So you're going to Atlanta for the Olympics! Well, Atlantans
traditionally have been hospitable folks, happy to oblige
visitors who have questions about the city. If you're thinking
of going to Atlanta for the Atlantans, however, this is hardly
the time. You may well not meet any, except in passing as they
escape Atlanta for the Olympics. And since they will be busy
brushing the Olympic construction dust off their clothes and
counting all the yen and deutsche marks they've received for
renting out their homes, they may not be disposed to explain
Atlanta to you. In fact, they may be more inclined to ask you
questions, such as, "How would you feel if people came to your
town and wrapped a 1,996-foot-long weenie around and around
inside your Georgia Dome and called it the official Olympic hot
dog and then had to throw it away--no one knows where--because
it went bad? Where can you throw away a 1,996-foot-long weenie?"
Or, "Who would've thought that the capital of Georgia would
become--even before the Olympics--the kind of town whose
best-known residents include Elton John and John Ehrlichman?"
The truth is, anyone who thinks he can come up with any kind of
unified theory of Atlanta hasn't been paying attention for the
last 20 or 30 years. I grew up in the Atlanta area, and I went
back recently to look around and ask Atlantans whether there is
any there there. The most frequent response I got was most
succinctly put by a young woman standing outside a club called
Oxygen at two o'clock one morning:
"Oh, you're looking for the there here. Let me know if you find
On that note I open the floor for questions.
Will I be able to understand the Southern lingo? Should I try to
speak Southern myself?
When I flew into Atlanta last month, the first voice I heard at
the airport informed me, in an entirely unregional accent,
"Please excuse the inconvenience. The train system is not
completely operational. Please observe signs over the train
entrance door for information involving train destination. The
trains should depart at approximately 10-minute intervals." This
was followed, after a just-under-five-second interval (I timed
it), by the same announcement. Altogether, as I walked a good
mile and a half and saw no signs over train entrance doors, I
heard that announcement 39 times. I daresay that by now the
airport train system has been fixed, and that voice has been
The next voice I heard was that of my cabdriver, sure to be a
source of grassroots skinny. I said, "You looking forward to the
He made an incredulous noise, like "Hoonh!"
After a pause I chuckled and said, "Does everybody ask you
that?" He didn't make any noise at all. After we drove in
silence for quite a while, I asked him where he was from.
"Ghana," he said.
The next voice was that of the man who took my bags at the
hotel. He was quite friendly. I couldn't place his accent. He
was from Eritrea.
The phone in my room woke me the next morning. "Umf?" I said.
A sprightly female Southern voice said, "Information?"
"No," I said. I hung up. The phone rang again. "Yuhf?" I said.
"I figured it out," said the same voice. "You're in room 1212,
"See, I was trying to dial New York information, but I forgot to
dial 9 first, so the only numbers that registered were 1212,
which is your room. See? One, and the area code for New York...."
"Where are you?"
"In another room. I'm from Charlotte, but I live in L.A. now.
You sounded so abrupt, I thought I'd call and explain. Bye."
The next person I talked to was another cordial bellman. He
sounded local. He complimented me on the cap I was wearing.
"Thanks," I said. "It's from Nepal." This seemed to strike no
chord of recognition, so I said, more specifically, "Kathmandu."
He gave me a very strange look. After a moment it occurred to me
that he might think I was trying some kind of hepcat jive talk
with him--as if I might be expecting him to answer, "Man, a cat
sho' 'nuff do."
What he did answer, politely, was, "I know that's right."
I proceeded to the public library. The face of the quite helpful
research librarian was decorated by what I took to be tribal
tattoos. Turned out she was from Namibia.
So if I were you, I wouldn't try to fit into Atlanta culture by
addressing everyone as y'all. For one thing, you might have read
a recent how-to-get-by-in-Atlanta article in which it was
alleged that y'all is singular, and the plural is y'alls. This
is sheer misinformation. Here is a rare opportunity to be
definitive about a vaguely Atlanta-related point, and I am not
going to let it get away: Y'all is always plural, although
sometimes it may sound singular. For instance, someone may ask a
waitress, "What kind of pie y'all got?" That y'all refers to the
restaurant, as a collection of people. To be sure, there is such
a word as y'all's: the plural possessive, as in, "Y'all's little
boy sure is cute," addressed to a couple. Oh, don't worry about
it. If you didn't grow up using y'all, stay away from it.
Also, I wouldn't go around asking local people what grits are,
or is. To someone who grew up eating grits, that's as engaging
an icebreaker as "What are potatoes?" would be to an Irishman.
Chicago is the city of big shoulders, Pittsburgh is a
shot-and-a-beer town, Los Angeles has no more personality than a
paper cup--what's the word on Atlanta?
In the beginning Atlanta was without form, and void. It still is.
Void? Like empty void?
Well, I'm taking a bit of Biblical license. But what more
appropriate place to quote the Bible and to take license than
Atlanta? Michael Musto, gossip columnist for New York's Village
Voice, once wrote after a visit to Atlanta, "The entire city
stops dead on Sundays for--get this--church." This overstates
the case considerably, but if you ask an Atlantan what he thinks
of, say, Deion Sanders, he may reply, "My mama and Deion go to
the same church. And Deion's right regular."
There are more houses of worship in Atlanta, in fact, than there
are table-dancing establishments. Which is saying something, for
Atlanta is the table-dancing-establishment capital of, at least,
the Southeast. When a big churchgoing town is also a mecca for
the kind of guy who likes to show what a class act he is by not
laying a hand on a succession of chipper if unsultry young women
whom he is paying to gyrate stark naked at his table, within an
inch of his nose--well, void may be a bit strong. But a
connection missing somewhere is not.
What might be this connection that's missing?
Southern towns--Memphis, New Orleans, Natchez--usually exude a
sense of sin, guilt, loss: the blues. Atlanta had been Atlanta
for only 19 years when General Sherman burned it to the ground
in 1864. Not having accrued much karma, it started over from
scratch. It has kept on starting over ever since. Atlanta wakes
up to a new world every morning. You'd never catch Atlanta
calling itself the City of Brotherly Love, because then it would
always be letting itself down, like Philadelphia. Atlanta is
slicker than that: It's the City Too Busy to Hate. You can
always find some substantiation for a slogan like that. For
instance, while it is true that one aspect of Atlanta's
busy-ness is a beehive of violent street crime, it is also true
that Atlanta has a black woman police chief.
You seem to be suggesting that Atlanta is predominantly image.
Isn't it the home of major institutions?
Somehow home doesn't seem quite the word. There's the memory of
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a universal value that the city
cherishes much more than it did the man when he was alive.
There's Jimmy Carter's center, which settles disputes in other
countries. There's the Cable News Network, which is global, not
local. There's Coca-Cola, which wants to teach the world to
sing. There are the world champion Braves, whom the city shares
with everyone in the country who is hooked into the Turner
Broadcasting System. There's the Centers for Disease Control,
which is no more indigenous than chronic fatigue syndrome.
Atlanta prides itself on having just about everything that any
other U.S. city has--as opposed to anything that other U.S.
cities don't have.
Then there's the Atlanta airport. Do you have any sense of being
anywhere in particular when you're in the Atlanta airport? No,
you have a sense of being in Connecting-Flight Purgatory. There
used to be a sign there proclaiming WELCOME TO ATLANTA, A WORLD
CLASS, MAJOR-LEAGUE CITY. That was tacky enough to exude a
certain local color, so it came down.
Currently the most telling symbol of Atlanta's wish for
globality is at the intersection of Peachtree Street and
International Boulevard. (International Boulevard used to be
Cain Street, but the mark of Cain has been expunged.) On two of
the corners of this intersection are a Planet Hollywood and a
Hard Rock Cafe. But you can find Planet Hollywoods and Hard
Rocks in lots of cities. Only in Atlanta, at the intersection of
Peachtree and International, can you find a globe--flattened, to
be sure--set into the pavement. Covering the junction of the two
streets is a big circle within which the continents are depicted
by pavement blocks of different colors. Even when this artwork
was new, however, there was no way to get enough perspective on
it from ground level to make out what it depicted, and now that
traffic has passed over it for almost a year, it's almost all
dark gray. This was supposed to be ground zero for Olympic
Atlanta. And so it is. The world is there, and yet it's not.
You're not denying that Atlanta is a world-class city, are you?
Certainly not. It is the city, after all, of the Atlanta
Olympics--whose symbol is a little blue blobomorphic conundrum.
Whatizit, this symbol is formally called, but the What and the
it have fallen away. "Izzy is a teenager," according to official
Olympic postcards (a teenager, note: neither childlike nor
mature), "who lives in a fantastic world found only inside the
Olympic flame." Izzy is without form, and void.
And Atlanta was this way from the beginning?
In 1837 somebody drove a stake in the ground: Zero Mile marker,
where the terminus of the Western & Atlantic railroad would be.
Three miles to the west was a tavern, seven miles to the north
was the Chattahoochee River, six miles to the east was the town
of Decatur, but right there where the stake was, was nothing but
the stake. Atlanta in its genesis was called Terminus.
Then for a while it was Marthasville, named for the governor's
daughter, Martha Lumpkin. (That might be a better name for Izzy:
the Lumpkin.) Then people started putting in improvements such
as board floors in the buildings, and it was felt that the town
growing up around the train station ought to have a higher-flown
name, so somebody decided upon the feminine form of Atlantic (an
ocean that lay about 300 miles to the east). Atlanta.
Polls show that many people confuse it with Atlantic City, N.J.
Atlanta is known as the Gateway City of the South. (A gate is
neither here nor there.) Atlanta used to call itself the Phoenix
City, because it rose from the ashes like a phoenix after
Sherman burned it. You'd think the phoenix would be sufficiently
representative of flux to serve as Atlanta's Olympic symbol, but
if you look at drawings of that mythical bird, you'll notice
that it has a definite--and prickly--shape. Then, too, there is
another city in America called Phoenix (which never claims to
have risen from the ashes like the Atlanta), and just over the
Georgia line there's a town called Phenix City, Ala., which was
known as "the wickedest city in the U.S." until reformers
cleaned up everything about it but its spelling.
Aren't there any bits of raffish Atlanta historical lore?
Yes, but it's remarkable how often impermanence and
insubstantiality crop up. Atlanta's first jail was a
12-foot-square log cabin. If there were enough prisoners inside,
they could get together and dump the building on its side and
walk out. In the early days there were two bad neighborhoods,
Murrell's Row and Snake Nation, where gambling, cockfights and
brawling went on. The denizens of these neighborhoods formed a
political party, the Free and Rowdy Party. They were opposed by
the upstanding business community: the Moral Party. The Morals
eventually carried the day by burning the bad neighborhoods
down, leaving a new void to develop. One of Atlanta's earliest
developers was a sort of proto-Izzy. His name was Ammi Williams,
and he went around saying, "If I'm not Ammi, then who am I?"
So where do we go in Atlanta to see Tara and other historic
There is nothing vaguely resembling Scarlett O'Hara's ancestral
home in the Atlanta area. Anything antebellum, Sherman burned.
In the summer of 1865, a Northern visitor to the city recorded
his impressions: "Everywhere were ruins and rubbish, mud and
mortar and misery. The burned streets were rapidly rebuilding,
but meantime, hundreds of inhabitants, black and white, made
homeless by the destruction of the city, were living in wretched
hovels which made the suburbs look like a fantastic encampment
of Indians or Gypsies."
Certainly Atlanta has pulled itself together since then. But it
keeps tearing itself back down. Recently Susan Taylor, a
lifetime Atlantan, was showing me some of the new Olympic
structures, and I asked her what a particular construction site
was. "Who the hell knows?" she said. "Atlanta's been in
reconstruction since Sherman. I've been living here about that
long, and I've been bitching about it all that time, and I'll
keep on bitching about it till I get the hell out."
Atlanta has new buildings the way other Southern locales have
kudzu. Many of these buildings were designed by local
architect-developer John Portman, whose Hyatt-Regency Hotel
originated, in l967, the atrium (or lobby-all-the-way-to-the-
roof) style, which spread like wildfire. The Dutch architect Rem
Koolhaas describes the Portman atrium as "a container of
artificiality that allows its occupants to avoid daylight
forever--a hermetic interior, sealed against the real...the
cube hollowed out to create an invasive, all-inclusive,
Atlanta doesn't have kudzu?
Here and there, in less developed areas, but Atlanta is one of
the few Southern places where kudzu has a hard time putting down
roots, because today's less developed area is likely to be
tomorrow's new cluster of tall office buildings. ("There is no
center," Koolhaas says of Atlanta, "therefore no periphery."
There is, however, a mall called the Perimeter Center.) Atlanta
has the Kudzu Cafe, which is a sort of fern bar, only the
dominant fern is artificial kudzu. The decor is arty photographs
of things Southern: a rooster pecking on a watermelon rind, a
pool-hall wall with "Yo Baby Yo Baby Yo" painted on it. The food
is quite good in an upscale-semi-Southern-eclectic sort of way:
delicious black-eyed pea soup cheek-by-jowl with julienne of
vegetables. The corn bread, un-Southernly fluffy and sweet, will
never make anybody holler, "Yo Baby Yo Baby Yo."
How about peach trees? The streets are lined with them, right?
No. Peach trees are not indigenous to the area. There are 30-odd
different streets with Peachtree in their names, and there's a
Peach, a Peachford, a Peachwood and five different Peachcrests.
But that's not what's confusing about driving in Atlanta.
What's really confusing is this sort of thing: Atlanta's
principal north-south non-Interstate arteries are Peachtree and
Piedmont. They start out parallel, four blocks apart, headed
northeast. Then they go due north for a while, but only three
blocks apart. Then West Peachtree suddenly arises to take over
Peachtree's course, and Peachtree jogs to the right, so it's
only two blocks from Piedmont. Then West Peachtree disappears
into Peachtree again. Then Peachtree veers to the northwest and
Piedmont to the northeast, so they spread farther and farther
apart, and then they swing back together and cross each other,
Piedmont going off to the northwest and Peachtree to the
northeast. Along the way they both cross Third, Fourth, Fifth,
Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Tenth streets (there is no First or
Second), but neither of them crosses Ninth. Peachtree crosses
11th and 12th; Piedmont intersects with little spurs called 11th
and 12th that aren't continuations of the 11th and 12th that
Peachtree crosses. Peachtree crosses 13th, Piedmont doesn't.
After 14th and 15th, which both Peachtree and Piedmont cross,
Piedmont crosses no more numbered streets. Peachtree crosses
16th and 17th, but it skips 18th and 19th. There are no 20th
through 24th streets. Twenty-fifth, 26th and 28th make faint
impressions on Peachtree. There is no 27th.
There is a Boulevard Drive that's perpendicular to Memorial
Drive, and a Boulevard Drive that's parallel to Memorial Drive.
And there's something about Monroe Drive--this is hard to
explain, but if you stay on Monroe Drive long enough, you find
yourself on Piedmont crossing Monroe Drive at a point where you
were 20 minutes ago.
What's the weather going to be like?
Atlanta's is one of the finest climates in the U.S. year-round.
Except for this time of year. The last time I was in Atlanta in
July, I looked out from my air-conditioned room and noticed a
nice light rain, so I ventured outside. Instantly I was seized
by the sensation that I had become a freshly baked muffin, hot
clear through, except here and there on the surface, where, as
the tiny raindrops hit me, I felt flecked by spritzes of mint.
It was interesting but hardly conducive to enjoyment of outdoor
You don't make Atlanta sound very inviting.
Let me state my bias. I am from Decatur. Decatur could have been
Atlanta, but folks didn't want the smoke and the noise of the
railroad. When Terminus was founded, a Decaturite said, "The
train don't start nowhere, and it don't go nowhere."
Now Decatur is part of metropolitan Atlanta. But Decatur has
something that Atlanta doesn't: a focal point, the Decatur
Square, with the old courthouse on it. As it happens, the
Decatur Square is also Roy A. Blount Plaza, named for my late
father, a civic leader who was, among other things, chairman of
MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Association, back
when the subway system it includes was laid out in the early '70s.
The MARTA subway is quiet and clean, with helpful attendants and
attractive stations. In the Peachtree Center station I saw, at
last, something indigenously substantial: The rough-hewn walls
alongside the tracks are of the same granite through which the
tunnel was blasted. If the Atlanta Olympics work out O.K.
logistically, I figure MARTA will be the star. Unless the
air-conditioning in the cars is overwhelmed and mass suffocation
What you're saying is, you couldn't find any "there" in Atlanta
except in a hole in the ground that you somehow connect with
Oh, no. Atlanta also has the greatest fast-food place in the
world: The Varsity, on North Avenue right across from the
Olympic Village. I have traveled the world over and never found
a chili dog that approaches the excellence of a Varsity chili
dog. My stepfather used to deliver hot-dog buns to the Varsity,
and he said the Varsity would accept no bun whose surface would
crack if you wrapped the bun around your finger. And I have
never seen french fries anywhere else that showed such
undeniable signs of having come, within the last few minutes,
from actual potatoes. And the onion rings! If I were to see a
set of Olympic rings that were five interlocking Varsity onion
rings, I would believe.
Also if I were to see five interlocking Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
There is no more delightful fattening experience than pulling up
to the Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon Avenue late at night and
smelling the fresh hot doughnuts as they come off the assembly
line in the back. I went into the Krispy Kreme not long ago and
sat down next to a man who had tears in his eyes. He turned to
me and said, "My mama used to bring me here."
Isn't this getting awfully personal?
Embarrassing, isn't it? But there is something awfully personal
about Atlanta. Dig down under the "We're just amiable
businessfolk" surface, and you find a volatile mixture of "This
is one town where a black person can do well, and I'll be damned
if I'm missing out on that action" and "Unless you count St.
Louis, which is in a border state, no town ever represented by
Sherman's army ever had a Summer Olympics, by god!"
Furthermore, has anyone noticed the similarities between Atlanta
Committee for the Olympic Games head Billy Payne (who takes a
bottle of Jack Daniels and a loaf of white bread with him to
Europe) and the wildly eccentric Georgia folk artist Howard
Finster (who paints portraits of people with messages written on
their foreheads such as ONLY GOD OF ABRAHAM COULD CREATE A
BRAINE OF POWER. AND WISDOM TO CARRY ON IN A WORLD LIKE THIS
ONE)? Both men are outspokenly religious. Until they became
world-famous, neither of them had ever spent much time outside
of Georgia. Both of them are self-appointed and boundlessly
enthusiastic. Both of them write strange verse. People say both
are crazy. It came to Billy Payne out of the blue one day that
he should bring the Olympics to Atlanta, just as it came to
Howard Finster out of the blue one day (he thought he saw a face
in a dab of paint on his finger) that he should paint portraits
of Elvis and Jesus and Coke bottles and himself.
Finster was on the Tonight Show once. Johnny Carson asked him
what inspired his art. Finster put his hand to his head and
replied, "If you had a place itching up here, Johnny, you'd
reach right up to scratch it, like you know right where it is.
If you was to ask me to scratch it, I wouldn't know where to
Ask Atlantans where their civic there is, and they may shrug.
But then some little personal thing will crop up, like the fact
that their mama and Deion Sanders belong to the same
congregation, and ... well, it's hard to put your finger on the
principle involved, but somehow, collectively, Atlanta has an
itch and knows where to scratch it.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY BUTCH BELAIR [Photo illustration featuring Olympic flame, Olympic rings, skyscrapers, giant peach, man with shovel and Coca-Cola billboard]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY BUTCH BELAIR THE GAMES' SYMBOL IS A LITTLE BLUE BLOBOMORPHIC CONUNDRUM. IZZY IS WITHOUT FORM, AND VOID [Photo illustration of Olympic mascot Izzy and stone building]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY BUTCH BELAIR ATLANTA IS THE TABLE-DANCING-ESTABLISHMENT CAPITAL OF, AT THE VERY LEAST, THE SOUTHEAST [Photo illustration of female table-dancer and head of man with cigar in mouth]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY BUTCH BELAIR IF THERE WERE ENOUGH PRISONERS IN ATLANTA'S FIRST JAIL, THEY COULD DUMP IT ON ITS SIDE AND WALK OUT [Photo illustration of jailhouse with feet]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY BUTCH BELAIR THIRTY-ODD STREETS HAVE PEACHTREE IN THEIR NAMES, BUT THAT'S NOT WHAT'S CONFUSING ABOUT DRIVING IN ATLANTA [Photo illustration of post with numerous roadsigns reading "Peachtree"]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY BUTCH BELAIR THE MOST DELIGHTFUL FATTENING EXPERIENCE IS TO PULL UP TO THE KRISPY KREME AND SMELL THE HOT DOUGHNUTS [Photo illustration of two men and car in front of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shop]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY BUTCH BELAIR IF YOU'RE GOING TO ATLANTA FOR THE ATLANTANS, THIS IS HARDLY THE TIME. YOU MAY WELL NOT MEET ANY [Photo illustration of car driving towards mirage of buildings]