When I was a college recruiter, Atlanta was a fixture in my work-travel itinerary. Every visit came with nuggets of experiences that blended my life there as a tourist, traveller and–for a short period– a local.
Atlanta: Busiest Airport in the World
On my first trip in the Fall of 2013, I landed early evening and saw every type of passenger imaginable bustling in its’ airport’s beautifully monstrous corridors: the corporate suit, the backpacker, families with children, and new immigrants, just to name a few. Walking through a seamless baggage claim system I was impressed; the thing with big airports is that they have to be organized because any major bottlenecks are immediately visible. ATL took this measure seriously.
Unassumingly massive, there was something about Hartsfield-Jackson airport that excited me. With the core mission of not fucking up air travel for eighty percent of the American population that could get to Atlanta within two hours of flying time, I revelled at the city names I saw on its’ departure screens: New Orleans, Miami, Istanbul, Santiago…this was the true definition of a hub. Being the busiest airport in the world, it shuffled approximately 110 million passengers per year through its’ five terminals (excluding the international one). ATL is also Delta Airlines’ hub.
I took a taxi to my hotel downtown, checked in and decided to go for a walk to stretch my legs after a long journey. September in the South is drench-in-my-clothes humid but it moisturized my skin. I welcomed the warmth after the frigid Canadian digits back home were signalling chilly days. The humidity transported my body back to balmy Kuwait where I lived as a child. My walk felt like stepping on heated clouds–soft.
Downtown Core and its’ Idiosyncracies
Atlanta was full of streets named Peachtree in various types: road, avenue, place… and I was pleasantly confused by all of them intersecting with one another in the downtown core. Atlanta—a central hub in the civil rights movement– was where Martin Luther King Jr. was born, and its large Black community was a huge reflection of this important piece of American history.
I saw glimmers of the old South in the city’s architecture; there was a building with pristine, white columns and glowing spotlights towering the entrance to the structure, evoking a grandiose feeling. The building had a garden outside that made me feel like I stepped back in time. It felt aristocratic…Atlanta had a lot of new money, but there were hints of its’ old-world everywhere.
A party was happening inside the building. I glanced through one of the windows and saw a tipsy blonde woman wearing bright red lipstick and a vintage hat. She was with a gentleman who donned a white tux, looking dashing with his straight, light brown hair slicked back to reveal piercing hazel eyes. She traced her fingers down his jawline. The gentleman returned her affection with an inviting, penetrating gaze. It looked like a scene from a movie.
My feet were hurting; I’d walked about two miles already, stumbling into the financial district where no one had reason to linger after business hours. A few teenagers loitered outside a CVS pharmacy. One of them had flashy white Air Jordan kicks which seemed to pop out of the dirty concrete ground. They were either new or he was extremely diligent about keeping them clean. Not feeling hungry yet, I grabbed a chocolate bar to tide me over and sauntered on.
I approached a bridge. It was the gap between downtown and midtown where there weren’t any stores nor street activity. I was curious but decided to turn around and head back. Later, I learned it was a sketchy part of town. I usually didn’t mind sketch, but in a new city with me being alone, it seemed a risk too big to take.
I passed by a food institution– The Varsity– the largest drive-in fast-food restaurant in the world at the time of this writing. The exterior was retro and I felt transported back to the 1960s. Teenagers were outside socializing after a local game and the interior looked like the lobby area of a bowling alley. The hotdog looked good on the menu but I refrained; perhaps for my next meal. I ended up eating at a Waffle House, which turned out to be scrumptious. Even the fast-food joints were amazing here; Southern grease was magic liquid.
On a subsequent trip, I discovered Lee’s Bakery, a state-renown Vietnamese joint in Brookhaven, a suburb in northeast Atlanta. Their Banh Mi sandwiches were so delicious that they ruined each one I had after that. On some days when I lived with my then-boyfriend, I would visit the laundry mat next door, observing the many Mexican families who had to wash their clothes there because they had no washer/dryers in their homes.
Midtown Tavern (now closed), was where I felt the energy of the locale. One night, I sat at the bar while waiting for my then-boyfriend to finish a shift in the kitchen. With my long curly hair, green smoky-eye makeup and androgynous hands, I cradled a gin and tonic. The slice of lemon’s bright yellow flesh in my glass juxtaposed beautifully next to the natural, wood panels in the bar. The TVs were showing the game. Go Braves! Baseball season was closing so the stakes were high. Locals were quietly watching, the occasional curse coming from a patron after bad umpire calls.
I discovered the Cypress Pint & Plate and The Northside Tavern, both establishments where I met locals and saw Atlanta bands perform. I explored Centennial Olympic Park, a space dedicated to the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. One sunny October day while we were crossing the said park, my then-boyfriend stopped, turned to face me and said he loved me for the first time. We took a photo right after his confession. The snapshot captured our surprise and vulnerability – him at saying it, and me at receiving it. Our expressions were unsure but cautiously optimistic.
Blending Local and Tourist Life
On a hot August day, I attended a Phish concert and a shakedown with a true hippie at heart in Alpharetta, another suburb. It was blistering hot even with the sunset’s soft glow. I didn’t want to spend any more money on marked-up hard liquor so I sobered up and turned sleepy. I closed my eyes, sitting cross-legged on the grass, bobbing my head with the songs’ beats, signalling that I was still awake. Phish had happy music, but they didn’t play my favourite song, Divided Sky. Meat Stick sounded ridiculous.
I was introduced to the underground world of the Atlanta restaurant industry: chefs, servers, line cooks, shady owners. The pressure, the steam, the stale, tired energy after a gruelling shift which alcohol and drugs helped alleviate. My then-boyfriend was stuck on a 16-hour shift once and literally collapsed on the porch after getting home. “I need a beer and a big bottle of whiskey,” he declared. We stayed up until 5am chatting—he recounted horrific stories of his new enemy, an angry gay server. “He hates all of us breeders,” he declared. He went back to work four hours later.
I attended a Braves baseball game. Sport is a religion in this country. Temporarily, I felt…American. The red and white team colours, hotdogs, beer and peanuts invited me in a playful way…you belong here no? Maybe. I found solace at the sight of the green baseball field. The tomahawk chant was cultish, with the stadium lights turning off to reveal a sea of flashlights on phones—twinkles of team loyalty.
An urban oasis that is the Atlanta Botanical Gardens reconnected me with nature. The Southern afternoon sun gleamed and I enjoyed the Alice in Wonderland-themed shrubbery overlooking popular Piedmont Park. I approached a fountain made of deep blue glass and admired the crystalizing water as it cascaded a short distance down the pool.
Like most parts of the Southern United States, Atlanta’s sunsets did not disappoint. No matter where I was –loitering by the blinding lights of the Fox Theatre or on the rooftop pool of The Georgian Terrace– I basked in its calming light. In comparison to the powerful pink, orange and yellow rays of Texas with its open skies, Atlanta’s are more of a soft, luminescent glow. The sunset is cajoling instead of striking.
Decatur is where I could live. I love its’ old-world feel: the cute, downtown square, the artisanal ice cream store and the cute gift shop I browsed in with a colleague. I was in a storybook. Even the stone steps in the core were a sing-song wave as I climbed up and down. The Decatur MARTA station was where I saw the poverty, buried in the eyes of homeless people panhandling and lurking around the bus stops—difficult seams of Atlanta no one wants to face.
Ponce City Market was a classic model of gentrification: with the food prices marked up thirty percent to the Anthropologie and Frye stores, I saw the demographic it attracted. Its’ one salvation of old character was the decision to keep the red bricks of the structure, which used to be the Sears catalogue building. The graffiti in the Old Fourth Ward implored us to not forget the neighbourhood’s identity.
One particularly jolly Friday, I headed to the High Museum of Art (nicknamed The High) with my then-boyfriend. He knew the manager, who silently nodded at the bartender. My drink suddenly became a free-pour gin and tonic. I sauntered the grand halls in my knee-high almond-toed boots as we walked towards the foyer where Jazz was being played by a large group of Black musicians. I felt cultured, energetic and inspired. Always trust The High to do that.
Until Next Time…
It’s been almost three years since my last trip to Atlanta. I’m not sure if I will ever go back now that I’m no longer at a job that sends me there, nor am I involved with the man who lives there. But I will not discount it. I know my travels at the very least, will steer me to Hartsfield-Jackson with layovers to the rest of the South, Latin America, and perhaps across the Atlantic. I will never forget its cosmopolitan, progressive identity, a strong contrast to being part of the Confederate that was once pro-slavery. It has certainly come a long way. I don’t think Robert E. Lee ever fathomed that Atlanta would one day be where a soda headquarter would be. Strange things do happen after all.