Old Atlanta is gone. And those of us who “flew here” rather than “grew here” missed something wild and glorious. Old timers tell tales of the Gambino-funded Gold Club, RuPaul dancing on his go-go milk crate at Weekends disco, a small group of Atlanta University Center students organizing a picnic in 1983 that birthed the cultural and musical revolution that was Freaknik.
There was the southern outpost of the famed New York nightclub Limelight, now a grocery store known as “Disco Kroger,” the time Michelangelo Pistoletto did a citywide Creative Collaboration as an artist-in-residence for various cultural institutions across the city (including Nexus Contemporary Art Center), and then there was the outlandish Dante’s Down the Hatch where one could eat fondue while listening to live jazz and sitting in a theatrical pirate ship above a pool of live crocodiles. I am always chasing old Atlanta.
The city’s seal depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes. But lately it’s been less embers and more bulldozer and crane debris. There is a lot to love about new Atlanta. The city is defined by its dualisms, being both Southern and progressive.
New Atlanta is urban designer Ryan Gravel’s dream of the BeltLine coming to life in the form on a 22-mile greenway loop that connects 45 neighborhoods. It’s all the little community parks that branch off the BeltLine.
New Atlanta is the fight to defund Cop City. It’s the Clermont Lounge, the female-owned strip club whose dancers stay for decades, previously located in the basement of an apartment building, now the basement of a bougie hotel. New Atlanta continues to be Black excellence. New Atlanta is long lines to vote. It’s a city on pace to gain 2.5 million new residents by 2040. New Atlanta is not perfect.
I mourn for old Atlanta, the wonderful, weird place I’ll never know, but I find much of the old energy in the artists who live here now. As the city grows and development pushes and pulls from all sides, there is an abundance of great art making.
Off the top of my head, while fully knowing I’m going to mistakenly leave out 15 people, my list of great Atlanta artists would include Lonnie Holley, Yanique Norman, Erin Jane Nelson, Cosmo Whyte, Kevin Cole, Jiha Moon, Paul Stephen Benjamin, Larry Walker, Myra Greene, Dianna Settles, FRKO, Jill Frank, Dawn Williams Boyd, Y. Malik Jalal, Krista Clark, Zipporah Camille Thompson, Jeremy Bolen, Caleb Jamel Brown, Luzene Hill, Sheila Pree Bright, Alex Christopher Williams, Dana Haugaard, Sonya Yong James, Michi Meko, Elisabeth McNair, Mark Starling, T. Lang, Wihro Kim, Monica Kim Garza, Craig Drennen, Hasani Sahlehe, Courtney McClellan, Ato Ribeiro, and Antonio Darden. And others.
And, while we’re on the subject, there are plenty of galleries to visit in town: Sandler Hudson, whitespace, Marcia Wood Gallery, September Gray Fine Art, Day & Night Projects, Kai Lin Art, Jackson Fine Art, Hi-Lo Press & Gallery, Wolfgang Gallery, and ZuCot Gallery. Want to know the who, what, when, where, why of the Atlanta art scene (as well as around the South)? Burnaway Magazine is your one-stop shop.
For more cultural offerings (many of them kid friendly!), read on.
The For Keeps bookstore can feel like a half bookstore, half museum archive . . . and half community center. It welcomes everyone to read, sit, talk, browse rare and classic Black books, and even purchase a few—from the store or from one another. A Cappella Books is one of those independent new and used book shops where everything is so well selected you cannot go wrong. It has great book signings too. Charis, in Decatur, is the South’s oldest independent feminist bookshop. Shout-out to X Books, a nonprofit that gets books to the incarcerated. The tricky thing about Lucian Books and Wine is whether I should list it as my favorite bookshop (art, design, and cookbook division) or my favorite restaurant. It’s pretty perfect as both.
Museums and Attractions
The Spelman College Museum of Fine Art is a quintessential on-campus teaching museum with internationally important artists and innovative education programs. The collection and temporary exhibitions focus on art by and about women of the African diaspora.
The High Museum of Art is the Southeast’s largest museum for visual art and has an extensive collection of photographs taken during the civil rights movement. The museum has one of the best collections of self-taught artists of any major museum in the country; what is underrated, though, is the Greene Family Learning Gallery. It’s incredible. It makes my kids want to go to the museum. They can run, jump, build, climb, color with crayons, and take digital selfies that can be turned and twisted like funhouse mirrors. There is a sensory wall, colossal soft blocks, and a noodle forest. It’s exceptionally well done.
Did you spend the past two and a half years thinking a lot about influenza viruses and the 1918 pandemic? Join the club. At the Sencer CDC Museum, see how scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention combine historical solutions with high-tech, cutting-edge science to solve mystery diseases. The Historical Collection holds a working iron lung, a negative pressure ventilator, and a shiny silver mechanical respirator used primarily for polio treatment. Obsolete for decades, these old machines were actually put back to work during the Covid pandemic.
The SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film offers shows that are always sharp, impeccably curated, and immaculately installed. In 2020 it organized what may have been the best exhibition to come to town in recent years, “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design,” dedicated to the costume designer for Black Panther.
Just up the stairs and into the atrium of Trevor Arnett Hall, home of the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, you will find The Art of the Negro, a series of six large panels on canvas by Hale Aspacio Woodruff. Painted between 1950 and 1951, they collectively depict the influence of African and other forms of tribal art on the history of Western and European art. The work is a masterpiece, and you should not miss it.
At the Center for Puppetry Arts, you’ll find characters from Sesame Street, The Muppets, Fraggle Rock, Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal. More than 5,000 puppets and artifacts are on hand, including the world’s most complete collection of Jim Henson memorabilia. Other attractions include Create-a-Puppet Workshops and excellent puppet shows in the theater.
Sure, the Trap Music Museum is something of an Instagram trap, but where else can you pose with Jeezy’s cocaine snowman while holding fake bricks of cocaine? You’ll find some memorabilia, music-inspired art, childhood portraits of famous rappers, and 2 Chainz’s original, iconic all-pink Chevy sedan that sat in front of the “Pretty Girls Like Trap” pop-up house. Trappy Hour on Thursdays features a complimentary glass of champagne and two-for-one drink specials. It’s all very Atlanta.
I’m not a car guy. I drove my Hyundai Elantra until the day it died, then bought a Prius and am very happy. That said, there is nothing like the Porsche Experience Center. This $100 million wonderland serves as the automaker’s U.S. headquarters and a theme park built around history and speed. The campus contains a heritage museum, a vintage car restoration center, and Porsche’s version of a playground: a 1.6-mile track. The center offers several driving experiences as a driver or passenger. I went as a passenger in a 911 GT3 RS, which went from 0 to 60 mph in a stomach-dropping 3.0 seconds and reached a top track speed of 184 mph.
Cultural Institutions and Landmarks
Playscapes in Piedmont Park is sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s only playground in the United States. I could talk about this for days. Noguchi believed that play was too prescribed and that the usual arrangements of conventional equipment were not inspiring for children. If you present them with a series of minimalist shapes, he thought, kids will find new, creative ways to play—and creative kids become creative adults. After decades of having playground designs rejected in New York City, the High Museum in Atlanta invited Noguchi to create this gem.
At the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park, visit the crypt where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King are buried and to see the eternal flame at night is an otherworldly experience. It’s simply heartbreaking. Next door is Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King preached to his hometown congregation, and a block away sits his childhood home.
Just down the street is the incredible WERD Radio, a re-creation of America’s first Black-owned radio station. It has around 50,000 pieces of jazz and blues vinyl. The original WERD was upstairs, and Dr. King’s office was directly below it. It is said, perhaps apocryphally, that whenever he wanted to address the community, he would bang a broomstick on the ceiling and someone would open a window and drop a mic down to him on the sidewalk. The space doubles as a small museum that honors Madam C. J. Walker (1867–1919), the first female self-made millionaire in America. This was the site of the last licensed Walker’s Beauty Shoppe in town and still has the original, hand-painted signage on the window. Check operating hours before you visit.
When I drop visitors off at the 52-story Atlanta Marriott Marquis, I always tell them to pass through the lobby, take one of the elevator pods to the top floor, and then look back down over the railing. It’s disorienting at first. Designed by John C. Portman Jr., it was the largest atrium in the world upon its completion in 1985, at 470 feet high. The piano-key interior balconies jut in and out, and the conical shape of the building creates something between M. C. Escher, Alice in Wonderland, and the rib cage of a giant whale.
Atlanta loves to knock things down and build them back up. It’s in the DNA of the city. That’s why preservationists had to fight like hell for five years to stop the city from demolishing and replacing the Atlanta Central Library, the last Brutalist building Marcel Breuer ever designed. Eventually a compromise was reached: Instead of a new building, a local architecture firm would cut into the building’s imposing walls and install large banks of windows to allow light to spill in, making the structure more open and inviting. Many, myself included, were skeptical. But the reimagined space has won me over.
Special mention to the Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University(open to visitors by appointment). Browse the Atlanta Punk Rock Collection, the manuscript for the book Blues People: Negro Music in White America by Amiri Baraka, and the childhood drawings of Flannery O’Connor, then sit back and take in the digitized archive of the most excellent public-access show television has ever produced, The American Music Show. From 1981 to 2005, a group of artists and actors created a sketch show that featured comedy, drag and musical performances, interviews, and on-the-scene reports from around Atlanta. The show has had a small renaissance of late, thanks to the popularity of RuPaul, who made frequent appearances, including her first time on television.
If you like art in public spaces, Atlanta has some of the best in the country. Here is a quick list:
-Sol LeWitt , 54 Columns (1999), on Highland Avenue at Glen Iris Drive.
-Emma Amos, We Will Not Forget (1996), Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard between Formwalt and Cooper Streets.
-Thornton Dial, The Bridge (1997), at Ponce de Leon Avenue and Freedom Parkway.
-David Hammons, Nelson Mandela Must Be Free to Lead His People and South Africa to Peace and Prosperity (1987), in Piedmont Park at Charles Allen Drive NE and 10th Street NE.
–Beverly Buchanan, Hard Days Work Shack, 1988 at Studioplex, 659 Auburn Ave NE.
-Lonnie Holley, Earth Flower (1996), at Folk Art Park, Piedmont Avenue at Baker Street NE.
-Willie Cole, The Sole Sitter (2013), at Commercial Row Commons, 92 Peachtree Place NE.
In the mood to take a short car trip? Within two hours, in opposite directions, the extended Atlanta area is home to two famous visionary art environments. To the north is Paradise Garden, the four-acre home where Howard Finster (1916–2001) was called by God to “paint sacred art.” The result is this unruly complex of tiny buildings (the bottle house and mirror tree fort), cement “mountains” bedazzled with found toys and souvenirs, and a colossal tower of rusty bike frames and parts. Finster’s white Cadillac sits in a side-yard shed, painted bumper to bumper with portraits of presidents and pop stars. The shed is emblazoned with a Howard-ism: “DRUGS WILL SHORTEN YOUR DAYS AND TAKE AWAY YOUR HEALTHY FEELING. YOU DON’T NEED THEM WITHOUT PRESCRIPTION.”
To the south is a place unlike any other on this planet, Pasaquan. Amid a severe fever in the 1930s, Georgia-born Eddie Owens Martin (1908–1986), who had run away to New York City at the age of 14, heard a voice telling him that he was a “Pasaquoyan” named Saint EOM. When he returned to Georgia in 1957, he turned the family home into a work of art: seven acres of temples, pagodas, shrines, totems and mandalas, snakes, nudes, and aliens in gravity suits. Stylistically Eddie’s world is a blend of pre-Columbian Mexico and Pacific Islander. It’s big and bright, a sharp contrast to the pines of rural Marion County.
Food and Drink
Disclaimer: I’ve eaten vegetarian for the past 28 years, and Atlanta is decidedly not a vegetable-forward town. That said, you will be rewarded if you are willing to hunt or forage.
To start with, Atlanta has the two most fantastic grocery stores that have ever existed: Buford Highway Farmers Market and Dekalb Farmers Market. But these are not mere farmers markets; they’re more like an international food experience.
Dekalb Farmer’s Market started as a small produce stand before blooming into a 140,000-square-foot mega-market with 750 employees (the staff is said to speak more than 50 different languages and dialects). It’s a free-for-all of fruits and veggies—more than 450 varieties—and an astonishing mix of Turkish roasted nuts, Dungeness crab from Oregon, 50 types of fresh pastas, Bavarian rye breads, and that big shark head with its jaws open and lots of little fish spilling out.
Buford Highway Farmers Market is 100,000 square feet of aisle after aisle marked according to the food’s country of origin. The shelves are stocked with Belarussian chocolates, Louisiana alligator meat, Japanese nori komi furikake, Norwegian lefse, Czech frying cheeses, and plenty more from China, Korea, Mexico, Vietnam, Russia, Jamaica, etc. The produce section has sugar apples, mangosteens, rambutans, and pepino melons. I never leave without a container of half-sour pickles or warm kimchi dumplings. Lately, my kids have been all about the raw sugarcane stalks.
While you are out this way, nothing exemplifies Atlanta more than Buford Highway. Instead of set ethnic enclaves, what we have is a 10-mile straight line tracking the urban sprawl you’ve heard about. With its strip mall after strip mall, its straight-to-consumer architecture that at first glance might be Anywheresville USA, Buford Highway is distinctly of this place.
You quickly see the Sinaloense restaurant with its big barrel smoker in the parking lot. The Viet-Cajun Crawfish shack. The taqueria counters inside otherwise unassuming groceries. The Shanghai soup dumplings and the Bangladeshi buffet. The one-of-a-kind Plaza Fiesta is a massive Mexican mercado, or flea market, full of food stalls, bakeries, and raspados hawkers tucked between quinceañera dress shops and cowboy gear emporiums.
Getting thirsty after a long day of sightseeing? Listen, if you don’t love Trader Vic’s, I’m not sure how we can be friends. It’s cheesy. It’s a little run down. Is it a voyage to a Polynesian paradise? No. Will you sidle up to the bar next to the sun god Tiki-Makemake? Also no. Will you have fun with a potent drink served in a giant red koi fish glass? Yup. As they phrase it, “You’ll be swimming sideways.” In 1944 the original Trader Vic’s in Oakland, California, created the often imitated, never duplicated, original mai tai. Taste the recipe that made Vic’s famous!
Still parched after a very full week of sightseeing? May I suggest you also try these:
–Ticonderoga Club’s Ticonderoga Cup: Plantation Grand Reserve rum, cognac, sherry, pineapple, lemon, mint.
–Kimball House’s New Tokyo: scotch, pine and pear brandy, ginger, yuzu, lime.
–Little Bear’s Divine Hammer: mezcal, melon skin liqueur, maraschino, lemon.
–Talat Market’s French 75: barrel-aged gin, xila liqueur, lemon, lemongrass, Thai bitters, prosecco.