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Resurgens: A Tale of Two Cities

Atlanta, Georgia. Tbilisi, Georgia.
Atlanta is the largest city and capital of the US state of Georgia. Tbilisi is the largest city and capital of the Republic of Georgia, located in the Caucasus.

1985: Mikheil Gorbachev became the leader of the USSR and Ronald Reagan was inaugurated for his second term as the American President. The Cold War had just entered its penultimate act. By this point, it was becoming apparent that the Soviet Union was faltering and that the next few decades were to be led by the neoliberal ideas espoused by Reagan and Thatcher. 

On a local scale, 1985 was a big year for Tbilisi; it was then that 25 Tbilisi residents were to go to the American city of Atlanta and 25 Atlanta residents were to go to Tbilisi as a part of an exchange program initiated by the Atlanta-based NGO Friendship Force, the first citizen-to-citizen exchange of its kind for Tbilisi. Thanks in part to the political and cultural importance of such an exchange, then-mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young, had initiated the twinning of Atlanta and Tbilisi. By 1988, the relationship became official. 

At first glance, these two cities have little in common--Atlanta is flat, Tbilisi is nestled in the mountains; Atlanta has no river, Tbilisi has the Mtkvari; Atlanta has a metropolitan population of around 6 million, Tbilisi 1.5 million; and Atlanta is heavily forested, Tbilisi is a forest of concrete. It seems that, aside from bad traffic and being the capital of Georgia, the two cities have nothing in common. However, the city motto of Atlanta shows the true relationship and connection between these cities-- Resurgens.

Resurgens is a Latin term which roughly translates to “rising up" and is the official motto of Atlanta.

Atlanta is a fairly young city, only having been founded in 1837 CE, compared to Tbilisi’s founding date of 479 CE. Atlanta was built at the end of the Western & Atlantic railroad line and was meant to serve as a new gateway to the American South. Tbilisi served as a major transit node on the Silk Road. After the pro-slavery Confederate States of America declared independence from the anti-slavery Union (the term used to describe the United States during this period, but more commonly used as a reference to the northern states of the original 13 colonies), Atlanta became the economic hub of the Confederacy.

Narikala Fortress (top center) sits above Old Tbilisi over 1,000 years after it was first built. Old Tbilisi was the original walled-city.

The first major defining moment in Atlanta’s history occurred in 1864, when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman burned the city to ashes as he captured Atlanta, and from there the Confederacy, for the Union Army. For Tbilisi, an event such as this was a regular occurrence since Tbilisi had been rebuilt around a dozen times. In the years following Atlanta’s reconstruction, the city became the heart of the “New South”--a South that no longer required slavery for prosperity; a South that was able to reconcile with the North; and a South that could see itself leaving the cotton and tobacco fields in favor of trade and commerce. Georgia (GE) and its capital, Tbilisi, was also experiencing a similar resurgens during the late 19th Century. 

Atlanta circa 1890, around 25 years after its total destruction. Photo: Atlanta Curbed

The Georgian people were a predominantly agrarian society for most of their history. Well into the 19th Century, Georgia remained a feudal state with an economy and social structure dominated by subsistence agriculture. Had it not been for Ilia Chavchavadze, Akaki Tseretli, Iakob Gogebashvili, and other prominent Georgian authors and academicians, Tbilisi would never have grown into the cosmopolitan city that it is today. These elite members of Georgian society managed to convince the Georgian people to relocate to Tbilisi as a means of solidifying the ქართული ერი kartuli eri ”Georgian nation” while simultaneously developing the country into a modern European state.

Georgians moved to their respective capitals in an effort to build a new life for themselves, a life that was no longer founded in the ways and traditions of the past but one which looked towards the future.

The 20th century was advantageous for both Atlanta and Tbilisi as both cities proved themselves to be major political and social forces for their respective societies. Atlanta is the birthplace of the founder and leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. Dr. King led the fight for racial equality in America during the mid 20th century and is most famed for his “I Have a Dream” speech, which he gave from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gives is famous "I Have a Dream" speech overlooking the National Mall in Washington, DC. Photo: New York Times

In a sense of cosmic irony, Atlanta was the first major US city to elect an African American as mayor, Maynard Jackson. Think of that--the city that was the economic heart of a breakaway country founded on the enslavement of people of color became the first major US city to elect a person of color as mayor.

Tbilisi, too, had its own moment of reckoning in the 20th Century. On 09 April 1989, 16 civilians were killed and around 200 civilians were injured when Soviet troops stormed a peaceful protest of around 8,000 demonstrators in Tbilisi. The 09 April Tragedy had the highest casualty rate in a single day between Soviet troops and civilians in the entirety of the USSR’s history. This event became a watershed moment in Soviet history. During the months which followed, Soviet citizens’ desires for independence from Moscow rapidly grew, and within a little more than a year later, the Soviet Union fell. 

09 April Memorial in front of the Georgian Parliament building in Tbilisi.
The memorial to the 09 April Tragedy in front of the Georgian Parliament in Tbilisi. This photo was taken on the 30th Anniversary of the 09 April Tragedy.

Today, Atlanta is a thriving megalopolis that has managed to overcome its dark roots. The city is home to America’s largest movie industry outside of Hollywood, the world’s busiest international airport (for 21 consecutive years), is the largest city in the American South, and is now a symbol of Southern prosperity. Tbilisi, too, can brag about its achievements; the city has seen years of economic development including the construction of Georgia’s (GE) first modern shopping centers, has become one of Europe's leading travel destinations, has been called "The Coolest City in the World," and is quickly becoming a regional hub for everything from fashion to business.

Atlanta and Tbilisi are inspiring cities not only because of their thriving cultural scene, dynamic economy, or beautiful nature, but because of their unique abilities to turn adversity into success. These cities have rebuilt themselves, not only physically, but socially, from small outposts to major powerhouses that are reshaping the region and world around them.

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