I got off the bus, I stood there in the dust of the chat road and mimicked the gesture, asking my parents what it meant. They feigned ignorance.

Thirty years later, I watched my daughter play with her new friend in a room dominated by a giant color image of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, his gold teeth gleaming in a wide grin as he flipped off the camera with both hands. Music blared from two large speakers in the sunroom, where guests filled their plates with slow-cooked beef, corn on the cob, and birthday cake. Adults danced in the kitchen while the kids shrilled through a bubble machine in the driveway.

We stayed a few hours before making the short drive back to our house. Ellie took our son, Justice, upstairs for a bath while Aunt Cookie and Rae ordered Chinese takeout. Bri took the three dogs out back to burn some energy, while my wife and I studied the offer letter from the people with the silver Mercedes. We signed it digitally.

Later, after things quieted down, I turned on a baseball game and sat by myself with a bourbon, thankful and perplexed about how I ended up here.

Ryan Atkinson is a Southeast Kansas native and former newspaper sports writer. He has spent the last two years in the Atlanta suburbs trying to discern what’s legit (the traffic) and what’s overblown (the heat) about Georgia. He studies narrative nonfiction at writing at the University of Georgia.

This article appears in our February 2023 issue.