Scott Gould (right) interviews Bertis Downs at Downs’s office in Athens, Georgia, on January 6.

“Something that used to be something else has evolved into something better than anyone could have possibly imagined,” Scott Gould writes in his feature story on Bertis Downs, manager and advisor for the band R.E.M. Gould is referring to an aspect of Athens, Georgia, where Bertis lives and where R.E.M. formed and took root in the city’s glorified music halls in the early 1980s. Gould’s sentence struck me in a broader way, too. The same could be said for the South as a whole—at least for its effort to renew itself while keeping intact its best traditions and cultural values.

For this issue, we set out to present exceptional Southern cities. But, as often happens during the process, we were led to new insights and more complex views. The stories we found tell a greater one about the experience of the places in which they are set, and, collectively, they exemplify the South’s quintessential ability: reinvention. The South does a lot of things well, but it may be best at transformation—not only becoming something different, but becoming something exceptional.

This happens when the right mix of talent and opportunity is in play. Former mills become luxury apartments; gas stations become hip restaurants. Sleepy college towns become the breeding ground for famous musicians. A Virginia capital becomes a mecca of style and design. A former seafood shack becomes, well, a better seafood shack. It’s a potent cocktail of chance, of being “at the right place at the right time,” and it just so happens that the South enjoys its fair share of strong drinks.

It is difficult to see what could be while you’re dealing with what is. But the South seems to have the gift of prophecy and a stubborn streak—and what has been is now better than ever before.

Blair Knobel, Editor-in-Chief

Twitter / Instagram: @LBKNOBEL