Every year, more cities mount biennials. Over a century of variations on a similar theme, and the purpose of this recurring model remains unclear—beyond, perhaps, attracting cultural tourism, and in some cases fueling of nationalism or regional identity. These exhibitions are known to elevate the visibility of emerging and mid artists, but as a curatorial format, the biennial rarely yields stronger results than any other group exhibition. Nonetheless, the number of biennials, triennials, and quinquennials worldwide now hovers around three hundred, having reached only fifty prior.

The Atlanta Biennial arrived relatively early: The organization Atlanta Contemporary, then known as the artist cooperative Nexus, offered a corrective to the Whitney Museum’s apparent inability to represent the geographic United States—and particularly the South—in its curating (once again, the artists in this year’s Whitney Biennial are based primarily in New York and Los Angeles). Since then, the Atlanta Biennial has been held at irregular intervals and scales. Where other biennials are expanding—producing mostly numbing over stimulation—the Atlanta Biennial has pared down its curatorial team and roster of artists in recent years. Perhaps most notable is the sense of managed ambition within the biennial: They seem to be refusing to attempt the impossible task of defining Southern art.

Titled “A thousand tomorrows,” Atlanta Biennial features the work of 21 artists from 10 southeastern states. Curated by Phillip March Jones, curator-at-large at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky, and by Atlanta Contemporary’s Daniel Fuller, the exhibition ambles between poles, collapsing distinctions between mainstream and “folk,” personal narrative and political proclamation, past and future, art and artifact. Joni Mabe’s labyrinthian found-object assemblages seem as suited to a museum of Southern living as they do to a contemporary art gallery. The same goes for Jill Frank’s campaign portraits of Triana Arnold James, a former candidate for lieutenant governor, three-time Mrs. Georgia, army vet, and mother of 12. Combining Asian and Southern art and pop cultural imagery, Jiha Moon’s ceramic sculptures cram visual from both sides of the globe onto the surfaces of small but heavily-loaded vessels. These and other works present a complex but understated conception of 21st-century America, an intimate contemporaneity too often overlooked by biennial curators.

Kevin Cole, When My Scars Are My Testimony. Courtesy of Atlanta Contemporary.

Because on-the-nose social relevance has become a kind of curatorial currency, biennials are increasingly turning to political bravado. Unfortunately (for them, and for us), the cold-blooded capitalism underwriting exhibitions like this one tends to nullify or at least complicate any claim to disruptive power (see: Whitney Museum vice chairman Warren Kanders’s participation in the production of military equipment used against asylum seekers along the US-Mexico border). Fuller and March Jones are interested in a broader vision, asserting that the participating artists are devoted to “recapturing their future: combining their vision and abilities to construct something tangible and welcoming tomorrow, the day after, and many days after that.” If noncommittal, this sentiment carries an earnestness and—stranger yet—an optimism that’s rare in our country’s moment of reckoning.

Nonetheless, the art in “A thousand tomorrows” is mindful of yesterday’s traumas and today’s horrors. John Isiah Walton’s painted portraits of Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and other political figures in Krewe of Zulu blackface are displayed opposite Jim Roche’s brazen hand-stenciled slogan series for the Trump era. In the more insular spaces of the art world these works might seem to shout into a void—but here in a publicly nonprofit in a city richer in culture than cultural capital they strike something real. More refreshing yet are the pieces that require a slower look. Formally exuberant at first glance, Kevin Cole’s expansive aluminum wall sculpture When My Scars Are My Testimony echoes America’s of anti-black. Metal strips spring outward from the wall coiled like party ribbon but the pointed ends evoke the neckties once used to lynch African-Americans on their way to voting booths. The unruly form of the sculpture feels less like an outward burst and more like tension drawn in and held, between containment and release. It illuminates the private turmoil in what remains a public crisis.