Speaking at the Decatur Book Festival was like a spin through the old neighborhood for me. I grew up in Decatur and as a boy used to visit the library next door to the venue where I talked about “The Class of ’65” over the Labor Day weekend: Decatur Presbyterian Church. What’s more, I was raised in a Presbyterian church and first heard about Koinonia and the religious and racial conflicts at the heart of my book during my first job, as an editor at the Presbyterian church’s denominational magazine.
All of which made it deeply gratifying when I looked out from the pulpit Saturday afternoon and saw that the stately old sanctuary was packed. “It looks like Easter out there,” one of the church staffers joked. I shared the pulpit with Jim Grimsley of Emory University, a decorated novelist who recently published his first nonfiction book, “How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood.” It’s a touching memoir about how he overcame the prejudices of his upbringing in rural North Carolina. Ernie Suggs, my former colleague at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ably moderated.
The scene amused me at first; they had the Jims sitting in two of those throne chairs that I thought you had be an ordained minister to occupy. We shared a mic, like a couple of Beatles, and spoke for half an hour, and then took some good questions from the people in the pews. With that, we were whisked across the street to sign books in a tent run by FoxTale Book Shoppe, an indie in Woodstock, Ga., one of whose partners, Ellen Ward, happened to go to high school with me. Several of the people lined up to get their copies signed had known my parents or were friends of my sisters or brother. !t was like a class reunion.
A quick word about the Decatur Book Festival: It’s one of the best events of its type anywhere. For two days, they shut down several streets in central Decatur and turn the city over to thousands of strolling book lovers and vendors catering to them. Every sanctuary, hotel ballroom and government chamber for blocks around becomes a speaking platform for one of the hundred or so authors who come to promote their books and meet their readers. The crowds are big and engaged. This was the 10th annual edition, and I was honored to be involved -- especially because it’s my hometown.