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Reading American cities: books about Atlanta

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The literature of Atlanta reflects a history steeped in violence and racial tension. From Gone with the Wind to The Walking Dead, Anna Schachner explores the essential literary companions for the Georgian capital

  • Which are your favourite Atlanta books? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll feature a selection in an upcoming readers’ list

Atlanta, famous for the busiest airport in the world, the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr, Dirty South hip-hop culture, a burgeoning film industry, and 71 streets with “Peachtree” in their names, is also a literary hub. It is bolstered by the largest independent book festival in the US, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Decatur Book Festival, and the Georgia Center for the Book, not to mention the century-old Atlanta Writers Club. Such community, however, underscores a motif running through much literature set in or written about the city – that divisive ol’ challenge of how to turn change into progress.

Like all Southern cities, Atlanta’s history is steeped in racial tensions and politics. Booker T Washington’s famous Atlanta Compromise Speech at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition argued, “In all things that are purely social we can be separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress”, the “we” being post-Civil War blacks and whites. WEB Dubois, who taught at Atlanta University, disagreed with Washington’s “accommodationist strategy”, later writing the poem A Litany of Atlanta in response to the city’s 1906 race riots. Many factors led up to these riots, not the least of which were increased rights for blacks and a booming growth in the city that created competition between the races for jobs and services. But local newspaper reporting of alleged assaults of black men on white women, The Atlanta Georgian and The Atlanta News (both now defunct), in particular, helped incite the white-against-black mob violence. Rebecca Burns’s Rage in the Gate City dutifully chronicles these riots.

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