America is known for going big and not going home, but Atlanta takes that to the extremes
Six of the world’s biggest things. In one day. This is how it was sold to me. I was sceptical, and, I have to say, with fairly good reason. The things I knew about Atlanta before coming here could have been written on the back of a postcard: capital of the state of Georgia, the Olympics in ’96 were a bit of a mess, and there’s a big airport. So my postcard could have some room to spare.
No matter, I was here now. I was visiting my friend Joe – an Atlanta native – before driving halfway across the country to Denver, where he would be starting on his doctorate. I’d spent a couple of days here already, staying with Joe and his family and exploring the local area, but hadn’t actually been into the city itself yet. Happily, Joe’s dad had recently won a pair of free tickets to the Georgia Aquarium. The World’s Largest Aquarium. So that was where we began.
I have never been that interested in sea life, if I’m honest. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, you can keep the sea and everything in it. It’s cold, it’s dangerous, there are slimy things in it, and I’m not a great swimmer. But, even taking all these things into account, the aquarium was amazing.
It’s divided into five sections, and each section focuses on a particular region of the world or climate. The aquarium houses more than 100,000 animals, from tiny seahorses, all the way up to bottlenose dolphins, sharks and beluga whales. Electric eels, piranhas, manta rays and giant Japanese crabs, there is not a single section that isn’t impressive and fascinating. It was the height of summer, and therefore correspondingly busy, but the size of the place is such that it never felt crowded. Incredible.
Suitably impressed, we drove back into the city to find some lunch. Joe told me that the only place we could possibly consider going was to The Varsity – the World’s Largest Drive-In Diner. With seating for 800 people inside, and space for 600 cars outside, it is an Atlanta institution. As you enter, you’re greeted by scores of servers standing behind a huge chrome counter, while behind you can see into the kitchen and the frantic flipping of burgers and salting of fries.
“What’ll ya have?” is the cry from the servers, and has become the restaurant’s slogan. And it was decent food. Far superior to chain-restaurant burgers and fries. Again, I was impressed and happy.
So what next? Well, Atlanta was the scene of a decisive battle during the American Civil War – the creatively named Battle of Atlanta – and it was this I was going to discover next. At the Cyclorama and Civil War Museum, we were shepherded into a large, circular room with cinema-style seating in the centre, and it was there we were narrated through the battle, aided by the World’s Largest Diorama. This is vast, 360-degree oil painting which merges into models and waxwork figures in the foreground – a primitive attempt at creating a 3D effect.
You are talked through the figures and scenarios depicted in the painting by a witty and well-informed guide, as the seats rotate slowly, allowing you to see the whole thing in all its glory. After the premiere of the film Gone With the Wind was held in Atlanta, Clark Gable visited the museum. When he saw the diorama he proclaimed they should replace one of the important generals with a waxwork of him.
The museum did indeed create a likeness of Clark, but, because he had been so pompous and unpleasant to the staff, the model was of him as a slaughtered private. It’s still part of the diorama to this day.
Driving out of the city, we headed towards Stone Mountain – the World’s Largest Granite Outcrop is how it’s described, although it’s actually quartz – and its National Park. The mountain itself was formed in the same manner as Uluru in Australia; by being of a different material to that which surrounded it. Over millennia the surroundings were eroded, leaving this far harder rock exposed.
We arrived, parked, and I made the appropriate being-quite-impressed noises. Then Joe announced we were going to climb it. Being Georgia, and being mid-August, it was shockingly hot weather and, my legs being my legs, I never wear shorts. So, with me cursing my skinny black jeans with every step, we started out.
To be honest, it wasn’t as tough as I had anticipated. The lower reaches are in the shade of trees and it’s not too steep. Getting towards the top, on the other hand, was a different story. Once above the treeline, the incline got worse, and by the end there were sections that were hands-and-knees territory.
Looking back, we could see the Atlanta skyline in the distance as eagles circled overhead. Then we crested the final rise to find a gift-shop and restaurant, where a large number of large people were waddling to and from the cable car that operates to bring tourists up the other side of the mountain. I sank to my knees and wept in dismay.
Composure recovered, we descended by the same route we’d come up before finding our way to the huge lawn that faces the north side of the mountain. On its northern face, we were confronted with the World’s Largest Bas-Relief Sculpture – a colossal monument to three important figures for the Confederacy during the Civil War: Robert E. Lee, ‘Stonewall’ Jackson and Jefferson Davis – carved into a man-made recess.
The mountain is so huge that, initially, you don’t get an impression of the scale of the carving; however, it is large enough that during construction, workers often gathered together to eat lunch on Lee’s left shoulder.
We staked out a place on the lawn for the evening’s entertainment. This would consist, almost unbelievably, of the World’s Largest Laser Show. When the thousands of people who had come to see the event had arrived and spread out their picnic blankets, the show began. It was, in effect, the historical and cultural story of the state of Georgia, and my word it was good. Incredibly kitschy, true, but so overtly, innocently enthusiastic that I couldn’t help but be charmed by it.
The show was in sections, so we had, among other things, an animated map showing the formation of Stone Mountain all those aeons ago, a part showing photos and documents to do with the Civil War, and a long and very entertaining piece about bands and musicians from Georgia, accompanied by their music videos (REM! OutKast! Ray Charles! The B52s! TLC!). Bear in mind, all of this was projected on the side of the mountain with lasers slicing through the sky above, and ending with a huge fireworks display. It was just outstanding.
Eventually, we found our way home. From knowing nothing at all about Atlanta that morning, I had been introduced to a cool, good-looking, cultured and fun city; one which spent an entire day surprising me. I look forward to going back.