In the piedmont of north Georgia, well south of the Blue Ridge mountains and not-so-well east of the luxuriant Atlanta-polis, sits the enigmatic "Classic City" of Athens, population 100,266. It was in this place two centuries ago that Georgia's advocates of learning, in an effort to emulate the ancient Greek city-state, unintentionally spawned a Dionysian revival on Milledge Ave. It was in this place two decades ago that local musicians R.E.M. broadcast the "new Athenian" zeitgeist to a worldwide audience. And it was in this place two years ago that The Greatness was born, fully grown, girded for intellectual battle.
Given that apotheosis is a once-in-an-existence experience, I naturally have a great deal of fondness for Athens, GA. But my love for the city transcends mere edification. In honor of the holiday, shall I count the ways? (With apologies to Tocqueville, one of the few Frenchmen worthy of respect)
Like many college towns, Athens has a young population (median age 25.3 according to Census 2000) that gets continually renewed. Unlike many college towns, there's so much to do in Athens that everybody wants to stay. In fact, I know several college grads from out-of-state who moved to Athens after college.
Athens is a prolific music town, with a strong pedigree and scores of practicing musicians and wannabes. For example, you might see Counting Crows' drummer Ben Mize at a Tuesday night show at the Georgia Theatre. Not that you'd recognize him, unless you're some kind of superfan. Also, contrary to local advice, you're allowed to talk to Michael Stipe as long as you're not weird about it.
Artists who play Athens, no matter how big their reputations, tend to treat their listeners as peers; those who don't are in danger of desecrating one of music's hallowed places (and/or pissing off some other real rock star in the audience). When I hear Faith Hill's rendition of "Cry" on the radio, I think back to the 40 Watt concert where I met Angie Aparo, the man who originally sang it and sings it better. Add "Cry" to "headin' down the Atlanta Highway" of B-52 provenance, sprinkle liberally over local restauranteur Weaver D and R.E.M.'s "Automatic for the People" soul food, and I've got a recipe for thinking back to Athens every 90 minutes on any radio station in the Western hemisphere.
The Tree That Owns Itself, actually does. At least it did, between 1832 when its owner granted it self-determination and 1942 when it was felled by a storm. The tree that stands there today is a direct descendent, but, as a ward of the state, it lacks the former's independent streak. (Try not to think about this too much or you'll get dizzy.) Oh to have been present at that antebellum probate hearing...
For better or worse, several times each fall the university community musters its former members to meet in Sanford Stadium. This breathless exercise is called a "football game." The 90,000+ lightgreen-and-black crazies at Sanford Stadium more resemble the Roman mob than the audience of any Grecian pastime. Every seasoned Athenian knows two ways to get everywhere in town: the "normal" way; and the "game day" way, though the true experts just avoid the bedlam altogether and watch the game on ESPN. (As counterpoint, it should be noted that the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games held some events in that stadium. Tell that to anyone who thinks Athens got gypped out of the centennial.)
Restaurants, restaurants, restaurants! I counted almost two hundred in 2001, and I ate at all of them. I don't believe anyone else has matched that feat, but that's not surprising; after all, who could possibly fill The Greatness' pants, er, shoes? And bars abound also, providing manifold venues for bringing back the rock. That segment of the Athens economy hinges on the glut of money from the well-to-do folks from Atlanta, who suddenly didn't have to spend money on Johnny's education after all, thanks to the HOPE scholarship. This transference of capital from father to son to bartender cannot continue unabated at the current rate. (Though the practice does have plenty of historical precedent in the Classic City; check out A Pictorial History of the University of Georgia to read about the drunken, castoff scions of rich Georgians that comprised the first UGA alumni.)
In ancient Athens, the pioneer of true democracy, people met regularly at the Agora to decide what the government would do in every piddling situation. Athens, GA, has a representative system, but Athenians' overall interest in public affairs must be among the highest in the nation. I rarely agreed with the vocal minority's activist, mob-rule causes -- what's wrong with knocking down a dilapidated hotel to build a drug store? -- but you gotta admire their spunk. On a related note, I also admired the shrewdness of the Athens-Clarke County government when it came time to refinance Athens-Ben Epps Airport, where I learned to fly. All politics aside, who wouldn't pay an airline $10,000 to get $1,000,000 from the FAA?
The local 'zine Flagpole once used the word "apotheosis" -- in a headline!
And there's a bunch more reasons. I warmly recall the spirited discussions with colleagues as we scribbled on our whiteboards at UGA's Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry. I remember the July evenings on the porch, taking in the natural drama of a severe thunderstorm and welcoming the respite from the heat. But mostly, Athens makes me think of my housemates and friends, Athenians by choice, who collaborated with me on independent film, music, and life in general. They accepted me as The Greatness, even when I was not so great, and I will never forget that kindness.
Athens was my home, and I miss it.
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