This piece originally appeared in issue #52 of our Gravy quarterly (“Where We Eat”).
I grew up in the country. On fourteen acres of red Georgia clay, cut by gullies and skirted by cedars. I grew up fishtailing down gravel roads in pick-ups. And running barefoot through honeysuckle patches. Out in those boonies, I developed an urban crush. After a fitful college run through Athens, I hightailed it for Atlanta and made a life in a neighborhood near the city core.
I could walk to two Indian restaurants, a bookstore, and a co-op grocery. I pinch-hit on the softball team of my neighborhood bar. I became the worst sort of city snob: an arriviste. I was quick to dismiss my country birth and even quicker to declaim life in the white-flight suburbs, which I considered a homogenous wasteland, absent of sentient folk and sidewalks.
But then I fell hard for Buford Highway, the multicultural corridor that spirals north out of the city, from the strip-mall suburbs to the mega-mall exurbs. A five-lane gauntlet of nail salons, taquerias, foot-massage parlors, dim-sum houses, squat apartment complexes, and pupusa drive-thrus, Buford Highway, like much of suburban Atlanta, was built for whites escaping blacks. Now colonized by new immigrants, it’s a salad bowl suburb, in the parlance of Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett, a kind of culinary Pangaea where Korea abuts Mexico and Vietnam snuggles up to Bosnia.
You have to look with fresh eyes to see the beauty in the strip-mall South. But it’s there. In double-decker shopping centers, once anchored by Circuit City and Toys R Us, now home to big-box international groceries that sell fresh mullet for a buck-fifty a pound. At two-story barbecue temples, fronted by mirrored panes of glass, where Korean women cook beef short ribs over charcoal braziers. At Chinese cafés where Guatemalan cooks work back-of-the-stove pots and and fryer baskets, boiling star anise–perfumed peanuts and turning out gingered catfish. In the suburbs of Atlanta and Charlotte, in Houston and Little Rock, in Jacksonville and Richmond, the newest of New Souths awaits.