Traveling south and hoping for “luxuriant semi-tropical scenery,” the narrator was increasingly disappointed, and Atlanta was no improvement: it was “a big, dull, red town.” There was no public space and the roads were unpaved.
The narrator’s fantasy of the South, likely based in large part on his mother’s stories, pales in comparison to its reality: most of all, it seems to lack the integrated North’s public infrastructure, which suggests that a different form of social responsibility—one based on private, not public interest— applies in Atlanta.
Seeking a place to stay before University started, the narrator asked “one of the Pullman car porters,” who offered his own place. The narrator agreed and followed the Pullman porter “to a rather rickety looking frame house.” The “big, fat, greasy looking brown-skinned man” who ran the place brought him upstairs and showed him “dat cot in de corner der.” The narrator suspected the bedding was unwashed and felt homesick, although his companion’s noble story about “fighting his own way in the world” prevented him from crying. In fact, the house was especially for Pullman porters. They went out to find something to eat.
The narrator continues to resent the South’s ugliness but still cannot see its most pernicious feature for him: racial segregation. This is precisely why the Porter looks out for him and why he has to stay in the “rickety looking frame house.” The Porter’s story obviously foreshadows what the narrator must now do for himself, after his mother’s death.
As they wandered around, the narrator saw “colored people in large numbers” for the first time and asked the Pullman porter if “all the colored people in Atlanta lived on this street.” The porter assured him that these were lower-class people; he was still uncomfortable, but was fascinated by their way of talking—especially their exclamations (“‘Lawd a mussy!’ ‘G’wan man!’ ‘Bless ma soul!’ ‘Look heah chile!’”), their unassuming directness, and their sense of humor. He remarks that he later determined that “this ability to laugh heartily is, in part, the salvation of the American Negro; it does much to keep him from going the way of the Indian.”
Although the narrator has some concept of his blackness and the racism he might face, he actually sees a black community for the first time here and is surprised at their entirely unfamiliar way of life—he realizes that his own upbringing and sense of himself as an individual (rather than a member of a collective) are more in line with white rather than lower-class black culture. Humor seems to function for this population much like music does for the narrator: it is an emotional pressure valve, a way to relieve the pain of oppression.
The Pullman porter took the narrator into a basement eatery, which he found filthy and smelly—no better restaurant would accommodate black people in Atlanta, but the narrator could go anywhere he wished, since “they wouldn’t know you from white.” They narrator barely touched his food, and after dinner they wandered around until nightfall and returned to the lodging-house for sleep.
The narrator is not outraged at segregation, but disgusted at the black restaurant where the porter takes him: he continues to see inequality from a privileged, white perspective, assuming he deserves better rather than seeking to understand why conditions are so unequal. He also gets affirmation from another black man for the first time that he could “pass” as white.
In the morning, the narrator hid his 300 dollars in a jacket in his suitcase and went out for breakfast, but the Pullman porter awoke, stubbornly insisted on joining, and recommended they eat with “a woman across town who takes a few boarders.” The woman was “scrupulously clean” and “picturesquely beautiful,” even reminding the narrator of his mother: she was “one broad expanse of happiness and good nature.” He ate his delectable fried chicken, hominy grits, and a biscuit, feeling that he had realized “one of my dreams of Southern life.”
The narrator implies that he was hoping to eat at a white restaurant, but could not because the porter decided to come; yet this also led the narrator to realize for the first time that he could find a place and comfort in the South’s segregated black world—in fact, his “dreams of Southern life” were apparently about this world.
The woman mentioned that Atlanta University was actually opening that day, and the narrator and the Pullman porter walked over to the campus, which felt like “a bit of New England transplanted.” The porter left, promising to visit on his next trip to Atlanta, and some students directed the narrator to talk with the University’s president, who was warm, protective, personable, and delighted that the narrator came “all the way from the North.” He met the matron, who was “even more motherly than the president was fatherly” and asked him to sign a registration document—a pledge not to drink, smoke, or swear.
The university, too, is familiar and comforting, with the president and matron seeming like the nuclear family the narrator lacked; it also promises to offer the narrator the sort of community he didn’t have at home. The president is obviously interested that he came from the North because it suggests that the heart of black community and potential remains in the South.
A bell sounded, and the students and teachers all congregated for the University president’s speech—the narrator was fascinated to see “all types and colors” among the students and teachers alike. After the assembly, he returned to the boarding house to retrieve his belongings—and all of his money had disappeared. The landlord insisted he could not be held responsible, and the narrator noticed that his favorite tie was gone, too.
Although the narrator’s school in Connecticut was also integrated, Atlanta University seems to center and value its students of color; the narrator comes close to finding a community to identify with just as he gets betrayed at the other black establishment he relied on in Atlanta and finds himself with nowhere to turn.
The narrator went back to the university, intending to explain his situation to the University president, but realized it might all “sound fishy.” He reached the school’s gates and hesitated before turning around and returning to the boarding house. A different porter told him to look for a hotel job in Jacksonville, lent him 15 dollars, and then smuggled him onto the train, where he hid in a miserably uncomfortable laundry basket.
Despite the president’s warmth and insistence that students could turn to him for help, the narrator is too ashamed and afraid of judgment to fight for his place at the university, and suddenly he has lost the education he spent so many years dreaming about and the black community that may have transformed his life.