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“I like to reminisce with people I don’t know. Granted, it takes longer.”, Steven Wright
In mid-September, I went home for five days. Or rather, I went back to Atlanta, where I grew up from the age of four until I went to college. “Home” is a squidgy concept to an expat living abroad.
I’ve lived in the UK for more than 20 years. My wife is Scottish. She and our two children all have red hair. (I do not.) Driving to my nearest beach takes five minutes; from Atlanta, it took five hours. For various reasons, I have struggled to form close friendships with people in Britain. But I love being here.
I traveled to Atlanta for the wedding of one of my dearest friends. Grant and I went to high school together: we were on the academic team together, went on an exchange trip to Germany together. He visited me for several weeks when I lived in Campbeltown, in remotest Argyll, in the summer of 2002. Strangely, and entirely coincidentally, he became a Tottenham fan around the same time I started supporting Arsenal. But if we’re rivals in soccer, we’re allies regarding the Atlanta Braves, the Atlanta Hawks, and – especially – the Atlanta Falcons.
WHEN I FEEL MOST AMERICAN
I suppose I now feel most American when I’m watching American sports on television. I vividly remember flipping channels in Campbeltown back in December 2002, shortly after acquiring my first satellite dish and Sky television subscription, and discovering to my shock and delight that the SEC Championship football game between Georgia and Arkansas was on a new station called the North American Sports Network (NASN). We are now spoiled for American sports choice in the UK: Sky covers the NFL, the NBA and the PGA Tour; ESPN/BT Sport has MLB, college football and college basketball; Premier/FreeSports shows the NHL and NASCAR; and so on.
Televised sports have always been central to my identity. As a child, I bonded most closely with my troubled father – and with most of my school friends, for that matter – while watching games on TV. During my freshman year at college, my bewilderment and alienation at being far from home was mitigated by my local sports bar and a Braves’ pennant chase. Nowadays, I’m often asked if I miss living in America; when I say I don’t, the first reason I usually give is the ready availability of American sports on television.
Mind you, being a fan of Atlanta’s sports teams – teams that have broken my heart for decades – has warped my sense of self, and quite possibly stunted my overall emotional growth. Those teams won but a solitary title between them…and when the Braves won the World Series in 1995, I was on my junior year abroad at the University of St. Andrews and missed the entire experience. When the Falcons reached the Super Bowl in 1999, I didn’t have Sky and traveled from my flat in London to visit an American friend in Oxford who said he knew where we could watch together; by the time we found a TV showing the game, it was after halftime and the Broncos led by several touchdowns. When the Falcons returned to the Super Bowl in 2017, I had to catch an early flight from Edinburgh to Gothenburg the next morning; I planned to watch the first half live and record the second half to watch on the plane, decided when the Falcons led 21-3 at halftime that I needed to experience my first Atlanta championship in real time, stayed up to watch the Patriots stage the greatest rally in American sports history, and drove to the airport without having slept a wink.
Possibly as a defense mechanism against my sporting allegiances, I now make a living in sports television. I flew to Sweden immediately after Super Bowl LI to provide play-by-play commentary on the final of a European ice hockey competition, and over the past few years I’ve covered everything from the Winter Olympics to ATP 1000 tennis to European soccer. I’ve even spent two years as an NFL studio host, presenting DAZN’s featured game of the week to its Canadian subscribers out of a studio in Leeds. I’ve hosted two Falcons games so far, remaining professional to my listeners even as my soul has risen and fallen with my team’s successes and failures. And so it made abundant personal and professional sense to spend the final evening of my Atlanta adventure in the press box of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, at the Sunday Night Football game between the Eagles and the Falcons.
WHEN PEOPLE TRUMP FOOTBALL
The further my life has moved on from Atlanta, the more distant my home city has become to me. Its heat and humidity are staggeringly oppressive, even in September; how do people live there? (How did I live there?) Atlanta’s skyscape and road network are constantly changing, and its perpetual traffic jams now extend further beyond and more deeply within the city’s perimeter. I barely recognize my old high school, on whose campus new buildings grow like kudzu vines: e.g., the blacktop on which I used to conduct marching band drills vanished years ago beneath a stunning library complex. Even Atlanta’s vegetation annoys me now, the clay soil and the hills and trees and more hills and more trees so monotonous and pallid compared to the fields of brilliant rapeseed, the gorse bushes in full bloom, and the coastal cliffs and beaches on my Scottish doorstep. (When Atlanta does look its finest, in the spring, its pollen assaults my sinuses.)
And my old friends…well, Facebook reminds me of them without ever really connecting me to them. My only real Atlanta relationships over the past decade have been with the Braves, the Hawks and the Falcons, and they are almost purely tribal. Their stadiums are all new and alien: never mind SunTrust Park, I never made it to Turner Field. I rarely talk about them with friends or family; even Grant, whose internet call sign has been “Peregrine” for years, has begun to let go of the Falcons. I seem to grip them more tightly than ever, like the character in the Pixar movie Coco whose existence will dissolve if his last link to his earthly home is severed. But really, my Braves and Falcons played at Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, and my Hawks played at the Omni. The Falcons now play in a tourist attraction, and are trying to learn from their co-tenant Atlanta United – an MLS club in only its third season – how to generate sufficient crowd noise to yield a homefield advantage. Honestly.
So as my trip approached, I expected the worst. I arranged rendezvouses with high school friends who had become intermittent acquaintances, fearing awkward silences and halfhearted goodbyes. And I mentally prepared for my favorite sports team to rip my heart out again – only this time in person, in a resoundingly foreign forum. I landed at Hartsfield Airport with a sore throat and a throbbing case of jetlag, and I arrived to stay at the house of my friend (and wedding “date”) Amanda’s brother to discover he had a dog. I’m allergic to dogs. Perhaps I was allergic to Atlanta, too.
But then a funny thing happened: I overcame my apprehension, and I resolved to leave it all out on the field (sports metaphor!) and do whatever I could to reconnect with my past. I wish I could invoke a more poetic source of inspiration than Ed Sheeran, but to paraphrase his song “Castle On The Hill”, these people had raised me, and in my own way, I still couldn’t wait to get home.
I went to Waffle House for my first breakfast of the trip, a cholesterolic ritual I can never resist, and went again a few days later with my brother. I hung out with Grant and met his charming wife-to-be, Stephanie. I went to Avi’s house for lunch, had dinner with Matt and Gabrielle, played golf with Matt, and with Avi again watched the early slate of NFL games on Sunday. And I talked and talked and talked with Amanda: until 2:30 in the morning after the rehearsal dinner on Friday, and then until 3:30 in the morning after the wedding on Saturday even though she had an early flight back to Tampa on Sunday. It was the perfect high school reunion: in just over 72 hours, I spent more meaningful time with these friends than I had in nearly two decades, and I learned that these people I’d missed so terribly actually seemed to have missed me too. I was 16 again, and it was magical.
By Sunday evening, I cared less about the Falcons than I had on any NFL Sunday in recent memory. I still wanted them to win, of course. But I’d been reminded that maybe, just maybe, some of the countless hours I’d spent watching games, reading recaps and visiting online fan forums could have been better spent nurturing friendships and loving people who might love me back far more than the Falcons, Braves or Hawks ever have.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium is certainly an architectural marvel. Being on the field during pregame warmups was undoubtedly thrilling; surely I’ll never again be so close to Matt Ryan or Julio Jones. To my right in the press box were writers from Sports Illustrated and The Athletic whose running ruminations on the game I enjoyed and occasionally joined. But watching my team from behind soundproofed glass, unable to cheer or curse or even listen to NBC’s Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth – their commentary would have disrupted everyone’s working environment – was a curious experiment I won’t rush to repeat. The Falcons played like the Falcons, with bursts of genius marred by frustrating mistakes, bad coaching and ill discipline. And although more than 74,000 tickets had been distributed for the game, the stadium never looked more than half full, embarrassing for a fanbase whose help its team desperately needs.
WHEN FOOTBALL IS THE CATALYST
Before the game started, I’d posted a selfie on Facebook which showed Matty Ice warming up behind me. Early in the third quarter I rechecked my feed, and another old schoolmate named Chris had replied – he was in the Falcons radio booth and asked me to stop by and say hello. No kidding. We’d been in the brass section of the marching band together; now, he was the spotter for play-by-play man Wes Durham and goes to every Falcons game, home and away. After we briefly chatted, I hung out in the booth for 10 or 12 plays, enjoying Durham’s commentary and savoring the crowd noise wafting into the booth through open windows.
The Falcons somehow won the game: after blowing an 11-point lead, Ryan found Jones for a 54-yard touchdown pass on 4th and 3 late in the fourth quarter to go ahead 24-20, and although the Eagles converted a 4th and 14 of their own and drove down the field, Atlanta’s defense rose up to make one final stop. It was probably the best Falcons game I’d ever attended, and it surely had the most nail-biting finish. But I was almost as excited to have seen Chris, and to now possess his email address and phone number. I couldn’t believe it either.
Nostalgia is a curious animal, and the nature of reunions is that you’ll often make promises you won’t be able to keep. I don’t know if the fires that Grant and Matt and Avi and Amanda stoked in me will keep burning. But I’ve already booked February flights to Florida – my family and I will stay in Tampa near Amanda, in her mother-in-law’s house. And I’ve exchanged long emails with Chris, with whom I now have more in common than I’d ever realized in high school. The Falcons, like the Braves and Hawks, will always be there for me when I need them. But perhaps I won’t need them quite as much now as I have in the past.
Darren Kilfara formerly wrote for Golf Digest magazine and is the author of A Golfer’s Education, a memoir of his junior year abroad as a student-golfer at the University of St. Andrews, and Do You Want Total War?, a novel about how people study and experience history. You can also view demo reels of his sports commentary work at darrenkilfara.jimdo.com/broadcasting.