I can tell I’m getting closer because the trees are turning. In Texas, the trees are still bright green and healthy, even in these early days of November. But the closer I get, the more the trees change. First, slight hints of yellow creep into the foliage at the top. Then bright bursts of orange are scattered further down, until eventually there are whole trees, brilliant crimson, majestically standing guard by the side of the highway. I smile. I’ve always loved fall because of the trees.
I’m getting anxious. I know I’m getting close. With every mile that is tread under the wheels of the Chevy, I am simultaneously excited and calmed. I can’t believe I stayed away so long.
I hit the state line and blow the horn two times as we pass the ‘Welcome to Georgia’ sign. It’s a looming blue sign with a peach on it, “Georgia on my mind” scrawled in cursive across the bottom. The interchangeable part at the bottom says Sony Purdue is the mayor. I remember when it said Andrew Jackson. “I need some Atl music,” I announce to the car and slip T.I. in the CD player. My foot pushes the pedal to the floor.
Driving up 85 I come upon my favorite view of the city. Leaving the south side and passing Turner Field you can see the skyline perfectly. It’s lit up, the lights bouncing off the buildings, the headlights from the cars moving swiftly past and blending into the illumination of the city. Tears start to sting behind my eyes as I struggle rapidly to blink them back. I love this city. I can’t believe I’ve been gone so long.
Atlanta is very different than all the other cities I’ve ever lived in. It has a soul all its own, a distinct rhythm that you probably misinterpret if you’re not from here.
But I am from here. So, I feel it very deeply.
I remember, of course, the reasons why I left, the things I was running from. I remember saying to myself that once I left I’d never come back, that there was nothing left in this city for me. I can’t believe how wrong I was. Now that the majority of the issues and people I was trying to get away from have fallen by the wayside, my vision is no longer clouded by pain. I love this city. And I love everything about the person I’ve become due to its influence. I love the street that my grandmother has lived on all my life that’s right down the street from the stadium where her beloved Braves play. I love the south side of the city where I did most of my growing up. I love passing by my high school and remembering cheering at football games, the entire sky lit up for miles from the Friday night lights. I love sliding through the back streets of the east side that I know like a lover I’ve had forever, tiny roads that wind through all so many different neighborhoods you’d think it was a different city all together. Now that I am farther removed from the things I suffered before I left, I can see places I’ve been, the streets I’ve driven, the places I love to eat that you’d never know about unless you lived here, the landmarks I love, the corners I’ve stood on, the secret places that are dear to me, each holding their own special memory. As I drive, the memories wash over me and coat me like a second skin. Atlanta is who I am.
I turn on the radio just because I want to hear music that does something to me, hear people who talk like me. Each time I answer my phone to friends demanding to know if I’ve arrived yet, my accent creeps in and I realize how much I’ve missed it while I was making an effort to cut down the amount of times someone asked me, “Huh?!?!” in a conversation. I roll the windows down and let the air roll over me. It’s cold. It smells like maple syrup and pine. It’s fall. It’s home.
I still know why I left, why I vowed I’d never come back. And I won’t negate those reasons. But I just can’t believe I’ve been gone so long. I can’t believe I ever thought I could stay away. I miss being here so much my heart hurts, even my skin crawls with the need to get out and reconnect with the streets I know, relearn my shortcuts through alleys and backstreets. The Chevy hugs the curves of 285 now as I look up at the clear night sky. I. Missed. This.
The one thing you never learn until the day you finally learn it is that you can always come home. It may look different, it may change in some superficial ways, but it will always feel the same. No matter what made you leave, good, bad or indifferent, you always belong somewhere if you still love it. You can always rebuild a life there if you desire it. No matter what happens and where life carries you, you can always come home.
I’m driving but I’m watching the trees. The moonlight streams through the branches, illuminating the vibrant fall colors. The wind rustles the leaves and knocks a few free. I watch them as they flutter to the ground. Four years ago when I left, I remember being melancholy when the fall hit, feeling sad for the leaves that died and fell from the trees. Now that I’m older, wiser, and far more settled in my skin, I look at the leaves and feel at peace with their earthly tumble. I know that even though they fall, they are part of a process. They’ll be recycled, turned back into the earth that they are apart of. Renewed and replenished in another form. Still a part of the process, still a part of the city from which they came. I, like the leaves, get thrown and scattered, but I know now, unlike I did then, that I am still part of the scenery. No matter where I fall, I can always return home.