Rappers, ribs and religion: Atlanta
Into the Bible Belt
‘Bible Belt’ is an unfair nickname for the American South. Rather than being a homogeneous strip of bible-wielding lunatics, it is a rich patchwork of cultures, languages and food – although there are plenty of lunatics too. Atlanta, a booming breathless metropolis, encapsulates this diversity while turning it on its head. Somewhere beneath the surface lies the characteristic peaceful charm of Georgia, but this get-rich-quick gangsters’ mecca is developing too quickly to notice.
Atlanta is a city divided. With a population that is 54% African-American, Atlanta really contains two cities which meet, abruptly, along an east-west frontier through the centre of town. Each half has its own social order and the two rarely seem to mix. In the affluent north, hipsters eat tapas at street festivals and businessmen zip around in sports cars; in the south, rappers work their way out of the housing projects to build mansions in the hills. I sensed none of the danger or lawlessness that people warned me to avoid before visiting the city but, then again, the only time I saw the two halves of the city combine was at a hip-hop festival in Midtown where white people looked on in curiosity from across the street. Otherwise, the city centre seemed sanitised and empty – life happens in the districts here.
I stayed with Nori, a fun and talkative Couchsurfing host who lives in the north of the city and works as a psychologist in one of city’s universities. He told me stories about his family in the Philippines – a truly Catholic panoply of sisters, cousins, in-laws – and we explored the city in the sunshine. In true American style, eating was the main event. We gorged ourselves on grits, muffins and coffee for breakfast and dived into enormous racks of smoked ribs for dinner. BBQ is, like fried chicken, a Southern obsession and the Fox Bros Bar-B-Q restaurant was a meat temple like no other, with diners queuing along the highway just to park. This is no place for vegetarians: even the salads were topped with beef brisket and the collard greens mixed with sweet pulled pork.
Theme parks and Coca-Cola
Stone Mountain is a mighty dome of rock that rises abruptly from the plains north-east of Atlanta. Despite the uninspiring name, it affords very impressive views of the city and a much-needed way to escape the summer heat. Its sheer northern face has been transformed by a Confederate carving, the largest bas-relief in the world. As if that wasn’t American enough, there is a soaring cable-car that links the amusement park at the base of the mountain with the summit. We opted to walk off all that fried chicken by following a trail to the top. The bottom half of the trail was like a motorway through sparse pine trees, but soon we emerged into glorious skies: above us, huge bottoms laboured and panted; behind, the greenery stretched out towards the twin skylines of Atlanta. The summit plateau was like a circus but we found a relaxing spot beyond the cable car and cafe.
No trip to Atlanta is complete without visiting the origin of one the world’s most valuable and venerable brands: Coca-Cola. Part theme park, part orgy of capitalism, Coca-Cola World has nothing to do with the original pharmacy in Atlanta where John Pemberton first sold the drink, nor with the bottling plants nationwide, but it is a real showcase of marketing and manipulation. There was no mention of coca leaves here! Besides vintage advertisements and a thirsty barrage of colours and smells, we were herded into a circular light show to be given a glimpse of the vault purportedly containing the secret Coca-Cola recipe. Fat tourists with VIP passes rushed between the free soda fountains, gulping down Peruvian Inca Kola and weird fluorescent Japanese drinks. Nori and I tried a Coca-Cola from every continent and felt horribly sick by the end.
Hinduism in Atlanta
On the way out of Atlanta, I rented a car and set off on an absurd quest. Having read on Atlas Obscura about the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir – apparently the largest Hindu temple in the world outside India – I was intrigued to see it for myself. Finding the temple was a challenge: it was raining heavily and I couldn’t see a single sign so eventually I stopped at a roadside pharmacy to ask for directions. I started walking away from the car and turned to see it rolling slowly down a hill. I rushed to catch it and, fortunately managed to jump back in and apply the parking brake before the VW Beetle met an untimely end. As I sat there cursing my own stupidity, I saw a shining white dome through the trees and knew that I had found the temple.
Minutes later, in the middle of the Bible Belt, somewhere in suburban Atlanta, I was standing in front a sprawling Hindu temple, water flowing in the fountains and the smell of Indian cooking on the breeze. The place was empty apart from some security guards and I didn’t see another tourist. Up flights of marble steps, I trod bare-footed, transported, into the inner sanctum where intricately carved columns were suffused with an ethereal blue light. Worshippers were prostrating themselves on the cold stone floor in front of each of the shrines. Just as I was turning to leave this strange slice of India, an American tourist appeared in shorts with an audio-guide wrapped around his head. “Fucking wild, huh?” he shouted with a grin, before I slipped downstairs to find my shoes.