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How Atlanta is embracing its past—and building a better future

In the past few years, Atlanta—gateway to the New South—has had a bit of a reboot in the popular imagination. For the longest of times, many people’s familiarity with the city might have been limited to connecting through its sprawling airport—the world’s busiest for going on two decades. Or maybe it’s the Technicolor image of Atlanta burning to the ground in Gone With the Wind, the epic Civil War drama by Margaret Mitchell, whose house (or rather, the house in which she rented a two-room apartment, from 1925 to 1932, and wrote her seminal novel) remains one of Atlanta’s top tourist attractions. Or perhaps it’s one of Atlanta’s iconic brands, such as Coca-Cola or CNN, that have put the city on people’s mental map.

Margaret Mitchell HouseMargaret Mitchell House, courtesy of Atlanta History CenterIn the fall of 2015, an unexpected cable hit set out to change that narrative. Like the eponymous show that chronicled the oil-soaked riches of Dallas in the 1970s and ‘80s, the F/X series Atlanta aims to cast a new light on the metropolitan city of nearly six million—one of an entrepreneurial, can-do and very modern city. The show centres on Earnest “Earn” Marks (played by Donald Glover) and cousin Alfred (played by Brian Tyree Henry) as they try to succeed in Atlanta’s rap music scene. In a 2015 interview with Deadline Hollywood, the co-stars—both natives to the city—describe the unique appeal of modern Atlanta.

“I just think that it’s the most American place,” said Glover, who also serves as executive director of Atlanta and raps under the name Childish Gambino. “Everybody there is like ‘Yo, I got a verse’. Everybody is trying to make something from nothing.” Said Henry: “You don’t think it’s as progressive as it is, but Atlanta is always on trend. There are so many images of us that aren’t really representatives of who we are at all.” In 2017, Glover won an Emmy Award for best director in a comedy series—the first time an African-American director had ever won.

The success of Atlanta—especially the creative triumph of its all-African-American writing team and mostly African-American cast—speaks to the triumph of another native son, Martin Luther King Jr. This April marked the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination—and the rise of today’s groundbreaking African-American creators, politicians and business leaders is just part of his profound legacy. For those looking to better understand King’s fight for civil rights, the landmarks in Atlanta are everywhere, from his birthplace home to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both King and his father preached. But perhaps no place captures the tenor of his times better than the Center for Civil and Human Rights (pictured below), which opened its doors for the first time in June 2014.

Civil Rights CenterNight exterior of the Center for Civil & Human Rights © 2014, Gene Phillips, courtesy of ACVB & AtlantaPhotos.com

Located on land donated by Coca-Cola and adjacent to three popular tourist attractions (the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola and Centennial Olympic Park), the downtown museum offers a stark portrayal of the fight leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964—including the words and images of segregationists standing in the way of progress—as well as the fallout from King’s assassination. The museum—an imposing steel-and-glass building, designed by African-American architect Philip Freelon, the man behind D.C.’s Smithsonian National Museum of African American History—also offers a very modern take on the enduring struggle for equality, with exhibits that explore the current state of human rights around the world.

On April 3, 1968—the night before he would be killed—King spoke eloquently about looking over the mountain and seeing better days ahead, for his community and his country. “I may not get there with you,” he told the crowd in Memphis, “but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” Fifty years on, that promised land may still seem some ways away, but in Atlanta, at least, people are reflecting on their shared past, embracing King’s legacy, and attempting to build a better tomorrow.

 

Where to eat in Atlanta

1Photo Credit: Facebook/South City KitchenSouth City Kitchen first opened its doors in midtown Atlanta in 1993, and now has four locations across the city. This acclaimed restaurant specializes in southern comfort food, and the hip-and-fabulous folk crowd this tiny bungalow each weekend for its famous brunches, which include house specialties such as the fried chicken with collard greens, shrimp and grits, and the smoked brisket Benedict. Brunch prices range from US$11 to $21.

 

Where to stay in Atlanta

12Photo Credit: Atlanta Hotel SuitesMidtown has long been one of Atlanta’s more attractive neighbourhoods, with some of the city’s best restaurants and shopping. While there are plenty of chain hotel options in the area, a better bet is the somewhat-shabby-but-definitely-chic Artmore boutique hotel. Built in 1924, the Spanish Revival landmark is located on a leafy stretch of West Peachtree, just steps from the Arts Center MARTA station. From US$129 a night.

 

What to do in Atlanta

3Photo Credit: US Civil Rights TrailIn January 2018, the National Park Service partnered with state tourism boards across the U.S. South to launch the U.S. Civil Rights Trail in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. The trail consists of more than 100 historic sites across 14 states: the courthouses, museums and other landmarks in the Southern states and beyond that played a pivotal role in advancing social justice in the 1950s and 1960s. Eleven of those sites are in Georgia—many of them in MLK’s hometown of Atlanta.

 

How to get to Atlanta from Vancouver

During the summer months, Delta offers daily flights from Vancouver to Atlanta; after September, you’ll have to connect via Toronto or an American hub on Air Canada or Westjet.

Previously published by BCLiving.