“I’ve never been to an Atlanta strip club.”
I told this to my Uber driver, Keith, as we careened down Market Street, swerving around pedestrians out for a post–midnight stroll. He had wondered where I was from, and I said Atlanta.
Keith told me that he visited once, but he could never return. When I asked why, he said that the girls are too beautiful. He'd spent multiple nights out entranced by a single dancer and always left with his pockets empty.
“I’d go broke if I went back to those clubs,” Keith said. “But you should go sometime.”
I probably won’t, but I thanked him for the recommendation. Next to me, my boyfriend gave me a look that said, "Can you believe this guy?" I shrugged. He’d never been to an Atlanta strip club either.
I was born in Pennsylvania Hospital, 783 miles away from Atlanta and four miles away from Penn. I emerged with a black eye, my baby flesh littered with cuts and bruises from prenatally sparring with my mother. The doctors concluded that I wasn’t endangered, just dramatic, and my parents lugged my eight–pound ass from Old City to our home in Morton, a borough of 2,600, a mere 20–minute drive from University City.
Morton felt like mud diluted with two inches of snow, smelled like the sap of the oak tree in our front yard, tasted like mac n’ cheese with ketchup drizzled on top. When Morton spoke, it sounded like stroller wheels squeaking on sidewalks, muffled screams of kids who thought a real vampire lived on their street, and the screech of the Regional Rail as it thundered past our house. If you listened closely, you could hear Philadelphia whispering.
I’m the only one of the three girls in my family who remembers growing up in Delaware County. There are memories they’ve been told, like how my dad, sister, and I would spin around his office with pillows on our heads to the tunes of Trout Fishing in America, or how robins made a nest in our drainpipe and I brought it to school once the chicks had hatched. But no memory is fully theirs.
In my last memory of that period, a 20–something man who ducked to clear the door frame told me that he’d take good care of my room. He liked the clouds that my uncle had painted on the ceiling.
We built a home in the suburbs of Atlanta, but I was older then. The apartment complex where my parents told my sister and I that we were getting another sibling changed ownership following a shooting. Thoughts of my elementary school teachers, who turned a blind eye to mindless doodling and muffled laughter, soured when I later found their unsavory political posts on Twitter. My high school, respite from days at home, was a cesspool of sexual harassment, battles fought and lost.
Atlanta was fresh. At first, my hands couldn’t steady the wheel when I navigated Spaghetti Junction—a highway interchange nicknamed for its complexity—searching frantically for I–85 South. Then, I found my favorite neighborhood parks and hole–in–the–wall vegetarian restaurants. I languished at The King Center, met a Vespa biker gang, and ran my fingers across the spines of classics at the Decatur Book Festival.
Philadelphia remained pristine. My family visited my grandparents every few years in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and I rode the bumps on the road to their house like a toddler. I shouted “CVS” when I saw a CVS to make five–year–old Mira proud, and I pestered my parents for a drive–by of our old home.
For years, I cherished my cities.
In March of 2019, Philadelphia became the place of my grandfather’s sickness, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania became his caretaker and captor. He fell at work one day, splitting his hip, and when they cut him open, they found cancer. He passed away later that year, and I flew back to Atlanta alone. The next month, I got into Penn. My grandmother and I cried on the phone, of happiness and grief.
The pandemic devastated Atlanta. Between recorded lectures, I watched throngs of unmasked crowds cross the street near Centennial Park and lawmakers hide behind gilded doors as they held a knife to the throat of Georgia’s public health. I saw John Lewis’ casket.
When I visited home from college, I stuck solely to my town.
Last weekend, my childhood best friend and I took the Market–Frankford Line to H Mart, an Asian supermarket. We got off at 69th Street, the end of the line, trading stories about visiting the H Mart behind our high school. H Mart was the good parts of home: spicy ramen that made your tongue almost fall off, a pit stop for the necessities on the way back from the Atlanta airport, a refuge from family Thanksgiving. Tracing the SEPTA map with my finger, I realized we were pretty close to Morton. I mapped our location to my old home’s address: 15–minute drive.
“You should go sometime,” my friend said.
I probably will, when I’m ready. At the very least, it’s a better idea than an Atlanta strip club.