by Jimmy Im
For the past 20 years, Atlanta has always been my great escape. I grew up outside the city in a neighboring suburb (Cobb County, home of Newt Gingrich, musician Larry Tee, and The Black Crowes) and being possessed with the spirit of Peter Pan, hooked on adventure, frequently headed for the city during my high school years. My friends and I spent hours in the then-grungy neighborhood of Little Five Points, chock-full of hackey-sackers, dreadlocks, tattoos, and "alternative" freaks, where I thought I belonged. We often ended the night with an all-ages show at the Variety Playhouse, an Atlanta theatre institution. I also attended the weekly meeting of YouthPride, which catered to LGBT high school students in Midtown, one of the few youth centers that existed around that time in North America. Of course, I still remember thrilling nights spent at the now-closed Backstreet, Atlanta's legendary, 24-hour gay club that had more foot traffic than all the gay bars combined. Backstreet was such a hotspot, it was a favorite for the "straight" community, who regularly frequented it due to a reputation for good music, fun times, and all–night partying (in fact, I ran into my brother and his gaggle of straight friends there when I was 21). Needless to say, Atlanta was always a multicultural haven, which I completely appreciated.
Today, Atlanta attracts gay visitors from all over the country. There is something very authentic about the third largest city in the South, graced with token Southern hospitality and an identity that can't be duplicated anywhere else in the world. It is home to Margaret Mitchell, Bobby Brown, TLC, Coca-Cola, Jimmy Carter, CNN, Driving Miss Daisy, Delta Airlines, Martin Luther King, Jr., and The Home Depot.
Atlanta is a young city with a median age of 33 (36 is the national average). The people have a Southern drawl that can make you weak at the knees, plus a gay scene that sets an example for neighboring states. Atlanta is a not just a city, but a nurturing place where the LGBT community feels effortlessly comfortable, making it the unofficial gay hub of the South. While that title hasn't changed since my formative years, the city has organically blossomed into something dynamic without ever forgetting its roots. It fuels a sleepy sort of fire in denizens who contribute to the city's flair and personality.
I still venture into the city several times a year when I visit from New York City, and, with each homecoming, Atlanta has proven to be one of the most progressive cities in North America; there's always something new. In fact, the longer my hiatus from Atlanta, the more it becomes somewhat unrecognizable, considering its speed in development. Within the past five years alone, Atlanta has added more than $300 million in new attractions and developments in and around iconic Centennial Olympic Park, including the new World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium. Since 2008, more than 45 new restaurants have cultivated a notable culinary scene, and eight luxury hotels have opened. It doesn't stop there. Around $285 million of new attractions are planned to open in the next few years, including the College Football Hall of Fame (sports are as strong as religion in the South) and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, a new museum focusing on national civil rights. The center will be designed to look like people locking arms, and it will be home to important Martin Luther King, Jr. documents.
One thing that will never change is Atlanta's diversity. "I think there's a bit more diversity in Atlanta than other cities in the South," says James Parker Sheffield, executive director of The Atlanta Pride Committee, producer of the annual Atlanta Pride Festival. "There's so many transplants in Atlanta, you can pretty much meet anyone from any background here. I think that's a big significance. For me, it feels like you get a nice healthy mix of being in a big city and feeling in a localized community."
I couldn't agree more. Ten years ago, I was always the token Asian. Now, the city has a swelling Korean community, effortlessly blending with African American, Indian, Asian, and Caucasian populations. The city is a true melting pot, one that sizzles with an incredible variety of cultural attractions and experiences.
When Atlanta thinks, Atlanta thinks big. One of the grandest projects the city has produced is the Georgia Aquarium, which opened in 2005 as the largest aquarium in the world with eight million gallons of water. When it opened, there was a three-month wait list, making it the hottest ticket in town. With a ten-million-dollar expansion unveiled this past spring, it doesn't look like anyone will top it soon.
Piedmont Park is Atlanta's answer to Central Park, an iconic outdoor space in Georgia that received a multimillion-dollar renovation within the past two years. The clean-up included the addition of new, lush landscaping, a new sports complex, rehabilitated buildings, and the opening of 32 more acres this past spring, not to mention the new three-acre dog park, now the largest dog park in the Southeast. Furthermore, the Botanical Gardens opened a canopy walk in 2010, where you can actually stroll through the treetops. Piedmont Park has always been the hot spot for the gay community, thanks to its ideal proximity to gay neighborhoods (including Midtown and the Ansley Mall/Cheshire Bridge area), residences, and nightlife. Piedmont Park is also home to the annual Atlanta Pride, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010.
The outdoor attraction Stone Mountain Park may ring a Southern bell, whether you watch 30 Rock (it's where Kenneth the page hails from) or have been in the general Atlanta area. Just 16 miles outside the city, the park surrounds a huge granite boulder with a carving of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis, offering plenty of walking trails, a Summit Skyride that goes 825 feet to the top, and, at night, the world's longest running laser light show.
Believe it or not, one of the biggest "attractions" in Atlanta is Ikea, which had GLBT visitors coming in droves when it opened in 2005, and not just Atlantans. Gays came from Birmingham, Charleston, Savannah, Orlando, Knoxville, and other southern cities to buy furniture and have a good excuse to take a weekend trip.
If there's one thing Atlanta has mastered, it's pumping out gay icons. From Lady Bunny to Indigo Girls, RuPaul to Elton John (who moved to Atlanta in 1991 and is now considered a native), Atlanta has spawned some of the most inspirational entertainers within the gay community, many of whom still make Atlanta their home. Even Margaret Cho came for a quick visit and never left (she has a house in Peachtree City). They are advocates of the city, often making sure everyone knows where they are from, easily reflecting Atlanta's open gay scene.
Ten years ago, you would have found all the gay men in Midtown, while Decatur was the main stomping ground for lesbians. Now, there's become a thin line in physical segregation, a change that proves there are no divisions in Atlanta. The GLBT community has come forth from the "safe zones" and can now be found throughout the city, defying traditional residential stereotypes. Ultimately, there's not one gay neighborhood anymore. Frank Bragg, owner of Radial, a charming lunch spot popular with the gay community that is within the same building complex of The Rush Center, a new GLBT Center named after Phillip Rush, says: "I moved to East Point/Jefferson Park about 12 years ago. There was a GLBT group called Friends and Family with maybe a hundred members then. Now, we have more than five hundred. The gays have definitely moved into the hood."
Sheffield says, "The places that were typically 'straight' have become more open and friendly. Now, there's gay presence at almost any place. The big thing now is that a number of straight-owned businesses are joining the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce to access the community. Even employees at the [Gay and Lesbian Chamber of] Commerce are straight. The lines are definitely blurring."
There's been a broader opening of mainstream bars where gays are welcome, not only because Atlanta has a thriving gay community but also because gays have spearheaded businesses. Church is a popular gay-owned "straight" bar that the gays have claimed as the current "it" spot, and tons of trendy, new gay-owned restaurants (Miller Union, Sun In My Belly, Radial, and Ria's Bluebird) have become standard hangouts. To be quite frank, there really isn't a gay scene: Atlanta in general is pretty gay. Simply consider East Point Corner Tavern, a "straight" bar owned by a straight man that was voted second best gay karaoke in gay publication The Georgia Voice's Best of Atlanta 2010 awards. Conversely, Tuesday's "straight night" at gay strip club Swinging Richards is the most popular night at the local haunt (and is free before midnight).
If there's any indication Atlanta is brimming with visitors, it's the recent spike in hotels. Eight luxury hotels have opened within the past three years, offering diversity in the hospitality scene. Existing hotels have also completed more than $300 million in renovations (including the buzzing, new Lobby Lounge at Ritz Carlton Downtown) to completely cater to well-heeled visitors. Furthermore, these hotel brands are unarguably the gay-friendly variety, having a track record of compelling the gay traveler with style, swank, and reputation. Perhaps the scene-stealing brand is W, which audaciously opened a whopping three new spots: W Buckhead (transformed from the former Renaissance), W Downtown, and W Midtown. (These join the family of W Perimeter, which recently turned into a residential-style hotel with a new name: Atlanta Perimeter Hotel & Suites.) While they all fall under the same W umbrella, each hotel is unbelievably different, flaunting unique personalities that embrace the local area. For instance, W Buckhead (opened November 2008) has interiors by celebrity designer Thom Filicia, a buzzing rooftop (which hosts a monthly Full Moon party), and a terrific Jean-George restaurant, Market. W Midtown (opened May 2008) is more hip, with a bar that generally caters to locals and is in closer proximity to popular attractions and gay bars. Meanwhile, W Downtown's Drinkshop is headed by master mixologist Sasha Petraske.