Welcome to the Emerald City of the South

Alabama was beautiful—growing brighter with the fading sun as I headed east to the great green home of Georgia. Like a slow-burning fire, the land changed from brown to pink to red-orange, glowing like an ember beneath the jungle that is Georgia in June, a tangle of trees and vines and growth so thick I almost questioned if this southeastern corner of America had ever, in fact, been settled.

Atlanta shot up on the horizon and reminded me that yes, there were people here after all, and they had surpassed the trees with polished blocks and great rivers of grey concrete. Atlanta looks just like the Emerald City of Oz, only greener and with fewer zoning laws.

I was naïve enough to believe I might park on Peachtree, but a movie shoot had taken over several blocks. Slowing down to 15 mph, I craned my neck forward to see if any famous people would suddenly pop out of their trailers, but I saw nothing but key grips and caterers. Besides, everyone in Atlanta dresses like they’re famous, while the actors all dress like they’re dead.

That’s because most of them are zombies. Both The Walking Dead and Zombieland were filmed extensively in and around Atlanta (one actor I spoke with confessed that auditioning and not winning the part of a zombie prompted her to move on from acting). Playing dead may be easier than turning out thoughtful human dialogue, but given that I was just in Hollywood a few weeks ago, I’d say that Atlanta carries far more theatrical flair than Tinseltown.

The next morning, at breakfast, my server whipped out her iPhone to show me some of her performance art—a video installation of slow-motion pizza attacks. A few hours later, I found myself following a young man dressed as Abraham Lincoln into the Cyclorama—a 360˚ panoramic depiction of the Battle of Atlanta.

The lights went down, and the voice of God (James Earl Jones) began a theatrical reading of Civil War history, scowling at “that redhead General Sherman and his Yankees” and practically fainting with the arrival of the sweeping “tide of blue” that came to wipe out the home guard.

Interestingly, not once during the entire Cyclorama experience does James Earl Jones spell out that the South lost the battle, let alone the war. Instead, there’s a brief mention in the end about how “Sherman moved into Atlanta,” as if the general had purchased a vacation home out in Dunwoody and put in a rose garden.

This summer marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta, a moment in American history in which 5,500 Confederates perished and Georgia’s largest city was burned to the ground.

As big as a football field, the painting at the Cyclorama shows pockets of smoke all around the circumference of the battlefield, but nothing like the red-orange inferno in the movie Gone With the Wind.

Like any war, it had to be much worse in real life. Even with all the sound effects and nifty facts (it took two years and 18,000 gallons of paint), the Cyclorama only left me with a flurry of questions for our guide.

“So why Abraham Lincoln?” I asked him after the other visitors left. Under the new lights, I saw that my guide was about the same age as me (and the same height), but African-American and sporting a top hat and fake velvet beard.

“Well,” he spoke frankly, “If it weren’t for Abraham Lincoln, we wouldn’t be here having this conversation.”

“What conversation would we be having then?” I quizzed him.

“We’d be talking about how our country split in two,” he shot back, very seriously. I smiled and followed him out into the lobby, all the while imagining what kind of museum this would be if the South had won.

“The Northerners were the only ones telling the story, so you gotta realize it’s one-sided,” he explained.

Derrick Williams is technically the technician for the Cyclorama, but he may lead up to seven tour groups in a single day. With me, he opened up about some of the pointed commentary he endures from guests—most visitors walk into the Cyclorama with their minds made up about the Civil War—who was right and who was wrong.

“Everybody wants to pick a side!” he threw up his hands with frustration, “But if you’re gonna look at history, you gotta stay neutral.”

That’s harder than it sounds. When it comes to the Civil War—what it was and what it meant, most of us have personal connections to one side or another, or both.

“I try to be neutral, even though I was born in the South,” he admitted. “Some days I wear a Union cap, other days a Confederate cap, and some days,” he pointed to his beard, “I’m Abraham Lincoln.”

Derrick said that after almost every tour he gets pulled aside like I had done, often to become the unwitting partner in a debate about the Civil War.

“What these people don’t appreciate is that the reason we can even talk ’bout these things is because of what happened here!” Derrick pointed to the ground, and not symbolically. Some of the most heated moments in the Battle of Atlanta were fought on the next hill over.

For him, the realities of the Civil War are far more complex and tragic than can be communicated in a thirty-minute tour.

“Do you realize how many soldiers died simply from heat exhaustion?” he exclaimed. “These dudes were from up north, and here they were, wearing heavy wool uniforms in Georgia, in summer!”

Even Sherman, in his own Memoirs described Atlanta as “hot and sultry” and now in June, 150 years later, I can’t challenge the general’s words, nor can I imagine wearing a wool coat outside in this stupid heat and humidity.

Derrick proceeded with a nuanced description of lesser-known facts about the Civil War: the naïve immigrant armies, an intricate economic strategy, the sacrifice of the farming class on both sides and the legacy of oppression that followed even after the Emancipation Proclamation.

I learned more about Atlanta talking with Derrick than I did from any website or book, and while the Cyclorama may not appear to be the most thrilling attraction in Atlanta, it is by far the most relevant to understanding the history of Georgia’s greatest metropolis.

“You just gotta keep an open mind, man,” Derrick counseled while removing his hat and fake beard. No question that Atlanta is a complex town, but what’s more, the city accelerated through a total transformation in the twentieth century.

“First we had the Klan running everything, then you had the civil rights movement take over, and then the Olympics—all in like 50 years!” Derrick. He delivered his summation of recent Atlanta history with apology and pride.

It’s a constant tone in this place, going back to the greatest story ever published about Atlanta: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

“I decided to read that book but then I kept putting it down.” As a historian, Derrick said he found it tough to read a novel that felt so incomplete.

“Still, Gone With the Wind had a huge impact on the South!” he said. For the first time since the war, people in the South could read about their own history as told by a homegrown Atlanta girl. Though Margaret Mitchell’s retelling of the Civil War remains a source of controversy, the author will forever be one of Atlanta’s heroines.

“And after all the fame, dear Margaret Mitchell was sneaking over across town and giving away the money from her book to help Morehouse College,” said Derrick. “She believe that every people needed their own doctors and she wanted to help, so I admire her for that.”

The next day I visited Margaret Mitchell’s grave in Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery. The air was sticky and warm and southern bugs bit at my bare legs in case I left town without buying any other souvenirs.

Margaret Mitchell Marsh died at the young age of 48 having only published her most famous novel. I stood near her headstone and watched as two separate groups of tourists came and went, both of them barely nodding before moving on to find shade. I held back melodramatically, wanting to commune with a woman whose writing I hold in such high esteem, I found the shiny copper pennies left on her tomb to be unbearably tacky. I imagine Margaret would have wanted antique gold chains, brass rings, expensive flowers, and perfumed love letters all dumped at her resting place—but pennies? With Abraham Lincoln’s face peering up from her grave? It seemed so wrong.

I reread Gone With the Wind a few months ago and found it to be so marvelous, I wanted to become a dictator and make the book required reading for every American. And yet, my own father (who was born in Louisiana) resisted my mother’s pleas and always refused to watch Gone With the Wind, “because the South loses in the end.”

The South did lose, and Atlanta was burned to the ground—not just once, but twice. In 1917, the Great Fire of Atlanta burned the city in half, and once again, the city had to pick up and start over again. That is why so little of old Atlanta remains today, why so many of the buildings are contemporary constructions, and why the 4th Ward is so revered.

Not only is Auburn Avenue the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., but it’s also one of the most charming neighborhoods in Atlanta, lined with tall trees and stacked with cheerful wooden houses.

“Daddy King bought this house for $12,000,” said the volunteer at the Martin Luther King National Historic Site. That was a lot of money back in those days, and the King house is still one of the larger two-story buildings on a street of one-level bungalows.

“Now they got buildings popping up like popcorn!” he continued. “Sweet Auburn is the place to be now—it’s got history!”

The man wore a ten-gallon hat pinned with a silver cross, and he bemoaned the inevitable gentrification of an area that held such deep meaning for the American civil rights movement.

“In ten years time, Dr. King’ll be the only black person up in here!” he said, only half-joking.

My new friend introduced himself as Mr. LaMaur McClendon.

“Scottish?” I asked.

“Black Scots!” he shouted back, half-serious. “My people come from Alabama, but now they’re all over the place—bishops, prisoners, and killers!”

My people come from Scotland, too,” I said, and for a moment, we explored any possibility that somehow we were kin.

“You from Washington, DC?” he asked again after I told him twice.

“Man! I used to live up there—in Bawl’more you can get whatever you want—you can even get dead!” Atlanta was much safer than that, Mr. McClendon assured me—you could walk around anywhere and not get harassed. He told me his own version of Atlanta’s past, how over his own lifetime, things had changed for the better.

“Alonzo Herndon was America’s first black millionaire, but he couldn’t go into the white barbershop to get his hair cut!”

Martin Luther King, Jr. changed all that—he changed the whole of America, but that change started right here on this street in Atlanta, and over at the Ebenezer Church that is now part of the National Historic Site.

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“I moved here because of that church,” Mr. McClendon nodded towards the orange brick façade that lay at the heart of the Civil Rights movement.

“I live right across the street and I ain’t ever close the windows! I just look out at the church all the time.” Then came his life story of personal challenges overcome, tragedy transcended and a new attitude towards all mankind.

“I care about other people now. You know? It ain’t about me—if I can help solve another person’s problem, I can solve mine.”

Today, Mr McLendon enjoys his retirement by restoring antique radios and volunteering at the National Historic Site, helping thousands of visitors understand the importance of this neighborhood and what happened here—how in spite of so much oppression, America finally made a significant step towards racial equality.

“I’m done moving around, now,” he went on. “I wanna die here—right in that room, staring across at that church.”

After a few hours talking, Mr. McLendon wished me well in Atlanta, “You enjoy yourself while you’re here! It’s history, man!”

There is history here, like anywhere else in the South, though the newness of the city sometimes masks the scars of the past.

Already I feel like “The New South” gets bandied about like a cheap slogan, parallel to the defensive streak some Southerners reveal in conversation. After asking one lady directions on the street, she rebutted with a long explanation of the Southern culture and temperament.

“We Southerners don’t just sit around doing nothing ‘cuz we’re lazy,” she said. “We’re just conserving energy!”

Surviving the South means leaning to keep cool, perhaps both literally and figuratively. Blaming the heat is a constant. “In Atlanta, it’s all about good air-conditioning, shade, and cool drinks,” she advised me, “You just gotta understand the need for a good mint julep.”

Six days in Atlanta and I never found a mint julep on any menus, but I did encounter plenty of Coca-Cola, as well as “Death on the Mississippi”—a cocktail of root beer liqueur, St. George Absinthe verte, with lemon and sugar, served at King + Duke. Named after characters in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the restaurant cooks all their food over a roaring hickory fire, so that it tastes unlike any other meal in Atlanta.

Reviewing the dinner menu, I flitted through fancy seafood dishes and sirloin steak before my eyes settled on two words: Alabama Rabbit. I ordered it because it’s rare to find rabbit on any American menu, and I wanted something that was bona fide Southern.

My dish arrived with luxurious flourish, a gourmet rendition of classic southern game—aromatic and succulent. Oyster mushrooms, a splash of dark and spicy mustard, and a hockey puck of delicate rabbit meat, cooked with so much love.

Good food does that to us, and though I really know nothing about the Civil War, and my understanding of the Civil Rights movement is pretty much limited to that of a white boy who graduated from an Ohio public school and read Gone With the Wind once upon a time, I felt a wash of insight with each bite of Alabama rabbit.

The South is what you want it to be, I thought, dipping my fork into the sauce and savoring the flavor. If you’re looking for rednecks and petty racism, you can find it—and if you want sophistication and learning, you’ll find that, too.

Atlanta is the city that showed us a better way to be American—this place was the crucible for establishing real human rights and equality and today, as new people move in and make Atlanta home, the city has become its best self.

In the end, it all depends on us as travelers and what we’re searching for.  Down here in the South, if you’re looking for the whole truth—the bountiful green of Georgia, the beauty of history made good, and the energy of new things—it’s all here, in Atlanta.

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