Whenever I pick up a New York publication and see that it's making an attempt to explain Atlanta and/or the South, I hold my breath. Because I know, sooner or later, it's coming. The jab. The slight. The ever-so-subtle insult. The self-righteous smirk that tells you that New Yorkers have this image of the South as a place where a bunch of hicks with bad teeth sit on the front porch and sip corn whiskey all day.
Think I'm kidding? When my ex-girlfriend lived in Manhattan, she called one night giggling hysterically because a woman in her office had asked her, in all seriousness, whether she'd ever "ate squirrel." You know, seeing as how she was from the South and all.
So I gritted my teeth last month when I saw the New York Sun had printed a Bloomberg story headlined: "40,000 New Yorkers Flee State For Atlanta." First of all, I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that many new people walking around in my city wearing Yankees ball caps. Turns out they're not so happy about it, either.
It wasn't three paragraphs before the first diss appeared. Some dude who'd been living in his parents' house in Long Island, with his wife and two kids, moved to Atlanta and bought a $275,000 house in the burbs with four bedrooms. It has a yard and a pool. And is he happy? No, because the state of pizza in Atlanta is an affront to his New York sensibilities.
That was followed by the inevitable Gone With The Wind reference, and then how some of the ex-New Yorkers are so offended by Southern culture that they had to band together through MySpace. They're disdainful when we say "y'all" and "bless your heart." One presumably intelligent CNN producer opined that she'll kill herself if her kids grow up with a Southern accent. So what exactly would she prefer? A Queens accent?
They don't like our pizza. They hate our bagels. They complain that we talk too slowly. "Atlanta is a second-tier city," is how one transplant put it. "New York is cooler and more exciting in every respect."
Delta is ready when you are, people. Bye, y'all! Bless your hearts.
The story stirred up a storm on the Internet. There were five pages of comments on the Sun's website. But a counter point of view seemed necessary. Do ex-Atlantans who now live in New York whine about the Big Apple? Of course not. Southerners are too gracious. Besides, they love it there. "Let me count the ways I love it here," says Kristen Tate, who moved to New York two years ago. "It's so culturally diverse, which is something I also love about Atlanta. But the whole world is here."
Living in New York City is one grand adventure for them. Yet here's the thing – and this is really going to piss off all the New Yorkers who believe the world begins and ends on that little island – almost to a person, our expatriates hope to come back to Atlanta someday. Even many ex-New Yorkers who left to come here don't want to go back. Which sums up my whole theory about the Big Apple: It's a great place to live – but just for a little while.
My first experience with New York City came after I moved to Rhode Island in 1988.
I was so excited to be that close to the city that I drove to Manhattan my very first weekend there. Coming down I-95, I was awestruck when I spied the lit-up skyline. It was Atlanta magnified 20 times, and so intimidating that I didn't actually drive into the city; I only drove around it. I genuinely feared that if I took my car into Manhattan, I might never find my way out.
After that, I discovered the commuter rail system. New York was a three-and-a-half-hour ride away, and I took advantage of it to go into the city every few weeks.
A few years later, I was back in Georgia but my wanderlust for the Big Apple had yet to be satisfied. I wanted to be in New York because that's where the best writers in the world congregated. Sinatra got that one right: If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. I had a book out, and enough connections to get meetings with some of the top magazine editors in New York City.
An added incentive was that my girlfriend lived there, so I already felt like a part-time resident. I was all about New York. I loved the energy. The great restaurants. The little corner groceries. The subway system that took you everywhere. There was Greenwich Village. Washington Square Park. Times Square. Union Square. Grand Central Station. Ray's Pizza. Sidewalk pretzels. New York, New York. What a town.
Except my girlfriend had already been there two years and passionately hated Manhattan. OK, so she lived in a 20x10 flat with windows so thin the winter winds seemed to pay them no mind. Her rent was $1,500 a month, and that was five years ago. "But it's New York," I thought. And like a demanding and beautiful woman, New York calls for certain sacrifices.
At some point, however, I realized I'd had enough. I'd been awakened too many times by the 5 a.m. garbage pickup directly below her window. I'd slogged through dirty slush once too often. I'd reached the point where I was ready to strangle the next taxi driver who honked his horn. Most of all, I discovered that enjoying New York City had drained my bank account. By the time my girlfriend decided to move back to Georgia, I was relieved.
New York is a great place to visit, I came to realize, but Atlanta is a better place to live.
People go to New York for two reasons: They want to succeed on the biggest stage of them all and they want the experience of living in the most famous city in America.
Kasey Price, 29, got into the music business as a band publicist, and moved from Atlanta to New York three years ago because it was the epicenter of indie rock. "Feeling like I was limited in my career because I was in Atlanta was a bummer, although I guess I left at the wrong time because Atlanta is blowing up right now," she says. In fact, she's working with several bands from here.
Price's boyfriend lived in New York before she arrived. "I was ready to see what was out there," she says. "I've always liked that quote: 'Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard; live in northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.'"
Like other transplanted Atlantans, one thing Price doesn't miss is the traffic. She loves the subway system in New York, and the eclectic mix of people. "You see stuff that you would never see anywhere else in a million years," she says. "I was on my way to Coney Island the other day, and saw a man holding a parrot on the subway. My boyfriend saw a girl walking a rabbit on a leash in the park yesterday. Like they say, only in New York."
Laurel Wells, 29, wanted to work in the fashion industry and knew she'd have to move to New York to have any chance of making it. Now a designer whose clothes have been worn by Jessica Simpson, among others, Wells has embraced her new city. "I love the sense of freedom here, that you can be or do whatever you want," she says. "I love the culture, the city's history and the fact there's almost nonstop events, exhibits and performances. I love that people here accept one another regardless of external appearances."
For others, it's the energy of the city and its nightlife that's exciting. "The city literally never sleeps, and you could live here for a lifetime and it would still seem new," says Michelle Douchette, who works for a New York-based travel website. "And I honestly believe that Manhattanites are as friendly as Atlantans."
As outlandish as that may sound – New Yorkers do have a snarly reputation, after all – that sentiment is echoed by former CL senior editor Doug Monroe, who moved to Brooklyn last year. "The people up here are a lot friendlier than I anticipated," he says. "I'm on a friendly basis with neighbors from all over the world, from Pakistan to Greece to China to Iran. But New Yorkers do cuss more. The cussing on Brooklyn streets is almost like music. You hear the f-word all day long, from kids on skateboards to old folks on walkers."
You'd probably cuss, too, if you lived in New York, because living there isn't easy. How can you tell natives from tourists when you're walking down the street in New York? Tourists are in a good mood. "New York definitely tests your patience even if you are a generally patient person, which I consider myself to be," Price says.
Douchette tries to avoid the throngs at Times Square and Herald Square. "Yet I somehow always end up there, cursing," she says. "Dealing with mobs of people on the streets and in restaurants and bars is tiring, especially on the weekends when visitors flood the city."
Ex-Atlantans also marvel at how dirty New York is, and how trash bags seem to magically pile up on the edge of the street. "When I come home, I won't wear the clothes I wore to work," says Tate, 27. "And I go barefoot because my shoes are so dirty. That's my biggest complaint, there's so much trash on the street."
Many of the single women living there share a similar complaint: Despite the glamour of "Sex and the City," New York is a difficult place because single women outnumber men. "In Atlanta, you hear women complaining that there's no eligible black straight men," Tate says. "In New York, it's the same thing. New York is a singles city, and dating is great. But if you're looking for a lifetime partner, it's not a place to be. Men have the pick of the litter here. New York is not the place to come to find a husband."
Which is one reason she plans to eventually return to Atlanta. "When it's time to slow down and be grown up, I will move back," she says. "After all, Atlanta still feels like home."
It's easy to find Atlantans who have been-there-done-that when it comes to New York. Who still cringe when they mention seeing a $19 hamburger on a restaurant menu, who had their adventure, and then were ready to come home.
After Dave Poston got his law degree, he moved to the Big Apple to work in a big firm, only to return to Atlanta in 2004 to start a PR agency. "I missed having a dog and a back yard," he says. "In Atlanta, friends come over on a Friday night and hang out. That doesn't happen in New York."
Keneesha Hudson moved to the city in 2004, only to come back to Atlanta two years later and open the Urbanella salon in Buckhead. Though she loved New York, there was much she missed in Atlanta. "You can't get sweet tea up there," she says. "I'm very Southern and love soul food. I never found good soul food in New York."
She liked New York so much, she probably wouldn't have returned to Atlanta if she hadn't decided to open her own business. Her husband also pushed her to return because he never warmed to the city.
"My husband is so funny," she says. "If we're walking around Virginia-Highland and somebody waves, he says, 'That's what I love about Atlanta. We wave at total strangers to make them feel welcome.'"
So welcome, it turns out, that some New Yorkers have given their old city the Bronx cheer. In fact, some of the most stinging reviews of New York come from former New Yorkers.
Sarah-Ann Soffer grew up in the Big Apple and, after college, decided she wanted to get out of her element and experience new things. Since she had friends in Atlanta, she decided to move here. It was love at first sight.
She spent two years in Atlanta before she moved back to New York in 2007 for family reasons. "I lived right by Piedmont Park, and thought it was so great that I could live by the Central Park of Atlanta, and actually afford it," she says. "My studio apartment was the size of a one-bedroom in New York, and cost under $900. And I had a walk-in closet, central air and a dishwasher."
Soffer also found it easier to meet people in Atlanta, and to find eligible men to date. "In New York City, everyone avoids eye contact," she says. "And dating was so much easier. In Atlanta, guys were actually gentlemen. They would pick you up from your apartment for a date, open doors for you and bring flowers. That's just unheard of in New York City."
She plans to return to Atlanta. "I miss it terribly," she says. "I miss Whole Foods on Ponce and the drive-in movie theater. I miss Kevin Rathbun's restaurants; he's the Mario Batali of Atlanta. I miss the way people in Atlanta are able to balance work with life."
Sabina Carr doesn't want to leave Atlanta, a decided change in attitude from when her husband landed a job here 10 years ago. "I came kicking and screaming because I'm a New York person," she says. "I'm a 12th-generation New Yorker on my dad's side."
Now the marketing and communications director at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Carr never expected to someday be reluctant about a return to New York. "I would not love to move back, but my husband is a cable television executive and if we had to go back, I would," she says. "Now that I'm older, it would drive me crazy to hear the rattling of subways, buses, people screaming, horns, jackhammers, all the lovely sounds that you get. I don't miss the noise at all."
Carr's husband did just take a job in D.C., though, and they're preparing to leave Atlanta. "When I moved here, some of my New York buddies in Atlanta told me I was going to like it here when we had kids, and I kept laughing," she says. "Then we had kids. And now it's become, 'Oh, I really don't want to leave."
Stacie Hanna had a similar experience when she and her husband left New York in 1999 to come to Atlanta for his medical residency. "Once we got here, I seriously second-guessed the decision," she says. "My theory is that because New York is such a unique place, it's difficult to move anywhere from there without an adjustment period. There's something about that city, love it or hate it, that gets in your blood."
Hanna began to explore Atlanta and discovered its charms. She found friends and formed relationships, and now considers Atlanta a great place to live. And what does she think about all the ex-New Yorkers who whine about Atlanta's bagels and pizza? She recommends the bagels at Goldberg's delicatessen and the pizza at Pricci.
She also offers them a bit of advice. "It takes time to get to know and enjoy any city," she says. "There are a lot of wonderful, unique things about New York, but don't compare it to Atlanta. Love Atlanta for what it is; don't hate it for what it isn't."
CL news intern Michelle Ye Hee Lee helped research this story.