The New Atlantis

Plastic houses, a big move to Miami, and growing out of nihilism in the existential city.

Ginevra Lily Davis
November 14, 2023

I never liked our first apartment—chosen in a flurry at the peak of the real estate boom. When I walked in, I could immediately picture the developer who thought that new arrivals would pay for a gray box with plastic-slatted shades and particle board cabinets. And we did. It was a fake house, for fake people. I had a suspicion the doorknob was plastic painted silver. Tasteless. Interloper. Transient. Whoever built this place had made a bet that Brickell would continue to gentrify outward, and put their stake in the ground a few hundred feet out from downtown. I sensed it hadn’t quite worked out. Our nearest neighbors were a gas station and another half-empty apartment building.

The entire time we lived in that building, the same sign sat outside—advertising its wares to a hot sidewalk with no foot traffic.




Call to inquire

It weathered in the sun.

When I imagined my first apartment, back in college, I had prepared myself for roaches, dirt, grime. I wanted some grit—the first chapter of a great story. But I never prepared for shiny, insidious plastic, the vague idea of a home. The faux-brick in the kitchen was white plastic, like the exterior of a Barbie dreamhouse. The countertops were laminate. The water pressure wasn’t strong enough to remind you that you were alive. Nothing could touch you. Nobody cared about us in there. It made me want to break something. Still, we had the place for another year.

I would cook, scraping kale and beans on a Teflon pan, but whatever I made always came out looking half-hearted, like gruel, or rations.

I tried to make it nicer, more personal. I hid the screen-print pictures in the closet and hung my own art with Command hooks, which tore clean white rectangles in the gray paint. A couple of times, I even set the small plastic-top table all nice, romantic, with wine glasses and paper napkins, but the glasses were always cloudy, and the dishwasher wasn’t strong enough to clean them, even though it did leak soapy water onto the linoleum floor whenever it ran, and so we would keep a bathroom towel perpetually in the kitchen under the sink, which ruined the view.


No one—my parents included—understood why I hated the place so much. It really was, objectively, quite nice. At the very least, it looked good on Zoom—bright and cavernous from the right angle, with a flat-screen TV and a rack of overhead lights. The building had a pool, a gym, and co-working space. We had two rooms, or one-and-a-half, depending on how you counted a wall that only went three-quarters of the way up. We didn’t have roommates. I was lucky. I was so lucky. And yet every time a cabinet handle broke, or the shower curtain came detached and I saw glue on the other side, I was reminded of my own chronic placelessness. In short, I felt that the apartment was mocking me. The universe (or the rental market) gives you what you deserve—which in my case meant AirBnB forever, a lifetime in corporate-development purgatory.

During the years of COVID-19, I had acquired an addiction to temporary living, to having no plans, that had since spread, virus-like, into every other aspect of my life. At first it was exhilarating. I had realized that I could technically live anywhere, be anything, and exist outside all of the structures, rules, plans, and orders of operations that typically constitute a life. The Miami apartment was a final resting place after a long line of brief holding grounds. Austin. Boston. Denver. San Francisco. A couple spare rooms in New York. A stint in Malibu: I think we were one of the first residents of the Malibu house, a big group of kids who split the rent for a cheaply furnished “mansion” that we later learned was actually an old senior home, with hastily hung surfboards and Marilyn Monroe heads covering the re-painted walls.

A lot of people came to our couch that year in Miami.

They had all scattered over the preceding few years, to all the same places. Austin. Boston. Los Angeles. New York. San Francisco. They were all considering moving, from somewhere to somewhere else, because wherever you went, you could never find everyone else. We were all trying to catch each other, like tag.


They were all smart kids.

At least, they thought of themselves that way. Everyone my age, I noticed, had some reason to believe they had once contained sparks of excellence—at my high school, they handed out “advanced” designations to seventy-percent of the class. And when you’re a kid, and a smart kid, you can be anything. People love to tell you that—to aim high, never settle. The catch is that no concrete activity you choose will ever contain as much potential as the open-ended label of anything. And so everyone I knew, all those smart kids, had taken to keeping themselves slightly removed from life, like Teflon, never touching the world, lest they lose their shine. Settle down and you might be deflowered by permanence, like a girl in an old-timey movie. Unfortunate, limited. Defined.

To top it off, most of the adults we knew had lost faith in the world, because of COVID and too much TV. Now, their cutting-edge advice was that no one should enter. Newspapers. Universities. Economists. Scientists. They were all frauds; pure liars. In fact, the whole of polite society was just weak people, wasted potential, various flavors of poison, nothing but potholes to slip and swerve around. What had started as a well-meaning questioning of institutions had turned into an ever-expanding list of things that would make you a sucker. Law school. Business school. The last two years of college. Renting. Buying. The entire Eastern seaboard. Any place that was too specific could be dismissed with an epithet. Los Angeles was shallow, San Francisco desolate, Washington DC full of hacks, the entire middle doomed to be forgotten, and Europe hopelessly stuck in the past. Miami, at least, had yet to be defined by outsiders—which is why, I sometimes suspected, I had ended up here. I was no exception. Despite my best efforts, I had acquired a fear of touching anything, becoming anyone, being made into a sucker, or worse, finite.

When I first came to Miami, I was working—briefly, online—for a company that fell apart soon after I left. And then I had no more ideas. I was suddenly frozen; undone by simple tasks like buying detergent. In the meantime, I sat on the couch. I tried to write. I watched the sun rise and set over the Public Storage outside our window. My plans looped around and around. I was going back to tech; I was going to get a remote job and travel; I was never going to see anyone I knew ever again. It was hard to imagine a world beyond that apartment.

A few months in, my dad came to visit me in Miami. He took me out to one of the chic restaurants with tiny portions.

I told him I wanted to get a real job. Something boring. I wanted to sit in an office, wear a suit, buy leather shoes. I wanted to know what was happening tomorrow. He thought a bit, and then told me that I should be an opinion columnist—I think because that was what he wanted to do, write columns, or maybe he was just spending all day reading the news. That’s not possible. That’s not a job. I wanted to scream.

“You should write for The New Yorker.”

“I can’t just write for The New Yorker. They don’t, like, let you do that.”

“Why not?” And then. “You’ve always been so negative.”


Sometimes, when I was thinking a little more clearly, I would remember one night back in New York.

We were on someone’s couch—three AM, a big group of seniors—talking about what was wrong with the world. We had so many ideas. Our schools were bankrupt. Our food was poison. No one was having sex (except us, obviously, we were fine). Technology was rotting our brains. Everyone was going to be so stupid in the future. All of our friends were sellouts, for different reasons. Politicians were empty shells—a point so obvious it wasn’t even worth discussing. The world was probably going to end soon, although none of us could agree on why. That’s how it always felt in California. The problems weren’t meant to be solved. Describing them was perhaps the last good idea left. We equated analysis with superiority, dissecting flaws in beautiful, scintillating detail, which obviously made us better than everyone who got started, still had hope. Of course, anything concrete can always be torn apart, broken down into logical errors, in a way that our own formless non-commitment couldn’t. We loved being lost, how the world was so damaged that we didn’t have to participate.


I first met Sam at a tech dinner in Wynwood.

He was new to Miami; a twenty-something dropout who had sold a company for a quarter of a billion dollars. That was the dream of all the kids I knew, slip-sliding around. He took the money and bought an enormous white house on the water. Now, he throws parties out of his living room—all vaulted ceilings and new-age minimalism—for the extended Miami expat scene. They would show up in costume on Friday night, ready for anything. Half of them were transplants who came to Miami full-time, like me—although I noticed that a good number still referred to their current residence as a “crash pad.” The others would fly back to wherever they came from the next morning.

Everyone here knew someone like Sam—who seemingly never let themselves get tied down, stayed excellent, and then became the master of their own little universe. How can you get up every day, go to work, settle down, accept finality, when that is still possible?


FTX crashed while I sat on the couch in Miami. Silicon Valley Bank collapsed five months later. I quickly learned that the lifestyle my cohort aspired to was the product of a very particular moment. One by one, our friends started to call. Their projects were crumbling; their best-laid plans suddenly infeasible. But you couldn’t just give up, right? You weren’t supposed to give up. A few more months passed, and they called again.

Now, they were getting real jobs, in-person. The younger ones were going back to school. It was ending.

In the meantime, I made friends in Miami. I liked Sam’s new girlfriend—a sweet Hungarian blonde named Anya. She doesn’t brag a lot. She has big blue eyes and what engineers call “people skills.” She was the first person I met in Miami who asked me how old I was. It struck me as an oddly personal question in this scene of strangers defined by their refugee status—most people here are already on their second or third lives, and would prefer not to be tied down by details. I told her that I was twenty-four. My birthday had been a few months earlier, in February, but it hadn’t really sunk in yet. I was only twenty-four. I was already twenty four. I had a whole life ahead of me; I was a long, long way from home. She responded immediately: “That’s a hard year.”

I started to cry, out of shock or just a sudden sense of place, but quietly enough that she couldn’t really tell.


As a premise, Miami is flawed. There’s a reason it is so surreal to see towers reflected in the ocean; you should not have a city that close to the water. It will, in all likelihood, be washed away someday—by a particularly strong hurricane, or rising sea levels, or just a flood that rots the limestone. And yet the city also contains a beautiful lesson in permanence.

Despite the obvious risks, they keep building the place. They build more than other city in America—cranes define the skyline. Mirrored buildings; bona-fide skyscrapers; buildings like the future. They’re committed to the bit. And for now, it’s working. It’s a real place. You can live here. Lots of people do. Grandmothers in bikinis, college students in matching Alo Yoga sets, little dogs, moms fluffing their daughters’ LoveShackFancy skirts on Easter morning, hedge funders finishing their careers on the phone in cargo shorts, wondering how they got so lucky. You can make a whole life between a beginning and an end. Sometimes I think that the imminent collapse actually makes it easier to embrace the present—rent the car, buy the house—if only as an act of defiance. It might all be gone in fifty, seventy, a hundred years, and then I’ll be around to watch. But maybe the scientists are wrong. Maybe the roller bladers and trust-fund grandmothers have figured it out. Or maybe it’s just beautiful while it lasts—an urban legend, a new Atlantis. There is value in putting something new on the map, one more testament to human ingenuity, even if it doesn’t last forever. You come here to make a good life, enjoy yourself, and pass the ball. You never know how long you might have, how far you could go, until you get started.

As for me, my own ordinary needs followed me here, as much as I tried to transcend them.

A few months into Miami, I broke my necklace—a pretty, delicate thing that always reminded me of home. I needed a jeweler. The closest one was a twenty-five minute walk away over the Miami River bridge, run by a family of Orthodox Jews. They soldered the chain and sent me on my way with a little plastic baggy. More of my possessions broke: earrings, bracelets, a ring that accumulated debris from the dishwater, and I started to come back, every month or so, and they would roll their eyes a bit like, you again. I came so often that they started to offer me discounts on wholesale wedding rings.

Later, I rolled my ankle, and found a physical therapist. She was nicer, honestly, than any practitioner I had at home. She would ask me questions about my life and I started to see myself through her eyes: young, fresh, and relatively easy to repair.

It had been high summer when I moved to Miami; we were alone a lot. We used to take long, hot walks around Brickell Key and I would think about how so much of the moment we had come of age in was fake. It was so fake. And there were so many ways it could be fake: like the buildings rising out of the water, like the cabinets in our apartment, like the body of the girl walking in front of us. You could fill hours with the comparisons. But after a while, I got tired of comparing, and realized that we were in such a beautiful place for everything to be fake. We were young, and our lives were really here, and it was all pretty good actually.

Over that year, I got used to saying it: “I live in Miami.” I learned to like being someone, defining myself. Next time, we’ll get a real place, somewhere near the walk we like, and the lunch counter on the beach side with the $9.25 sandwiches that have inexplicably escaped inflation. And I’ll make it a home. I’ll buy pots and pans; I’ll send my nice blanket from home and put holes in the walls. We’re leaving for the summer—we learned after the last one. But I like it here. We have friends. I’ve never lived anywhere else this long.

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