Sunday, October 02, 2016

Deep South USA - Atlanta, Georgia

We spent 5 great days in and around Atlanta, Georgia. We were lucky enough to stay in the beautiful house of our friends Adam and Paget. It was a great base, first and foremost due to how welcoming our hosts were, filling us with fantastic southern cooking and hospitality, as well as taking time over a few drinks to educate us about the city and region.
What was also remarkable was the setting. I knew they were based in an affluent suburb of northern Atlanta, but did not expect anything like what we found. Yes, all the houses were much bigger than I anticipated (I have never – and I mean never – seen so many massive houses in close proximity than driving around the local area), but the main difference was the nature. The neighbourhood appeared to have been carefully plonked into a steamy forest of effervescent green and giant trees. Walking out from the deck of the house, their garden stretched down through the trees to a wild creek. Birdsong was everywhere with bright red cardinals dropping in and, on one morning, a deer carefully stepping by and stopping to stare in our direction as we tried to not make a noise (not easy with toddlers). This within the bounds of one of the largest metropolises in the States! A quite ridiculous, lovely surprise.

DOWNTOWN

All of this leafy serenity is worlds apart from downtown Atlanta. From my limited experience, a relatively standard, if large, American city centre. Bricks, steel, glass and more tarmac fed by humongous inter-mingling highways which suck people in like over-filled conveyor belts. 
I will not forget in a long while journeying back into Atlanta from NC in a torrential storm, straining to not aquaplane as we first encountered en masse nut crazy driving (who doesn’t swerve in and out of bunched traffic at 90mph when the rain is so heavy the fastest wiper setting is sub-sufficient) and then solid jams as no less than three different car crashes blocked up the interstate. Not fun with a 9-month year old projectile puking white vomit in the back of the car…
 
While Atlanta is not the prettiest city, it proved to have some really interesting sites, which kept us more than occupied. Home to such giants as CNN, Delta and none other than Coca-Cola, it has all the associate commerciality, with the oddity of the Coca-Cola museum being a particular temple to American consumerism right in the heart of the Olympic Park. On the more traditionally educational side, while the Fernbank Museum of Natural History and fantastic Children's Museum were a hit, the Georgia Aquarium absolutely took the biscuit.
 
The largest aquarium in the world, it houses a mind-goggling array of marine life. Whole sections dedicated to different environments, from a polar zone complete with Beluga whales, via the minutiae of reef life, to the enormity of pelagic ocean goers. The coup de grace is the vast Ocean Explore tank, filled with some 6.3 million gallons of water. It was awesome to lay back beneath the main viewing window and watch creatures large and small swim by in the blue. Turtles, massive groupers, giant manta rays and, amazingly, whale sharks. Yes, whale sharks. Swimming about in the heart of inland Georgia are the biggest fish in the sea in all their blue and white-flecked glory. My boys could not quite digest it, eyes wide open and jaws dropping to the floor.

POLITICAL LEGACY

Atlanta’s most celebrated son is Dr Martin Luther King. He was born, grew up and later returned to Atlanta as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a post he was to hold up to the day he was assassinated. Consequently a few square blocks of downtown Atlanta are maintained and preserved in his honour as a National Historic Site. 
 
We spent much of a day learning about Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma at the thought provoking museum, as well as standing outside the house he grew up in, walking the streets he walked and contemplating in the church where he preached. The power of his oratory came across so clear through the crackle of half a century. 
 
I was very moved by this touching tribute to Dr King and the movement he so courageously led. As a Brit, I am well aware that my forebears are very much on the wrong side of history when comes to the past of African Americans. It says a lot about Dr King’s message and legacy that we felt so welcome. Given the current political climate, it is as vital as ever that places like this exist to illustrate how peaceful collective action can push prejudice and injustice back into the shadows. Here’s hoping.

In a lighter moment, I could not help but be amused by a Park Ranger driving by in a full blown muscle car, rev’s and all. His beat was 3 or 4 blocks. Only in America.

POLITICAL PINTS

I enjoyed Atlanta. Like much of America, an interesting conglomeration of extremes. Nature and concrete. Affluence, aspiration and deprivation. Faceless architecture around fascinating sights. Politics divided.
Aptly perhaps, I said farewell to this city knocking back the beers with Adam at Manuel's Tavern, a renowned Democrat bar deep in the Republican South. It is a remarkable place, having that American knack of making places that really aren’t that old feel genuinely historic. Every inch of the walls is covered in political, drinking and sporting paraphernalia, slowly fading with time as they merge into one another. JFK holds pride of place above the bar. Once Jimmy Carter’s local, I could only but imagine all the chat that these four walls have soaked up. Apparently Obama dropped by just days before to chuck some darts. No better place to talk shit and put the world to rights with an old mate until the lights went on and we were told to go home...
 
The next morning I learned the real value of the Waffle House. A mountain of fat-filled hangover cure to make the flight home more bearable!

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