Atlanta is a city that has been forged on the anvil of strife, that’s risen from the embers of the Civil War.
It is a city with traditions both genteel and gritty, a place that is rising up out of its past to bring out the best of human endeavor. It is the quintessential Southern American city.
Some might even call it the capital of the South, although plenty of Southerners from elsewhere would argue that point. There’s no denying, however, its place at the heart of the American story. Diverse and determined, Atlanta demands to be explored and understood on its own terms.
This epic painting, created by 17 German artists in Milwaukee in 1886, depicts the Battle of Atlanta, a pivotal moment in the war between the North and South. Forty-nine feet tall, weighing in at 10,000 pounds and longer than a football field, it’s the 19th-century equivalent of an IMAX cinema and no less dramatic.
Painted to create the illusion of being never ending, it’s an immersive experience, putting the viewer right in the middle of the battlefield.
“The artists did a good job of simulating scale and fooling the eye, making you think that there’s more going on than there actually is,” says Gordon Jones, a Civil War expert who has spent his life studying the cyclorama. He points towards the realistic rendering of General Sherman, his likeness copied from a photograph of him on his horse, Duke.
Jones explains that when it was first painted in Milwaukee, the Atlanta cyclorama was designed to depict the Union’s victory over the Confederacy. However, when it came to Atlanta, it was recast as showcasing “the only Southern victory ever painted.” That despite the North winning the bloody battle when it took place in July 1864.
The cyclorama offers visitors to Atlanta the chance to understand how the Civil War figures into the city’s history, more than 150 years on.
“The Civil War is really part of the DNA of not only Atlanta, but all of the South,” says Jones. “It happened here on our soil, in the backyards of everybody who’s living here now. But it’s also super important because it defines the history of the United States from this point forward, particularly when it comes to matters of race, politics, economics, social justice.”
The fight for racial justice
Looking across Atlanta, seeing where that battle was fought, it’s impossible not to sense the importance of the Civil War here. Its consequences can still be felt now and were especially resonant during the 1950s and 1960s, as the Civil Rights movement grew and spread across the entire country, in response to the oppression that remained despite the abolition of slavery some 100 years before.
By the middle of the 20th century there were two Atlantas, one black, one white. It was in the former where the driving force for change in America came from.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929. And whatever national or global influence and change he was able to effect, it was based on the values that he learned in this city.
Xernona Clayton was part of the movement that King led from Ebenezer Baptist Church. She first walked into that hallowed place in 1965 and became close with the man himself, seeing firsthand the change he was trying to enact as well as experiencing the prejudice that was the catalyst for much-needed change.
“Black people had restrictions and I ran into it every place I went,” she says. “Ran into it. And it just hits you. Not in the face, but in the gut, because you know you’re not responsible for what you look like. I don’t want to be judged by what I look like.”
Clayton was close with King’s wife Coretta, even helping her choose her mourning outfit for MLK’s funeral. But beyond her relationship with the Kings, Clayton was and is a pioneer in her own right. She helped to desegregate Atlanta’s hospitals and in 1967 became the first black woman to host a prime time talk show in the South.
At 90 years old, the fire within her still burns.
“The hospital needed to be changed. I helped to change the philosophy of the hospitals. I’ve done a lot of things to help make that change,” she says. “But I was working with a man who said; ‘Do what you can. All the time. Change a man’s heart and you can regulate his behavior.’ That’s what I heard Martin Luther King say all the time.”
She managed to do just that with Calvin Craig, a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan with whom she formed an unlikely friendship in 1967, before he denounced the organization. He said it was his conversations with Clayton that brought about his change of heart.
Today, Clayton is an Atlanta icon, with strangers coming up to her in the street to thank her for her years of work.
A city that loves to eat
Atlanta is a city where history is inescapable, whether it’s the battles of the Civil War or the ongoing fights for racial justice and equality. And that proximity to its traditions extends to its food too.
Mary Mac’s Tea Room is the place to be for the city’s finest Southern fried chicken. The name is a misnomer. When Mary Mackenzie opened it in 1945, women were not allowed to own restaurants so she skirted that rule by billing it as a tea room. However, the iced tea she served came with a side of Atlanta’s best fried chicken.
Jeff Thomas and Ronnie Holt are two chefs skilled in creating this most quintessential of Southern dishes. And Thomas has the key to ensuring perfect chicken every time.
“The secret is having a love and a passion for cooking,” he says as he gets to work. “I watched my mom cook all the time. One thing that she’d always do when she cooked, she’d always hum and sing. I asked her, ‘Why you always do that?’ And she was like, ‘Cooking has to come from your heart, from your soul. If the soul is happy, then you’ll taste it in your food. You can’t come to the table with a mean soul.’”
Ronnie explains that it’s all about keeping things simple, rolling chicken in batter after it’s been seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper, before dropping it into the fryer. The results are, unsurprisingly, spectacular.
To wash down these Southern delights, another Atlanta staple is required: Coca-Cola. No corporation has helped define the city like its biggest export.
According to company legend the secret syrup was invented in 1886 by a local pharmacist, who paired it with carbonated water. It was then sold as a “brain tonic” to “relieve exhaustion.”
Visitors can head to the World of Coca-Cola, where they can try localized takes on the all-conquering beverage, as well as see how Coke went from “tonic” to iconic brand.
Fortunately for those looking to work off all that delicious Southern cooking, Atlanta is a city that loves to spend time on the move. Those coming to Atlanta for the first time often call it a city in the middle of a forest. The sheer amount of greenery, especially during spring and summer, is breathtaking.
Piedmont Park is a mecca for runners and cyclists, but it’s not just outdoor activities that are booming. One in particular has true devotees and a thriving culture in this corner of the South: roller skating.
“People have all kinds of ideas about what they think Atlanta is or what it isn’t, but I just see people having fun,” says Brandon Butler, executive director of culture site Butter.ATL, looking out over the landmark Cascade Skating Rink. Butler is a keen skater and it shows.
“The beautiful thing about this is, you don’t know what these people do,” he says. “Some of these folks could be doctors, lawyers, surgeons. They could be trash people, garbage men. They could be waiters, but they’re all just coming together and just having a good time. Everybody’s equal because they’re all on skates. To me, this is just what Atlanta is. It’s just people coming together and just bobbing and having a good time in some really interesting places.”
For veterinarian and skate instructor Latoya McNabb, enjoyment is key. “It’s about a vibe,” she says. “So you just come in here, you vibe out, you have a good time. That’s what it’s about in Atlanta. That’s why everybody comes here, because the energy is just on 1,000. It’s never a dull moment. You’re always going to see somebody doing something that’s a wow factor.”
For both McNabb and Butler, skating is about community too. While plenty of skaters show off their skills, newcomers are not only welcomed, but helped by the regulars to stay on their feet and have a good time.
This sums up modern-day Atlanta, a place that, as the 1960s slogan goes, is “too busy to hate.” Much has happened here over the past 150 years. On the one hand, it’s steeped in Southern traditions, whilst on the other, it is a place at the forefront of change and progress. And progress is unquestionably a word that helps define Atlanta today.