From the September 2016 issue of The Rotarian
Unlike some parts of the American South (looking at you, Lone Star State), Atlanta doesn’t often boast about size. But insiders know about its intense heat, enormous airport, deeply layered history, and big heart when it comes to showing visitors a good time.
As a native son who committed the yet-to-be-forgiven sin (by my family, anyway) of trucking among the Yankees, I still feel it within my rights to gush over the city I left behind – and to pass along some of its secrets, as well as showstopper sights. The good news is that much of Atlanta’s “bigness” is packed into a relatively compact section of its now-booming downtown, a short walk from the Georgia World Congress Center, where the Rotary International Convention will be held from 10 to 14 June.
Not too long ago, I mentioned my predilection for Pepsi over Coca-Cola to my mother. She all but accused me of apostasy. In these parts, Coke falls only slightly below Rhett Butler as a beloved city icon – evidenced by the 92,000-square-foot, $97 million World of Coca-Cola museum, where a 27-foot-tall bottle of Coke suspended in a glass pillar greets you in the lobby. Marvel at the Coca-Cola bottle sculptures created for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and works by artists from around the world. Deeper inside, you’ll find the “Vault of the Secret Formula,” a behind-the-scenes look at how the fizzy favorite is bottled, and yes, free samples.
Less sweet, but deeply compelling, is a new museum nearby: the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Just north of Centennial Olympic Park, not far from the birthplace of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Auburn Avenue, the center opened to raves in 2014. Among its three floors of artifacts you’ll find an interactive lunch counter exhibit where you can sit with headphones and experience the taunts faced by protesters in the civil rights movement.
Across the park rises CNN headquarters. Visitors can take a studio tour that includes a chance to sit behind the anchor desk and visit the cable giant’s newsroom, perhaps catching a glimpse of Wolf Blitzer and his famous beard.
As dining towns go, even the most loyal native would be hard-pressed to rank Atlanta with San Francisco or New York. But the city’s dining scene is “flooded with new developments,” according to Atlanta magazine, including restaurants like Gunshow, named not for chefs showing off their sculpted arms but for its “bold, playful food, riffs on beef tartare and Chinese dumplings, and even throwbacks like a show-stopping Beef Wellington,” Atlanta writes.
A few miles from downtown, in trendy Decatur, No. 246 features the nouveau Italian fare of local celebrity chef Ford Fry. Kevin Rathbun Steak serves slabs of beef that would make a Texan trade in his feedbag. And who could turn down North Carolina trout slathered with bacon mayonnaise at Cakes & Ale? In Atlanta’s glamorous Buckhead neighborhood, the Atlanta Fish Market features seafood flown in daily, and hip Aria landed on Esquire magazine’s best-in-the-country list.
For me, however, there exists only one must-go destination. No, it’s not a hidden gem. The big red “V” sign heralding the Varsity, in fact, all but dares highway crawlers not to swerve off, bump into the vast driveway, and pull up to the largest drive-in restaurant in the world for a chili cheeseburger and Varsity orange drink.
Originally named the Yellow Jacket – a nod to the athletic teams’ nickname at Georgia Tech, where founder Frank Gordy launched the original in 1928 – the Varsity was renamed after it was forced across Atlanta’s Downtown Connector (Interstate 75/85) highway to its current downtown location. (There are six other locations too.) The restaurant, a frozen-in-time, art deco structure of tan and burgundy, stretches across two city blocks, enough to accommodate 800 diners inside and 600 cars out. For natives, the Varsity is far more than a restaurant, a notion I readily endorse. My grandfather used to take me there after Little League games; hit a homer and he would buy you a chocolate shake. And parents all over Atlanta know the fastest way to quell backseat bickering is to threaten to renege on a promised Varsity trip. This is down-home, unabashedly family eating for people whose idea of fusion is a squirt of ketchup and mustard, and where the closest thing to haughty is a brusque “What’ll ya have?” – the unofficial slogan of the ever-harried cashiers.
After you’ve eaten, pick up a souvenir at a place that offers more than the cookie-cutter mall fare. Try Ponce City Market, a 15-minute car ride from the convention center. Spoon a little honeysuckle gelato as you browse places such as the Ponce Denim Co. or the luxury haberdashery of Q Clothier. Grab a latte at the Dancing Goats Coffee Bar, the first business to open in the restored Sears, Roebuck building, and pop into Boogaloos Boutique or Citizen Supply, where locals showcase artisan goods.
If you prefer to skip the shopping, cool off back in Centennial Olympic Park’s Fountain of Rings, the biggest interactive fountain in the world. Kids love it, and when temperatures rise, adults go in too. For a water experience of another sort, visit the nearby Georgia Aquarium. Yes, every big city seems to have one, but this 10-million-gallon marvel was the largest aquarium in the world until 2012 when Marine Life Park in Singapore hooked the title. The aquarium features seven main exhibits – including its newest addition, the Dolphin Tales gallery. The exhibit includes an indoor stadium where roughly a dozen dolphins perform a half-hour show. Worth seeing, to be sure, but my favorite exhibit by far was Ocean Voyager – a 6.3-million-gallon saltwater habitat that is one of the largest of its kind and the only exhibit to house whale sharks in North America.
Seated comfortably in the giant view room, gazing through floor-to-ceiling glass, you’ll see manta rays – including Nandi, rescued from shark nets protecting the South African coast – and schools of brightly colored exotic fish such as golden trevally, Spanish hogfish, and crimson snappers gliding past in a sea of brilliant blue. When you think you couldn’t be more wonderstruck, a Moby Dick-shaped whale shark, ghostly white, enormous – under a sort of fighter escort of a dozen pilot fish – goes by in slow, silent majesty.
On the other hand, there’s nothing silent about the nearby College Football Hall of Fame. From the time you enter “the Quad” and face the skyscraper-tall wall of helmets from more than 700 universities, you’re hit with a sound barrage – announcers belting out famous plays, the thunk of field goals soaring through the uprights in the museum’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Skill Zone. You can even call your own iconic moments, pulling on a headset and microphone to give the play-by-play on such miracles as Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass that gave Boston College an upset victory for the ages over the heavily favored University of Miami Hurricanes in 1984.
Having experienced the downtown, you might want to grab a rental car and make the short trip to one of my favorite spots in all of Georgia: Stone Mountain.
A 1,700-foot-high quartz monzonite monadnock, the mountain looms gray, bald, and slightly forbidding. In this instance, the “big” boast—that it is the world’s largest piece of exposed granite—is not quite true. Granite is among its materials, but merely one of many.
The mountain’s signature carving, the largest bas-relief in the world, features Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. (If it recalls the smaller carving on Mount Rushmore, it’s no surprise. That more famous relief was created after this one and by the same sculptor.)
But all I knew as a child was how fun it was to hike to the summit, barren as a lunar landscape, via the sloping west side, and the frightening sensation of walking down and peering over the sheer face. On my last visit, I took the aerial tram instead, the no-less dramatic vista scrolling past in a blur of gray history.
Speaking of which, there is history in Atlanta, despite its young age (not even 200 years old). It’s what brought me to one of Atlanta’s most worthwhile, if not best-known, attractions: the Atlanta History Center. The 33-acre grounds feature several historic structures, including Swan House, Tullie Smith Farm, and Wood Family Cabin. Its jewel, however, is its Civil War collection. It includes general items – sabers, rifles, frock coats in blue and gray – and the heartbreakingly personal: letters home composed by quill on a battered desk; a pair of round wire-frame glasses, the left frame squashed into a squinting rectangle; a canteen, scratched and dented; and of course relics from Union Gen. William Sherman’s March to the Sea, the most heart-rending moment of which he burned Atlanta to the ground.
Walk across the hall and you’ll find the Atlanta in 50 Objects display, which includes Martin Luther King Jr.’s handwritten 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, a 1915 Coca-Cola bottle mold, the bat that baseball legend Hank Aaron used to hit his 600th home run, and a movie poster for Gone with the Wind (from the book by Margaret Mitchell, whose house, operated by the history center, still stands at Peachtree and 10th streets).
Among the 50 objects was one that, for me, truly captures Atlanta: Rich’s Pink Pig. A Christmas favorite at Atlanta’s long-defunct Rich’s department store, the Pink Pig was an oinker-shaped monorail ride. My sister and I rode in that silly thing every year, and it remains one of my favorite memories in this city – a place where you’ll be served iced tea sweet as syrup unless you ask otherwise and slice into the best peaches anywhere; where Mary Mac’s serves some of the best Southern fried chicken; and where natives speak in rounded vowels. The people in Atlanta are friendly, open, and quick to smile, laugh, and help you if you’re lost. Depending on whom you meet, you may even be invited to dinner on Sunday.