Taking walks forced me to slow down—and better appreciate Atlanta

In a time like this, we’re lucky to be here

Going on walks in Atlanta

Photograph by Fran Polito/Getty Images

On a nice September day a couple of years ago, I was riding around Atlanta on my bicycle, taking stock of what was being built and where, when a pothole grabbed my front tire like a troll under a bridge. I was swooping down a hill at the time, and I went flying, flipping in the air and then along the street. The doctor never called back to say how many ribs were broken, but the X-rays said many. The pain was so severe, my breathing so restricted, I could have sworn my lungs had been punctured. When you’re a maniacal, typically caffeinated ball of energy that needs to keep moving, when sweating feels in some primal way like being fully alive, the inability to breath hard presents a real problem. I wanted to run, to pedal, to take life in and purge it out—fast. Instead, I was relegated to several weeks of miserable, boring walks around the city. It felt like punishment. But that was a really stupid way of looking at it.

Fast forward to earlier this month. I was washing the dishes, watching the half-hour of evening news I allot myself now, trying to digest another round of big morbid numbers, and feeling pummeled by news of talented friends losing their jobs, or friends in management forced to lay people off. Tucking my squirrely daughters in bed wasn’t the salve it usually is. Nothing would remedy that strain of being cooped inside all day, in what’s become our mini coworking facility, but escaping those walls. I found my wife sorting laundry in the bedroom.

“I’m going for a walk,” I said. “Fuck this.”

I’d been taking baby walks since it all became tangible, that Tuesday night in March. That’s when I heard on the car radio that the NBA season was being postponed. That robbed me of something that mattered: Hawks tickets I’d bought for my daughter, a Trae Young fanatic, for her upcoming birthday. My only present for her suddenly didn’t exist, her joy would not happen, and there was nothing I could do about it. That sort of restriction felt foreign, like a portend of darker things, a blizzard’s first flakes. A pair of basketball tickets is trivial, of course, compared to losses that so many had been shouldering for so many weeks. And I was disappointed in myself for having underestimated the thief. I recalled naively wondering in February why it continued to dominate the news, even as it crept through Europe. I remembered having faith it would be intercepted, somehow, at the borders, another squashed Ebola. Surely some authority, somewhere, was capable of pouncing and containing it, right?

What an American way of thinking to assume America was impenetrable. To scoff at the notion it could impede our ability to shake the postal worker’s hand or belly up to a bar. That it would take our nights at cinemas, the entire roster of Atlanta’s glorious spring festivals, the ability to hug old friends. On the short early walks I realized something: Such a simple activity resembled, in a way, that perfect, flawed mundanity we all miss. In the slowness of walking was its magic, each unhurried journey a revolt against the quick upending of everything.

That evening after doing the dishes, I set myself free into a quiet city. That Ireland green of early spring was everywhere, the pollen cleansed by recent storms, the dogwoods flowering. Lights began to blink on the handlebars and saddles of so many passing bicycles. Pink and purple clouds hung over downtown. I headed east in comfortable Adidas with no destination. My earbuds streamed a playlist of Spotify favorites, and each song felt like a portal to better times: The driving acoustics in Pink Floyd’s “Fearless,” the raspy soul of Brittany Howard and Rainbow Kitten Surprise, the chugging grooves of Gnarls Barkley, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves,” (he’d died just that morning), and most profoundly, Radiohead’s “Street Spirit,” which begins: “Rows of houses, all bearing down on me, I can feel their blue hands touching me” and concludes with a refrain that’s treacly on the page but haunting in the ear: “Immerse your soul in love . . . immerse your soul in love . . .”

Immerse your soul in the city, I thought. Right now! At a responsible distance!

I walked off the sidewalk into the street to avoid oncoming walkers. In downtown Kirkwood, coming around a corner near the shuttered Le Petit Marché, I accidentally came too close to a mother, who crowded her daughter against a wall to shield her, as if I was some beast. Friends and family from afar have worried about us being in a metropolitan center right now. They fear riotous hordes, looting, zombies, or whatever. At the risk of sounding flippant, I’d argue that Atlanta in spring is a pandemic utopia. Some aspects that make this city problematic from an urban perspective in functional times—our relatively large homes, our reliance on cars over transit, our big fat roads and deep yards—are social distancing godsends. The variety of local food still available is remarkable. An uncrowded, beautiful park space is never too far away. On a bike, each quiet street feels like a paved and protected multiuse path, with innumerable historic neighborhoods to explore. In Atlanta, we can be spread out without forfeiting the existential balm of seeing a variety of other people. But nothing makes the details shine like just walking around.

By the time I’d reached East Lake Cemetery, where the headstones glowed grey on a starry night, I’d been inspired by things I hadn’t noticed before: How gas lamps complement the stained-glass windows of Queen Anne Victorians; the sculptural qualities of white roses; how Atlantans have a weird penchant for keeping signs in their yards for long-terminated political campaigns.

At a deserted Oakhurst Village, the shuttered eateries seemed frustrated, the antithesis of so many thriving tulips. Near downtown Decatur, I chuckled at a plump possum waddling in gauzy streetlight. From so many passing cars came, as Don Henley might say, the warm smell of colitas, rising up through the year’s first humidity, instantly bringing to mind the music festivals that won’t be happening soon. That part was a bummer. But then, and I’m not sure why, I was overcome with a feeling of invincibility, a delusional pedestrian superpower. I decided to walk from Decatur to Midtown and maybe to Buckhead, to literally walk around the city in one night for no reason. I envisioned myself in a rocker, surrounded by rapt grandchildren, recalling this one adventurous night in a time of great boredom. I pointed my feet toward Piedmont Park.

But you know what kills a plan like that? Realizing you are sweaty and extremely thirsty. And that nothing is open nearby, no gas station within 20 minutes, and no water fountain you’d dare put your bare hands on and lean your unmasked face into. So I turned back, homebound and satisfied. What I’d suspected was a nine-mile walk was really less than five, as Google Maps later confirmed. But it still felt epic.

On another evening walk about a week later, the music (a somber new Strokes tune, fittingly) was interrupted by a call from a colleague in New York City. Despite what managers had indicated, and despite a long track record of exceeding goals and record success in bleak March and yada yada, I would be losing my bedrock job of eight years to furlough, likely for good. My axed position was just one splinter in what some longtime associates are calling a local news apocalypse. Not only had the thief infiltrated America, now it was tugging at my daughter’s ukulele lessons, the planned vacation, our house.

I’ll never forget what happened next, it was so moving. As part of some 150 written statements on Slack, employees across a vast company—almost all strangers, to me—asked or even demanded that their salaries be slashed so that no fellow employee would be without a paycheck. What a beautiful offering, a testament to selflessness, to decency. Whether that worked doesn’t matter as much, to me, as the fact they did it.

It reminded me of something I’d seen on a walk: a little cardboard sign with a rainbow on it, pegged in the front yard of a cottage. It was interesting enough to take a photo of, though I didn’t understand it at the time. I was told later that the occupants had been struggling with rent as the world changed, and that neighbors had chipped in to keep them there. The sign read, in part: “Thanks for the love. Thank you for your kindness. We love all of y’all. Amen.”

Just another way, right now, of immersing our souls in love.

Josh Green, an Atlanta magazine contributor since 2011, is an editor, award-winning journalist, and published fiction writer who lives with his wife and two daughters. Since uprooting from the Midwest nearly 13 years ago, he’s called Inman Park, Kirkwood, and Old Fourth Ward home, adoring each neighborhood.