How Southern Are We?

Birthplace of both Margaret Mitchell and Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta embodies the collision of Old and New South myths

What does it mean to “be Southern”? An entire academic subculture is devoted to “Southern Identity,” but even its scholars haven’t reached consensus. World libraries contain more than 630,000 books categorized as “Southern”—forty-three times as many as those filed under “Midwestern.” Editors of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture just released their twentieth volume. Here’s a sampling of topics: Black Elite; Demagogues; Hillbillies, Crackers, Rednecks, and White Trash; Jazz; Lynching; NASCAR; Radicalism; Rap Music; Secession; and Stereotypes (subcategorized by gender).
If that list doesn’t speak to the South’s complexity, consider: Just one entry separates “King, Martin Luther Jr.” from “Ku Klux Klan and Other White Racist Organizations.”

Let’s start by clarifying what “being Southern” is not. Despite snarky generalities evoked by Northerners (see: any New York Times story) or simplistic portrayals on TV (see: You Don’t Know Dixie), “Southern” equals neither gun-toting hillbillies nor belles trapped in a moonlight-and-magnolias time warp. The South has been—and is—the country’s most diverse region; our colorful characters come wrapped in all kinds of packages.

That said, you can’t separate the South from its burden: 250 years of slavery, then secession followed by a century of legalized segregation. As we mark the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, the South is still considered both of the United States and apart from it. The Southerner, write historians Blaine Brownell and David Goldfield, is “torn by the ‘two­ness’ of his existence: as a Southerner and as an American.”

Being Southern is more than hoisting a steamer trunk of guilt (if you’re white) or figuring out how to embrace a place that oppressed your ancestors (if you’re black). It also means celebrating storytellers and sermonizers, blues and bluegrass, comforting casseroles and spicy gumbos, jambalayas, and pepper jellies. Sure, people eat fried chicken in the Heartland, but in the South we slather ours with hot sauce or pile it on waffles and drench it with syrup. We make everything more interesting. No place is as vibrantly lush as the American South; steamy gardenia-scented evenings and gator-swarmed swamps are just two cases in point.

Birthplace of both Margaret Mitchell and Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta embodies the collision of Old and New South myths. Yes, Rebel generals gallop across Stone Mountain and Oakland Cemetery’s marble lion watches over the Confederate dead, but this is a city whose antebellum foundations literally were flattened.

Ever since we swept up the ashes left by Sherman and started to rebuild, civic cheerleaders have dubbed Atlanta the capital of a New South. The era’s biggest booster, newspaperman and orator Henry Grady, proclaimed in 1886 that “the Old South rested everything on slavery and agriculture” while “the New South presents a perfect democracy” in which the black Southerner “shares our school fund, has the fullest protection of our laws, and the friendship of our people.” Never mind that Atlanta had no public high school for African Americans or that whites-only primaries and ballot-box terrorism kept blacks disenfranchised. In the late 1950s, while mayor Bill Hartsfield claimed we were “too busy to hate,” Atlanta resisted complying with Brown v. Board and kept parks, schools, and department-store tearooms segregated.

Indeed, the “New South” was as mythical as Mitchell’s genteel plantations. But no city broke barriers faster and with more grace than Atlanta—the first big Southern city to elect a black mayor and soon the capital of a majority-minority state. Atlanta’s sloganeering was—and still is—more pragmatic than pure-hearted. Our racial conflicts (home of the modern KKK!) and claims of racial reconciliation (epicenter of the modern civil rights movement!) smash into each other daily; it’s always messy.

If both the Old South and New South are simply myths, where does that leave us? Atlanta contains a complex synthesis of the old and new, along with a deliberate effort to embrace the duality of being Southern and American. Let’s call it the Future South—and Atlanta is its symbolic capital.

The Future South is distanced from the region’s agrarian roots. In the Future South we don’t all drink sweet tea or talk like Vivien Leigh, but we haven’t turned our backs on tradition. Over the last two decades, there’s been a resurgence of Southern culture here. This reinvention of Southernness goes beyond bacon-on-everything, moonshine cocktails, and bespoke seersucker suits. The Future South encompasses rapper André 3000 infusing hip-hop with a drawl, chef Linton Hopkins drawing on his Emory anthropology training to revive Southern food traditions, poet laureate Natasha Trethewey composing verses about the all-black Louisiana Native Guard—a lyrical recasting of Civil War lore. Its manifestations include the Chinese Southern Belle marching in the Inman Park parade and an urban farm flourishing a block from Ebenezer Baptist.
Sentimentalists claim the steady stream of transplants dilutes Atlanta’s Southernness, but in fact, accepting transplants is just a continuation of the way things have always been here. Atlanta sprung up as a railroad terminus and ever since has welcomed newcomers, from sharecroppers and carpetbaggers after the Civil War, to the mountain migrants in the early 1900s, to the children of black Southerners who reversed migratory trails from Chicago and Detroit back to the South in the 1980s and 1990s, to the new influx of international arrivals.

Does our Southern spirit matter? Of course it does. Amid all the change, Atlanta has maintained one constant: Southern hospitality. No, Margaret Mitchell, MLK, and Henry Grady might not recognize it, but welcome to the Future South. Stay awhile.

This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue.