Atlanta in the Popular Imagination
Dana F. White, December 2006
"The Atlanta Spirit"
For much of its history, the city's promoters have evoked an "Atlanta Spirit" to define its purported special character. Sloganeering has been a constant: from a 19th century "Gate City to the South," to a civil rights-era "City Too Busy to Hate," to the Sunbelt fantasy of "A City without Limits," to an Olympian evocation to "Come Celebrate the Dream," on down to the most recent 21st century "branding" of "ATL"—"Every Day is an Opening Day!" Atlanta has been as much a mindset as a place.
Founding Father/ Survivalist Mother
In his introduction to Atlanta: A Portrait of the Civil War, the Atlanta History Center's Michael Rose suggested that "when the public envisions Atlanta during the Civil War, two primary images—of two unparalleled individuals—dominate: William Tecumseh Sherman and Scarlett O'Hara. The visual imagery of both characters is powerful. The scowling, haggard features of Sherman, the 'war is Hell' commander who leveled the city and is hated by some to this day, is an effective icon for the depiction of the Atlanta campaign....Scarlett O'Hara is something else altogether. The pervading presence of Gone with the Wind is everywhere in the mass culture concept of Civil War Atlanta. The motion picture version of the novel supplied a concrete visual element: graceful Southern mansions, war-weary Scarlett racing along Peachtree Street, and Rhett battling the fires of Sherman's destruction. Gone with the Wind created a legendary image of Atlanta—one readers and movie viewers believe in only too well."1
Sherman put Atlanta on the map: first he designated the city a strategic target; then he burned it to the ground. His exercise in "total war" suggested fire as Atlanta's essential element. The city's rapid rebuilding seemed to presage ever new beginnings. "Like the phoenix from the ashes" became Atlanta's municipal motto. The simple pledge "Resurgens" is emblazoned on the city seal. This spirit is found in the city's ever-changing urban landscape, resulting from the city's spirit of tear down, build up; out with the old, in with the new. General Sherman, then, whom Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady later praised as "an able man,... though some people think he is a kind of careless man about fire," served as a fitting mythic founding father for a self-proclaimed "Hotlanta."2
Scarlett stands for survival at any price. In both the novel and the film, she rejected the Old South and personified the new. Her vow of "tomorrow is another day" (an early title for the novel) unabashedly embraces the future. Scarlett also stands for unfettered economic opportunity, employing cheap convict labor; reconfiguring Tara from a plantation into an agribusiness; reprogramming Ashley, an old-style gentleman, into a modern manager; or marrying Frank and Rhett for access to capital. Scarlett still appears in Atlanta's popular and business press as the city's prototypical, albeit mythical, CEO.
A founding father who camped out in Atlanta for only a couple of months before destroying it and a survivalist-at-any-price mother who lived only in print and on film provided the city with its unusual foundational narrative. Little wonder, then, Atlanta's brag and boast, its defensiveness, its insecurities.
"South of the North, yet North of the South"
So would W. E. B. Du Bois describe and situate turn-of-the-century Atlanta in The Souls of Black Folk: "the City of a Hundred Hills, peering out from the shadows of the past into the promise of the future."3 Both "the shadows" and "the promise" had to do with race in this New South city.
In 1896, President Horace Bumsted, another invasive Yankee, who had served as major in the Forty-Third Massachusetts Regiment of Colored Troops, announced that Atlanta University (AU) would inaugurate a series of conferences to provide a "systematic and thorough investigation of the conditions of living among the Negro population of cities." Du Bois, who had joined the AU faculty as professor of economics and history in 1897, assumed the responsibility for organizing the annual conferences in 1898, broadened their scope to include additional aspects of African life and culture, and directed the publication of 16 of the 20 numbered monographs (#3-18) of the "Atlanta University Publications." Remarkably, he proposed a century-long program, organized according to decade-by-decade investigations of such topics as the family, church, business, welfare organizations, and, of course, the city. His projections may have seemed over-ambitious, but during his early Atlanta years, Du Bois still managed to establish Atlanta University as the national center for the systematic study of race.4
In 1910, Du Bois left for New York, the NAACP, and the editorship of The Crisis. A quarter century later, he would return to Atlanta University as professor of sociology and there, in January 1940, would issue the initial number of Phylon, The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture. Together, W. E. B. Du Bois's "Atlanta University Publications" and Phylon would establish a legacy for the city as the "Civil Rights Capital." The municipality that would proclaim itself—albeit with unconscious irony—"The City Too Busy to Hate" and later invite the world to "Come Celebrate the Dream" owed much to Du Bois, as well as to others who came before him, such as Robert Webster, a black unionist who joined Mayor James M. Calhoun in the delegation that, on September 2, 1864, surrendered the City of Atlanta to the forces of William Tecumseh Sherman.5
Sherman and Scarlett are still with us. The general's route, from Chattanooga to Hotlanta, pretty much defines the north-south spine of today's Greater Atlanta: a city region of 4,500,000 residents living (and driving) in and about its 28 counties. By 2010, a megalopolis will likely link the two cities of the Atlanta Campaign—hence, "Chatlanta."
Scarlett's vision is now official. Her vow that "tomorrow is another day" is (almost) the "brand" for "ATL" where "Every Day is an Opening Day."
—Dana F. White is the Goodrich C. White Professor in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University. His interests are urban studies, American studies, film history, and documentary film and television. He is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.