Touring Atlanta: fiery history, civil rights lessons

On Gena Williams’ resume is work as a Delta flight attendant, and clerk for Julian Bond when he was a state senator in Georgia.

When we meet in downtown Atlanta, three months before the Super Bowl, her title is tour guide for ATL-Cruzers and her demeanor is like a chatty girlfriend. One who’s eager to show off her hometown.

She takes the wheel of a tiny, five-passenger electric bus and deftly skirts traffic while pointing out highlights and history, interspersed with personal and pop culture trivia.

“That’s Grady Hospital, where I was born,” she nods, as an aside. “Gladys Knight (the soul singer) was born there too.”

The city that began as “Thrasherville,” in deference to city founder John Thrasher, was a railroad town that burned during the Civil War. It’s also where Martha Mitchell wrote “Gone with the Wind,” in a house that is open for tours.

“We’ve had a healthy relationship with fire,” Williams observes. That’s “healthy” as in “robust.”

We see the city’s Old Fourth Ward, where fire destroyed 50 city blocks in 1917. Now the area is vibrant and hip. Two things made a big difference: transformation of a forsaken Sears warehouse into industrial-chic Ponce City Market, and conversion of an old railway line into the recreational BeltLine trail that is lined with many places to eat and drink.

“The Phoenix,” a bronze sculpture of a woman uplifted from flames, is a symbol of the city’s rise to prosperity as the South’s unofficial capital and gateway. The sculpture’s formal name? Atlanta from the Ashes.

We see Five Points, a convergence of intersections and oldest part of the city. We hear that around 70 streets include the word “Peachtree,” but you’ll be hard-pressed to find an actual peach tree here.

That gold on the state capitol dome? It was mined 65 miles north of Atlanta, where a gold rush began 20 years before the one in California. “Just sayin’,” Williams adds.

She notes that Forbes magazine called Sweet Auburn Avenue “the richest Negro street in the world” decades ago, before interstate development in the 1950s broke up the prosperous neighborhood.

Now the area is a National Historic Landmark. In the midst of shotgun houses, new and dilapidated businesses is Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park, where the civil rights leader was born, raised and was buried with his wife.

Open to the public are his boyhood home, the garden-like burial area, the church where he and his father preached and a visitors’ center with exhibits. Williams adds a lesser-known fact: The church, Ebenezer Baptist, is where King’s mother was shot to death while playing the organ in 1974, six years after her son’s assassination.

Newer to the area is a mural to honor longtime U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an activist inspired by King’s work.

When we wonder out loud about a long line of women, our guide has an answer: “That’s probably for a new weave,” as in hair weave. And then she’s pointing out where “Black Panther” movie shoots happened.

Native son Tyler Perry, the filmmaker and actor, is among those who refer to his home state as Y’allywood because of the many movies made here, but that’s perhaps a story of its own, for another time.

The ATL-Cruzers electric-car tour of Atlanta lasts 90 minutes, covers 15 miles and costs $29 per person. Segway tours are arranged too.

The 1996 Summer Olympics made the world aware of Atlanta, and a primary gathering place for that event is known as Centennial Olympic Park today. Surrounding the 22 acres are these top tourist attractions:

CNN Studio Tours – Hear the story about how the network was the first to turn news coverage into the 24/7 affair that we expect today. The 50-minute tour introduces green screen magic, the complexity of camera work and behind-the-scenes views of broadcast and research studios. Admission is $15. tours.

College Football Hall of Fame – Follow your favorite team from the three-story wall of helmets in the lobby of this interactive space. Encounters celebrate the best individual and team achievements to the quirkiest mascots and tailgates. See what it’s like to do ESPN commentary, kick a field goal, tackle an obstacle course. Or simply watch a film for a game-day immersion. Admission is $22.

Georgia Aquarium – No aquarium in the nation is larger, and an expansion secures the billing of biggest in the western hemisphere. Timetable for completing the new gallery, for sharks, is 2020. African penguins, California sea lions and beluga whales already live here.

National Center for Civil and Human Rights – Holograms of people from around the world speak about their challenges of race, gender, religion, disability and other forms of discrimination. Lift a phone to hear a Freedom Rider. Read about Atlanta as “The City Too Busy to Hate.” Put on headphones, take a seat at a makeshift Woolworth lunch counter, close your eyes and see how long you can handle the intimidation. Admission is $20.

The World of Coca-Cola – TV commercials, films, folk art, pop art and artifacts tell the story of “The Real Thing,” a vault holds the secret formula for the soft drink and the gift shop stocks a mind-boggling array of Coke merchandise. Best reason to visit, though, is the second-floor tasting room, whose 100-some choices are from all over the world. Sample whatever you want. Admission is $17.

Three miles east of the area is the Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum and Library, worthwhile regardless of your political affiliation. Admission is $8.

For more about the city: