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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Rembert explains 'Rembert Explains America'

Rembert Browne
In June, Rembert Browne - a Grantland staff writer and Atlanta expatriate - left New York City, beginning a journey that would take him four months and through several more states. "Rembert Explains America" included stops at Burning Man, the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, some road in Nebraska, and some other road in Nebraska.

Characteristically, the multi-part series set Browne's sociopop prose (like a fly on the wall that tweets) against the nation's confounding cast of characters. Perhaps uncharacteristically, it did a lot more, exploring race in America and video games in America and old white women in America who live in towns all by themselves.

I recently spoke with Browne, who's been back in NYC for about a month, about the trip. More importantly: Did it change his opinion of the city that raised him? Most importantly: Have we gotten over the Braves' season yet? (We have not.)

So did you recover from the Braves/Falcons?
Like moderately. One of the good things about being in New York is that I'm not surrounded by all my friends from home who are just going to be sad forever. But also being away means that you almost have to defend your team even more. It still hasn't gone away. Luckily, all the New York teams are doing bad so it's kind of nice.

Your last piece for the series was in September - so when did you get back?
The original plan was for me - this was a plan I made myself - was after Burning Man, I was going to drive to L.A. and be in my office for a couple days and then I was going to drive back to New York. The road trip was supposed to end like around Sept. 14 or 15 and the last piece I was going to write was going to be about this long drive back to New York. But when I got to L.A., on like the 4th, I got to the office and everyone was like, "You need to fly home. You just need to go home. You look crazy."

Are you still getting emails from that email account? Are people still sending you tips for the scavenger hunt and stuff?
I actually just took it off my phone. I hadn't checked it in like a week and a half and there were a couple things that had come in since the trip had ended like, "Hey man, I got this weird jersey, like if you come to Minnesota - look me up." I was like, "Nah, it's over. I'm sorry." But there's like 2,500 emails in there. It's insane. I would say 1,500, maybe even more, came in the first three days.

At the start of the series, you said that there were stories you "have wanted to tell for years." What stories, and did you get to tell them?
I didn't. I think I kind of meant that in the broad sense of, because I had a very loose route and a very loose plan, the closest thing I can say I approached it to was like what I imagine writing a season of television would be like - one of those shows that doesn't have a continuous storyline from episode to episode. One common thread is the characters. It became clear very early on that there weren't going to be two stories that were alike, but the common thread was going to be me, a 26-year-old. You can add in any number of adjectives, like "26-year-old guy," "26-year-old black guy," "26-year-old kid from Atlanta," "26-year-old Southerner." I knew that however it worked out, it was going to be a story that hasn't really been told before. That road trip isn't something that's really been done. Like I knew at some point I would be driving through the South or some super rural area and it would be kind of dicey. I knew there were going to be certain aspects where I got super-super lonely and started to get a little crazy, and I didn't realize in the beginning how lonely and crazy I would go and I'm glad I documented that at the height of my losing-my-mind-ness.

It's funny you mention TV because it sounds almost like a CBS sitcom or procedural, like NCIS: Rembert Browne.
Yeah, it was great. I'm still kind of recovering from it because I still don't have an apartment yet, I'm subletting a friend's apartment and I'm still living out of my bags a little bit. I'm still not 100 percent settled yet. It's slowly happening. Like I've had to catch myself a couple times going to dinner by myself because that's just what I did for three months. I don't have to do this anymore - I know hundreds and hundreds of people in New York I can go eat with.

Was being at the National Museum of Play really that uncomfortable?
Well it was the first story I wrote. That was like the second day of the road trip and I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. My editors, God bless 'em, they gave me so much creative freedom. It was all kind of up to me. You're picking where you're going and what you're writing about and how you're writing about it, so I was in a weird, nervous place anyway and then I happen in to this place where I - I did a little research about the place, but not a ton. I didn't know that it was basically this glorified museum-slash-preschool hangout. I didn't realize I was going to be surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of little kids and then there's this grown man with a camera phone and a notepad. I guess I' m kind of glad I didn't know that because I guess I might not have gone. For the most part, I was like, "I feel like I should not be here right now, but I drove all the way here and I need to write something." I could have gone in and been like, "Hi, I'm writing a story about the National Toy Museum Hall of Fame, that's why I'm here" - but I didn't really let on to any of that, so from the outsider's perspective I was just a dude, by himself, at like 11:30 in the morning just wandering around just peeking his head around all these exhibits, making sure he didn't step on little kids. At some point, you have to welcome the awkwardness.

On the completely other hand, your stop in Mississippi was so interesting. But then looking back through the series, you went to a Brad Paisley concert and the Essence Music Festival. Race weirdly weaves through the series, which makes complete sense in one way, but was it ever a conscious topic in your head? It seemed to sliver in and out over the summer.
I attribute 99 percent of this to growing up in Atlanta, but I'm very comfortable in many different worlds because I've lived in a lot of different worlds in Atlanta, from where I grew up to where I went to school to the friends I had. I've never had any hesitation in tackling race, because it's never really felt like tackling. I know how to talk about race. I've talked about race in very intense ways with my black friends and my white friends and my Asian friends. That's how we grew up. I knew, just because I'm a black guy driving around the country, it's impossible for that not to be something that comes up, either in the case of when I got pulled over in Nebraska, got my car searched, to that day that stuff happened with Treyvon. Sometimes it came from a place of awkwardness and I knew me being black in that environment was affecting how that I was either perceived or how I was perceiving things; and then there were other scenarios, when I was in Atlanta for Birthday Bash or for Essence [in New Orleans], which is this pilgrimage for half a million black people to the city. It's funny, just thinking about that, because I was going around the country constantly reversing those roles.

I was wondering, too - you made a detour through the South and you stopped in Atlanta. Did it change your perspective on the city? Did you want your perspective to be different because you were coming back here from a different place?
I love writing about Atlanta because - people have asked me about this before - I definitely don't feel responsible, like I have a duty to necessarily write about Atlanta or portray Atlanta in a certain way, but I do think that because I'm writing for people's eyes not in Atlanta and I don't live there, I know that puts me in a very small group of people from Atlanta, not living there, writing for the eyes of an entire country. So the one thing I will say, I put a lot more pressure on myself when I write things about Atlanta because I want them to be very, very good. I want them to either make the city proud or be constructively critical of the city. I grew up wanting to be mayor, that was my whole plan: leave, maybe go to D.C., maybe work for a while, make my way up in that world, come back to Atlanta. My whole plan was to come back.

Is it weird to think of you as a missionary for Atlanta? Writing for Grantland is a platform to advocate for the Braves and Falcons, but I also get a weird sense sometimes that you're almost the only Atlantan in New York.
It's half-and-half. I thankfully have surrounded myself with people I grew up with that happen to live here. A lot of us went to college in the Northeast then naturally migrated to New York. Even though I have a platform that allows me to sometimes be louder than others, say things that get more eyes on them, I don't necessarily feel like I have this missionary role. But I also am like completely self-aware and embrace the fact that people from Atlanta and people not from Atlanta seem to care about the stuff I write a lot and that makes me want to stay away from Atlanta a little bit longer - I still want to come back - but it can get kind of nerve-wracking because you can sometimes feel there is a lot of pressure to be one of the handful of Atlanta people who are writing about certain things. I'm not out there writing 2,000-word essays about the Beltline. I haven't lived there since 2005. But I still feel very connected to the city.

I have to ask: What's it like, having an award-winning Twitter feed?
I would be lying if I said I didn't notice that the number of followers I have on Twitter grows - if I was like, "Oh, I don't know if I have a lot or not." That's like an aggressive level of modesty that's a lie. The thing that I like, and the reason that I don't really think about Twitter as a medium that I'm taking a ton of pride in, is because Twitter, for me, comes second to writing. There are a lot of people who are really good on Twitter because that's their outlet. That's where they put all of their thoughts. For me, I go on these Twitter sprees, tweet this or tweet that or whatever, and it's usually when I come up for air from writing. I get people responding to me all the time being like, "I have no idea what you're talking about." The one thing I can say I actually take pride in, is when I started tweeting when I just had a blog, I wasn't at Grantland, no one really cared, I was tweeting to make my friends I knew in real life laugh. that was kind of my m.o. and that actually hasn't changed like one bit. As the site, and in turn me, have become more popular, I still write with them in mind - and I would say the same thing is true of Twitter. I'm tweeting with this group of like 100 people in mind. Outside of that, there's like an extra 44,000 people that for some reason feel like they're crashing the inside-joke party. I don't mind it.

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