Atlanta, by the guidebook
My visit to Atlanta started on Page 292.
Immediately after landing, I wandered over to Map 14, Grant Park/Summerhill, to experience the “oddest Atlanta tourist attraction.” I had placed my utmost faith in this guidebook, and it honored that trust. At least when it came to Page 292. (Page 321, you are not off the hook. I will deal with you later.)
While travel appsters hover over their gadgets, squinting at a tiny screen, I hoisted my low-tech guidebooks all over Atlanta. I ruffled through their pages on sidewalks, in my rental car and even inside a bathroom at a bar, searching for whatever I needed next: food, culture, a cab, coffee, the police. Though the weight of the books crocheted a knot in my back, at least I didn’t walk into a parking meter.
To cover the entire spectrum of Atlanta, I toted around a small library of guidebooks: Moon Handbooks (for standards and staples), Not for Tourists Guide to Atlanta (as comprehensive as a phone book) and Wallpaper City Guide (sybaritic and stylish).
Each book spoke its own patois, yet sometimes they came together in a cohesive voice – a valuable consensus for an indecisive traveler. Case in point: the Georgian Terrace Hotel, the august early 20th-century property that appeared in all three softbacks, including the very discerning Wallpaper. Leave the equivocating to Yelpers and Trip Advisors.
And yet sometimes they didn’t endorse equally – a conundrum for a waffling traveler. The Cyclorama, considered the largest oil painting in the world, was too anti-aesthetic for Wallpaper, which avoids the campy and the common. Moon provided a thorough write-up, but its description lacked flash. NFT went straight for the superlatives. I go weak for “-ests.”
Neither book truly captured the Cyclorama’s essence, but maybe they were intentionally holding back to protect the secret sauce. I stumbled into the museum unprepared, except for knowing the basic info. To view one of three intact Cycloramas in the country, I had to wait for the next tour. Guests aren’t allowed inside the amphitheater unattended; perhaps the temptation to jump into the painted scene and play Civil War soldier is too strong.
The painting measures 42 feet high and 358 feet in circumference and includes a Natural Museum of History-ish diorama that was added to the foreground in 1936.
Oakland Cemetery, built in 1840, is a living history museum of the dead, housing the remains of such famous personalities as Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell and Maynard Jackson, the city’s first African American mayor. The main objective of my pilgrimage, however, was to pay tribute to Joseph Jacobs, the pharmacist who introduced Coca-Cola to the world in 1887. Before entering the gates, I stopped into Ria’s Bluebird for a Diet Coke. I later learned that according to my guidebooks, Ria’s serves smokin’ Southern cuisine and is a coveted brunch spot.
Jacobs’s site was devoid of fan souvenirs. Two large urns flanked the simple white marble mausoleum. I grabbed my bottle of soda, took a swig, then sprinkled the rest around his grave. May your fridge be stocked with Coke for all eternity.
Maybe I trusted too much. Yet both Moon and Wallpaper touted the Thursday-night cocktail gatherings at the Museum of Design Atlanta. Free drinks with admission. Maybe I should have called first.
The guidebooks deserted me on a few other occasions as well. Eighty Eight Tofu House, a 24-hour Asian vegetarian restaurant, was out of business, despite its mention on Page 321 of NFT. And the Red Light Cafe no longer hosts hip-hop shows, contrary to Moon’s description.
Nonetheless, the tiny stumbles didn’t overshadow the guidebooks’ great strides of discovery. For example, I owe NFT for lighting the way to the art museum at Spelman College, the historically black college for women.
Wallpaper also earned a hearty handshake for leading me to Westside Provisions District, an urbane collection of clothing stores, restaurants and furniture shops.
I do, however, take all the credit for missing the turn to Westside and ending up at Goat Farm, an artists’ colony established in an old wheelmaking factory. I didn’t find any four-legged barnyard animals, but I bumped into some chickens and artists loafing around a coffeehouse.