At first glance, ATLANTA is a typical large American city and one that suffers particularly badly from urban sprawl: the population of the entire metropolitan area exceeds 5.5 million. It is also undeniably upbeat and progressive, with little interest in lamenting a lost Southern past, and since electing the nation’s first black mayor, the late Maynard Jackson, in 1974, it has remained the most conspicuously black-run city in the USA. As if to counterbalance the alienating sprawl, the city maintains plenty of active, prettily landscaped green spaces (most notably, the 22-mile BeltLine), and its neighbourhoods have distinct, recognizable identities; quaint Virginia Highlands is just a short drive away from trendy Inman Park and grungier, punky Little Five Points, for example, but the three have little in common. Once you accept the driving distances and the roaring freeways, dynamic Atlanta has plenty to offer, with must-see attractions from sites associated with Dr King to cultural institutions including the High Museum of Art and Atlanta History Center. At time of writing, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (cchrpartnership.org) was gearing up to open in Centennial Park, between the aquarium and World of Coca-Cola.
The most economical accommodation options in downtown Atlanta are the chains, but even those aren't particularly inexpensive; weekend rates can be better, but just to park costs at least $20 per night (and up to twice that for valet parking). Midtown can be cheaper, and puts you nearer the nightlife.
With its leafy trails, playgrounds, tennis courts, boardwalk and public pool, elegant Piedmont Park has provided a lot of pulse to Atlanta since its construction in 1904. The highlight of the park, however, is the wonderfully landscaped Atlanta Botanical Garden. In addition to its manicured gardens and vast conservatories of gorgeous orchids and tropical plants, the garden hosts summer-long sculpture exhibitions and big-name concerts.
Atlanta has scores of good restaurants to suit all budgets and tastes. The most popular neighbourhoods (such as Inman Park and Virginia-Highland) each tend to have their own community bistro with an upcoming chef. Most Midtown options are upmarket, while Southern soul food is best around Auburn Avenue.
Nestled among the glass skyscrapers, the flamboyant Art Deco Fox Theatre, with its strong Moorish theme, is a rare and gorgeous remnant of old Atlanta. If you’re not attending one of its fairly mainstream shows, you can see the lovely interior on an organized tour.
On the north side of Centennial Olympic Park, the city’s most beloved open space, the Georgia Aquarium is a state-of-the-art facility that is so popular you should probably book in advance. Highlights include the biggest tank in the world, filled with sharks and manta rays and recreations of Georgia habitats; it’s also the only aquarium outside Asia to have whale sharks.
Northeast of Auburn Avenue, around Euclid and Moreland avenues, the youthful, if gentrifying, Little Five Points district is a tangle of thrift stores, hip restaurants, body-piercing parlours, bars and clubs. Home to some of the city’s best nightlife, it’s equally diverting when the sun is up – pop into a record store, or spend the afternoon with coffee and a book.
One and a half miles east of Centennial Park, Auburn Avenue stands as a monument to Atlanta’s black history. During its heyday in the 1920s, “Sweet Auburn” was a prosperous, progressive area of black-owned businesses and jazz clubs, but it went into a decline with the Depression from which it has never truly recovered. Several blocks have been designated as the Martin Luther King, Jr National Historic Site, in honour of Auburn’s most cherished native son. This short stretch of road is the most visited attraction in all Georgia and it’s a moving experience to watch the crowds of school kids waiting in turn to take photographs. Head first for the park service’s visitor centre where an exhibition covers King’s life and campaigns. If you’re looking for a broader account of the civil rights years, the museum in Memphis is much more comprehensive, but this provides a powerful summary, culminating with the mule-drawn wagon used in King’s funeral procession in Atlanta on April 9, 1968.
You should check in at the visitor centre for a free tour of King’s Birth Home, a short walk east. As only fifteen people can visit at a time and school groups often visit en masse, you may have to settle for a “virtual tour”, using the computers at the visitor centre. The house itself is a fourteen-room Queen Anne-style shotgun, restored to its prosperous 1930s appearance. Home to King until he was 12 (he was born in an upstairs bedroom), it remained in his family until 1971.
The main nightlife areas are Virginia-Highland, Little Five Points and Midtown, the centre of Atlanta’s thriving gay and lesbian scene. For listings, check the free weekly Creative Loafing (clatl.com). AtlanTIX (atlantaperforms.com), with a booth in the visitor centre, sells half-price (usually same-day) tickets for local events and performances.
Martin Luther King, Jr was born at 501 Auburn Ave, Atlanta, on January 15, 1929. The house was then home to his parents and his grandparents; both his maternal grandfather, Rev A.D. Williams, and his father, Martin Luther King, Sr, served as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church nearby. Young Martin was ordained at 19 and became co-pastor at Ebenezer with his father, but continued his studies at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he was profoundly influenced by the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, and at Boston University. Returning to the South, King became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954, where his leadership during the bus boycott a year later brought him to national prominence. A visit to India in 1959 further cemented his belief in nonviolent resistance as the means by which racial segregation could be eradicated. He returned to Atlanta in 1960, becoming co-pastor at Ebenezer once more, but also taking on the presidency of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As such, he became the figurehead for the civil rights struggle, planning strategy for future campaigns, flying into each new trouble spot, and commenting to the news media on every latest development. His apotheosis in that role came in August 1963, when he addressed the March on Washington with his “I Have a Dream” speech. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Despite King’s passionate espousal of nonviolence, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI branded him “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country”, and persistently attempted to discredit him over his personal life. King himself became more overtly politicized in his final years. Challenged by the stridency of Malcolm X and the radicalism of urban black youth, he came to see the deprivation and poverty of the cities of the North as affecting black and white alike, and only solvable by tackling “the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism”. In the South, he had always been able to appeal to the federal government as an (albeit often reluctant) ally; now, having declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam, he faced a sterner and lonelier struggle. In the event, his Poor People’s Campaign had barely got off the ground before King was assassinated (see The National Civil Rights Museum) in Memphis on April 4, 1968.