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 substantiality 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 buildings?
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 1967, 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, revealing transparency."
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?