Clayton County is a beautiful place.
You don't hear a lot of affection for this county. It often seems like the fat and pimply kid alone in the cafeteria, wishing everyone would just stop looking.
It's like we're the New Jersey of the region, vaguely gross, probably polluted, and our children are expected to be born with 17 eyes. Polite people call this county "colorful," or say we have "larger-than-life characters," or they say something sort of sociological about the clash of the "New South" and the old.
When I first came to the county, two and a half years ago, I spent a lot of time asking people to "tell me the story of the county." Almost always, the story concluded with us on the verge of an awful end, tilting into a swamp of violence and racism, bitterness and ego, corruption, apathy and hopelessness.
The stories almost never showed the county in a middle stage, going through the bumps of a transition. Just saying "this isn't the end -- it's just a period in a long history," was seen as ridiculously optimistic. Some people care about this county, though. They care a lot. But I don't know I've heard many say Clayton is a beautiful place.
It is. Maybe not like you'd put on a postcard, but it is. I know, because I've gotten to see it. I've seen the vast flatness of the fifth runway, and the old rock dam where the Indians fished 5,000 years ago. I've seen the concealed field of cotton, growing in a hollow in Hampton, and the Hindu temple standing like a surprise on the side of the Riverdale highway.
I've seen the vaulted glass domes in the county courthouse, the police station and the airport, and I've seen the open glass ceiling at the headquarters libraries. I've seen black funerals and white funerals, and the way communities come together. I've seen Butch's, the almost unchanged chicken-and-catfish restaurnat, and I've seen Flavors of Thailand, the most authentic Thai food place in the whole metro area.
Clayton County won't throw itself at you. It won't give itself away. These are secrets. But this county is beautiful, if you look. It's beautiful if you look at the small businesses owned by those who were stationed at Ft. Gillem, the exotic fish shop in Forest Park or the coffee shop in Lovejoy. It's beautiful if you hear the high schools' marching bands play one after another, or stand at the top of Tara Stadium as everyone cheers.
I think Clayton County is beautiful when I see the lines of poll workers carry their machines into the counting bunker on election day. I think it's beautiful when I see the semi trucks idle in the early morning at the Atlanta State Farmers Market. I like to watch the cranes building elevated tracks to the airport, in College Park, and watch people pick out produce at Super H Mart, in Riverdale. I like to watch this newspaper bundled and thrown out on the loading dock in the middle of the night, in Jonesboro.
Don't tell me I don't know. I've seen enough of this county's ugliness to give me nightmares for years. I've seen enough to wonder, sometimes, if there is a God.
But despite all that, beyond all that, this can be an amazing and beautiful place. Go see the basketball courts in Jonesboro, on a summer evening. Go see Blalock Lake, when the fishing starts. Go see the library, when the school children forget to be quiet. Go see the dinosaur at the airport, at the beginning of the month when they dust his old bones.
Close your eyes hard enough, you can hear Clayton County singing.
Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.