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Weekend at Hartsfield 

A half-naked man. Two honeymoons. A 48-hour journey to nowhere.

Page 3 of 7

click to enlarge TARA-LYNNE PIXLEY

"Absolutely," she says, and there is applause, there are hoots, from three dozen or so total strangers.

Then the two really kiss. Prather notices her friends, the sneaky devils there snapshooting and videoing the whole thing. Her hand trembles as her husband-to-be slides the ring onto her finger.

"I was just excited to see him," she gushes. "Of course, I'm now the happiest woman EV-ER. Oh my gosh."

It is 10:57 on a Friday night in an airport terminal, and Jade Prather is alight.

It's pushing midnight when a homeless man who says his name is Richard Carter flops down next to me in the Atrium. We're in those black-leatherish, pay-as-you-sit massage-o recliners: $5 for 15 minutes. This, I decide, is where I will try to sleep.

"I need $2.50 to get me something to eat," the homeless man says. "I haven't ate in one day."

He says he is fresh from Alabama state prison.

"Shake my hand," he says and I do. "You believe in God? I don't. You know, it's been a long time. I've had a lot of things going on in my life, so I know we can relate. You know where you been but you don't know where you're going."

I lie, tell him all I've got is credit cards, and he is on his way.

I notice two young women scoping out the Kia. It's not far from the 30-foot-tall meat-eating-dinosaur skeleton in front of Wendy's. One of them has her name, Dixie, stitched in pink on her handbag. She and her friend, Natalie, are from Cherokee County and they are here to retrieve Dixie's folks who are several hours late getting in from Vegas.

The terminal's drone has hushed. A dozen or so terminal dwellers have conked out, sprawled on chairs clutching blankets and huddled on small sofas. I mention my intentions to hang at the airport all weekend. Natalie, in her early 30s, says, "You will be bored out of your mind. During the day there's people watching. But at night?"

Half an hour later, I'm settled into the massage-o chair. Natalie and Dixie walk up. They've been roaming the now-desolate terminal and changed their minds about my weekend's prospects. Natalie is carrying a Zaxby's cup with ice in it.

Natalie: "There's lots of fun things to do. Like taking pictures of signs that have no meaning."

Dixie: "Signs that say 'Welcome Aboard' when you're not going anywhere."

Dixie: "At the Delta self-check-in there's nobody there so we went and weighed ourselves on the luggage scale. It's not accurate. It was close, like 2 pounds off."

Dixie: "And you can go sit in the chairs at the shoe-shine place."

Natalie: "They're comfortable if you're looking for somewhere good to sit."

Dixie: "Or you can look at the people sleeping with their mouths open and want to throw ice in them."

Natalie to Dixie: "Hey, there's your mom."

Dixie: "Nice talking to you. Enjoy your weekend."

The airport's town square has gone still. The dinosaur stands watch. In the distance you can hear the security recording on its eternal loop: "Liquids, gels and-or aerosols ... ." The Atrium clock tower, a four-sided glass focal point set beneath the vast hall's domed skylight, resembles one of those game-show booths where $100 bills fly around while contestants try to snag them. I take in the scene and the Atrium's cool yet inviting calm. It is as if a Smithsonian corridor mated with a Lexus dealership.

After an hour of sleep, it is 3:55 a.m. A woman camping at the foot of the clock tower sits upright. She has earphones in and is grooving, sitting on her butt, slow-gyrating, mouthing words of a song, a lounge act that has outlasted last call.

"Are you laughing at me?" she asks, grinning at another overnight camper.

She explains her boogie. "It's Usher. He makes me moooove. A girl's gotta stay awake, ya know? I'm in it to win it. I'm stayin' up."

To and fro she sways. Across the way, near the piano at Houlihan's, a janitor feather-dusts the departure screens. A couple of workers riding floor buffers buzz the lobby, sorties strafing the insomniacs here on their nonstop red-eye to nowhere.

The clock tower reads 4:10 a.m.

I check my boarding pass: Spirit Airlines Flight 404, one-way service to Myrtle Beach, S.C., departing gate D-9 at 10:25 a.m.

I think how I am, for the first time in my life, six hours and 15 minutes early for a flight.

A flight I will miss.

Concourse D rumbles to life to the roller-coaster clickety-clack of wheeled luggage.

By 7 a.m., planes are floating in from the east, the climbing sun at their tails. The Hartsfield control tower, an oft-overlooked spire that lords over the southside, stands sentry, an Olympic torch of concrete and glass. Sunrise behind it, as seen across the tarmac from Concourse D, is as holy a travel happening as, say, a window seat for a kid.

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