About Atlanta, people say just the opposite of what they say about New York City: It's a nice place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit there.
Especially in the summer.
Atlantans regard enthusiastic vacationers with dismay. We'll scramble some salty eggs for their breakfast and lay a pat of butter on their grits to get them started. We'll set the translucent plastic gallon-jug of Publix sweet iced tea sweating on the table among the coffee mugs. After that, they're on their own.
"What are we doing today?" our first-time guests from Oregon ask expectantly on the first Sunday morning after their arrival.
We regard them balefully.
"Don't you mean, what are you doing today? Because we're not going anywhere."
"Weren't we going to climb Stone Mountain?" they ask, with a hint of reproach. They don't want to have to remind us of the glorious hiking trips we once made together in the Cascade Mountains, through valleys of wildflowers, toward glacial peaks.
"It's 98 degrees out," we mention.
"At nine in the morning?"
"And humid," we add.
If you have to be in Atlanta in the summer, you'll want to spend the day standing near an air-conditioning unit, with the vents aimed at your face. By August, walking to your mailbox leaves you flushed and perspiring. Atlanta in the summer is like the steam from a pot of boiling water. People say, "It's so hot the mosquitoes are sticking together."
I was born in Macon, Georgia, and lived in Savannah, Athens and Rome, Georgia (and Dayton, Ohio), before moving to Atlanta in 1982. When my husband and I were first married and lived in Rome (Georgia), we couldn't afford an air conditioner. So we lived as my parents and grandparents had lived in Macon in the pre-home-air-conditioning era: we went to a lot of air-conditioned movies and we opened all the windows at night, to welcome the occasional cool breeze, and then closed them again before dawn. We spent a lot of time strolling slowly, slowly, up and down the freezer aisles of the local Piggly Wiggly grocery; we set up a bowl of ice in front of an oscillating fan; and we finally, on a summer night of supreme misery, sat in our living room with our bare feet resting in a cooler filled with ice water.
I once visited a friend in East Lansing, Michigan, who is an entomologist, studying mosquitoes. He invited me into the closet in which he raised his mosquitoes by the thousands, on dozens of shelves filled with Tupperware containers of still water. It was unpleasant in the closet, hot and close and clammy. "You like this?" he asked.
"You should," he said. "It's Atlanta, August 2, 1985."
Why travelers choose to visit Atlanta in the summer is a mystery to us.
Why they would expect us to step outside our air-conditioned houses to scale, in sneakered blistered feet, the granite bulge called Stone Mountain, in order to achieve an even greater closeness to its Confederate engravings—and to the sun—also eludes us. Why they imagine that we would want to stand with them in a line of sticky untucked people on the parking lot outside the Coca-Cola museum is beyond understanding.
The greatest mystery of all is why the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose to bless Atlanta with the 1996 Summer Olympics.
"It's...Ah..." began IOC president Juan Samaranch in the famous announcement on September 18, 1990, the "Ah" sound ruling out everyone but us and Athens, Greece. The entire city fell silent around a hundred thousand radios and televisions, waiting for the next syllable or syllables. "...tlanta," he finally finished.
"Is he crazy?" we asked one another. "Has he actually ever been to Atlanta in summertime?"
The city then had to scramble to produce a marketing slogan to justify the IOC's choice.
Unlike Athens, Greece, there was no millennium of glorious history at our backs, no ancient ruins, no magnificent landscape, no closeness to seas and bays and beaches and islands and soft Mediterranean breezes.
The proposed Olympic slogans were thus light on specifics.
"Atlanta: Not Bad for Georgia," was suggested.
"Atlanta: We're Better Than Birmingham."
"Atlanta: Atnalta Spelled Backwards."
And finally: "Atlanta: We Got the Olympics and You Didn't."
None of these was made official. I dare say not a single one of the five million people currently living within the greater Atlanta metropolitan area can recite, today, the winning slogan. I just looked it up myself. The official slogan of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics was: "The Celebration of the Century."
Does this give you a hint that we don't have a clue what to do with people who come to visit?
When Atlantans travel and are introduced to non-Atlantans, the non-Atlantans instantly, universally, unfailingly say: "I've changed planes there dozens of time, but I've never stepped outside the airport."
What Atlantans usually think about this admission is: "Wise choice."
In Birmingham and Charlotte and Mobile, people say: "You have to change planes in Atlanta to get to heaven."
Atlantans think: "Don't detour into town."
A lot of visitors come to Atlanta because they want to see the original Tara, the plantation where Scarlett O'Hara or Vivien Leigh or Margaret Mitchell or whoever lived in Gone With the Wind. It used to be said that Yankees knew of only two places in Georgia—the Coca-Cola factory and Tara—and one of those was fictional. According to Frommer's travel guide, among the questions most frequently posed by visitors to Atlanta is: "Where are Scarlett and Rhett buried?"
We don't have time for such questions.
And we don't like seeing visitors staggering down Peachtree Street, dazed by the heat, looking in vain for pillared mansions, hoop skirts and fields of cotton.
The real Atlanta isn't on display.
The real Atlanta unfurls her beauty in the spring, then folds it up again, as into a perfumed hope chest, well before July and August.
Atlanta in the spring is the loveliest place on earth. Atlanta in the spring is the Disneyland of flowers.
There is a morning in spring when we awaken to the shy presence of the pear trees in wedding gowns of white blossoms; and the dogwood trees, like bridesmaids, are beribboned with their own white or light-pink flowers. This day is the Deep South's version of first snow.
Soon, like the aunts on the groom's side with cheap taste, the azalea bushes bustle into view, lipsticked and rouged in brightest scarlet and purple; wisteria vines pour their lavender flowers down like shawls.
The real Atlanta would not be recognizable to Margaret Mitchell's cotton planters. Atlanta today is a dazzling modern and cosmopolitan city with people from every nation and culture. Atlanta's mayor is an African-American woman named Shirley Franklin. The birthplace and final resting place of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta celebrates Black History Month every month. Our local high school educates students from 57 different countries. The Druid Hills soccer team (which reached the state semifinals) fielded players from Somalia, Ethiopia, Mexico, Sudan and Japan. The intersection near my house has Greek, Ethiopian, Mexican, Italian, French, Chinese, Thai and vegan restaurants. Within a mile you can visit a Hmong congregation, a Russian Orthodox church and a Muslim mosque. I came home from errands one morning and realized I hadn't spoken to a single native-English speaker in three hours. The butcher was Iranian, his cashier, Ghanaian; the bakery woman, Russian; the dry cleaner, East Indian. Back at home I found a Honduran carpenter and a Nigerian baby sitter.
Do visit Atlanta, but not in the summer.
Come in late February or March or April, when the sky is bright blue and the flower show is beginning. Check into a bed-and-breakfast in midtown and wander around on foot. Walk up and down long, deeply shady residential streets to the sound of whirring sprinklers. Say, "How you?" "Nice to see you," to everyone you pass.
Or bike. Bump along sidewalks made topsy-turvy by the roots of the tulip poplar trees. Even on a bike, wearing your helmet, you'll want to say, "Hey," or "How you doing?" to people you ride past. A thousand scented petals circle lazily down from the trees.
Or rollerblade. Rollerblade in Piedmont Park, over the bridge, around the lake. Admire the long, lean leotard-clad rollerbladers whizzing by. Listen to many languages. Admire biracial couples, gay couples, multiracial family groups. Bike or walk or rollerblade or run your dogs down the long forested drive, closed to traffic, of Lullwater Park of Emory University. Feed crackers to the geese. Climb the magnolia tree there. Forget to ask for directions to Tara.
Atlanta: Come for the people. Come for the flowers. Come in the spring.
Melissa Fay Greene's most recent books include There Is No Me Without You (2006) and Last Man Out (2003).