BEING THERE: ATLANTA

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The city presents an anonymous face to the world. When he was posted there by The Economist, Jon Fasman faced some tricky negotiations. But life in Atlanta has been a happy surprise ... 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2011

If I were ever convicted of murder and sentenced to die, the walk on my execution day from cell to chair would feel only marginally longer than the walk I made, not quite two years ago, from my old subway station to my house to tell my wife—a New Englander by heritage and a Parisian-New Yorker in sensibility—that I had been offered, and was inclined to accept, a job that would move us to Atlanta. We had a 15-month-old son and had just bought a house, our first, in Washington, DC, where I grew up and which she had grown to like.

What did she knowwhat did either of us know—about Atlanta? There is no defining Atlanta novel (Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full” comes closest, but it was not one of his hits) or film (the antebellum Atlanta of “Gone with the Wind” no longer exists). Like San Antonio or Phoenix, it is one of the sprawling, under-represented American cities. We knew it once hosted the Olympics, has a vast airport, lots of corporate headquarters, Martin Luther King’s church, terrible traffic and a baseball team that manages to be perpetually successful yet largely devoid of style or flavour. Beyond that it was a huge blank, even more association-free than San Antonio (cowboy hats, the Alamo) or Phoenix (cactus). We knew it was in the south, though, so there would be broad front porches, preferably with swings, and sweating glasses of sweet tea and mint juleps. 

The weekend after we moved down, it snowed. Not much—an inch or two over a full day—but it shut the city down. Something similar but worse happened this year: a three-inch storm coupled with a week of below-freezing temperatures shut the city down for nearly a week. Different cities are suited to different seasons: a few years back I was posted to Moscow, which blooms in the winter and wilts in summer. New York’s summer days are repulsive—walking outside feels like swimming through garbage soup—but there is no place I’d rather spend a summer evening. Atlanta is built for spring and fall—the pleasant seasons, and Atlanta is a profoundly pleasant city. 

That is not as easy as it seems. New York is thrilling, Hong Kong a marvel of density, Moscow the closest a city can get to a cocaine level of jitteriness and excitement, London endless: I love all four places, but I would never describe them as pleasant. They are none of them as comfortable and human-scaled as Atlanta. Social life just sort of happens here. In New York and London my calendar filled up weeks in advance; here it is not unusual to look forward to a relaxing, empty weekend on Thursday and then find that Saturday and Sunday are frantic. 

Some of that may be conditional—in New York and London I was childless; now I’m the father of two young children, who seem to have been sent here to be our social secretaries. As the weather turns warm, an informal circuit emerges among similarly harried but happy parents: late-afternoon barbecues and weekend outings to community gardens—tracts of vacant land tucked away in urban neighbourhoods and cultivated by enterprising locals. My son is especially fond of one with a couple of rope swings and some goats and chickens: it’s invisible from the street but immense, like an Arab courtyard. 

And I have discovered that kids bring out the native southern warmth of Atlantans. A few weeks ago I took my older boy to the grocery store. At the checkout he was sitting in the cart, and the cashier looked at him and asked how he was doing. He considered for a moment and then said, “Umm…not so good.” The cashier looked not at him but at me—stupid me with my mouth open and my eyebrows raised. He’d seemed fine to me not ten seconds earlier. She asked what was wrong. He shook his head slowly, cupping his hand to his forehead as no doubt he’d seen his father do many times before. “I had a bad day,” he said mournfully. “I didn’t get to have a cookie.” From some unidentified spot behind the cash register, out came a cookie, a balloon and a sticker. Now the place I call the grocery store he calls the balloon store. And thus began a successful career as a toddler con-artist. 

The grocery-balloon store sits behind the Majestic Diner, a local landmark nearly a century old. Hardly anything is older here. Atlanta was a railroad city, and in 1864, at the end of the American civil war, General William Sherman conquered it for the Union and burned it to the ground. It was swiftly rebuilt; as befits a railroad city, Atlanta has always been about trade, business, enterprise—the hustle. And if that fact robs it of the stately southern charm of Savannah or Charleston, it also did much to protect it from the worst excesses of reaction during the turbulent mid-60s, and made it a bastion of openness and tolerance in the South (not to mention a springtime blessing for those of us allergic to both Spanish moss and antebellum nostalgia). It’s true that you can go days without hearing a southern accent here, and when you do, as often as not it’s someone from Mississippi or Alabama who moved to Atlanta—a transplant like the rest of us.

Yet this is still a southern city, the first one I’ve ever lived in. I grew up in the north-east and spent my professional life either there or abroad. From London and New York I learned to be quick and often brusque in my daily encounters with strangers—cashiers, bus drivers and the like. That does not fly in Atlanta, where civility implies at least a few seconds of courtesy time. From working as a journalist in Washington, DC, I grew used to ritually combative interviews in which academic and professional qualifications were brandished like so many peacock feathers. Here the ruse is different: when I first moved here I interviewed a couple of political figures who were off-puttingly polite and warm, cracking jokes and asking about my family and background and how I like Atlanta, helpfully recommending neighbourhoods, schools for my two young sons and restaurants. Only after I hung up did I realise that I’d just lived through a mugging by Autolycus, the crafty pickpocket who plays a bumpkin in the sheep-shearing scene in “The Winter’s Tale”: they answered none of my questions.

I hasten to add, not least because I assume that the people who pay me a salary to get answers to impertinent questions will be reading this, that I’ve developed a defence against this tactic: dogged persistence, even when the person on the other end of the line does that southern short-intake-of-breath-then-sigh thing that lets you know you’re being incredibly rude.

From a born-and-bred Atlanta friend I learned that this practice is called playing “country dumb”, and you only fall for it once or twice. It’s not the only aspect of rural life that crops up unexpectedly here. My mailing address is Atlanta; I live on the city’s eastern edge, but my neighbourhood feels surprisingly like a small town. Houses in my area tend to be small, bungalow-style or shotgun-shack affairs, with front porches, shuttered windows and large, shambolic backyards. From my desk I can look out of the window and admire the five-centuries-old (at least) oak trees in my yard. I can walk to a little cluster of shops.

Londoners and New Yorkers will have to take my word for how unusual this is in American cities. Atlantans divide the area into “ITP” and “OTP”—Inside the Perimeter and Outside the Perimeter, the highway that rings the city and its closest suburbs. Most of the area’s population is O; most of its charms are decidedly I. One quirk of Atlanta’s development is that urban areas like mine feel rather rustic, while suburbs that were rural 30 years ago are now strip-malled, parking-lotted and planned-communitied into blacktopped uniformity. For all its charms, Atlanta provides an object lesson for mid-sized cities today in how not to grow. It sprawls, it really does have bad traffic, and thanks to a befuddling stew of overlapping city and county governments, it has negligible public transport and dysfunctional state schools. Better to treat the perimeter as a national border, and cross it only on trips abroad.

And yet, and yet: there is still much to like. We were on a walk a few days back, exchanging greetings with the mom and her triplets from across the street, the raggedy man who pushes a grocery cart full of unclassifiable odds and ends, a set of neighbours, one fixing his car and the other painting his eaves. Spring bloomed early; it was warm. “I think I like it here,” my wife said, a propos of nothing and everything. 

Both urban and rural, heterogeneous, affordable, architecturally interesting: it was her ideal, she said, and she could see us staying for a long time. I couldn’t help but smile. I had expended no small amount of marital capital in moving us down here, and had considered it spent. Perhaps it was invested instead. 

GOING NATIVE

WHERE TO STAY

The Westin Peachtree is a city landmark: a 73-storey black cylinder looming over downtown with mirrored windows, a number of which are flat black after a tornado in 2008.

If you need to be in Buckhead and you want to avoid the parking lots that are Highways 75 and 400, try the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.

For low-key southern charm check out the Sugar Magnolia Bed and Breakfast, in a yellow Victorian mansion on a quiet street in Inman Park.

WHERE TO EAT

The Star Provisions complex on the Westside houses Atlanta’s top fine-dining spot, Bacchanalia, as well as the meat-centric Abattoir, nouveau-southern JCT Kitchen and first-rate sandwiches from Star Provisions

For old-school southern fare, head for Mary Mac’s Tea Room or The Colonnade, both more renowned for what they represent than for the food, which is variable. For a barbecue, it has to be either Fox Brothers, Harold’s or Fat Matt’s Rib Shack.

Adventurous diners should drive out on Buford Highway, where restaurants and shops cater to Atlanta’s immense immigrant population. You’ll find first-rate Korean, Vietnamese and Bangladeshi restaurants, as well as regional Mexican fare.

STREETWISE

Atlanta is car-centric, but not as hostile to pedestrians as, say, Houston or Los Angeles. If you’re here for more than a couple of days, rent a car and a GPS—the public-transport system, the MARTA, will get you from the airport to downtown but is otherwise inadequate. Parking is plentiful and driving easy, as long as you stay off the main roads and highways from 7 to 9.30am and 4 to 6.30pm.

WHAT TO SEE

The Georgia Aquarium is pricey but worth a visit, especially with kids. Steer well clear of World of Coca-Cola, as cloying as the beverage it pimps, but be sure to visit the Botanical Gardens, which abut Piedmont Park.

WHERE TO SHOP

You can find all the chains you want at Perimeter, Lenox and Peachtree malls. That said, there are plenty of independent boutiques dotted around Virginia-Highland, West Midtown and Decatur. 

For food shopping head to the hangar-sized, bargain-priced Dekalb Farmers Market, in Decatur.  

 

Jon Fasman is the Atlanta correspondent for The Economist and the author of two novels, both published by the Penguin Press: "The Geographer's Library" and "The Unpossessed City". The last "Being There" feature was on life in Manchester.

Picture credit: TheodoreWLee; around285; justback; joaquinuy (all via Flickr)