Atlanta: a tale of two cities

There’s nothing like the scream of a preschool child to pierce your heart. This one was a flyer:

I don’t like it! Please make it stop! Daddy, I don’t wanna diiieeeee!”.

Although I detest flying, it wasn’t until that continued stream of unfiltered consciousness filled the air of the Delta aircraft cabin as we descended into Atlanta, did I consider the possibility of air crash. Thankfully it was a normal flight with just the standard levels of lumps and bumps so this was an overdramatic child, although the sheer power of his clear distress messed with my chi.

I focussed upon wondering just what stage of childhood development it was when I got the concept of death and how it had been introduced, and turned my phone to playing Hobo Johnson and his track “You and the Cockroach” which pretty much nails the death subject.

As we were coming down, I also noticed the scorched grass from the only recently ended drought and wondered why so many of our leaders deny climate change.

Fortunately, my damaged sense of self did not transfer itself to a taxing period at immigration. Almost all electronic these days, my beloved was “lead passenger” and I fumbled a bit with the technology of the electronic finger print scan, although as lead, it was only my beloved’s left hand that also got scanned. This all meant my wicked left hand got into the country unmonitored. As a left-handy I’d be able to shoot someone undetected. I idly wondered if I could still catch up with that child.

Our first true Atlanta experience was to our hotel, The Highland Inn an old (for America) mansion dating from 1927. It was characterful and perhaps just a little tired inside, with a dark back yard room view, but it was very clean, friendly, in a good and pretty area for evening wanderings, and at around $85 a night for the room was at a price that felt very sweet. It is also home to a black stray cat, Pirate, who now wanders the public space and permits the occasional nose rub.

We had enough energy left despite the 20 hours awake, to wander to Manuel’s Tavern, where there was so much real ale and IPA on offer that I couldn’t hope to try everything even if we were staying a week. At around $20 for a 4 pint pitcher, it was great USA value. I also enjoyed a jerk chicken with black beans and rice which was tasty and did the job. I was lucky in that my dislike of chips/fries narrowed the considerable food choice.

The pub has a proud history in radical politics and a portrait of JFK sat over the atmospheric bar which dates back to the 50’s. This was a likable city.

Just make sure you remember to tip at least 15% and preferably 20%. Sadly, we were still in the UK zone and our 10% tip clearly offended. Oops. I later discovered the minimum wage for bar staff is tiny in Georgia and tips are taxed at an assumed rate. I guess there are hypothetical situations where bar staff might end up out of pocket for working, if tips are not forthcoming.

So with one full day to discover Atlanta, the next morning we were up early (gotta love jet lag) and out to explore the local mansions in the area and the walk down to Ponce City Market, which was an old huge Sears department store. This is a place of swish shopping, nice bars and diners and a central eating area. As it wasn’t 10 am, coffee, tea and hot chocolate was the order. The tea arrived in three separate glasses; it was that kind of place. That comment might make it sound like I’m not a fan of the market, but if I lived in Atlanta I’m sure it would be a regular haunt.

From Ponce City Market we went upstairs to hit the rear exit to join the greenway (or the belt line as they call it here). This is a distinctly middle-class experience of a reimagined disused rail-line with well nourished, muscled joggers monitoring their heart rates on their new bit of Christmas kit, and sanctioned edgy graffiti to brighten the place. New build 5 bed detached houses ($1.2m) abut the edge of the green, along with the occasional upper end bar, tap room or restaurant.

Again, I don’t want to appear scathing as the walkway is lovely, safe, pleasant but it’s another planet away from some of Atlanta. There are two very distinct aspects to this city.

We were here in Atlanta to catch a bit of Martin Luther King magic, and on the edge of the city centre we left the belt line and hit a bit of the alternative normal. Homeless black poor, the smell of skunk, the clearly mentally ill wandering around with empty pizza boxes muttering to themselves. Sadly lost causes and unlike the disused trainline, there is no one with cash to spot the potential. In and amongst the helpless, were many hard working local businesses (an excellent breakfast burrito can be found at the friendly Corner Tavern) and the area offers a solid reminder of how black people stood up against segregation by creating their own businesses for themselves, where they were not at the back of the queue. Considering black people had little financial backing or family money to get started, it shows how dedicated and hard working these business owners were.

The Martin Luther King Museum explains how this most remarkable of men got involved with the living conditions of local people and in doing so shaped the black protest movement.

From boycotting firms who segregated, by marching in cities to argue the case for equal rights, by encouraging alternative business and doing it all through peaceful protest and persuasion. Luther King was inspired by Gandhi and it is remarkable how controlled the movement was as resentment and anger did not spill out.

King would be 90 if he was alive and was still in his 30’s when assassinated. Who knows what more King might have achieved, and what the world lost? What would the world have looked like without King? Would there have been violent civil war? Would segregation still exist? These are thoughts that will rattle through me. One thing is clear; Martin Luther King changed and reshaped the world.

Outside of that inspiring hall of hope, the desperate lives of those black poor wandering the street became starker. What made these people give up? How is it that we can draw different outcomes from the same events?

Sadly I am no King and compassion, support and respect is the only thing I can offer. It left me wishing for a world that was less self-centred. Perhaps we can all do small things to help stop others joining those who have fallen through the cracks. It is not a hopeless situation.

With so much deep thinking about things that seem too huge going on in my tiny brain, it left a thirst so it was time to return to my personal rather insulated life experiences. The tap room of the New Realm Brewing company back on the edge of the greenway was friendly and inviting, and on a day of class IPA’s excelled itself. The bar tenders were friendly and showed genuine interest. I can highly recommend this place. Beers are around $6-7 but don’t forget the extra dollar tip.

Later we wandered back through to the Little Five Points district of Atlanta, where again the poor gathered on street corners, talking to themselves, asking for cash, in one case hitting themselves for “saying sonething bad”. All this activity was going on amidst the inconguious hip trendy places for the richer to enjoy themselves. This place truly feels like two tectonic plates rubbing alongside each other.

We chose the mansion comfort of the Wreaking Bar Brew Pub for another huge meal (I think a meal and a half a day in the US is probably enough (and dear reader, I am a chubby lad). We also saw a solo goth southern country fusion singer performing for us. It was kind of Nick Cave does Johnny Cash only with even darker lyrics.

Sadly I didn’t catch the name of the artist but his version of the Rolling Stones track Dead Flowers, sounded like how Marianne Faithful might have played it and it seemed to offer a good symbol of what I’d seen of Atlanta. Love, suffering and self destruction all melded together in a heartbeat.

Chris R


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