Atlanta: Like No Place Else

The southern city retains its charm and traditions while adapting to the changes brought with newcomers.
By: Corey Dade
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The most distinctive characteristic of today’s Atlanta is, for many residents, its greatest attribute. The city blends old-fashioned Southern charm with an identity that is nearly as cosmopolitan and diverse as any city in the Northeast.

Native Atlantans bemoan a dilution of authentic Southern culture with the infiltration of transplants from the East Coast and Midwest over nearly two decades — an influx that at its zenith in the late 1990s added an average of 500 newcomers a day to the region. The running joke among transplants — but a sore point among some locals — is that no one living in Atlanta actually grew up in Atlanta. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution once even published a series called “Saving Southern Food.”

Yet aren’t similar shifts occurring in other big cities? In truth, Atlanta has done well to retain many of its best traditions while adapting to the changes brought with new people, cultures, languages and religions.

Spirit of the South. The Old South, with its high and low points, is the indelible cultural backdrop of the region. The house of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, sits among the bustle of Peachtree Street, the city’s main thoroughfare. Historic markers and real cannons from battlegrounds dot many neighborhoods, everyday reminders of Atlanta’s crucial role as a turning point in the Civil War.

Civil Rights Movement. This also is the birthplace of the civil rights movement where white leaders broke from other Southern cities to embrace integration. It’s not uncommon to pass luminaries from history books in everyday life, like civil rights leaders John Lewis, a longtime congressman, and Andrew Young, a former Atlanta mayor.

One of the state’s most popular attractions is the historic district on Auburn Avenue, where millions of visitors annually pay their respects at the crypts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King; his childhood home; and the church he pastored, Ebenezer Baptist. In another example of the coalescing of old and new, the blighted storefronts on the formerly segregated “Sweet Auburn” — once one of America’s thriving corridors of black-owned businesses — are undergoing unprecedented revitalization.

Comfort Food. Atlanta may be the home of Coca-Cola, but sweet tea flows like water, same as always. It is served in the finest restaurants, as are creamy grits, collard greens and other home cookin’ you might expect to find only in diners or Mama’s kitchen. One place adept at marrying such Southern classics with modern American cuisine is Rathbun’s in Inman Park, a seemingly unassuming neighborhood restaurant that has earned national acclaim.

Church and Faith. Atlanta also is known for its proliferation of churches, particularly those with predominantly black congregations commonly called megachurches. But while most folks are largely Christian, as in the rest of the South, the region’s diversity is becoming increasingly visible. One of the world’s largest Hindu temples opened last year in the suburb of Lilburn. Members of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam recently celebrated the mosque’s 50th anniversary. On Saturday evenings in the city’s northeast neighborhoods, a parade of Orthodox Jews and their families pours onto the sidewalks, heading hand-in-hand to temple. Last year, a visit from the Dalai Lama drew an overflow crowd in downtown’s huge Centennial Park.

Unique Characters. Those looking for a different kind of spiritual experience can possibly find it at another uniquely Atlanta attraction, the Clermont Lounge. Known locally simply as the Clermont, it is the oldest continuously running strip club. It opened in 1965 in the basement of the Clermont Motor Hotel and there it remains. The joint is as dingy as the hotel and is the rare adult establishment more inclined to elicit laughter from patrons than lust. The clientele ranges from bikers to bankers to the occasional celebrity visiting town and curious about the Clermont’s reputation for oddball characters. The dancers themselves are known to ham it up too, as a number of them are 50-something ladies who don’t take their work too seriously. Friendly and original, a tradition that endures amid dynamic change, all uniquely Atlanta.    

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