In Them , Nathan McCall’s debut novel (Atria Books, 338 pages, $25) , the title refers both to the black residents of one Atlanta inner-city ward and the young white “urban homesteaders” who are moving in, snapping up properties, and literally changing the neighborhood’s complexion. They might mean well, but in this uneasy tale of gentrification the road to hell is paved with good intentions, lined with reasonably priced fixer-uppers, and blessed with fine architectural details and a great view of downtown.
The close-in Old Fourth Ward may be shabby, but it’s been home to generations of Atlanta black families. Suddenly it’s on real-estate agents’ radar (they follow the gay pride flags), and overnight the Old Fourth’s oil-drum barbecues and dice games are being replaced by Labradors and jogging strollers. The new folks see themselves as pioneers…but the longtime residents see them as colonizers.
Taciturn renter Barlowe Reed has lived in the Old Fourth Ward for years and dreams of buying his house, but all the sales are going to people like his new neighbors Sean and Sandy Gilmore, the latest ex-suburbanites on the block. Barlowe and Sandy attempt a sort of back-fence acquaintanceship (much to Sean’s disapproval), but the gulf between their perceptions and experiences is just too wide.
“I can’t win,” wails Sandy, after Barlowe questions her motivations one too many times. “You already won,” he informs her, going back inside.
Meanwhile, the Seans and Sandys can’t help but turn their new neighborhood into a boutique district of pottery shops and spendy bistros, all the while stroking themselves for their “diversity.” With each new arrival, the Old Fourth looks more like the suburbs the Gilmores left behind; with each new departure, the authentic community is diminished. The improvement in city services that follows the arrival of the whites—freshly paved roads, police patrols—is particularly infuriating to the long-neglected locals. And marching ever closer: condominiums.
By the time the local mini-mart, a decades-old neighborhood hangout, becomes a latte joint catering to dreadlocked white creative-class types, Them takes on the inexorable pull of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing —the only question is what the flashpoint will be, and who will be hurt by novel’s end.
McCall draws his characters with a broad pen (with the exception of Barlowe), and includes some heavy-handed symbolism involving a cote of homing pigeons on a back porch. But there’s something to make readers wince with recognition in every chapter; when a pair of clueless white residents approach an elderly black man, petitions in hand for a new bike path the old man couldn’t care less about, McCall’s Atlanta feels uncomfortably like our Alberta.
READ: Nathan McCall reads from Them at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm Friday, Jan. 18. Free.