Atlanta terrified me growing up. It's like the Mordor of the American South.
Small-town kids like me viewed Atlanta as a pavement-wrapped empire of corruption, seething with inner-city crime and rainbow flag-waving liberals. It was a big ol' concrete enclave of urbanism in a vast expanse of Southern cotton fields, sweet tea hamlets, and church steeples.
To many in the South, Atlanta is only good for five things:
1. Passing through to get to your grandmother's house in one of the Carolinas.
2. Braves games.
3. The Varsity.
4. Reminding everyone that the South hosted the Olympics which is proof of how cosmopolitan and cultured we are.
5. The airport.
Oh . . . and traffic. That awful traffic they have over there!
Listening to your average Southerner talk about Atlanta traffic, you'd think it was a dystopian plague threatening man's very existence. You'd think there were no actual citizens living in the city of Atlanta, only anthropomorphized demon-cars idling in an endless vat of highways, honking their horns day and night. And everyone in the South has a story about how they drove through Atlanta once that sounds something like this . . .
Well . . . we were drivin' through there 'round lunch time and lo and behold, traffic just came to a screeching halt! A traffic jam IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY! Betty . . . CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?!?!
*shakes head in disgust*
I couldn't live there—uh uh, no ma'am—I just couldn't do it.
Despite my hesitations about Atlanta, I was super-excited to move there in the summer of 2009.
Home prices had plummeted, and I had no chance of selling the wood-paneled condo in Nashville, so I rented it to a few friends. I found a cheap apartment with a couple buddies in Dunwoody, one of Atlanta's nicer northern suburbs.
My company's corporate office back then was very small and only had space for 7-10 people maybe.
It was a tiny, rented storefront in a cheap suburban office-plex. The back door of the office led to a big cavernous, non-air conditioned warehouse where we stored all of the inventory for our fundraisers. There was a sign shop next to us run by a really sweet Korean family. And a Chipotle was close by, so that was good.
I shared an office with one other guy, and they'd set up a little white IKEA desk in the corner before I got there. I'd never had a real office with a real desk. We worked out of my condo or a little storage unit back in Nashville.
I'd led a team of about five in Nashville but only had one team member in my new role in Atlanta, a guy from Guatemala named JC. JC was a wizard at video stuff—editing, motion graphics, etc. I didn't know JC really well but had heard he did some work on the Chronicles of Narnia movie, so that was impressive.
I moved to Atlanta feeling quite disgraced.
I was Napoleon and Nashville was my Waterloo. All the confidence and gusto and ego of my former life had just been slaughtered in Nashville. I've heard that men derive their sense of identity and masculinity from their jobs. Pretty sure I did that.
I had failed. There was no denying that. Sure, the economy didn't help, but how could I explain others in my same role having success in other cities? I couldn't. I just had to accept it: I. Had. Failed.
And there is something particularly painful about failing when you know you gave it your best shot, when you know you gave 100 percent.
That was my Nashville experience for me. I had been entrusted to grow a new market of our business, and it didn't work. The leader had failed . . . I had failed.
Tragically, the jump from "I failed" to "I am a failure" is often a short one. We take an experience that was
and internalize it as our part of our identity, as an appendage of our soul.
Humans are very prone to this . . .
We mull the failed moment. We let it replay in our minds. We stick it in a little crockpot and let its smell fill our homes and nostrils. We get out a ladle and take a sip and swish it around in our mouths. We let it enter us. Each day we come back, and we taste it again to make sure it's as bad as we remember it. Revisiting a failed moment is weirdly comforting because it affirms our deep, deep belief that we don't have what it takes. And humans love feeling right about their beliefs even if they are tragically wrong.
Nashville was this way for me. The pain of failure was new to me then, and early failures carry more permanence.
Some failures are like a sticker on a kid's T-shirt that eventually loses its sticky and falls in the floor.
Other failures feel like tattoos, hanging around until you pay a lot of money to a bald guy in a lab coat to laser it off.
And still other failures feel like brands seared deep into the soft flesh of our souls. After the initial pain, they scab over, then scar over. And looking at it each day, we get used to it. It begins to look more like a birthmark than a brand. And we may even forget that it was put on us. We may forget life before it. We may forget that failed moments aren't supposed to stay with us forever. After all, it was just a moment. And moments never last.
When I walked around that corporate office, I felt like I had a big FAILURE brand seared right into my forehead. I felt like everyone must have known that my Plan A had flopped, and I was now the un-proud proprietor of a Plan B. I carried a little bit of shame into that office each day.
Failure has a way of messing with our identities.
I know that's what it did to me. Before Nashville, I was a leader. I knew I was a leader. people told me I was a leader. I'd been a leader in every season of life. But . . .
Leaders don't fail like that, Brett. You've read John Maxwell: "Everything rises and falls on leadership." Nashville fell Brett, and that was on you. You must not be a leader.
I remember when I was going through this, I asked my boss if I could go buy a nice DSLR camera . . . one of the big ones with all the lenses.
I didn't know photography, but I thought I could learn, and the company needed one anyway. He agreed.
At the time, our company did lots of events. And at every event then, you'd see me flitting about snapping pictures of everyone. Years later, I'd realize this was all a reaction to feeling like a failure. I didn't feel like I had been adding any value so I thought that if I took pictures, that would be valuable. That was a safe way to add value to the company I had let down. It was a way to feel needed.
But I know now it was really a form of hiding. Hiding behind that camera gave me something to do at those events and it helped me avoid people asking, "So what happened in Nashville, Brett?" I think it also helped me avoid the dating question. I had lots of layers of insecurity back then.
Not long after I moved to Atlanta, some of the guys I worked with went to a local park to play flag football.
I'd played football in high school and was still in decent shape, so this sounded like fun. Our company had a lot of good athletes, so I knew it'd be pretty competitive, but I'd always been able to hold my own.
When we got out to the field, I realized I'd not picked up a football in years . . . since college probably. One of the guys tossed me a ball and then darted out for a pass. I pulled my arm back and let it fly. That thing wobbled and wavered through the air, and landed about 15 feet short. He gave me a funny little look then looked away. I could tell he didn't want to say anything to avoid embarrassing me.
I was confused . . .
I grabbed another football and gave it a fling. Same thing.
Another football. Another wobbly, misdirected throw.
What in the world, Brett? You've unlearned how to throw a football.
How was this possible? I could throw a perfect spiral in high school. I could do it in college too. Was it even possible to unlearn how to throw a football? Wouldn't it be just like riding a bike? You can't unlearn riding a bike.
We played football that afternoon, and I kept trying to get my throw back. Finally, one of the guys noticed and loudly yelled:
Trapp, you throw a football like you're throwing a pancake!
He laughed. And so did I . . . awkwardly. Even though I knew he didn't mean anything by it, I was super embarrassed. The head chatter began . . .
Brett, what self-respecting Southern man can't throw a football?
I'll tell you—a gay one.
You're slowly turning into that, Brett, and this is proof. How do you unlearn how to throw a football? You don't. And if you do, it's because deep down you know you're not a real man. You're a fake. All this manly stuff was just you trying to make the world believe you are something you're not.
Nashville proved you aren't a leader, and now this proves you aren't a man. What the hell are you then, Brett?
And to be honest, I didn't know how to answer that question. I didn't know who I was . . . or what I was. My own reflection felt blurry.
And when you aren't sure who you are, it makes you miss simpler days.
I missed Florence and the people I went to church with. I missed the Florence mall and buying baseball cards at Rarities. I missed the chicken tenders at Court Street Cafe after church on Sundays. I missed the Renaissance Faire every October in Wilson Park. I missed my mom. And I missed my dad.
I missed Birmingham and my little apartment in Homewood. I missed playing Halo with Joseph and shouting at the TV. I missed running on that trail along Lakeshore Drive. I missed making drinks at Chris's apartment and then nights out at Inisfree. I missed my Booster Birmingham team and my boss there who encouraged me and gave me all the answers.
I even missed Nashville . . . or at least those early idealistic days when it was so hopeful. I missed the old economy. I even missed those wood paneled walls, a reminder that I was once a successful adult who could afford to buy a house.
I missed those Bretts . . . 👊
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.