When I moved to Atlanta in my mid-20s, I got a sweet surprise. Up north, I had always had plenty in common with the women around me, Jewish and otherwise. There was always another chatterbox with fuzzy black hair; another argumentative proto-feminist with activist pretensions. I perpetually reminded someone of their friend from high school.
But in Atlanta, I was suddenly exotic. Or at least, I felt exotic. If Atlanta is not much of a Southern city (at least to Southerners), it was Southern enough for me: there were women in flowered dresses, with drawling vowels and a femininity alien to a New Yorker. At the industrial real estate company where I worked, another secretary confided how much she’d enjoyed her time as a sorority girl at Georgia State, circling the fat on freshman pledges in black marker. I opened a drawer to find that my roommate was storing a gun. At the rape crisis hotline where I volunteered, the other trainees (born-again Christian Junior Leaguers) were so stridently polite I initially took their friendliness for sarcasm.
It felt fantastic. At last, I didn’t belong. Victimization is bad, but outsider hood? Very few of us really outgrow the craving for specialness—even if growing up means recognizing that that craving is just another quality we share with the rest of the world. In all my favorite childhood books, the heroines had red hair: Caddie Woodlawn, Anne of Green Gables, Pippi Long stocking. It was a metaphor for uniqueness, passion and oddness. (Also available in Manic Panic!) In Atlanta, for a while, I had the equivalent. Like membership, outsiderhood has its privileges: the sense of one’s individuality sharpening, outlined in the black marker of those around you.
Emily Nussbaum is the culture editor at New York Magazine. Her writing has been published in the New York Times, Slate, and Nerve.