T-Shirts for sale! Details at the bottom. (Source: From Atlanta to Tbilisi)
I’ve always been humored by places with the same name. Having gone to college in Maine and now living in Cambridge (USA), I’m tickled by the potential miscommunications that arise when talking about Portland. I would love to visit London, Ontario if for no other reason than to figure out how far from the city center I can travel before the sentence “I’m going to London” takes on new meaning (not very far, it seems). For most of my life, the U.S. state of Georgia was the default Georgia, but this changed in 2011 when I moved to Kyrgyzstan, which—like the country of Georgia—is a mountainous, former Soviet Republic.
Even during COVID, there are plenty of one stop connections between the Georgias. (source: Flight Connections)
Separated by about 6,300 miles, Atlanta and Tbilisi are the capital of Georgia. The connection between the cities is already acknowledged and commemorated a number of ways: in addition to being sister cities, there is a Facebook group, a non-profit organization, a diesel generator that was sent to Tbilisi from Emory University in Atlanta during the winter of ‘96, a Tbilisi B&B (and about 10,000 travel blog posts) called “Georgia on My Mind”, and frequent over-clarification of deceptively confusing questions:
“Where can I get Georgian food (as in Georgia the country) in Atl?” (Source: Reddit)
Generally, when places share a name it’s because one was named after another (e.g. Paris, Texas and Naples, Florida) or because they share a common etymology (e.g. popular U.S. place names like Franklin, Washington, and Springfield). The Georgias fall into the second category, but it’s complicated: in both cases, Georgia was a name imposed by outsiders onto places that were not looking for new names. Because of this, even the most cursory investigation of how things came to be undermines the trite and simplistic explanations that often accompany shared place names.
A replica Eiffel Tower in Paris, Texas, built in 1993 and standing 65 feet tall. The cowboy hat was added to ensure that the Texan Eiffel Tower was taller than a replica Eiffel Tower in Paris, Tennessee. (Source: Adavyd via Wikimedia)
Georgia means “Land of George”, which begs the question: who’s George? The name comes from the Greek Georgios (Γεώργιος), which was popularized by a Roman soldier who was executed during Emperor Diocletian’s anti-Christian persecutions around 303AD. Christianity was legalized across the Roman Empire soon thereafter, and by 337 there was a church built in Georgios’ name near the site of his execution. Over the next millennium, Georgios was venerated as a martyr nearly everywhere that Christianity went, becoming Gevorg in Armenia, Giorgis in Ethiopia, Ġorġ in Malta, Jorge in Spain and Portugal, Jorgi in Catalonia, Chorche in Aragon, Georges in France, Georg in Germany, Georgiy in Russia, etc. The English variant, George, wasn’t terribly popular as a boy’s name until the 1600s brought with it the reign of King George I.
The tomb of Saint George in Lod (Lydda), about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. It reads “Saint George the Trophy Bearer”. The name Georgios is based on the Greek word for farmer “georgos” (γεωργός), which itself is a combination of the words “ge” (γῆ), meaning earth, and “ergon” (ἔργον), meaning work. (Source: OneArmedMan via Wikimedia)
The Georgian people were early adopters of Christianity, and while they have venerated Saint George by the name of Giorgi since the early 400s, they never meant to name their country after him. Georgians have called their country Sakartvelo (საქართველო) since at least the 800s, named after the Kartvelian people from the historic central region of Georgia near Tbilisi. Sakartvelo wasn’t adopted by outsiders, however. Georgia has been occupied for much of its history, and the invaders—be they Arab, Turkic, Persian, Mongol, or Russian—each adopted a variation of the ancient Persian name for the region, Gorgan (گرگان), which means “land of the wolves”. Maybe they were looking at Persian maps, maybe Gorgan was just easier to pronounce, or maybe using the name Sakartvelo would have legitimized a place and a people that they were in many cases trying to conquer and delegitimize.
In any case, when the English learned about Georgia during the Crusades, they were introduced to it by the name Gorgan. Knowing it to be a Christian kingdom that venerated Saint George, they mistakenly assumed that Gorgan came from the local name for George, and so they anglicized Gorgan to Georgia. The name stuck and began appearing on early world maps in the 1300s. The Europeans brought the name with them to the western hemisphere and today about 80% of countries call Georgia Georgia.
The earliest depiction of St. George on a coin is from the Kingdom of Georgia around 1015. Again, nobody who lived in Georgia in 1015 thought that their country was named after this guy—if they had, they would have called Georgia something like “Sagiorgo”. Source: Brindz via Wikimedia)
A few hundred years later and halfway around the world, the English arrived in what is now the southeast United States. Upon arrival, they encountered Spanish missions, a few French outposts, and a number of interconnected but distinct indigenous civilizations including the Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, and Chickasaw. Within a few years of arriving, the English granted a charter for the thirteenth American Colony to be established between the Savannah and Altamaha Rivers, stretching westwards all the way to what is now Los Angeles. The charter established that the colony would be named after the king, George II of Great Britain, and thus the British colony of Georgia was established.
Georgia’s boundaries were revised in 1763 following the British victory in the French and Indian War, which pushed the border south to Florida and established a less ambitious western border with what is now Alabama. Over the following sixty years, the indigenous people who lived in Georgia would be assimilated, killed, and/or displaced, culminating in Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 which mandated that all remaining indigenous people be relocated outside of Georgia. Many who survived the ethnic cleansing ended up on reservations in Oklahoma where their ancestors continue to live to this day, hundreds of miles from their historic homeland.
While the Cherokee Nation is now in northeast Oklahoma, there are currently 290 used Jeep Cherokees for sale near Atlanta. The NYT wrote about the Cherokee name in a 2013 article When Cars Assume Ethnic Identities and unironically gave the final word to a brand consultant: “If you have a name that offends nobody, then you end up with a forgettable brand.” (Source: Car Gurus)
Today, the Georgias are each fairly well established entities, but their future is by no means decided. While there are no federally recognized tribes in the state of Georgia, the narrative that the Indian Removal Act completely eradicated indigenous culture in Georgia is false: more than 50,000 Georgian residents claim indigenous ancestry, and there are ongoing efforts to reestablish a formal indigenous presence in the state. Most recently, The Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee was denied federal recognition in 2017.
In the other Georgia, longstanding animosity with Russia (which continues to occupy parts of the country), has sparked a campaign urging the ~35 countries who call Georgia by the Russian name Gruzia (Грузия) to call them Georgia instead. This is more complicated as it might seem, as the countries that call Georgia Gruzia have close ties to Russia and abandoning the Russian name in favor of the English name would be viewed as a snub by Moscow. So far only Israel, South Korea, and Japan have officially switched over from Gruzia to Georgia—Lithuania and Ukraine said they would follow suit, but neither country has updated the official name of their Embassy in Tbilisi.
Having many names can be a headache for translation: “Atlanta is the capital of Gruzia” (Source: Google Translate)
I imagine that you’ve been curious about the shared Georgian name at some point in your life—I know I have. And while I don’t have a deep attachment to either Georgia on its own, I nevertheless feel compelled by the connection between them. In part, this is simply about nurturing the humor that continues to emerge from the confusion of there being two Georgias:
ESPN’s coverage of World Cup qualifiers in 2012, in which they attributed the US flag to the country of Georgia. (Source: Metro)
But, more importantly, it’s because I think that maintaining a connection from Atlanta to Tbilisi serves as a potent expression of what a man from Georgia famously asserted; that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Told independently, the Georgian origin stories are yet two more examples of how imperialism and white supremacy shape our present day. Told together, the invention of Georgia and its ensuing legacy is an ardent reminder to be humble in my assumptions, attuned to new perspectives, and consistent in my conception of justice.
In this spirit, I’d like to offer a new connection between the Georgias. I made a website and printed a batch of Atlanta to Tbilisi t-shirts, which I’m selling for $25. I’m going to split all proceeds between organizations that are loosely connected by this shared history, including Cherokee Nation, Women’s Fund in Georgia, Atlanta Solidarity Fund, Tbilisi Pride, and Metro Atlanta Mutual Aid Fund. By doing this, I hope to contribute in a small way towards a world in which all people can live where they want to live and be called what they want to be called.
Thanks for reading,
Postscript: Katherine wore her From Atlanta to Tbilisi shirt for the first time the other day, and things unfolded exactly as I hoped they would when we got to the grocery store.
Cashier: From Atlanta to…?
Cashier: Where’s that?
Katherine: *bracing for confusion*...Georgia.
Cashier: *sideways glance, slowly turning to acknowledgement*. Oh... like Russia?
Katherine: Well, it was a Soviet Republic, but it’s its own country now.
Cashier: Got it. Where is it exactly?
Katherine: It’s kind of between Europe and Asia.
Cashier: Oh, that’s right. You know, I actually went to the USSR once. It was beautiful.
So if you’re interested in having these sorts of conversations with strangers all the time, then I highly recommend that you buy a shirt. I’ve outlined a few other conversation starters on the website. And please remember, when talking about the Georgias, don’t be a dick!