Publication Date

October 1, 2006

Atlanta has not lacked for attention by historians, writers, and journalists. With the realization that assembling an essential bookshelf is a personal foray, here is mine.

For those interested in the city's built environment and its unusual skyline (to me, the most beautiful and graceful in the land), a classic of its kind is Isabelle Gournay's AIA Guide to the Architecture of Atlanta (University of Georgia Press, 1993). The best guide to the city’s streets, sites, parks, and attractions “on foot,” with plenty of historical information to satisfy any visiting AHA member, is Ren and Helen Davis’s Atlanta Walks (Peachtree Publishers, 3d ed., 2003).

Not every big city's history—and rise—is so intertwined with a single company's fortune as Atlanta's. What the city and company have in common is marketing. Frederick L. Allen, inSecret Formula (HarperCollinsPublishers, 1994), writes of Coca-Cola’s corporate politics, the company’s iconic leader (Robert Woodruff), and Coke’s role in Atlanta. The brilliance of Coke’s marketing in the 20th century (and of so much else that it implies) is portrayed in Mark Pendergrast’sFor God, Country, and Coca-Cola (Basic Books, 2d ed., 2000).

Frederick Allen has also written a well-researched popular history of Atlanta's postwar years of expansion and boosterism, aptly titled Atlanta Rising: The Invention of an International City, 1946–1966 (Longstreet Press, 1996). Andy Ambrose, formerly the deputy director of the Atlanta History Center and now director of the Tubman Museum in Macon, Georgia, has published a visually stunning book that captures the transformation of the city in photographs: Atlanta: An Illustrated History (Hill Street Press, 2003).

Race is a central element in Atlanta's history. Five books on race in Atlanta rise to the top of any reading list. They include Ronald H. Bayor's Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta (University of North Carolina Press, 1999), the definitive study of race and public policy in Atlanta and the terrible costs of a century of apartheid. Clarence N. Stone’sRegime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946–1988 (University Press of Kansas, 1989), while recognizing the problem of race, emphasizes the unusual degree of biracial cooperation in the political sphere that makes Atlanta an uncommonly successful American city. Why that may be so is part of the story told by Gary Pomerantz inWhere Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: A Saga of Race and Family (Penguin Books, 1996). In this carefully documented book that leaves a deep impression, Pomerantz follows several generations of two important Atlanta families (one an elite white family, the other the descendents of slaves). Their intersection carved out opportunities for mutual dignity, power, and respect in an era of white supremacy—and helped ensure a progressive course for the city in the era of the civil rights movement. Herman “Skip” Mason’s Going Against the Wind: A Pictorial History of African Americans in Atlanta (Longstreet Press, Atlanta, 1992) provides an extraordinary visual record of an Atlanta that was—and is.*

The 1958 bombing of Atlanta's oldest synagogue by white supremacists was a notorious chapter in the city's history. The story is told with great depth of meaning (for the city, for the South, and for the civil rights movement) by Melissa Faye Greene in The Temple Bombing (Perseus Books, 1996). It was this episode and the hate crimes of the KKK that prompted Ralph McGill, publisher of theAtlanta Constitution, to write his acclaimed 1958 editorial, “A Church, a School.” In it McGill wrote: “Let us face the facts. This is a harvest. It is the crop of things sown.”

Three projects have reached out to wide audiences in telling important aspects of the city's story. In Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914–1948 (University of Georgia Press, reissue, 2005), Clifford M. Kuhn, Haron E. Joye, and E. Bernard West use oral histories to recover the memory of daily life when the city was segregated. Tim Crimmins of Georgia State University and Dana White of Emory University teamed up to script and narrate an eight-part documentary series for WPBA-TV entitled “The Making of Modern Atlanta.” This award-winning series is widely used in film, literature, and history classrooms in Atlanta as well as other cities. Andy Ambrose and Darlene Roth have written a fine brief history of the city,Metropolitan Frontiers (Longstreet, 1996), based on the permanent exhibit of the same name housed at the Atlanta History Center and sponsored by the Georgia Humanities Council. Ambrose is also the author of the superb Atlanta entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia (

— is president of the Georgia Humanities Council and an adjunct professor in the history department at Emory University. He is chair of the Local Arrangements Committee.

*Revised October 6, 2006, to include additional text provided by author.

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