I discovered there is another Us and Them. There are locals. And there are tourists.
Each year, 18 million tourists pass through Atlanta's attractions. They ping-pong from Dixie-kitsch like Stone Mountain's yeehaw and yahoo to generic corporate theme parks such as the CNN Studio Tour, World of Coca-Cola, and the Hard Rock Cafe. For the most part, a trek through Atlanta's tourist destinations is a reckoning with the city's self-image as a Southern corporate hub.
For a time, I lived in their world: the tourist trap. Please don't ever make me go back.
9 a.m.: The world must love Coke. Because sightseers of every nationality flock to the consummate Atlanta tourist site World of Coca-Cola. A tour of this Museum of Fizz promises that one world under Coke may have a limited range of refreshment options, but it would certainly be a happier and better-run theocracy.
World of Coca-Cola employees (dressed in signature red polo shirts) hover helpfully in the background. On a recent visit, one employee jumped out to warn a tourist that his shoe was untied, as if averting a global disaster. "Be safe," the employee cooed. Things grow increasingly surreal at the mock-soda fountain, where a beaming white-haired soda jerk endlessly asks, "Where are y'all visiting from?" His greeting becomes a mantra at Atlanta's most caffeinated tourist site.
11 a.m.: Nothing captures the existential tourist wandering (quickly answered by buying something, anything) as heartbreakingly as Underground Atlanta. This lost civilization of consumer culture features a bizarre spectrum of Americana, from black consciousness hawked in kiosks loaded with Angela Davis T-shirts to the '50s diner Johnny Rockets, where you can assert national might and right by ordering a round of American fries.
Noon: Boasting the overstimulated ambiance of a shopping mall, Hard Rock Cafe Atlanta is smack in the middle of a downtown grotto packed with tourists. Families can chow down and spend quality time bopping their heads to the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated." The sensory overload is the perfect prelude to a burrow into the belly of the music media beast.
2 p.m.: By far the coolest of Atlanta's tourist stops, the CNN Studio Tour resembles a trip to the zoo. Tour guides tell you not to tap on the glass and distract the anchors giving the world its minute-by-minute inforama. Nevertheless, there are copious nose prints that tell the tale of scores of news hounds who came before you. The tour guide does mention that the "Headline News" anchors on exhibit are really nice. And, unlike the grizzlies at Yellowstone, sometimes they'll wave.
4 p.m.: After the edge-of-apocalypse media bombardment, take a mental time-out at one of the nicer legacies of the 1996 Olympics. Centennial Olympic Park is one of the most vibrant greenspaces in Atlanta, though you must cross an ocean of concrete to reach it. The daily water ballet at the Fountain of Rings is like a wonderfully democratic spin on the inner-city fire hydrant, where Atlanta's race divisions and visitors-vs.-locals lines temporarily evaporate.
5 p.m.: Like virtually nothing else in Tourist Town, Centennial Olympic Park is free - an aberration that you will pay for at your final stop.
As a tourist, you long for authenticity, for some soulful, life-affirming connection to an unfamiliar city. But to Atlanta's tourism work force, you are a billfold with legs. Even Southern hospitality is for sale at the temple to carb-loaded Southern cooking, Pittypat's Porch. Cost: about $80 for two.
Pittypat's Porch rests in the underarm of a parking garage, where the hourly fee quickly takes the buzz off your $9.50 mint julep. By the time you finish dinner, you feel not so much seduced by Southern warmth as rolled like a Las Vegas bum, lying on the sidewalk, your pockets turned inside out.
JUST THE FACTS
CENTENNIAL OLYMPIC PARK 285 International Blvd. 404-223-4412. www.centennialpark.com.
THE CNN STUDIO TOUR 1 CNN Center. 404-827-2300. www.cnn.com/studiotour. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Adults $10, seniors (65+) $8, children (ages 4-12) $7. Reservations recommended.
HARD ROCK CAFE ATLANTA 215 Peachtree St. 404-688-7625. www.hardrockcafe.com. Dining room: Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Bar: Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sun., noon-midnight. Shop: Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-midnight.
PITTYPAT'S PORCH 25 International Blvd. 404-525-8228. Sun.-Thurs., 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.
UNDERGROUND ATLANTA 50 Upper Alabama St. 404-523-2311. www.underground-atlanta.com. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
WORLD OF COCA-COLA 55 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. 404-676-5151. www.woccatlanta.com. Sept.-May: Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. June-Aug.: Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults $9, seniors (over age 60) $8, children (ages 4-11) $5, free for kids age 3 and under.
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