A Son of the South

Life & Work Magazine

You arrive in Atlanta after a nine-hour flight and a check-in process that feels almost as long. Dutifully, you keep awake during your first hours of newness in this sprawling home of CNN and Coca-Cola – and then you sleep well. For a while. But you wake far too early, your body clock well and truly up the creek. So this is what you do. You go out for breakfast.

The options are endless, from the trendy Buckhead area to the ‘Bagel Palace’ in the predominantly Jewish-American community of Toco Hills. Select your bagel and a Passover menu at the same time. Or, if you’re body is really messed up, you can sample the truly Southern taste of Fried Chicken. Chick-fil-A is the local chain, with ‘a business philosophy based on biblical principles’. Founded by a Southern Baptist, all their outlets shut on Sunday.

We head, however, for The Flying Biscuit, situated on a small row of shops close to Emory University. Southern biscuits are a unique creation: tall, soft scones with the texture of floury rolls, on this occasion spread liberally with cranberry and apple butter. With its informal home cooking atmosphere, relaxed service and endless top-ups of coffee, this is a joy. It may be absurdly cholesterol-rich, but with green-fried tomatoes on the menu, and also grits (a desperate man’s porridge), who cares? Come here with friends or alone to read the newspaper and suddenly, in this most corporate of cities, you are a world away from Starbucks and all those other multinational coffee houses, ubiquitous and predictable.

Suitably nourished and now thoroughly at home in a city practised at welcoming tourists (Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympics), it’s time to take a short and easy train ride towards downtown and visit the centre dedicated to perhaps Atlanta’s most famous son, the man christened rather improbably Michael Luther King.

On this particular trip on the so-called MARTA rail line, the majority of passengers are African American. As in many other American cities, they predominate on public transport. It’s easy to understand how the 1955 black boycott of buses in Montgomery was such a successful strategy for economic protest.

The area around the Martin Luther King Center is less than salubrious, marked by boarded windows, wasteland areas and poor housing. Two police cars block off the side road next to Ebenezer Baptist Church. This is the first building you come to, a cool haven from the mid-morning heat. Here, like his father and grandfather before him, King exercised his core business, as a pastor.

Though no longer used for worship on a regular basis, the sanctuary is more or less as it would have been back when the Kings preached there. The pews and the preaching lectern sit silently as for prayer; the painted glass windows are named for deacons and past members of the congregation. Nowadays, however, the sanctuary is dominated by a recording of Martin Luther King in full flight.

It’s hard to think of a more recognisable or potent voice in recent Western history. Surprisingly hesitant at times, it rises and falls in sound patterns that match the rhetoric. In the lulls between his thoughts, unseen listeners affirm his message, absorbing every word. You realise that you’re listening to the famous speech made in Memphis the day before King was assassinated. “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

Spellbound by this voice, there is a stillness amongst those of us who are scattered around the chapel pews, tourists transformed unexpectedly into pilgrims.

In the Martin Luther King Center itself, a sequence of photos, videos and text re-tell the story of King’s life, concluding with the funeral over the road in Ebenezer Church and the sight of his coffin paraded through the streets of Atlanta on a horse-drawn cart. A short film recounts the role of children in the Civil Rights Movement, interspersed with reflections from present day young people about what the movement’s achievements mean to them.

For our own ten-year old, it’s an eye-opener. Her laconic response to the film is, “that’s dodgy” – an acknowledgement that the discrimination she has witnessed is fundamentally wrong. She uses her money to buy a photograph of Martin Luther King to put in her bedroom.

I, too, am reminded of all I’ve once learned and forgotten. Opposite the visitor centre, King’s remains lie in a marble tomb surrounded by reflecting water and watched over by an eternal flame, lit for justice and equality. Just the day before, protestors have gathered here, demonstrating against the introduction of a single valid ID card in Georgia. It discriminates inevitably, say its opponents, against the poor, homeless and disenfranchised. Already, our Atlanta experience is becoming a tale of two cities.

And so, back by the MARTA line into the heart of downtown, with its slightly threadbare skyline that at least has the merit of allowing the shiny Capitol dome to peak through. This particular shrine to State legislature sits directly opposite First Presbyterian Church, its imposing red brick fa├žade a testament to one of Georgia’s traditional exports. And between these two sober edifices is sandwiched something altogether more glitzy, another Atlanta must-see: the bubbly World of Coca-Cola.

Slick and bright, the exhibition is a whole lot of fun so long as you leave your social conscience outside. No mention here of any soft drug used in the original recipe; no mention, either, of rotting teeth. The place is packed with marketing memorabilia, a reminder that the true success of Coca-Cola has indeed been not so much the drink as its marketing.

The driving force behind the company’s early success was one of Atlanta’s other great sons, the entrepreneur and philanthropist, Asa Griggs Candler. A committed Methodist, his money helped build Emory University Hospital and the university itself. The School of Theology is named for him and still receives significant financial support from the Coca-Cola Foundation, as does its Presbyterian counterpart, Columbia Seminary. Carrying on the philanthropic tradition, Coca-Cola continues to talk up its commitment to institutional education. It’s easy to forget that this remains a huge capital venture with its eye firmly on profit margins.

Cynicism laid to one side, however, we pose eagerly as part of an old-fashioned poster and sit in the lap of the giant polar bear mascot, recalling how we once wanted to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, “to buy the world a coke and keep it company”. In the mocked-up Soda Fountain, the patter-perfect ‘soda jerk’ hails our daughter as Soda Queen for the day. She is suitably mortified.

Yet, as we sample the huge range of Coca-Cola brands on hand to taste, it’s hard to avoid the ironies in this city that enshrines such contrasting American experiences. A 1952 poster features African American Olympic stars, Jesse Owens and Alice Coachman, brandishing smiling faces and coke bottles at a time when they wouldn’t have been served coke or anything else in segregated Southern diners.

Times have changed, of course. In 1973, Atlanta elected its first black mayor. Nevertheless, even in this most modern of cities, it’s as well to remember that behind the welcoming smile, historic undercurrents still run deep.

Tags: ,