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  • Writer's picture'Bukunmi Ajani

THE HOODS OF DOWNTOWN ATLANTA ARE MORE PERILOUS THAN THE “HOOD” I CAME FROM IN NIGERIA

By 'Bukunmi Ajani





“The reality hit me clearer than ever. I wasn’t in Nigeria anymore.”



I heard the buzz around 11 a.m. It came from my cell phone. I looked at it and realized that the alarm was actually an emergency alert, sent by a government law enforcement agency, to warn the public that there was an active shooter in my neighborhood. I live in a central and often busy part of town. Until then, the day had been calm and uneventful. But that alarm changed everything. 


Fortunately, I was inside, but that did little to calm the increasing fear inside me. The whereabouts of this person were unknown and they could have been anywhere! I looked out of my apartment window. Helicopters!  I saw them flying over and I watched the police cars surrounding the neighborhood while blaring sirens.


The reality hit me clearer than ever. I wasn’t in Nigeria anymore. 


Life In The Calm Of My Home In Ile-Ife, Nigeria

Picture this: a teenage girl living in a quiet university staff quarter in southwestern Nigeria. Her home is a small bungalow apartment, shared with her parents and two siblings. The air is still and serene, surrounded by huge deciduous trees that have been there longer than anyone I know has been alive. Every morning you hear birds perched on these ancient branches, chirping and singing sweet, repetitive melodies. That was my life back in Ile-Ife, Nigeria



“I was not very exposed to life beyond the walls of Obafemi Awolowo University.”



In the typical Nigerian household I grew up in, there was a salient expectation to succeed academically. It is not uncommon to hear parents in a fit of emotions and perhaps dashed hopes say when their child is not performing academically as well as they could be, “Does so-so and so have two heads?!” My parents didn’t have to do much of that, we were all doing remarkably well in school. Every term, my siblings would proudly submit report cards with first positions, while I often landed somewhere between third and fifth place; although it wasn't a bad placement, I used to think of myself as the less serious one.  



Sunset at my home in Nigeria, August 2021



Growing up, I lived a pretty contained lifestyle:  home, school, church, repeat every week. All these places were located within the university campus where both of my parents were faculty members. My siblings and I shared a small Volkswagen Golf car to drive everywhere we needed to be. Our church was a ten to fifteen minutes drive from home and was located in an area on campus where several religious organizations had set up their places of worship. There was a mosque and so many churches: Anglican, Catholic and a whole lot of Pentecostal churches. My church was a branch of one of the most popular Pentecostal church movements in Nigeria known as the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG). Services were very spirited and vibrant. People would come garbed in their Sunday best - fancy gele head ties and sprawling agbadas, and would dance heartily during praise and worship sessions. I was involved as a Sunday school teacher, teaching pre-teens. 





A typical sunday service at my home church, Photos retrieved from: RCCG King’s court OAU Facebook page



The university staff housing where we lived was located a few miles away from the main campus. Residential buildings were named according to roads and houses. Thousands of families lived in this space and I knew many of our neighbors. It was a relatively close-knit community. My siblings and I went to school together with some of our neighbor’s children, from the university's primary staff school to secondary school, and even to the university level. Parents developed close relationships with each other sometimes through their children’s friendships. I remember times when we would carpool with some of our neighbors to school. We attended each other’s birthdays, graduation ceremonies and many other celebrations of the milestones in each other’s lives. 



Views of the University campus and staff quarters, 1975. Photos retrieved from: Flickr


I’d always been more of a homebody so, outside of the classroom, I engaged in very limited extracurricular activities. As a result, I was not very exposed to life beyond the walls of Obafemi Awolowo University. We would periodically go into the relatively small town outside campus as a family to buy stuff from the markets or to visit extended family, but I rarely ventured out alone. Ile-Ife, the town where the university is located, and where I grew up, was about three hours from the noisy metropolis in Nigeria called Lagos: the most populated city in Africa. I was not a big fan of Lagos. I often wondered how people survived such an intense, round-the-clock life. The momentum of the city was fast-paced and if you wasted too much time, you would be pushed aside. Lagos is a city that never sleeps. Whenever we visited Lagos, we would spend unending hours in traffic, and I would observe through the car windows the sheer ingenuity of Nigerians selling everything in traffic — and I mean everything!  A mobile shoe repair factory, artwork, a large transparent glass of snacks hoisted on a person's head, extension boxes, and even home-cooked meals, these sellers deftly maneuvered through traffic with a precision and pace that was nothing short of impressive. I never wished to live in Lagos and always dreamed of a quieter suburban life. 



The bustling streets of Lagos

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto, retrieved from New York Magazine


Looking For New Experiences Abroad

After my four-year undergraduate studies in sociology and anthropology at Obafemi Awolowo University, I started applying to graduate schools abroad as I believed that would expose me to diverse cultures and provide a richer educational experience. The United States was a top choice for me, so I drafted and sent in applications to some programs and with nail-biting anticipation, waited for the results. 


“...another part of me was anxious because if Atlanta was anything like Lagos…”


The day I got the mail that I had been admitted with a scholarship to study at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I was elated and basked in that air of victory for days unending. I started doing bits of research before leaving the country and came across a Wikipedia article that described the city of Atlanta as a “sister city” of Lagos. Lagos! That city I dreaded so much. Now I did not know the criteria to categorize sister cities, but I took that information to mean Atlanta had a fast-paced outlook, similar to Lagos. Part of me was overflowing with enthusiasm at the idea of leaving Nigeria and exploring an entirely new culture, but another part of me was anxious because if Atlanta was anything like Lagos, I had to adjust from my small town, contained lifestyle, I have to somehow develop an adept street savvy ness, and learn how to navigate life in the fast lane. At least I had an idea of what to expect.



Leaving Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, Nigeria, December 2021


Welcome To Atlanta

I arrived in Atlanta on Christmas Day in 2021 at about 5 am. The early morning air was crisp, and I held on tighter to my okrika winter jacket as I loaded my bags and boxes into the boot of a car. I was grateful for the advice I got from family and friends before boarding to wear multiple layers of clothes. We drove, literally gliding through the roads from the Hartsfield Jackson International Airport to an apartment in Midtown Atlanta. I looked outside the car window and marveled at the tall skyscrapers illuminated with bright lights. As we moved closer into the city, glittering  Christmas lights and decorations were wrapped around trees and buildings, it did feel a little surreal. 



“...this other side of America that I didn’t hear about back home in Nigeria.”




Atlanta City Skyline


As I settled into this new life, I geared up for the upcoming school term in January by taking a test visit to the university campus. I did not want to be scrambling around on the first day of class. I bought a $2 MARTA ticket at the train station and after a bit of confused effort trying to figure out which way was northbound or southbound, I boarded the train to downtown Atlanta. In less than fifteen minutes, I was at the Five Points station, and if I walked fast enough, I only had to walk for about 10 minutes to get to my department. My university is not a traditional campus setting where everything is organized in one central location. Georgia State University’s colleges and department buildings are interspersed within the downtown cityscape such that you encounter office buildings, hotels, grocery stores, and restaurants as you make your way to school. This means that you also encounter the realities of a fast-paced, neo-liberal, modern-day economy.



Downtown Atlanta, January 2022



“Similar to Lagos, you do not waste time walking through downtown Atlanta.”



In the early days, navigating through the campus was not easy and I had to depend on Google Maps which did not help so much. I got lost multiple times and sometimes walked for about 30 minutes for an actual 10-minute distance — feeling very much like the Israelites on their exodus. I took it in good stride as an opportunity to learn about the city and in a short time, I developed more accurate mental maps to help me maneuver through the bustling metropolis. I also quickly became adept at minding my business and walking very fast to avoid unpalatable encounters.  Similar to Lagos, you do not waste time walking through downtown Atlanta.


"But this reality of homelessness and glaring lack in America’s land of plenty shocked me."


The first time I stepped out of Five Points train station, I had to recalibrate my mind, wondering about this other side of America I hadn’t heard about back home in Nigeria. The air was slightly putrid and coming out of the station, there was a lot of noise, sometimes from speakers booming music or simply from traffic. It is not unusual to see homeless people around this area, someone asking for some dollars or someone looking unkempt and talking loudly to themselves. Typically, they go about carrying loads of their personal belongings. Living in make-shift homes made of cardboard and other discarded materials, they slept on the roadside, in train stations, and on street corners. At first, I was scared. I’d never seen this many homeless people back home. Some of them appeared mentally disturbed, too. But I soon realized that many of them were harmless. I pitied their situation and gave some of them a few dollars when I first arrived in Atlanta. When I opened a bank account, I did not go about carrying cash anymore. I often wondered about the cashless economy and how it made it more difficult to lend a helping hand to people who truly needed one. My biggest culture shock was not the weather — Atlanta’s weather is perfect! Nor the people, as Atlanta is known as the “Black Mecca” of the United States and I felt easily at home. But this reality of homelessness and glaring lack in America’s land of plenty shocked me. 



“Atlanta was the embodiment of the city life I had always wanted to avoid...”



Finding My Space In An Unfamiliar Place

Atlanta’s crime rate was also a big surprise to me. The amber alerts sent to announce a child abduction and the email notifications disseminated by the university to inform the students about crimes that had occurred near the campus scared me. The university even provides active shooter response trainings where people are taught how to respond to unexpected threats. Students are warned to: 


“Hold your belongings firmly as you walk around, and at night, always walk with a friend or a group of friends.” 


Your eyes and ears have to be open. In popular Nigerian parlance, you have to shine your eye. Atlanta was the embodiment of the city life I had always wanted to avoid, and on particularly stressful days I longed for the familiar song of the birds and the canopy of trees back at the serene university quarters back home in Nigeria. Nevertheless, this city life has taught me a lot and has its charm. I have learned to appreciate the diversity of experiences that a cosmopolitan city can provide. On a typical day in downtown Atlanta, you encounter people from all walks of life, a beautiful potpourri of cultures. I smile to myself whenever I hear someone speak loudly in Yorùbá over the phone, I almost want to reach out and say “báwo ni” but again, you cannot be too careful on these streets, because in cities you learn to mind your business, or maybe I have just become somewhat paranoid. 


The streets back home are quiet and crime rates are almost nil. I recall days when I would take walks late into the night, but here in Atlanta, I don’t feel comfortable being outside past 8 p.m. It’s interesting to see how people back home walk at a slower, more deliberate pace compared to the fast-paced and calculated stride you often see on the streets of Atlanta. 


America is a land filled with immense opportunities; it is also a place where you see stark inequalities play out exactly because of this. Beyond the city lights and the gliding roads, there are ground-level, not-so-fancy realities. These days, I am learning to enjoy the beauties and complexities of life in the city and find some semblance of a quiet place in certain spaces. For instance, I like going to libraries like the Fulton Library where you get to enjoy a beautiful space with access to a broad range of titles. I also enjoy browsing through books at Georgia Tech’s Barnes & Noble bookstore located a few minutes away from my apartment, after which I would often stop to grab a cup of coffee at Starbucks. One of my favorite pastimes is visiting museums and galleries like the High Museum of Art in midtown Atlanta. I also love attending events at an African art gallery in downtown Atlanta called aKAZI, where I conducted my master’s thesis research. I appreciate the contemplative ambience and sense of community that these spaces have to offer. Thankfully, Atlanta has tons of these kinds of “third spaces” and I hope to explore more as the days go by. I am finding my place here. 


And slowly, but surely, Atlanta is winning my heart. 



At the Georgia Museum of Art, January 2024




’Bukunmi Ajani is an MA Student of Anthropology at Georgia State University. She enjoys visual arts, creative writing, and reading African fiction.

Instagram @Kunmi_asa

Twitter @Kunmiie 


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Guest
6 days ago
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Beautiful article. Love it❤❤

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Guest
May 10
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Beautifully written

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Guest
May 10
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

This is beautifully explained, well done sis

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Guest
May 10
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great job sis 🥰. This article really put me on my toes. The blend of different locations is amazing 🖤. I also enjoy the nostalgic nature and the comparison.

JESUDARASIMI AJANI.

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Guest
May 10
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

How splendidly nostalgic and engaging. Awesome read B!

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