When we left Atlanta, we were sure we’d be back.
We had family there, and friends who felt like family. Besides that, it was a city that held all our firsts — first date, first apartment, first house, first dog, first baby. It was home, and my husband, Andrew, and I could not entertain a scenario when it wouldn’t feel that way. He’d grown up in Atlanta and returned right after college; I’d spent a decade there, most of it with him. We figured the new job would keep us in Nashville for three to five years — a nice little break from Atlanta’s congestion, but by no means a permanent choice.
We had a little over a month to pack and sell the house, say our goodbyes, and find our way to our new home. We were mostly excited about the new adventure. Our weekly commitments had grown wild in Atlanta and we were looking forward to seeing what life would be like with a schedule that didn’t need any pruning.
At the same time, we felt we were making the choice to abandon a community of friends with whom we’d cultivated abundant relationships, and no promise of frequent visits could undo the understanding that we’d come to a crossroads and taken a path that many of them, most of them, would not have.
In mid-September, 2009, I drove to Nashville in torrential rain with my toddler, Claire, in the back seat watching a boisterous, musical episode of Sesame Street on a loop. Despite the thrill of whatever lay ahead, I cried for a good half of the trip.
In many ways, I felt that Atlanta was a city over which I’d triumphed. I moved there fresh out of college with no real job and few contacts. I rented a tiny apartment with a friend of a friend and was given temporary work doing something I only vaguely remember as cataloging a private investigator’s notes. Besides that employer, who was a family friend, the only other person I really knew there was an ex-boyfriend who sometimes got lonesome and regretted breaking up with me.
Having come from a town whose population could fit inside a city block, and a college only slightly larger than that, Atlanta was my first great adventure, a fresh start, and a surprise to anyone who knew me well. The city was completely ill-fitting for the character of a person who spent a good bit of time writing and reading poetry and who took issue with people who put on airs.
On the day my parents and I drove circles around Atlanta in the U-Haul before finding our way to the correct apartment complex, my father, who had lived in the same tiny town most all his life, and whose approval of me was vital, asked if I was sure I didn’t want to change my mind.
I had little to no working knowledge of society. I had zero business savvy. I did not understand how much money it would take to make rent. But Atlanta was the biggest city I could muster the courage to move to on my own. It had been a hell of a day — hot and burdened with the weight of too much furniture and too few hands to carry it, but standing outside a rented apartment with a half-unloaded truck was no time to reverse course.
“Belonging” wasn’t something I thought was important at the time. But of course, it was.
Later, after two and a half years of casting about with different friends and in different jobs, Atlanta and I were on the ropes. I’d lost patience with with how small and plain the city made me feel.
And then, I met my husband — a man who had a map of Atlanta programmed into his brain at birth, and whose myriad relationships meant that we never went anywhere in a city of five million without seeing someone he knew. His knowledge and love of the place were exhilarating and contagious. He belonged there, which meant that I did, too.
It all seemed almost like my own, that was true. But as early romance gave way to marriage, I realized that it is one thing to be from somewhere, to know it by heart, and another to adopt a place or have it chosen for you. My marriage chose Atlanta for me, and I was then adopted by my husband’s many circles of friends. Yet until our last year or so there, though, I had an indistinct feeling of being on the outside looking in — someone who belonged more by association than creed.
It wasn’t until Andrew and I moved to Nashville that I realized how much I’d been missing the girl who grew up in rural Virginia — someone who couldn’t quite reconcile life in as slick a metropolitan city as Atlanta, given roots that lay in a town that lacked even a single stoplight. I had spent ten years willing Atlanta to speak my language, and while the friends we made (and kept) there appreciate my native tongue, I now know that the city itself, so deeply entrenched in the machinations of what has made it so, could not keep me.
Someone once described the difference between Atlanta and Nashville this way: Atlanta is a “What do you do?” city, and Nashville is a “Who are you?” kind of place. Both types are essential to the fabric of our country, of course, but the latter, with its slower, get-to-know-you approach allowed Andrew and me to ease in to life in a smaller town as people who couldn’t be summed up by how our vocations defined us. And while we continue to miss our family and friends still in Atlanta, moving to a city where we know just a few people has helped us rely on one another more and to focus on our young family. There is much to love about Atlanta — its wonderful diversity, great restaurants and museums — but to live there is to choose a life that feels more hectic than the one we have here.
I can’t say I’ll ever know any city by heart, not the way real locals do. But Nashville gets closer to the character that was instilled in me growing up, and it is an easy resting place for the compromise Andrew and I found ourselves having to make in our first few years. We are both, now, out of wholly familiar territory and all the better for it. And while Atlanta will always hold many of our truest friends and all of our firsts, we’ve found a new kind of belonging here that feels closely akin to freedom.
Towles Kintz is an editor for Proximity Magazine and the mother of three excitable children. Although she now rarely writes more than three items on a grocery lists at a time, her work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Brevity, the Art House America Blog, and other publications. This year marks her fifth as a resident of Nashville, Tennessee.