We would arrive at the bus station in Georgia around 10.30 at night. We were always heading off on the next bus out, destined for somewhere else, but we listened to Midnight Train to Georgia endlessly, and felt like we were the song personified.
We passed through Atlanta so many times that year, because Knoxville led to nowhere and that was our home. Everywhere was destined for Atlanta: the highways we rode, the flights we took, the song we played on repeat – but never us. To us, Atlanta was a gas stop along the way. We professed to hate it, but knew we would never have gone anywhere without it. The most I ever saw of the city was the highways leading into it, the subway system beneath it, and the skyline you could only see outside of it. The only place we actually visited was Max Lager, the late night bar within walking distance of the bus station which would let us, an ever growing crowd of foreign students with large suitcases, sit for hours on end ordering nothing but water and refillable sodas. I never had any desire to see more of Atlanta than that, but I did love the journey there. I was in suspended animation, temporarily abandoning my life in Knoxville, not yet embracing the next place, next adventure. Four hours on a Megabus or Greyhound at night left me enough time to slip into a well-soundtracked daydream yet was not so long that I would get cabin fever and a numb backside.
Arriving in Georgia – for we were never in Georgia, in my mind, until the headlight-littered darkness morphed into that star-like skyline – was always a bittersweet feeling to me. I never wanted the journey to end but I would lean eagerly forward into the horizon, feeling somehow nostalgic for a future which lingered just beyond those Christmas tree buildings as they swung into view. I loved the sight of that city at night.
Something always went wrong for us in Atlanta – buses late and missed, sleepless nights in a sleeping airport, minutes which felt like hours spent staring through the windows of closing restaurants on freezing streets in February (no one tells you it snows in the south). Every time we made it home from Georgia we announced that the journey was our worst yet. We never did stop playing Midnight Train to Georgia, though, and yearning for the way it feels to be absorbed into the Great American Landscape, speeding towards Georgia and the middle of the night.
Now, as I hide in my bed from the shallow night and lazy rain, back in England and feeling for the first time how small it is, I’m glad I have this song. I’m glad for the endless nights and difficult journeys and an epic soundtrack, because when the world feels so claustrophobic that the very existence of all that American land seems impossible, I can play this song and remember exactly how it felt to be on a midnight train to Georgia.