Georgia On My Mind
Welcome back, dear readers, to a very, very special installment of Crapitols. It's been far too long since our last check-in, as leisure travel still isn't quite back to where it used to be. But here we are, for perhaps the most personal and nostalgic journey of this entire endeavor, even exceeding my visit to Des Moines. The story begins long ago, at the dawn of the 1990s....
As I recall it, we sat down to dinner one night in 1989 in Bettendorf, Iowa, when dad said, "Guess what... we're moving to Atlanta!!!" Then we all cried. Or at least, I certainly cried. Maybe it was just me.
I mean, what were we gonna do in Atlanta? None of my friends lived there. Did they have Happy Joe's pizza? Whitey's Ice Cream? Hy-Vee? This was going to be a huge inconvenience. But nothing could be done. Dad was climbing the corporate ladder and Dixie beckoned. The exact dates may be a bit fuzzy, but as I remember it, we went and saw The Little Mermaid one night and moved to Georgia the next day.
We arrived at our new house in the sleepy suburb of Lawrenceville in Gwinnett county, in a brand new subdivision called River Park, on a tiny cul-de-sac called Chivalry Court in the summer of 1990, just in time for the start of school. I was going into 3rd grade, and dreading being 'the new kid.'
We had a fun little three-year stint as midwestern migrants navigating the totally alien culture of not just the South, but also suburban life, big-city amenities, and Eastern Standard Time. There were fire ants. There was red clay instead of black soil. There was a layer of yellow pine pollen on every surface on spring mornings. There was kudzu. There was pine straw EVERYWHERE. They said "y'all." They called pop "Coke," and laughed at us for calling it "pop." They said, "Iowa... is that... potatoes?" If it snowed they would shut down the entire state. The Braves were just starting to get good. They were awarded the Olympics and everyone freaked out. It seemed to take and hour to drive anywhere. They had the Drake School of Irish Dance (don't get me started). They had cool Civil War forts and battlefields all over the place. I was in Cub Scouts. Played YMCA baseball. Made some great friends. Our parents masochistically crammed us all into our Pontiac Bonneville several times a year for the 2,000 hour drive back to Iowa, three in the front seat, three in the back. Plenty of good times and bad times in the span of three years. In 1993 we left Georgia and I never returned. I never had a reason to....
...until I decided it was my destiny to defecate at every U.S. state capitol building. In 2022, the perfect opportunity to return to Atlanta presented itself. I found a business conference to attend in late March, which makes this the very first Crapitols trip that will also be a tax write-off!
I booked my trip with several extra days ahead of the conference so I could re-explore Atlanta and visit the capitol. There are a lot of new and exciting things to do in Atlanta since we left, but still quite a lot that I remembered from the good old days. After checking into my AirBnb in the conveniently located Capitol Gateway neighborhood, I hopped onto the MARTA to do some site-seeing. The Georgia Dome is gone, replaced by Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Never went to a Falcons game (what was the point?). I saw Jordan and Wilkins play at the Omni, long-since replaced by State Farm Arena. The CNN Center is still there, home of the former world's longest escalator, and also the world's worst idea for a streaming news platform.
Here's a little known fact: the 1996 Summer Olympics were held in Atlanta! Remember that? Ali lighting the cauldron? Johnson's golden Nikes? Kerri Strug? There's a whole Olympic park with all sorts of statues and plaques and memorials. They're really into their Olympic history.
As you well know, walking all over a city is my go-to mode of transport and local fast food is my go-to travel cuisine, so I wandered from Olympic Park all the way to The Varsity, an Atlanta greasy drive-in institution. I remembered my dad taking me here once after my Cub Scout den served as flag bearers for a big rally welcoming home troops from Operation Desert Storm at Bobby Dodd Stadium right across the street on the Georgia Tech University campus. The menu, decor, and legendary "What'll ya have?" service do not seem to have changed at all in three decades. I decided two slaw dogs, onion rings, and a Varsity Orange would be helpful for the following day's assault on the capitol.
I ended my first night with a trip to the Georgia Aquarium, a must-visit Atlanta attraction.
In those three years we lived in Georgia, we never once visited the capitol. So the next morning, after a breakfast of cheesy grits and coffee. I set out to right that historical wrong.
Atlanta became the capital of Georgia during the Reconstruction in 1868. The current capitol building was completed in 1889 and it looks pretty much like most of the other capitols, what with the golden dome and columns and such.
No grand rotunda, however. Just a blank white ceiling inside. I felt like this was a missed opportunity for an architectural flourish.
And no guided tours available for random walk-ins. Tours reserved strictly for the many school groups that were present that day.
The building was bustling, as the legislature was in session that day. Representatives and aides and reporters everywhere, and a long line out the door of the Governor's office full of dignitaries presumably waiting to glad-hand Brian Kemp. They do not have a State Capitol passport stamp. Thumbs down, Governor Kemp.
Couldn't even go inside the House or Senate chambers.
From what I could see it was your basic state capitol stuff.
Some decent staircases, and of course a shrine to James Oglethorpe, who founded the colony of Georgia in 1733. (Here's a fun trivia question: which King George of England is Georgia named after?)
Lots of Georgia marble, I should mention.
And, most troublingly, bathrooms desperately in need of an update. Outdated fixtures, poor design, some ill-conceived improvised workarounds from the 50s or 60s, cramped conditions. Very disappointing. But nonetheless, I was able to complete the task. That makes 20 capitols thus far.
I didn't linger much longer, as there really wasn't much else to hold my interest. I headed across the street to check out the capitol gift shop hoping to find a souvenir penny machine. Only problem was...
Well that was the last straw. Successful though I was, my experience at the Georgia State Capitol was pretty lackluster. No tour, no passport stamp, terrible bathrooms, Spartan interior, no souvenir pennies, no gift shop. Meh. Oh well. Atlanta has far more interesting attractions on offer.
For example, the city where everything is called Coke is home to the World of Coca-Cola museum. Opened in 1990, just when we arrived, this place was like heaven on Earth. Basically, it's a museum of Coca-cola advertisments from the last 130 years with a tasting room at the very end of the tour. Every variety of Coke product from around the world was on offer, and our mother granted us the sacred indulgence known in our family as Pop Free-for-all. You would put your cup under the machine and select Sunkist Grape, or Mexican Sprite, or whatever whacky variety, and the heavenly nectar would squirt out of this giant tower down into the machine and into your cup (which I'm sure was just a regular soda fountain with some extra theatrics). It was all very Willy Wonka. And it's ALL GONE!!!!!
Well not really. They moved the museum to a new location at the Olympic Park in 2007. I declined to visit because I'm an adult now and don't drink pop. The old museum sits abandoned in the shadow of the capitol, a ghostly monument to the childhood memories of millennials all over the South.
The Underground Mall has seen better days as well. Obviously the pandemic took a toll on the retail and tourism industries, but Underground Atlanta is under redevelopment apparently and hopefully will bounce back sometime in the next few years. I was struck by how accurate my memories of it were. You'd walk down the steps, into the underground area and buy a chunk of turquoise or crystal at the rock shop, then visit the candy barrel store for some Laffy Taffys by the pound, see the creepy two-headed calf at the general store, then exit the far end where the Coke museum stood. Story checked out.
Next I hopped on the MARTA on my way to the Atlanta History Center in the posh Buckhead neighborhood to see the newly restored Atlanta Cyclorama. A cyclorama is a 360 degree painting on the inside of a giant cylindrical canvas. These were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries when there were no movies. Many of the giant works of art depicted famous battles so viewers inside could feel immersed in the scene.
We visited the Atlanta Cyclorama several times back in the day. I've always been a history nerd, so it was always a favorite of mine. The painting was moved in 2015 from its previous location next to Zoo Atlanta (RIP Willie B.) to the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead. It has been restored and revamped and re-interpreted. It used to be that crowds would file into seats on a large bleacher-like apparatus that would slowly rotate 360 degrees as the painting was illuminated and the story of the Battle of Atlanta was narrated. No more rotating seats, sadly, but you can get real close to the painting (and diorama figures!) and the restoration is magnificent.
Did I mention they once had THE SUMMER OLYMPICS in Atlanta? No foolin! There was a whole exhibit about it at the Atlanta History Center. Izzy, the mascot of the 1996 games might just be peak 1990s.
In late afternoon I triumphantly returned to my AirBnB to be greeted with a delightful Mediterranean charcuterie plate which I enjoyed with my lovely host on her sunny patio. Five stars.
The following day I crossed a few other items off my to-see list. Oakland cemetery, right near my AirBnb, is the final resting place of Georgia's favorite daughter, Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, golf legend Bobby Jones, and the Gambler himself, Kenny Rogers.
I saw the Olympic cauldron, and visited the former site of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, where I saw many Braves games, including game 6 of the 1992 NLCS when, with the entire stadium taunting "BARRRRRY, BARRRRRY," Barry bonds homered off of Tom Glavine to silence the crowd. The place is now a parking lot.
Atlanta is also the birthplace and final resting place of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior, along with Coretta Scott King, to whom I paid my respects.
I then made my way South of town to the airport Hilton for my conference, which lasted through the weekend. I had about nine hours to kill before my 11:00 pm flight home to Denver on my final day, so I rented a Nissan Sentra on Turo and hopped on I-95 north to Gwinnett county.
Now this is when the nostalgia really started to set in. Every other place I've ever lived in my life I've revisited at least a few times, but not Lawrenceville, Georgia. I had many vivid memories of the place, but they felt like unconnected dots in my story. We just piled into the car one summer day 29 years ago and said, "goodbye Chivalry Court." I had to go back and check to make sure it was all real.
I recognized a few familiar landmarks as I drove the densely-wooded suburban roads, and Google Maps dutifully guided me back to Chivalry Court. Damn, it looks so small.
I used to ride my Big Wheel down the hill and drift to a stop in front of that storm sewer. The same sewer we would climb down into to retrieve our lost baseballs and tennis balls. The green electrical box we used to play on and jump off of is still there. Had my first and only fight ever right next to it with Bobby Capellos from up the street. We played baseball in the impossibly small-looking side yard of the house, now with a 50-foot wall of trees behind it. A foul ball off the bat of Ryan Fisher went through our dining room window. We built forts in the piney woods in the backyard. One of us got in big trouble for bashing someone in the eye with a stick requiring stitches (not naming names). All the neighborhood kids would come play basketball in our driveway. Right there in the garage was where Dad destroyed a screen door that refused to be repaired. We watched early episodes of Beavis and Butthead and Aeon Flux on MTV's Liquid Television. Ren and Stimpy debuted. America's Funniest Home Videos every Sunday night (RIP Saget). Book It at Pizza Hut in the summer. Going to the video store and always hoping that they had Rampage for NES but usually being disappointed. Babysitting the neighbors and watching Terminator 2: Judgement Day, my favorite movie ever, for the first time. I had a pet gerbil named February. We got hermit crabs. We had a pet rabbit of indeterminate sex named Pat. The Colemans next door also got hermit crabs and a rabbit. Grandma Mills came to visit. Grandma Fagan came to visit. Tom and Cindy. Cathy and Johnny. Uncle Brian. Babysat cousin Kara for a week. Diane and Doug. Jeanne. Probably Dale??? I could go on and on.
As I was about to leave an SUV pulled into the cul-de-sac and into the driveway of the old house. It's probably been bought and sold a few times over the years, but it struck me that perhaps that was the same person we sold it to in 1993, and they could have had a 30-year mortgage paid off by now. Crazy.
Next I had to see the old pool. We spent seemingly every day of our summer vacation at the pool in our little subdivision, which has fallen into complete disrepair. Textbook cesspool. Looks like a set from The Walking Dead. There were creatures lurking in the opaque green water. I'm shocked that it hasn't been filled in. Very creepy.
Then I wanted to see how long that drive to school actually was. Coming from a small city in Iowa, where everything is a maximum of six minutes away by car, getting around suburban Atlanta took forever when we were kids. I remember endless drives to school, to friends' houses, to Winn-Dixie, all to the soundtrack of adult contemporary radio blasting Jon Secada or Amy Grant thrice hourly. Turns out, the drive to St. John Neumann Regional Catholic School was about 16 minutes. An eternity for a 9-year-old.
These days of course, you can't just go in schools. Especially if you're a big hairy weirdo like me. Not even if your 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Coody, still works there. Not even if you can still sing the SJN fight song, set to the tune of the Notre Dame Victory March. Not even if you wear your maroon and gray SJN Crusader colors. I mean, it was Sunday and no on was around anyway. (Look Mrs. Coody! I'm a travel blogger!)
I had one final stop before heading to the airport. The world's largest chunk of controversy - Stone Mountain. Along with the Coke museum, this was our other go-to destination for when friends and family came to visit. A state park with all sorts of family activities, the coolest of which were the hike up the mountain and the laser show spectacular. We probably did the hike up the mountain three or four times during our Southern tenure, and in my memory it was an arduous undertaking. A grueling hours-long hike as I recalled it. I've been living in Colorado for 17 years now, so I was fairly confident in my physical fitness level. I thought, maaaaybe it would take me an hour. 45 minutes if I'm lucky?
18 minutes to the top. 18 minutes! For some Georgia-specific perspective, there are two tracks on the Allman Brothers' Live at the Fillmore East that are longer than that. It's only a mile roundtrip, but seeing the throng of families on the trail I could easily understand how much more difficult the task is whilst herding four kids and grandma or whoever up the mountain. Clear skies and sunshine at the top with the Atlanta skyline and the Appalachian mountains in the distance. As a reward for my climbing prowess, souvenir penny machine at the top!
After texting my family to brag about my achievement I headed back down the mountain. I had to get around the front side of the mountain to see the famous/infamous carving. Stone Mountain features the world's largest bas-relief sculpture carved right into the side of the rock. A monument to the Lost Cause since its inception in 1972, the place is fraught with controversy.
The most thrilling attraction at Stone Mountain is the laser show spectacular, which I was truly saddened to have to miss. Obviously the show only begins after dark and my 11:00 PM flight wouldn't allow me to stay that late. Tragic. I assume the show has been updated with newer technology and probably newer ideology than in its heyday in the early 1990s, but here was the gist of it: You'd bring your blankets and chairs and cooler full of Capri Suns and grab a spot on the lawn just before dark. Then they projected lasers onto the side of the mountain that animated little cartoon segments. There was a corny baseball montage accompanied by John Fogerty's corny Center Field. a rock'n'roll segment set to Bob Seger's Old Time Rock n Roll, the obligatory Devil Went Down to Georgia number, the timeless classic Georgia On My Mind, by Ray Charles, and then a HUGE over-the-top finale where a disgusted Robert E. Lee sees the folly of his cause and breaks his sword in two and the broken shards morph into the reunified Northern and Southern states set to Elvis' American Trilogy. And then Lee Greenwood brings it all home with God Bless the USA. You can watch it all, just as I remember it, here.
Then I boarded my red eye flight back to Denver and bid farewell once again to the Peach State. The trip was everything I could have hoped for. I'll have to come back to catch the laser show another time. That's it for now. I have a few weddings to attend later this year which may result in one or two more Crapitol visits, so stay tuned.