Georgia - Atlanta
Land of the free, home of the Braves
“LEAVING ON THE MIDNIGHT TRAIN…”
Atlanta is the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Coca Cola, Chicken Fil-A and The Waffle House... Breakfast with a conscience on the side!
We stayed in the Georgian Terrace, right opposite the historic Fox theatre on the edge of Midtown. It had echoes of grandeur (emphasise on the word echoes).
As a nice balmy, warm evening embraced us, we sauntered around town until we spotted a sign for Gladys Knight’s Southern Waffles. Having spent the day randomly belting out lines from her famous hit "Midnight Train to Georgia" it was sign. I ordered the salad (pity the fool) and was met with a look of confusion, then a confirmation that they were 86 on lettuce (‘86’ is American slang for a menu item no longer available). Various dishes arrived, mostly chicken, all fried, washed down with a concoction called an Uptown (half lemonade, half sweet tea). The waitress was as sweet as the tea, she checked on us several times just to make sure "Y'all ok?"
Back at the hotel there was a Southern wedding in flow, everyone dressed impeccably, lots of hair, lots of makeup, everyone with big smiles, everyone possibly half cut. We observed it all from our perch within the hotel bar, which was excellently named 'Proof and Provision' where you get your whiskey and your steaks. They also played David Bowie music, bonus!
The Southern accents have an arresting effect on me, I can't tear myself away, they are so enchanting and melodic, they make me think of an America from the past (without the racial hatred and inequality). I did have moments were I couldn't understand a word. I felt like an American in Kerry!
The next day we put on our cowboy boots and trotted around the city. There are A LOT of churches in Atlanta, it makes Irish villages look positively pagan in comparison. They seemed mostly Baptist or Lutheran.
Being partial to the odd Diet Coke (or two) I couldn't pass up a visit to Coca Cola World, a church of a different kind. I know Coke is bad for you and some people think they symbolize the evils of globalisation but put your clenched hipster beanie hat aside for a minute, sometimes ‘life tastes good’ and ‘you can’t beat the real thing’ ;)
The chap who invented Coke was an American pharmacist called Pemberton. It was sold in pharmacies and advertised with 'festoons', little signs outside the chemist shop made to resemble snowmen or fish (?). The coke logo (we all know and love) came from the brain of Pemberton's bookmaker who produced it as a doodle and thought it might be memorable (eh, just a wee bit). Coke used to be sold out of soda fountains then they realised they could sell in it bottles customised to be easy to hold and recognisable in the dark (?!). They were sold in 6 packs, you paid for 5 and got 1 free.
|Is that a bottle I see before me?|
The minute you enter Coca Cola World a free Coke is pressed into your hand and you sip & slurp as you absorb the decades of coke infused pop culture (e.g. Coca Cola velvet bell bottom flares). Then a young bright eyed host hopped up on caffeine and sugar calls to attention the gathered red and white masses to give us a brief talk on the history of Coke. I’m not going to lie, I found it very interesting. A brown medicinal syrup (brown is not an attractive food/drink colour) sold in pharmacies (of all places) through clever marketing and distribution (ahead of its time) became a worldwide phenomenon.
What they don't tell you is that Pemberton became addicted to morphine he used to treat a saber wound from the American Civil War. He created Coke to beat his addiction! Best start-up story ever.
After the history spiel the host ushered us into a movie theatre for a 7 min “Happiness Montage”. It was basically a Coke ad. Myself and Dom exchanged ‘this is ridiculous’ looks before settling into the montage. About 2 min into a series of vignettes about happiness (a grandmother’s reaction to a new baby, a family's surprise when their son returns from Afghanistan, etc) all to the soundtrack of the Imagine Dragons song On Top of the World, I was in floods tears (and so was everybody around me). I know it's partly shameful because it's corporate America playing people's emotions to peddle a sugary drink. But Goddamnit I was deeply moved and that kind of heart pounding tear jerking is good for the soul. (Yes, it may have ended with “I’ll like to buy the world a Coke” in true Mad Men style).
|As American as Coca Cola|
They mop you up and move you out of the theatre on to another peppy teen who makes a big hullabaloo about Coke’s “secret recipe”. I love a bit of hullabaloo especially around anything covert and mysterious (even if it's a just a cleverly designed publicity, marketing and intellectual property strategy). They bring you through a security clearance check. There was talk of how Coke pulled out of India for 17 years because Coke refused to disclose their secret recipe to Indian authorities.
Only 2 people at a time know the recipe, they can't travel together, their identities are secret, they each only know half the recipe. (Mr Caffeine and Mrs Sugar presumably). In fairness to Coke there is a cool kid/adult friendly interactive exhibit where you pretend you're on a train trying to get to the safe that contains the secret, the train leads you to a bank where the secret was kept in a vault as recent as 20 years ago.
|Should I blow open the vault to get the recipe? Or read the side of the can?|
Then, with great ta da, they fling open the ‘bank’ doors to present a barricaded vault within which the secret recipe lies. It's showmanship and a marketing ploy, but I enjoyed it, it puts the fun back in globalisation :/
Across from Coca Cola World in a much smaller building is the Center for Civil and Human Rights (kudos to Margie for this top tip on her hometown). As I started to appreciate this juxtaposition contextually, the red and white shame tinged my face. (Coca Cola) cap in hand we made our way into the Center. (To Coke’s credit they donated the land to the Civil Rights Museum).
|Center for Civil and Human Rights|
On a prior road trip to the Southern states we had the honour of visiting the Alabama Civil Rights Institute (read here about our trip to Alabama) and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where MLK was shot dead (read here about our trip to Memphis).
The civil rights museums we visited in Alabama and Tennessee were very similar to this Atlanta museum. But the message, the history, the horrors, it still sticks in your craw no matter how many times you hear about it: Jim Crowe laws, Freedom Riders, Sit Ins, Marches, Riots, Ku Klux Klan, MLK speeches, MLK assassination. I just hope to God we never repeat these sins. I think Martin Luther King was one of the best orators of all time (if not thee best).
|Power to the people|
It was interesting to read in the Museum that Atlanta was an example back in the 1950s of how to get along. The black population swelled after the Civil War and through building, education and hard work in this community a Black Middle Class emerged. The hub of African American activity in Atlanta was around Auburn Avenue ("Sweet Auburn"). This was where MLK was born. We went to visit his birthplace, a very fine house indeed.
We followed the legions into the Ebenezer Baptist Church were MLK and his father before him had preached. They played sound recordings of his sermons as we filed into the pews, staring at an empty pulpit, letting imaginations run riot. I so wish I had seen this great man in action. Hearing his words echo on old recordings was evocative and visceral, even 50 years later. Once again, in the same day, I was moved to tears (this time they were noble tears not Coke tears).
Róisín has a penchant for playgrounds, as soon as we entered Centennial Olympic Park we knew we were there for the morning. It was a pretty park with a open feel (maybe it’s a given that parks feel open). There were Olympic statues paying homage to various sports and sportspeople dating back to 1996 when Atlanta hosted the event. It still felt very much like a city park surrounded by skyscrapers, an Aquarium, cafes, a Children's Museum and an American Football Museum (Dom attended, myself and Róisín politely declined).
As soon as the rain fell we were in the Kids Museum in 2 minutes. It was like a mini world for kids with a mini forest, mini hospital, mini supermarket, and lots of mini people losing their mini minds running around.
As we skipped out of the city in our car to officially begin the ‘road’ part of our ‘roadtrip’ we passed by a School Bus Graveyard. Old buses painted hippie psychedelic colours emblazoned with words like 'Peace', 'Love', 'Get Out' (not sure how loving that third sentiment is). Driving through Georgia, as the colours of the leaves turned from red to brown to yellow we spotted a 20 foot billboard with just the word 'Jesus' on it! My thoughts exactly!
It was time to explore North Carolina.
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