Born of both opportunity and crisis, Atlanta is a study in contrasts—its identity consistent yet constantly shape-shifting.
Established as the ultimate convergence of three separate railroads in 1837, this tiny little outpost was known as “Terminus,” “Thrasherville,” and “Marthasville” before assuming the feminine version of “Atlantic,” from the eponymous Western & Atlantic Railroad, in 1845.
In 1862, Hill and Swayze’s Railroad Guide referred to the “flourishing city in Fulton county, Georgia, known as the Gate City, from its being the grand center of all the railroads north, south, east and west. The situation is elevated, and remarkably healthy. It is one of the most native business cities in the Confederacy.” Suddenly, this mountain town’s main assets—its people’s entrepreneurship, innovation, and tenacity—assumed an ominous tone during the Civil War.
The New York Times reported in November 1863, the same year of the Emancipation Proclamation: “Atlanta to the South, is Chicago to the Northwest, and its occupation by the soldiers of the Union would be virtually snapping the backbone of the rebellion.” These words were like prophecy, and the horror people endured is almost unimaginable today.
Shell-shocked survivors, veterans, and fortune seekers soon returned to the burned-out and blood-soaked streets and fields, ready to renew and rebuild. They announced their intentions to the world by embracing the phoenix on the city seal and its emblems—a mythical bird rising from its own ashes.
To rebuild meant to hope, and to hope meant welcoming others.
In 1875, the Atlanta Daily Herald lauded the rapidly growing town with equally sized ambitions, waxing poetically: “We congratulate ourselves because nothing is so indicative of a city’s prosperity as to see an influx of Jews who come with the intention of living with you.”
Such sentiments could hardly have been imagined for many Jews throughout history. An open-ended invitation to take part in the American Dream? An opportunity, as the notable historian Jonathan Sarna describes, to become both a part of the American people and remain proud Jews? Viewed from this vantage, the Herald’s sticky-sweet pronouncement is remarkable.
Reality sometimes falls far short of hope-filled aspirations. The race riot of 1906, the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915, and the generations-long disenfranchisement of and inequitable distribution of public resources to its African-American citizens are just a few examples reflecting how very easily invitations can be rescinded and opportunities taken away.
Still, Atlantans choose to come together despite differences in socio-economic status, opinion, and experience. Vision and pragmatic pluck, or the “Atlanta Spirit,” differentiate Atlanta and its trajectory from cities across the nation and, especially, the South. When other places refuse to abandon relics of the past, when America seemingly comes apart at the seams, Atlanta’s civic, business, and community leaders collaborate to moderate and effect change.
Many cities burned during the modern Civil Rights movement. The Gate City voluntarily desegregated. Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. testified in Congress on behalf of then-President Kennedy’s public accommodations section of the civil rights bill, a major coup for the president. The city soon saw the election of its first Jewish mayor, Sam Massell Jr., and its first African-American vice-mayor and, later, three-term mayor, Maynard Jackson.
To overcome a bit of an underdog mentality, Atlantans master the art of self-promotion and public relations. In the process, they set trends and define tastes well beyond the “New South.” International cotton expositions in 1881 and 1895 introduced this evolving industrial hub on the world’s stage. The Forward Atlanta campaign of the 1920’s—conceived and overseen by Allen Jr.’s father, Ivan Sr., “the Senator”—publicized the benefits of doing business here: Put Atlanta on your payroll for a year, read one slogan. The effort induced dozens of corporations to relocate their headquarters, brought in millions in capital, and thousands of jobs. Of course, Margaret “Peggy” Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gone With The Wind—which depicts an idealized and war-torn Southern agrarian society conflating history and memory—became a world-wide phenomenon and one of the highest-grossing films of all-time.
More than anything, Atlantans want to be taken seriously, as all cosmopolitans do.
Looking Toward the 21st Century
Years later, Andre 3000, one-half of the quintessential hip-hop group OutKast, created this defining moment for the ascendant and sprawling metropolis. Upon winning the Best New Rap Group at the 1995 Source Awards, and in front of an audience transfixed by West Coast-East Coast feuds, the baby-faced MC extraordinaire declared: “I’m tired of close-minded folks…the South’s got something to say!”
The sense of civic pride runs deep. Each generation feels an equal responsibility to its beloved city, to put it on the ever-unfolding map.
So, what can we learn by tracing these themes of fortitude and resilience in Atlanta’s history? And at such an urgent time of need today across this nation and the world, when so many are struggling, isolated, and fearful about the immediate future, what does the South have to say?
Atlanta is a true microcosm of this nation’s idiosyncratic experiment in democracy, both for better and worse. Her stories reflect the obstacles we can overcome when we turn toward our better angels and, therefore, toward one another. Now, rise up!