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.