Kings of Tourism

[Ed.] I would hate for anyone to come away from this with the impression that I dislike Atlanta. It's my home and I love it. I just think the tourist industry here is a joke.

Walking to work this morning it occurred to me that downtown Atlanta feels like it popped into existence in 1996. That's the year the Olympics happened, which is the last Unqualified Good Historical Event we've got. This city collects those events, or tries to. A couple years ago they built a streetcar, modelled on the one in Portland, Oregon. I used "modelled" loosely here, as it possesses none of the utility of the Portland streetcar service but serves up a much larger dose of frightening deranged passengers. The vehicles are the same though, so we'll go with "modelled." Anyway, the streetcar connects Olympic Park with Auburn Street, which was the epicenter of Atlanta's civil rights movement. Ebenezer Baptist Church lies at the east end of the line. This makes a certain bit of sense, because when you're hunting for Atlanta's great cultural tourist meccas, and you want to keep the smiley face mask in place, you gotta go with the Olympics and Martin Luther King. Great city, right?

But Olympic history is kinda boring — we've got a park with a fountain and ignorable statues. What's next? Well, some entrepreneurial prodigy decided a ferris wheel would help. It worked in London after all, so we modelled ours after theirs, except half size. For the price of a meal you can see Atlanta from a slightly different angle. And for the price of a Celine Dion concert you can do it in a gondola with "Ferrari leather" seats, a glass floor, and more orbits. Not only that, but when you pay the premium price you get to skip past all the poors in the line and, according to the wheel's FAQ, "if there are just a few of you, you won’t have to share it with strangers." So they took a London thing and made it the most Atlanta thing ever.

When you get tired of sitting on Ferrari leather you can zip over to World of Coke, a giant indoor advertisement for the liquid candy we Atlantans use to maintain our unhealthy glow. I've actually been to World of Coke, so I can't be too critical, but, well, oh what the hell, let's be critical. Is it a parasitic fungus that causes people to visit this place? If you're going to fly halfway across the country, please know that there are better things to do than pay perfectly good American money to look idly at the glorified self-storage unit of a multinational manufacturer of fluids. The same goes for the Georgia Aquarium, which belongs in Atlanta much the same way that the Museum of Beachball History belongs in Topeka. Atlanta is one of the few major American cities not built on a water feature of some description. And yet there are whales in Atlanta. Let that sink in a bit, and then go somewhere else.

Of course, then the question arises, go where? Answering that can be difficult. I'd suggest you just go to The Porter and get a beer, but you're a tourist and you want to buy corny t-shirts and keychains. I get it. I also understand the conundrum the tourism industry here faces — mainly what Atlanta has accomplished over its history is a) to burn down several times, b) pretend not to hate while keeping black people out of everywhere, and c) build a gigantic airport. It's hard to make an appealing picture other than "change flights here!" Fortunately Atlanta has a long history of just making stuff up, so we get to enjoy The National Museum of Patriotism. But perhaps we could learn a bit from other cities — places that find a way to make lemonade out of, say, bloody lemons. The souvenir shops within the penumbra of Ford's Theatre are flush with gaudy Honest Abe paraphernalia, and standing in Dealey Plaza looking at that there book suppository, one feels that one has solved the mystery: Dallas shot Kennedy!

We could do that. I must admit that I'm too timid to suggest here the sorts of tourist claptrap that could one could shill at Lester Maddox World, but I'm sure you can come up with your own tasteless ax handle jokes. In any event, it's Atlanta; the spirit of business is plenty strong, and I am confident that given a challenge, the city can dream up something not just tacky and vulgar, but by God, something germane.