It was a long, hot drive from Nashville to Atlanta. This was actually our shortest drive (4hrs) but we were maybe a little hung over and, because we were starting a bit later than planned (so we could get pancakes for breakfast), we had to take the interstate. It wasn’t much fun, but we did enjoy the signage along the way. For quite a few miles before we reached the Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia border there were big signs advertising ‘Fireworks!’ We figured it must be illegal to buy fireworks in Tennessee, but not in Alabama. Anyway, they were excited about it.
The countryside between Nashville and Atlanta is probably quite impressive to see if you get off the interstate. We were driving through the southern part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and every now and then we would see concertina-like hills in the distance. There were also billboards alongside the road advertising waterfalls and gorges, and it looked like there were some pretty spots that you can stay to go hiking and rafting near Chattanooga. We were pretty excited to be going through Chattanooga, and spent most of the trip with the Chattanooga choo-choo song going through our heads. We did see the historic railway as we sped past the town, but then we were on our way again.
Once we arrived in Atlanta we realized that we’d made a rookie mistake in booking a hotel in the downtown area. It was not the best area to stay. But we were only there one night, and we could walk to the Olympic park to see the main Atlanta sights. Remember they had the Olympics? Well the park is very nice. We got a snack and enjoyed not being on the road any more. Then we wandered through the park to the Center for Civil and Human Rights. I want to be clear – this is the attraction we planned to visit while in Atlanta. Sadly though, it closed at 5pm, and so we had to go to the Coca Cola experience instead.
The Coca Cola experience is pretty much exactly what you’d expect. They get you to pay them to go in and watch their commercials (we’re such suckers!). We were greeted by an enthusiastic guide, originally from Belgium, who gushed about the international appeal of coke – no matter what language we speak, we all drink coke, right? Feeling like I was joining a cult, I followed the crowd as we were funneled into a theater to watch a six minute introductory film. By the end I felt pretty sick. It was the usual montage of families and friends experiencing special moments – a couple telling their parents they were going to be grandparents, someone sky-diving, a German kid telling a girl that he liked her – and all in the end celebrating with coca cola. Ugh. After this though we were set free to explore the rest of the exhibits as we wished. There was a small exhibit on the history of coca-cola, and another on the bottling process. Somehow the description of this simple industrial process managed to portray coca-cola as responsible for bringing clean water (and safe beverages) to the world and celebrated their influence in local communities as a major employer. Sick from our overdose of ideology, we decided to get sick on sugar instead, making a bee-line for the tasting room. Now this was fun. Like kids in a sweet shop we dashed from dispenser to dispenser, each bank of them holding coca-cola products from a different part of the world. It was exactly like I’d imagined Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory when I was a child.
Our second cultural experience in Atlanta was courtesy of a friend. In a true display of southern hospitality, she picked us up and treated us to an evening picnic and laser-show at Stone Mountain. A huge chunk of granite that rises abruptly out of the countryside, Stone Mountain is known as the South’s Mount Rushmore because the images of three Confederate figures – Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davies – are carved on its face. It’s become the site of an immensely popular laser show, for which people congregate on the sloping lawn that faces the rock, and over the last few years a smallish theme park has developed around it. We just went to picnic on the lawn and watch the laser show, which was quite an experience.
First, finding space on the lawn was like finding space on a crowded British beach on a sunny bank holiday – everyone from Atlanta seemed to be there and it was a really diverse crowd. Then there was the content of the laser show itself. There were quite a few little animations set to popular country music – a particularly good one with pyrotechnics was an interpretations of ‘the Devil went down to Georgia’ – and lots of animations celebrating the local sports teams, schools and colleges. But the main thing we were looking forward to was the bit where they animate the three Confederate figures and show General Lee breaking his sword following the surrender at Appomattox – all set to ‘Dixie’. Our friend remembered it from when she was young, and she remembered people around her putting their hands to their hearts at that point, but these days I think it would be hard to understand unless you knew the history pretty well already. There’s also an interesting message of redemption at the end of the animation, when the two halves of the States are made whole again – the surrender making this possible. The show ended with lots of patriotic salutes to the flag and the troops – everyone stood for the anthem and then recited the pledge of allegiance – and, of course, lots of fireworks. As we made our way back to find the car quite a number of people commented on the amount of money going up in smoke – in what is I think one of the poorest state in America. It was a great show though, and prompted interesting discussions about the difficulty of celebrating local identity and history when it’s based on something as abhorrent as slavery.
It was late when we got back, and we had to be on the road early the next day, so that was all we had time for in Atlanta.
This was a shame, as I know there are some seriously interesting things to do here and some great food – Atlanta has a number of pizza places that have been voted the best in America. I believe it’s also a really nice place to live and if I get the chance to get back I really want to check out Midtown, the aquarium and the new walkway that they’re developing from an old railway line. One day really wasn’t enough!
Read about the rest of our Southern Road Trip and our adventures with Southern food: