Swapping Out Brooklyn for a Small Town in Georgia During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Laura Redburn

A Georgia native discovers a bigger world in the small city she thought she’d left for good.

The landscape architect’s camouflage face covering is soaking wet, but we carry on with our consultation. Our high-pitched drawls bounce off five acres of hardwoods, camellias, a Japanese maple, a black walnut, and an unbloomed magnolia tree. My hands are resting on my hips as we geek out over the possibility of planting crepe myrtles. The deer are resting.

The land is fit to hold all my grandiose ideas.

“I’ll never return to Athens, GA, to live and if I do, cue the mayoral parade committee”: my two-decade-old one-liner about my hometown. Three months into the U.S. COVID-19 pandemic, my husband and I bought a midcentury modern house there sight unseen. We took a socially distanced flight and spent two nights at Hotel Indigo Athens. Both Delta Air Lines and the room accommodations exceeded the strict CDC standards. We signed our paperwork on the sidewalk in front of the closing attorney’s office. We celebrated outside at Indigo’s Madison Bar & Bistro with a pour of Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey—our first public nightcap in months. After 24 years, I’m an Athenian again until New York City pulls me back into its bosom.

I’m the fallen ripe fruit of my birthplace, a liberal-ish college town 80 miles from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport built on blue-collar grit and transient academic hipsters. Dark molasses dripping down a Rimowa suitcase groove is my upbringing—nimble and layered.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Atlanta

Athens still loves its football, and the campus keeps expanding its boundaries. Every year, I note a new street sign up, and more people walking dogs. The North Oconee River Greenway trail is similar to the three-mile loop around Brooklyn’s Frederick Law Olmsted– designed Prospect Park—add the scenery of modest red-brick homes. My childhood backyard is across the railroad tracks. The Chicopee-Dudley area wasn’t a destination then, more like an afterthought, with public-school teachers, sanitation workers, janitors, and nurses living in the shadows of professors. The city hall skyline sits on the hill, and Saturday pigskin cheers reverberate on the porches. An African American community rapidly becoming the starting point for young white families priced out of the affluent corners of the county.

Outside of wheeling and dealing with a wide gamut of plumbers, general contractors, and HVAC guys, I spent my first chunk of renovation budget buying artwork from Broderick Flanigan. He is a fine artist with a portrait studio in a part of the ’hood known as “the iron triangle.” Outsiders describe the area as a high-crime, high-poverty retail strip servicing the adjacent public housing. It’s sacred ground honoring the stronghold of Black Athens and decades of unwavering civic leadership. I bought two oil paintings of renowned late-1800s Athens educators Samuel F. Harris and Judith Johnson Harris.

The University of Georgia controls the ebb and flow of residents’ spirits. During July, many businesses close for a week because summertimes reduce the population from more than 127,000 to less than 100,000 people. Half-Shepherd Market’s vacation meant my green peanut oil was on a two-week hold. Loading my basket with artisanal producers takes me back to the glory days of eating in local restaurants. The world has changed; my shopping rituals are the same. I visit all the small grocers and farmers’ markets and fill in the gaps with one supermarket.

Wearing masks is mandatory inside businesses in Athens, only one of a handful of Georgia towns with laws to curb COVID-19. I’ve devoured Donna Chang’s bouncy peanut noodles but only set eyes on the façade, and demolished cacao-nib-rolled ice cream sandwiches from Condor Chocolate—in my car. I’ve shopped at Athens Running Company and tasted Independent Baking Co.’s morning rolls. The Five Points shopping district is my weekly hug, six feet away.

Dive bars, wing joints, and beer culture are supreme, the desires of coeds and jocks are the rule. What can a college student afford to buy? Creature Comforts beer cans morph into Finger Lakes wine region Osmote Chardonnay and pétnat. Whiskey and bourbon overshadow rhum agricole, a reminder that I’m on pause from central Brooklyn (home to the largest Caribbean population in the U.S.A.). The World Famous’s mess of fries and West Broad Farmers’ Market are an adventure. Cruising shopping plazas where blacktops were once smooth with crisp yellow parking markings is my happy hour. Every empty big-box storefront marks a rite of passage; these places of first jobs, birthday-party locations, and Christmas-shopping excursions are just memories because they are long gone—Roses, Kmart, Showbiz Pizza Place.

I’ve been chasing a ghost.

Deciding to dump the guilt of thriving on my terms, and ignoring my family’s desire for me to be a genteel adult, has been a journey that requires staring simplicity in its face. Passing a stark wood-frame AME church with the absence of life on Sunday mornings deepens my relationship to growing up in the American South and leaving a place too small for all that was and is me.

Related: Rediscovering the Road to Redemption in Montgomery

Scattered under my sneakers are symbols; people move slower, and my mind keeps racing toward a new reality. The landscaper disappeared, I’m playing project manager and dreaming up the perfect garden: roses, hydrangeas, plums, herbs.

The historic Georgia Theatre red marquee letters spell out Black Lives Matter, and it’s breathtaking, this means something. Concerts aren’t happening; the rooftop is closed. BLM protests defy Athens’s native son, Governor Brian Kemp (born and educated here); the racial reckoning soothes townies and rattles many. America is messy and sticky. I’m posting a sign on my property that reads No Bow Hunting Allowed.

I’m the colossal peach; I’m not James.