Under a pale sky, a girl in Sunday clothes runs laughing along a brick path in Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery. “Sarah, come back,” her parents call. A breeze thins the sound, lifting it into air scented with rosemary, for remembrance. Her father catches up with her amid rows of Confederate graves marked with simple headstones. Taking her hand, he leads her to a wrought-iron bench under a magnolia tree and, in simple, measured language, tells her about the Civil War.
The past is everywhere in this peaceful place that dates to 1850. The city it rests in predates it by only 13 years, founded as a railroad terminus for the new Western and Atlantic Railroad of the State of Georgia. Its history lives on in the cemetery’s grand mausoleums bearing the names of pioneers who brought the city—and the surrounding state of Georgia—to life; in the gentle slope of Potter’s Field, where Atlanta’s poor were laid to rest; in the upright, Hebrew-lettered gravestones of some of Atlanta’s first Jewish citizens; and in the Victorian-era design of the cemetery itself. Margaret Mitchell, author of the novel Gone with the Wind, which gave the world Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, is buried here, not far from Atlanta’s first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson. Also here: the husband-and-wife team of Julian Chandler Harris and Julia Collier Harris, whose groundbreaking journalism dramatized the South’s racist realities in the 1920s.
But Atlanta is much more than its storied past, evident in the modern glass-and-steel skyline that shimmers on the near horizon. This city, with its penchant for slogans, its roving eye for the next big thing, seems always to have known that the future is right now. Atlanta rebuilt itself in the 1870s after the devastation of the Civil War, and took on the moniker “Capital of the New South.” A century later it became “The Next Great International City.” Both are true today. The metropolitan area’s five million residents may occasionally poke fun at their hometown’s eternal love affair with its own bright future, but when the dogwood trees bloom in spring, all that matters is the answer, “Yes,” to the classic Atlanta question: “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
It’s a beautiful city, too, with lovingly tended landscapes, where a particularly fetching stand of daffodils, or an oak wearing fall colors, can slow traffic on Highland Street in the Virginia-Highlands neighborhood and along the tree-lined boulevard leading to Grant Park and the Atlanta Zoo. In Piedmont Park’s 185 green acres, everyone comes out to play among the flowering dogwoods and azaleas in springtime. Some couples marry in Piedmont Park, others break up here. Babies take their first steps in hot pursuit of Frisbees; joggers slow to hear the song of a white-throated sparrow just passing through town. Thousands flock to annual park events, from Dog Daze to the Atlanta Arts Festival.
Food fights—passionately debating the best in cuisine, high and low—are fundamental to the city’s psyche. So are sunshine, college football, and panicky raids on grocery stores at the merest hint of snow. But fittingly for a place that aims to please, Atlanta is exactly what you make of it. The heart of one man’s Atlanta will be Turner Field, where a second World Series win is always just 162 games away. For someone else it is the neighborhood of Buckhead, flashy and ambitious, like a quarterback, but elegant too, with a long record of making things happen. Another will tell you that it’s the spirited music scene: hip hop to country, rap to rock—and those loud nights at Lenny’s Bar handicapping which bands will be next to hit it big.
Come to Atlanta in search of the past-as-prologue, and find it tucked into the modern city. In the Sweet Auburn district, a parade of young school children, black and white, hold hands as they step out of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s boyhood home. At the King Center, teenagers standing around a memorial of pacifist Mahatma Gandhi answer a teacher’s questions about milestones of the American Civil Rights movement.
Visit the “anchors” of Atlanta’s latest downtown revitalization: the state-of-the-art Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola, where visitors and locals alike quaff the city’s trademark beverage like fine wine. CNN Center downtown is headquarters of the communications empire Ted Turner built, and of the news shows that have presented Atlanta’s face to the world. Visitors on CNN Center tours soon find themselves delivering the day’s headlines in laughing sound bites as they mimic their favorite commentators.
Drive down Buford Highway to take in an exuberant jumble of cultures, from Hispanic markets to a Chinese bookstore to a Korean sauna. Recent immigrants to the city, drawn to “la Buford” by established enclaves of different cultures, can get a taste of home here—and visitors can sample the world.
Finally, return for a farewell stroll to Oakland Cemetery, where golfers who fail to make the PGA tour sometimes leave their qualifying cards on the grave of Atlanta native and golfing great Bobby Jones. Great American cities, after all, are great narratives, too.
LYNNA WILLIAMS, an associate professor of English/Creative Writing at Emory University, has lived in Atlanta for 18 years. She is a former newspaper reporter and political speechwriter; her short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and other magazines. She is the author of the short-story collection, Things Not Seen and Other Stories.
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