Getting to Know the Real Atlanta
This article originally appeared in Venü Magazine’s Fall 2016 issue.
The tunnel is dimly lit. You’re standing at one end, still under the sun’s watchful eye, but close enough to see a shadowy figure moving swiftly—first crouching, then fully erect. You walk toward the figure, and only as your eyes adjust to their new surroundings does a flurry of color and shape come into focus. This shadowy figure is actually one of Atlanta’s talented muralists—and the dark tunnel? That’s the city’s living, ever-changing street art gallery, the treasured Krog Street Tunnel.
Welcome to Atlanta, equal parts misrepresented and mysterious. Atlantans may scoff at the thought of their city as “mysterious,” but that’s just what this multifaceted city is. And because it’s so hard to pin the Southern metropolis down as any one thing, ample room is left for erroneous cliches and misinformed generalizations. The truth is simple: Atlanta isn’t one thing, because it’s something different to each of its diverse residents.
I moved to Georgia’s capital city in 2013 on an impulse fueled by my desperation to live somewhere—anywhere—but Florida. Overnight business trips and flight layovers had swept me through Atlanta a handful of times, but I’d never quite gotten a grasp of this place labeled as “urban” more often than I care to recall. Still, friends in Atlanta urged me to take the leap, reassuring me that I would love living in the progressive and creative city.
Had this Miami-bred Latina ever seen herself living in the deep American South at the foothills of the Appalachian mountains? That’s a firm no. And yet, while Atlanta couldn’t be more geographically Southern, its ideology is decidedly not.
I drove into town for the first time in January 2013. Terrified by the onslaught of cars where I-85 converges with I-75, I found only a split-second in the panic of lane mergers and split-offs to catch a glimpse of the city’s sparkling skyline. If ever Atlanta lived up to one of its stereotypes, it’s as a city ruled by traffic.
I was determined to learn everything about my new hometown from the moment I pulled into the driveway of my first house in the city, a picturesque ranch house in quiet Brookhaven. There’s something wildly intriguing about a city so markedly distinct from the rest of its state. “A dot of blue in an ocean of red,” residents say about Atlanta’s politics.
As with most things, to better understand Atlanta’s present, you have to learn about its past. From its beginnings, the city saw itself in a different light than its more conservative and traditional Southern neighbors. During the Civil War, Union General William T. Sherman burned the city down as part of his infamous Atlanta Campaign. When it came time to rebuild, Atlantans saw an opportunity to embrace progressive ideals and branded their reborn city the “New South.” Atlanta has since been on an upward trajectory fueled by forward thinking and bootstrap resilience.
Today, landmarks, historic sites and spectacular museums bring the city’s incredible past to life. I’ve wandered on countless occasions through the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, stricken with awe at the wealth of tangible, living history scattered throughout its 30 acres. Here, you can visit the home where Dr. King was born, the church where he delivered some of his most famous sermons, and the tomb where he and his wife, Coretta Scott King, found eternal peace. And yet, this is only one facet of the “Capital of the South.”
Now, allow me to get deep with you—it was in Atlanta that I found myself. I know how syrupy that sounds, but it’s abundantly true. I arrived here a shadow of myself, having spent years conforming to cultures that have little patience for individuality. Forced conformity is stifling, and that above all else, is why Atlanta makes many newcomers feel “liberated” when they arrive. This is the kind of town that accepts you just as you are; in fact, the weirder the better.
From walls plastered with massive works of art to an extraordinary intellectual class, this city bursts with energy, influence and tolerance. Homegrown Atlantans tend to sneer at optimistic newcomers who inevitably fall head-over-heels for the city, perhaps because these transplants are idolizing a version of Atlanta natives have never been able to see.
Atlanta is best understood through the lens of its distinct neighborhoods (think New York City’s boroughs, but on a much smaller scale), each with a flurry of world-renown attractions or nationally acclaimed restaurants or highly regarded arts institutions or riveting historic landmarks.
There’s Inman Park with its young, wealthy residents, some married and others with small children, but always buzzing about on the neighborhood’s walkable streets, hopping on the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail, grabbing a slice at Fritti or seafood at Beetlecat or wine (and lots of it) at Barcelona.
Old Fourth Ward, while bordering Inman Park, stands in sharp contrast. Here, entrepreneurs and creative types take over historic lofts and former warehouses. This is my favorite neighborhood, the one in which I live and spend most of my free time frequenting restaurants like Mango’s, my go-to for Jamaican food at 2 a.m., the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, where I inevitably indulge in a made-to-order, overstuffed Venezuelan arepa at Arepa Mia, and the food hall at Ponce City Market, where I’ve spent hours idly sipping drinks and sampling bites from a bevvy of stalls.
Downtown is a bustling hub for tourists. Here, skyscraping hotels host many of the city’s annual 50-plus million visitors, who travel in glassy-eyed hoards to the convention center down the street or to the 10 attractions that surround Centennial Olympic Park. Most locals stay away from downtown, but I enjoy spending a day there every so often to see the city through the same awe-stricken eyes as these tourists.
Enumerating the city’s global influence has become second nature for me. Georgia Aquarium is the world’s largest. A couple blocks away, CNN was the world’s first 24-hour news network. Atlanta Cyclorama is one of only 16 massive paintings left in the world. The city is considered the birthplace of the American civil rights movement. And the list goes on.
Put simply, Atlanta is at once whatever you want it to be and very specifically itself.
I am a self-proclaimed culture vulture, which means I’m at my happiest when I’m supporting artistic talent. In Atlanta, there is never a shortage of plays to watch, live shows to attend, exhibitions to visit and street art to fawn over in what many have dubbed “Empire State South.” The same can be said for history buffs and fitness enthusiasts and club goers and families and…you.
I’ve been a resident of Atlanta for nearly four years. It’s the first city I’ve committed to from the jump; like knowing someone is right for you from the first date.
Every afternoon, as the sun sets and the clouds embrace a pastel palette of purples, pinks and oranges—what I call “cotton candy hour”—I can’t help but smile. Somehow, the girl who grew up in what’s more like South America than the American South can’t seem to get Georgia—and more specifically its capital city—off her mind.