My little yellow car careens down the two lane roads in rural Georgia. The world whips by me, a mess of rolling hills and tall forests. I keep count of the many cows I see, and track the gravestones that litter the landscape. I grimace at the anti-abortion billboards and Trump signs as I begin the long journey home.
It’s a journey I’ve grown familiar with in the past few years. I’m not from the South, not culturally. I was born and raised in South Florida, a sub-tropical destination with a multicultural sensibility. We’re the South in name and location alone, our culture more in touch with Disney World than Southern charm.
I love Florida despite its flaws. I spent my childhood adamant that I was not “Southern”, hoping to distinguish myself from the place the rest of the nation considered “backwards” and redneck. No, I was a Floridian, familiar with hyper-developed hometowns and rustling palm trees.
Until a few years ago. When I graduated high school I felt an itch to leave my hometown and explore a new place. College was a chance to reinvent myself, and I wanted to take it in stride.
Athens, Georgia was the first college town on my radar. My mom had found the University of Georgia during my college search, a public university that was out of state but not too far away. Most importantly, UGA had a good journalism program (and wasn’t as expensive as NYU).
When my dad and I toured UGA, I fell in love. The campus had the red-brick sensibility of my dreams, old buildings and a true “college feel”. I knew I had to attend the large state school.
My family would often joke that I was going to be a Southern girl once I went away, something I adamantly resisted. I was determined to maintain that South Florida sensibility even if I was tucked away in northern Georgia.
Then I actually started to live in Athens. It was different from anything I’d ever known. The college destination was much smaller than any town where I grew up, and the area left me a bit culturally shocked.
Some stereotypes of the South rang true at UGA. People were nicer here– I often found strangers ready and willing to make polite conversation with me, something that rarely happens in my hometown.
It was easy to indulge in Southern comfort food too, sweet tea and the best fried chicken I’d ever eaten (shout out to Weaver D’s in Athens). Yet for as many stereotypes that were true, there were more that were false.
I had to spend my first year in Athens unlearning the bias I had against the South. It’s something most people are familiar with: the South as this irreparably backwards place, with rednecks and racism. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly both of those in plenty.
But those ideas erased the complicated legacy of the South and the revolutionary spirit that strikes through its heart. The South was rich in activism and progressive ideals that the rest of the nation seemingly ignored in favor of some other narrative.
My college friends played the largest role in my re-education. Many of them were from rural towns in Georgia, places they had complicated relationships with. These friends recognized the many failures of the South, but they also had a connection to the region– a responsibility to make their home better.
I watched as my friends resisted the narrative that to be accepted or happy they would have to run to the North, and as they reclaimed the things that once embarrassed them. They showed me publications like the Bitter Southerner, who aims to “uncover the American South in all its truth and complexity.”
The longer I lived in Athens the more I understood that desire to grasp the duality of the American South. I grew close with the town, came to love its culture and natural landscape. I worked on educating myself on the work of activists in the South even in the face of legislative discrimination.
Yet as my love for the South grew, I became aware of the utter disrespect others had for the region. People perceived it as irredeemable, saw the most vocal bigots as representative of everyone.
There’s a meme that circulated on the internet for a while. It was directed largely toward those in the North who found themselves superior because they were blue states. Quoted, the meme said “ignoring and writing off Southern states as unsalvageable due to regressive policies does nothing to help those fighting against such policies, and only aids further regression.”
It was a pointed statement that captured what many people I knew in the South were feeling. There was a certain smug attitude from northerners when faced with the suffering of people in the South due to legislative failures. But were they really better than us?
The second part of the meme was the real accusation, the one I found myself often repeating: “your neighborhood isn’t better just because it has brick oven pizzas and craft breweries”. It seemed that these gentrified, developed areas viewed themselves as exempt from racism and harmful legislation.
The reality is that systemic racism and inequality are ingrained all throughout the nation. It’s not unique to the South. In fact, racism in the North is often more nefarious– the play of a “progressive” person who has no issue with gentrification or issues that impact BIPOC.
It’s notable that Georgia has one of the highest Black or African American populations in the country at over 30%. The state was a major site of the civil rights movement, the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights icon John Lewis served as the U.S. Representative of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District from November 1986 until his passing in 2020.
The state and the broader South have been the site of slavery and segregation, but they’re also home to the activists who fought for civil rights. The South is home to a rich history of progressive organizers.
Yet the attitude of superiority from the North remained pervasive. Until the 2020 presidential election, where Georgia went blue.
The internet lit up. My friends and I celebrated. We thanked the BIPOC organizers who had spent years working towards this.
Then non-Southerners started talking about Georgia. Many of them thanked Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia’s 2018 race. She lost narrowly to Brian Kemp in the election amid accusations of voter suppression from Kemp during his tenure as Georgia Secretary of State.
Abrams promptly threw herself into voting rights efforts. She established Fair Fight Action, a prominent organization set on fighting voter suppression. People credited Abrams with “single handedly delivering Georgia for Biden”.
The rhetoric received near immediate pushback, specifically from BIPOC activists in Georgia. MaryPat Hector, a Gun Violence Prevention advocate and organizer in Georgia, released a thread calling for credit for all of the organizers who worked to turn Georgia blue.
Hector specifically named Black women at the center of voter rights efforts, like Deborah Scott of Georgia Stand Up or Tamieka Atkins of ProGeorgia.
Her voice was one of many pushing back against the idea that one single person was responsible for the election results, or the even more inaccurate idea that non-Southerners had come in and made the change.
The Georgia Senate race was the next to receive the spotlight. Incumbent Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue were faced with Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively.
The November race was so narrow that the election was pushed into a runoff in January 2021. The outpouring of support was immediate. A-List actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney threw their support and money behind the democrats, and a seemingly endless list of celebrities joined in the cause.
Former Presidential candidate Andrew Yang even made a show of “moving” to Georgia temporarily to get out the vote for Warnock and Ossoff. The influx of support was the most attention Georgia had gotten in years, and left many of us reeling.
It also left a bad taste in my mouth. I wasn’t from the South, but I had chosen the South. I had come to love this complicated place. I saw the people working so hard and long to make it better. Who was Andrew Yang to come in and take credit for the work they had already been doing? Did these people care about Georgia beyond the election?
I’m not sure I have an answer to that. I’m not sure how to make people care about the South. We must listen to BIPOC organizers and respect the complicated and painful past of the area. We must platform those voices that have been speaking for so much longer.
I’m not sure I’ll stay in the South. I have dreams of moving to New York City and taking on the world, just like many young writers. But when I think of my future–a life ten years from now– my mind always travels back to the sickly sweet humidity of a Southern state.
I’ve come to love these two lane Georgia roads. I feel a soft sadness as I make the long drive home, as the mountain range flattens into beachy vistas. I love my home, but now my home isn’t just South Florida. It’s Georgia. A place I want to fight for.