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The Big Peach

Conducting the end of my lecture to the final notes of “We Shall Overcome”, I wait for my students to leave.
The Big Peach by Paushali Bhattacharya
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8:15 on the clock.

Phone. Keys. Wallet. A quick look around the room as I make a dash for the front door.

I’ve never left this early for work. Never accused of being timely, apocryphal tales of my chronic lateness abound in several continents. However, I couldn’t afford to be late on August 24, 2023: the Fulton County Prison is a mere four miles away from my office, where Donald Trump and his co-defendants were slated to arrive any minute.

With a prayer and plenty of time to spare, I set forth on my daily route— aboard the bus no. 55, rattling through the changing foliage that signals the early onset of fall. Nothing defines Atlanta like its trees. Razed to the ground during the American Civil War, very few pre-1860s structures still survive. Subjected to multiple and often contradictory narratives of history superimposed on the unchanging ecology, the city clings to its verdure for a sense of continuity. The Atlanta History Center displays the 132-year-old Battle of Atlanta cyclorama: “49 feet tall, is longer than a football field, and weighs 10,000 pounds,” reads the description on the website, signaling its massive dimensions and the all-too-familiar American aversion to the metric system. Originally painted to depict the Unionist victory at the eponymous battle in 1864, the piece has been modified a number of times to suit the Confederate sympathies of the South (and to include Clark Gable!); however, the red Georgia clay and the towering trees situate Atlanta firmly as the “main character” of this piece— unencumbered by the multitudes of bodies that litter the grounds.

The population of Atlanta, also lovingly referred to as the “Big Peach,” as of 2021, stood at 496,461 according to a data source: oftentimes, I find myself musing that I must be the “plus one” that rendered the city into three evenly divided pseudo-Marxist categories— the haves, the have-nots, and the immigrants. Ironically, these three categories seem to butt heads (sometimes elbows, and also knees) on the road— more particularly, on the bus. In 1853, Baron Hausmann embarked on a large-scale re-mapping of Paris following the French revolution, sacrificing much of the medieval structures to accommodate wide roads that are almost impossible to barricade, designed to keep the city center safe from revolutionaries. With its sprawling freeways, Atlanta seems not too different from its distant French kin: roaring traffic serves as a continuous reminder of the “car economy” that is the United States, punctuated by the sighs of the disenfranchised that are compelled to resort to a severely deficient public transportation system. Stuck at a traffic signal on Memorial Drive, I find myself sandwiched between an increasingly impatient middle-aged lady (an employee at the State Capitol Building, I surmise, from her sharp navy suit and Chanel handbag) and a Latino teenager with loud reggaeton seeping out of his oversized headphones.  “There’s only one seat per person,” quips Ms. Chanel: a barb evidently meant for the reggaeton aficionado, who has placed his heavy backpack on the seat next to him. “Yo hago lo que me da la gana…” (translates as “I do whatever I want” in English, from Spanish) croons Bad Bunny from muffled headphones: our audiophile pays her no mind. I shuffle a little to the right, trying to make space for the lady and her handbag: a distinctly Indian hack; my attempt at “jugaad” seems to fall flat— no one tries to occupy the little space I’ve created. “Do I have enough space?” I ask myself. Miss Freedom refuses to answer, unable to fathom the conditions of human bondage in the “land of the free” from the top of the golden dome of the State Capitol Building.

Zooming past the mural of two black children hugging— fresh paint drips from the words “Our Lives Matter”— the bus is now at Five Points station. Disembarking among the usual plaintive murmur of “Spare some change?” I have an hour to spare— just enough time for some tea. Raised on steaming cups of Darjeeling tea, I feel like a traitor as I gravitate towards the over-sugared comfort of the Southern-style sweet iced tea. Pushing aside the guilt, I set off towards Sweet Auburn. Snatches of rap and soul seep out of the myriad of businesses that line the street: bakeries, barbershops, and boutiques— all black-owned, ever since the violent race riots in the early 1900s pushed them out of Downtown. The blue dome of Martin Luther King’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church provides sharp contrast to the greenery. A homeless man sleeps inside a gigantic bronze cast of Dr. King’s head. The first city to initiate plans for public housing in 1936, Atlanta is also the first one to close it down completely earlier in 2011— a decision whose consequences are only too evident at the epicenter of the city. “You look wonderful, baby,” exclaims a portly old lady in a fur hat, her southern drawl drawing the penultimate syllable through three notes. In the city proverbially “too busy to hate,” love is not short in supply. 

Stepping out of the diner with a half-gallon-sized cup of sweet tea, I am drawn to the music that emerges out of the neighboring storefront: “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog…” Big Mama Thornton’s voice drifts out of a scratchy antique record player in the Madam CJ Walker Museum— the salon run by one of America’s first black female millionaires, painstakingly restored into its former glory by the community that surrounds it. Joy abounds in the air from the second I make my way through the heavy glass door. On the walls, portraits of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Otis Redding, and other luminaries of Black music stretch across the entire space— I am to get a free record, informs the proprietor, if I can identify twelve of them. An older gentleman in a red cravat helps me identify the last two— Louis Armstrong and Sly Stone. I smile at him, and he tips his hat: “You’re not married, are you?” he asks, a mischievous twinkle playing in his piercing blue eyes, as he holds the door open for me. “You ain’t no real cool cat…” vocalizes Big Mama Thornton: in this city, flirts also seem to be aplenty.

Traipsing back through Auburn Avenue with minutes to spare (chronic lateness et al), I walk past the historic Fairlie-Poplar district, where a choir and a string quartet seem to be warming up for a performance for the public. The heady aroma of szechuan pepper-rich bone broth from the Vietnamese restaurant blends in with the warm notes of butter chicken from the Indian fast-food spot, the outdoor dining tables packed with students and tourists, waiting for the performance to begin. The classroom I teach in offers a direct view of the street below: with the opening notes of “Depuis le jour” from Gustave Charpentier’s Louise, I begin my lecture on rhetorical devices. The choir takes its audience through African American spirituals; I redirect my students towards the Mediterranean— towards Aristotle, Cicero, and his ilk— invention, arrangement, style, and delivery blend into “Roll, Jordan, Roll”. The class drags on. Students seem restless by the end. A cardinal flies past the classroom window in a streak of red— to flee the freeze descending from the North, migration seems like an obvious choice. A transplant from the tropics, the warmth of the South does not seep into my bones; I take a moment from lecturing to watch the bird, envious.

Conducting the end of my lecture to the final notes of “We Shall Overcome”, I wait for my students to leave. A few stragglers stay behind to ask questions— deadlines, missed assignments, and other quotidian fare. Outside the classrooms, I squeeze through students gathered in the hallways. Waiting for the elevator, I look outside— a last-ditch attempt to locate the Eliot-esque soul that stretches across the skies and fades behind the city blocks. The elevator dings— I guess I’m one of the insistent feet now. On the street, two lovers share an ice-cream. A little girl hangs on to her father’s dreadlocks as she sits on his shoulders. Who needs the sublime when the mundane is so sweet? Things are just peachy here in the ATL.

Paushali Bhattacharya (she/her) is a graduate student pursuing her PhD in English at Georgia State University. Her research is focused on the climate crisis and its impact on the postcolony.

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