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Love letter to South Georgia 

Past the strip club billboards, tourist traps, and trucker plazas is my childhood home

RURAL LIFE: Motorists traveling south and who dare to exit the highway will pass through towns, such as Bluffton (above), find gently rolling hills dotted with plowed fields, and dwindling downtown squares

Joeff Davis/CL File

RURAL LIFE: Motorists traveling south and who dare to exit the highway will pass through towns, such as Bluffton (above), find gently rolling hills dotted with plowed fields, and dwindling downtown squares

We often speak of two Georgias — metro Atlanta and everything else. People that live in the first Georgia know the second Georgia has the mountains and the coast. But beyond these tourist destinations, the rest of our state is limited to what they see from the interstates.

If they are on their way south, past the "We Bare All" billboards promoting the strip joints of Warner Robins and the giant peach of Byron, they will notice the highway begin to flatten as they pass out of the Piedmont and onto the ancient seabed that is now the coastal plain. If they dare to exit the highway, maybe at that giant missile towering over a gas station in Cordele or at the giant peanut in Ashburn, they will enter a land of gently rolling hills dotted with plowed fields separated by stands of pine trees. They will be in the heart of the second Georgia — the breadbasket of the state. That's southwest Georgia. They will enter my other home.

In the early part of the 19th century, after General Andrew Jackson ran the Creeks out, settlers from around Savannah moved across the Altamaha River, traveling down the Coffee Road and the Thigpen Trail into a land seen by few Europeans. It was a land filled with loblolly pines, boundless game, and fertile soil. My forefathers and mothers settled on the Ochlockonee River near what would turn into the present city of Moultrie. It is here that I frequently return.

When I was a boy, the roads surrounding my home were still dirt and I would walk, barefoot, between my house and my grandmother's place. On an adventurous day, I might cut through the woods, avoiding the briars and the snakes they likely hid. Although the city limits were creeping closer, Moultrie felt very far away to my small eyes. Atlanta was as foreign and distant as the great cities of the North.

Roads were eventually paved and my world expanded beyond the bounds of our tiny farm. Visits to Atlanta were made and one day I made one of those visits permanent. My life became late nights at the Majestic, drinks in Virginia-Highland, and shows at the Fox.

But I would find myself driving, late at night, out beyond the bounds of the city. Life outside of the glow and constant hum of Atlanta tugged at my soul and I always turned southward — down the hills to the flat lands of my true home.

I was a man of two worlds. And I could leave neither behind for very long. As the years passed, Atlanta grew into an international city and the Southeast's economic hub. My other home seemed ready to wither on the vine.

Southwest Georgia is a region of courthouse squares and, in many ways, they are defined by the environs surrounding these public places. With the rise of the Walmarts and the creations of bypass roads, downtown shops throughout the region began to shutter. If you travel the back roads today, you will see this often still holds true.

The last census tells a grim tale. With the exception of my home county and a few others, the population of South Georgia is slowly declining. Farming is now done mostly with machinery or with migrant workers who do not mind walking stooped over for days on end. Manufacturing is limited to a few hundred jobs here and there. Those who have the opportunity follow a path similar to mine and leave. Those who cannot, stay and live the life they are given.

But it is not without hope. Moultrie is not Atlanta with its boundless energy and opportunity and all the numbers seem stacked against it, but it lives on. The legacy of the people who carved this region out of the woods is a thread that connects the students at the local tech school, the shopkeepers who still defiantly dot the downtown, and the farmers who adapt to a new economy based on raising corn for fuel plants and cabbage for kitchen tables. Warehouses that used to house crops such as tobacco have been razed to make room for a transportation center.

On one of those farms, between a pond and a peanut field, sits my tiny house. Built by my mother from the remains of a 100-year-old corn crib, it is where I flee when the city overwhelms and the only relief is a cool night with visible stars. I can see the city lights just over the trees. They shine a little brighter than when I was a boy but no matter how close the city creeps, I find comfort in the trees that enclose my childhood home.

On a recent trip, I stood at the edge of the field talking to the man who farms my little bit of tilled field. He looked around and told me, "People don't understand something like this until it's gone. Then it's too late. You can never get it back." For me it is not quite a concern. Even as my body returns to Atlanta, my heart remains in southwest Georgia, where my home awaits.

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