Using Elixir 1.5's open command with terminal Emacs

By: Chris McCord


Elixir 1.5 includes some excellent new features, especially around debugging. One of the subtle features is a new open function inside iex which opens your configured editor to the file/line of the provided module and function. For example, if you run the following in iex:

iex> open URI.decode_query

Elixir will open the URI module source code in your editor, at the line where decode_query is defined. This works for both your library code as well as the standard library source. It’s incredibly useful to jump to code as you’re debugging inside iex.


The open command works by looking for the ELIXIR_EDITOR or EDITOR environment variables. This works great for GUI editors like sublime, where you can simply set export ELIXIR_EDITOR="subl" and be on your way. For terminal based editors like Emacs, some hacking was involved to make it work.

First things first, I wanted open to align with my workflow. It wasn’t enough for open to launch the buffer inside a single Emacs instance, since I often have half a dozen tmux sessions, each with their own Emacs instance for the project and iex sessions running. I needed a solution that allowed open to target ELIXIR_EDITOR at my current project’s Emacs process. And down the rabbit hole I went.

To make it happen, I made use of Emacs’ built in client/server feature where Emacs can start a “server” and emacsclient can attach or interact with it from elsewhere. For the “current project” target, I first check for an active Git repo, and fallback to the current directory basename. Additionally, when Emacs launches, I start an Emacs server using this current project name. Lastly, I target ELIXIR_EDITOR at a custom bash script which checks the current project and calls emacsclient with the appropriate server name. Let’s break it down.

Note: we must save a couple bash scripts inside /usr/local/bin instead of defining them somewhere in user-land. We have to do this because Elixir and Emacs load our shell environment differently from user-land, so things like our .bash_profile won’t be loaded.

First, create a new file named current_project_name at /usr/local/bin/current_project_name, with these contents:

#!/usr/bin/env sh

if git rev-parse --git-dir > /dev/null 2>&1; then
  echo `basename $(git rev-parse --show-toplevel)`
  echo `basename $(pwd)`

Next, you need to make the file executable with:

$ chmod +x /usr/local/bin/current_project_name     

It uses git rev-parse to get the current Git repo directory, so your “current project” name will be correct, even if you are inside a child directory of the project. If no Git repo is found, it falls back to the basename of the current working directory. Now, you can run $ current_project_name in your shell to test it out.

Next, we need to define a command to launch our emacsclient based on the current project. Define a new emacsclient-elixir file at /usr/local/bin/emacsclient-elixir with the following contents:

#!/usr/bin/env sh
emacsclient -s $(current_project_name) $@

Next, make sure it’s executable:

$ chmod +x /usr/local/bin/emacsclient-elixir     

We simply call emacsclient with the -s option, which uses our current_project_name script to target the correct Emacs server.

Next, let’s make Elixir aware of our new editor command. Add the following export to your environment in one of .bashrc, .bash_profile, .zshrc, or similar:

export ELIXIR_EDITOR="emacsclient-elixir +__LINE__ __FILE__"

The last step is to configure Emacs to start a server with the current project name when it launches. Add the following to your ~/.emacs.d/init.el or the location of your Emacs init script:

(setq server-name (replace-regexp-in-string "\n$" ""
                    (shell-command-to-string "current_project_name")))
(unless (server-running-p (symbol-value 'server-name))

We have Emacs shell out to our current_project_name script, then set the server-name based on that value. Lastly, we call server-start to boot the server.

Now we can try it out, but be sure to reload any terminal shell to grab the new commands and environment variables. Here it is in action inside the Phoenix project:


That’s it! Happy hacking!