I fly into Atlanta and immediately drive out of Atlanta, through that mess of municipalities I can never categorize; are they suburbs? neighborhoods? cities? Does anyone know or care? A man stands begging in the traffic at a busy stoplight. He holds a little scrap of a sign that says something like, “A long way from home.” I roll down my window and hand him a few dollars and he says something “Thank you, beautiful, God bless you” and I say something like “Good luck” but I am thinking, “We’re all a long way from home.”
I am going to Rome, in what the Georgia Department of Economic Development calls the Historic High Country. There is a storm gathering, a warning breeze cutting through the Southern heat. I force my reluctant rental car up a hill in a district of quiet streets and pretty houses. I keep going, up and up, until I think the unfamiliar gear shift won’t let me drive any higher. But the car makes it, just barely, and I walk through a little park to the brick clocktower that looks out over the city.
Georgia’s Rome was named for ancient Rome; it has seven hills with three rivers winding between them. It also has a Forum (a concert and event venue), and a collection of ethnic restaurants (Thai, Italian, Mexican, “New York Style” pizza), that seem to nod at its namesake empire from the foothills of Appalachia. In front of City Hall there is a replica of the Capitoline Wolf, a gift from the governor of Rome in 1929, “by a signed order of the Italian Dictator, Benito Mussolini,” the city’s website explains. Close up, Romulus and Remus look surprisingly authentically babyish, with round cheeks and pudgy stubby legs. A plaque on the statue’s base says, “From Ancient Rome to New Rome.” When it was first unveiled here, many residents appreciated its artistry. But some were “offended by it and felt it was shocking and not something to be viewed by ladies and children.” Sometimes, when crowds of people came into town for an event, diapers were placed on the sculpted babies for propriety. In 1933, one of the babies was “kidnapped” and never found, but “another twin was sent from Italy to replace the missing one.” The statue was removed for its own safety when Italy declared war, but in 1952 it was returned. At the time, people must have imagined Fascism had been vanquished. The memory of Mussolini, with his ranting speeches punctuated by peculiar little hand movements, must have been fading into the past as America charged forward.
Downtown Rome looks much like every other historic downtown I have found myself in this year. There is an 1920s movie theatre called the DeSoto, and block after block of small storefronts, no two alike. Children play in little fountains, couples sit on benches, and before I turn off the car radio, cheesy songs about Jesus seep through the speakers. It could be almost any year, and almost any place. In the pre-thunderstorm heat, I could be walking through a small town in the South, or the Midwest, or even the Northeast. It’s not till I see a few palm trees in a neatly landscaped parking lot that I remember I’m in Georgia, and not some charming but generic American Anywhere.
The city becomes more interesting, and more itself, when I turn to walk along the narrow streets that run behind the storefronts. Here, where painted brick walls are adorned only with gas meters, and garbage bins stand by back doors, I catch glimpses into the alleys between the restaurants. Here, by the river, where no one else is walking, I think of the first Rome and its network of pipes and aqueducts, the hidden infrastructure that connected an empire. I remember that the decagonal brick clocktower on the hill above this Rome, which looks like an iconic decoration, a folly, conceals the city’s old water supply tank.
I recall a theory my memory may have twisted over time. It went something like, “Optimists believe America is like Athens; pessimists believe America is like Rome.” As a would-be optimist who was once so obsessed with ancient Greece that I studied its elegant, frustrating, dead language, I sided with Athens. Now I can’t see how either city’s fate is one modern America would wish for. Georgia has an Athens too, a crowded college town I spent an hour in and instantly decided I didn’t care for. In Georgia terms, at least, I like Rome better. If America is falling – if we crumble, torn apart from within by incompetent leaders, cheapened by general corruption and cultural decline, breached by invaders, decimated by disease – I suppose there are worse fates than ending up like Georgia’s Rome. It’s quiet here, at least; it’s peaceful. There are little fountains and sidewalk tables. The people strolling around the clocktower don’t even seem to notice the coming storm.