James Fallows has reported on national politics for The Atlantic since the 1970s, when he served as the chief speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter. In the last four years though, he’s traveled around the parts of the country that rarely show up in the national conversation: Sioux Falls, SD, Holland, MI, Abilene, TX, and many more.

He and his wife Deborah flew their small plane to communities around the country and tried to learn all they could about them. Finding an under-represented part of the American experience, they kept going to more and more places. What began as a project of a few months became a years-long travelogue that recounts some of the surprising ways small town America has weathered (and embraced) change.

He joins Isaac Dovere to compare notes on their time reporting outside major cities—and explain why he’s found cause for optimism.

How Isaac’s experience on the campaign trail compares to Jim’s experience (and why they get such different responses asking about national and local issues)

How Jim’s years reporting in China made him want to explore more of his own country

Why the 2016 deluge of post-election stories from midwestern diners described a divided nation and ‘American carnage’ (and why Jim thinks the picture isn’t so dire)