My dad has been a general aviation pilot for more than twenty years, so my whole life I’ve been able to fly with him to all kinds of places across the eastern US. He loves to fly, and I love to fly over cities at night, so to celebrate the Fourth of July this year, we decided to fly over Atlanta and watch the fireworks from above, rather than crowding in to see one show from the ground.
Cities are very unusual from above; things become weirdly abstracted and you see the gritty, industrial sides of things that get hidden away on the ground. If I were an artist with an unlimited budget, I would create mosaic-type installations on roofs visible only from the air, or maybe design weird and extravagant rooftop gardens. But at night, the gray stretches of concrete start to disappear leaving only the patterns of lights against a black background. When I first moved to Chicago and saw it at night from the Hancock tower downtown I was amazed at the precise, midwestern waffle stretching endlessly out around it; perfect parallel lines in every direction. Atlanta doesn’t benefit from such order; it’s one of those cities with little to no internal planning. At night, it looks more like a nebula, with a glowing core centered around downtown and main roads and highways meandering out like big glowing tentacles. Filling the space between these roads are the dark patches of neighborhoods.
For all the traffic and poor planning, one thing Atlanta does have going for it is the trees. There are trees everywhere. It is a city in a forest (although more and more clear-cutting is happening as more developments go up). Coming home from the midwest, the south feels lush, luxuriantly green, and in the spring when blooms and leaves explode, it feels almost tropical after the Chicago winter. From above, the trees have an interesting effect: they filter smaller lights in such a way that they seem to sparkle. Cruising above the city from the air, the main roads glow and are relatively static, but the neighborhoods between them are little glittering, twinkling enclaves.
Add to all this Fourth of July fireworks, and the result is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying things I’ve ever seen. Right as the sun set, driveways and parking lots began to light up with little fountains and firecrackers; as it got darker, little colorful bursts began to pop up everywhere we looked, filling the skyline with glittery blooms. Once the sky overhead was totally black, the professionals got going and the city was awash in sparks; we could see the bight magnesium flashes below us reflect of the white underside of the plane’s wings.
It’s amazing to think that every single one of these explosions is the result of weeks, if not months, of hand-crafting and careful design. All that work for just a few seconds of glitter, but what a beautiful few seconds it is. I’m sure fireworks aren’t especially eco-friendly (another thing you can see from the air is just how far the trails of smoke carry from the display sites). It’s too bad all pollution can’t be so pretty. But this stuff is; it’s dazzling. And it’s also amazing to me to think that fireworks, which exist for no other reason than to be beautiful and celebratory, are made of the stuff that exists for no other reason than to blow the shit out of people: gunpowder!
My hope for this country in the rest of the 21st century is that we’ll get better and better at making fireworks out of our metaphorical gunpowder: start using our power to create things that are more beautiful than destructive.
Hope y’all had a happy Fourth!