I’d never been to the American South before.
I’d read about Rosa Park’s Montgomery Bus Strike and Martin Luther King Jr’s struggle for civil rights during a time of violence and brick bombs. I’d read about the Confederacy and Civil War and knew about its history of conflict and racial tensions. And I had sworn never to travel through the South unless I absolutely had to because of its reputation for being unwelcoming to minorities.
Turns out, Southern hospitality is a real and beautiful thing.
I traveled by Greyhound across the Southern lip of the United States, passing from California through Aridzona, hitting a stop in New Mexico and several in flatland Texas, zooming through Louisiana, Mississippi, verdant Alabama, and finally ending my journey in Atlanta, a city as much reputation as physical location. It was a tiring 62 hours and most of the trip there I wondered if it was worth it, to see the country zoom by and travel it slow enough to experience cultural differences between cities and states along the Mexican-American border. But I’d never done a cross country road trip before and I wanted to find out how big this continent really was and see the land how the original pioneers did (or as close to that as I could).
When I got to Atlanta, I stayed with a local and got my first taste of Southern nightlife at Famous Pub in Lindbergh. Recommended by the bartender, I tried a Blood Orange Blonde Pirate beer paired with fried pickles, a snack especially beloved there. Next day, I toured downtown around Centennial Olympic Park, where these amazing architectures competed with each other for tourists’ attention. On one side was the World of Coke building and the other was the Aquarium and Civil Rights Museum.
But my main purpose for visiting town was to experience Imagine Music Festival with my friend Reagan, who I’d met months earlier at the infamous Electronic Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas. She met me downtown and instantly I knew this was going to be an amazing weekend hanging out with my friend from across the country in a place I’d never been before. Right away she made me feel safe and taken care of as we packed away my massive backpack in her trunk stuffed with coolers, tents, food, drinks, and all the other dressings for a great campsite.
We were going camping at the Atlanta Motor Speedway for three days and nights with at least 30,000 other festival goers. What an adventure.
After a quick heartfelt catch up, Reagan and I zoomed off to the airport to pick up two new friends who were also flying into town for the festival from Philadelphia, and together we all raced to the speedway to join the queue of other music lovers trying to squeeze into the festival. The traffic was horrendous and getting into the venue took hours, but once we got our campsite set up and were able to introduce ourselves to our neighbors, the fun began.
One of the great things I’ve found about attending these festivals is meeting other open like minded people from all over the world. Although many of the campers we chatted with were from the Atlanta greater area, some came from as far as Louisiana, Chicago, and even South Korea. Everyone was there to have a good time and was free with sharing their extra supplies whether it was an air mattress pump or a cold brew beer. Other friendly Southerners (shout out to Jerramy) helped drive out of towners to and from the festival and helped supply my camp with local produce and good conversation. I loved the small cultural quirks of the South like how everyone calls everyone else “Dahrling” and “Sweetie,” or the way they open a conversation by offering you a beer or smacking a pack of cigarettes before opening them.
I had many moments of sondre in Atlanta, watching the sky turn violet then blue as the sun rose each morning to light our midnight conversations and turn them into morning meditations with new friends from all over the East Coast and the world. The openness of our neighbors to being friendly really colored my experience and made me feel welcome in a part of the world I never thought I would feel safe in. Giant horses carried police around and there were showers available for campers in large industrial buildings. Everywhere in camp people were sharing their music, experiences, jokes, and melting their preconceptions about what people are like in other places in the world. And all us campers bonded over equal parts lamenting and praising the humid heat generated by the beating sun and accompanied by the orchestrations of chirping insects and waves of cicada clicks.
While the DJs that played the concerts were amazing and the lighting was an overall spectacular production, my greatest takeaway from my trip to Atlanta will be my experience of its people and their welcome of music festival tourists. Where I expected violence I found love, and where I expected discrimination I found PLUR.
Maybe one day I’ll come back and dance again in Hotlanta. In the meantime, I’ll never forget the true reality that is Southern hospitality.