Of Whale Sharks, Anderson Cooper, and Forgiveness: Atlanta, Georgia

May 30th, 2011

After waking up in a Wal-mart parking lot at 7 AM, I left for Atlanta. For better or worse, a breakfast at Wal-Mart—an apple fritter and a peach—was actually significantly better than the three straight days of eggs and bacon which preceded Sunday morning. The three hour trip went quickly, a most trips do now. I cannot really remember complaining about hour long or two hour long trips anymore, though I’m sure my parents recall.

Downtown Atlanta: the Phallic Westin I think it was called.

I had decided to spend the day in a city and take a break from Smalltown, USA. Having grown up in one, I understand urban life a little better and could feel just a bit more at home. Not to mention I swore to myself years ago that if I ever went to Georgia, I would go to the Georgia Aquarium. It is the largest in the world, and houses my three favorite undersea animals. Unfortunately, it costs $25.

I grudgingly paid the fee—the equivalent of 200 miles of gas—and walked into a swarm of tiny feet and strollers. The aquarium was packed thanks to Memorial Day weekend, but everything else is as advertised. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Th aquarium allows you to get underneath the exhibit, or in this case, the Whale Shark.

I grew up watching Beluga's at the Coney Island aquarium in New York, so they rank as my third favorite sea creature.

They wont eat you, but they have more muscle than your car does metal, so I can only imagine what happens if they crash into you.

This is a Manta Ray.

After walking around for two hours in the aquarium, I got tired and went back to my car for an hour’s nap. Having already consented to being a tourist, I thought I’d take the CNN tour and see what professional experience I might be able to gain for $15. The tour itself was pretty uneventful, but a movie shown at the end projected Anderson Cooper on the wall saying: “I got into journalism because I wanted to travel the world and be present when history happened.” I think he’s being honest, because most people say things like: “To bring the truth to the people.” Or something along those lines.

His phrase is interesting to me for two reasons. One, its not about the news, it’s about him. Anderson Cooper responded to the question: ‘why become a journalist?’ with an honest, self interested answer. I think that’s awesome, because although I’m sure there are a few journalists who quest about every day trying to bring truth to the people, I’m pretty sure most of them love being on TV, or being able to travel for free, or feeling like they are a part of something bigger than themselves as they cover war, disaster, and celebration around the World. All these reasons are great, but seldom said since they are self interested answers.

The second reason I find Cooper’s answer interesting is because I agree with it. I have never really thought about why every time I went home for a school break I started writing and pitching. I figured it was convenient, not that difficult, often fun, and it’s always nice to have an editor’s approval. It makes me feel like maybe I’ll make it out there. That is likely true, but certainly is not grounds for a profession, so I never really thought much about professional journalism. Yet, Cooper is right. If I want to factor in the course of history in any way, or travel as much as I hope to do, I will need to be VERY rich. Have millions to spare rich. Those odds are slim. Of course, so are the odds of becoming a successful enough travel writer to make a living; but it makes me think about it a little more seriously.

I don't recall taking this shot, but here it is, inside CNN.

After touring CNN’s headquarters I resolved to find a pool. It was 96 degrees and humid as hell (which I imagine being less hot and more humid.) Either that or find some people to talk to. By chance, I picked up an Atlanta Now magazine which detailed the 25 best things to do in Atlanta this May in a hotel I was scoping out for a pool. One caught my eye, so I went back to the car and drove to Atlanta’s less endowed area.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta. He got his start preaching at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and his tomb is a block away. Now the Martin Luther King National Historical Site, the Auburn Avenue area just a mile from downtown Atlanta had signs that read: “Lock your valuables in the trunk.”  I pulled into a near empty parking lot around 4:30, thankfully behind the Memorial Day crowds.

I explore the exhibit. A whole room is devoted to Dr. King’s death and funeral service, complete with the cart that carried him home. The soft pitch of soulful, sad, singing plays on the speakers. I start to cry. I have not cried since my boyhood rival kicked me in the head with a soccer ball in sixth grade. I have teared up a few times at emotional moments since, but never actually cried. Not for any macho reason, but simply because It was never come easily to me. Yet there I was, inexplicably crying in a room full of only African-Americans, looking at pictures of the man who delivered them and their parents from segregation. Then I start laughing, recognizing the irony of my tears and their silence. Then I think it’s best to leave.

I walk out into the garden and sit down. I still have no idea what came over me. I grew up with a father who marched with Dr. King and my middle and high school’s celebrated MLK Day with vigor, but he has been dead for almost 45 years, and I’m pretty sure I have known that for about ten. I ponder further while walking over to the church. I pass a family with a wizened old matriarch in front, two tall middle aged ladies, a skinny teenage boy, and a large deep-voiced father. We say hello, good morning, how are you and I keep walking. Then I start crying again. This worries me. If I cry every time I see a black person from now on, things will get rough. All of a sudden I snap myself out of it and realize why I have been acting like a child.

The tears are not tears of sadness for Dr. King’s death or how much of his legacy is left to manifest, but tears of joy. I’m standing there, in a room alone with African-American families, and everything is perfectly fine. We are there together, memorializing the man who, though a hero to me, was much more to them in a way I will never understand. I started crying because I was not only allowed to participate in remembering Dr. King, but was welcomed by everyone there.

The cart which carried King's coffin.

Even though I was not born during the movement, part of my family owned slaves, and nobody there knew my father worked hard to end segregation, I was welcomed. The scene was an experience made possible by Dr. King, and shows that although there is much to be done, the world is a better place for his efforts.

Later, I felt like a burden had been lifted, almost as if being able to cry side by side with people whose ancestors my family might have “owned” gave me a feeling of forgiveness. The act of welcoming me to honor their preacher, was like saying: “Join us in promoting love and peace, and we can forget the evils your family committed.”

Of course, this forgiveness was all in my head, and should not be seen as freedom from the evils I unwittingly commit by being part of a privileged class or as a sign that we don’t have that much work to do after all. Yet it was a tangible feeling, so if you ever find yourself in Atlanta, the site is completely free and the experience is powerful.

If you only have time to do one thing, skip the aquarium, the Braves game, and the CNN center, go to the Martin Luther King Nat. Historical Site.

Not sure why the pictures at the end of my posts keep being reptiles, but in the spirit of tradition: The Albino Alligator

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5 responses to “Of Whale Sharks, Anderson Cooper, and Forgiveness: Atlanta, Georgia

  1. Great post, especially about the King Memorial. I know just how you felt – I had a similar experience after pulling the lever for Obama with my kids.

    Talk to some people! You’re making me lonely just reading this!

    Enjoy and keep up the great writing.

    • I’m glad someone else knows what I’m talking about, because I still cannot believe it happened myself. Your also the second person to say that the post made you feel lonely, not my intention! I’ll try and see if I can’t do a little better in that department.

      Hope school finishes strong.

      John

  2. Albino Alligator. Is it real? what kind of glass ar ethey using that holds up a Whale Shark and all that water. Amazing experience at MLK museum. NYT has a story on the kids of memories young kids remember. I suspect this MLK visit will be one you remember and tell your kids about.

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