After so many big cities a house-sit at Lake Norman, in the small college town of Davidson, North Carolina, was just right: luxury townhouse, adorable dog, breathtaking view. Americans seem to lack Australians’ feeling everyone has equal rights to waterfronts, and fragmented public access sucks for a sweaty traveller trying to walk around rich areas.
But when you find yourself on the other side of the fence, exclusive waves lapping at your back steps, all seems well! And after gazing at this view with our adorable charge, Ollie, at our heels for a week we hired a Chevy to take us on to Atlanta, Georgia.
“Why Atlanta?” Ollie the dog’s mum and dad politely asked, and they weren’t the only head-scratchers. I’ll explain. To me, Atlanta was the setting of one of my favourite musicals, Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, which made me want to see the “old red hills of Georgia”. Note to self: walking up hills is harder than listening to songs about them.
Atlanta homes 5.5 million people. A lack of natural boundaries allowed massive urban sprawl (sound familiar?) and the city isn’t particularly attractive or pedestrian-friendly.
Lucky then we stayed within coo-ee of Olmsted Linear Park designed by the celebrated landscape architect who created NYC’s Central and Prospect Parks. The heritage homes alongside were jaw-dropping and the whole area, Olmsted’s vision of “the ideal suburb”, was another world to hot, grubby downtown.
While “embracing” civil rights is probably glossing, Atlanta was the only state that didn’t get too het up about the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The city self-proclaimed “too busy to hate”, eventually Atlanta led the south by supporting the achievements and messages of Martin Luther King, who grew up and preached there in the same church as his father and grandfather.
Atlanta now honours this history with the King Memorial and Center for Nonviolent Social Change, both by this church, and also the Center for Civil and Human Rights, a museum covering both the 1960s movement as well as global human rights situations today. Sobering, with terribly sad histories of the casualties of the fight for rights in the USA, but ultimately inspiring.
Now I’ve bored the casual reader with how worthy we are I can admit that we were really here because ZOMBIES. All who gave up on AMC’s The Walking Dead in Season 2 should rue the day. Stu and I have been steadfastly committed for eight years – longer than our relationship!
Atlanta, “Hollywood of the South,” is now one of the world’s biggest screen production locations, eclipsing both LA and NYC. The business now rakes in about $9.5 billion annually for the city, I hear, which offers generous tax incentives for studios to film there and hence has new ones opening all the time, such as Pinewood – maker of Harry Potter, James Bond and cash cow Marvel.
Movie tourism is burgeoning but we had eyes only for TWD, journeying downtown on a sizzling day to Jackson Street bridge. We had no CGI (or horse) to recreate the spine-chilling scene, but thought we did well to get this approximation.
And the real jackpot was Atlanta Movie Tours’ bus tour of Senoia, an hour’s drive south. The town is home to TWD studio and now many cast and crew. Apparently Norman Reedus, who Stu and I know as Stealth Mode but otherwise known as TWD’s heart-throb, has had to move four different times, because fans keep finding him.
Most of the show since season 2 has been shot in and around Senoia ((Woodbury, Alexandria, the prison, the woods, the railway to Terminus, etc…) and the tiny town now supports numerous different TWD tours, with apparently insatiable tourist demand and endless sites to visit.
According to our guide Stephanie, a local mum whose awesome job for the past four years has been as zombie extra on set, TWD and related tourism supercharged the economy. A main street with a handful of shops has become a spick-and-span town, housing 50-plus businesses, with a big new shopping village opening now. Real estate is booming and you feel the love everywhere – just about every shop has a sign out the front telling you zombies are welcome.
We had huge fun getting insider info on the show, actors, makeup, sets and so on. And Katie Lou’s diner in Senoia, where we landed afterwards, offered the best example we’d yet had of the South’s signature dishes: slow-smoked barbecue meats. And oh, the cornbread! The Brunswick Stew!
Since we’re now talking Georgia food, I should skip to Savannah, where we spent several days hanging out with the coolest AirBnB hosts we’ve met, Lisa and Tammy, who installed a tiki bar in their backyard and party there with friends and guests alike.
Driving into Savannah was its own experience, mid-rainstorm, an endless avenue of enormous live oak trees draped in Spanish moss, stepping from the car into a steam-bath. Stu described it best: like driving into Jumanji.
The otherworldly feel continued downtown with historic buildings including Pirates’ House, whose past as a pirate magnet was made famous in Treasure Island – its author Robert Louis Stevenson actually took his last breath in an upstairs bedroom there.
Such buildings face on to 22 stately public squares, far more open space than any modern government would allow as developers circle such areas like sharks. One is where Forrest Gump sat, telling his life story.
Right, the food. Mrs Wilkes’ Dining Room was reluctantly opened by said matron at her boardinghouse in the 1940s when her cooking became so famous people started beating down the door. Since her death in the 1970s it’s been run by her grandson, who could not bear to let the legend go. Little has changed. There is no sign outside, so you find the right street then look for the line of people. You wait, sweating, half an hour or more. When finally admitted to the dining room (the first lot traditionally says grace after a dinner-bell clangs) you are seated with a bunch of strangers around a big table and given a tumbler of sweet iced tea.
This is minimally awkward as immediately an avalanche of dishes hits and it is all you can do to pass it around and get some of everything. No one is there for small talk. We ate fried chicken, two different corn breads, meat loaf, heavenly sweet potato soufflé, “red rice” with sausage, dill pickled cucumbers, squash casserole, barbecue pork, rutabanga, buttered cabbage, beans, creamy potato mash, and many more delicious things I cannot remember or identify.
Then, a berry pudding and a banana pudding were served. You will all be convinced of how good these were by one astonishing fact: Stu not only finished his berry pudding, but snatched the banana one from under my nose and devoured that too.
All for $22USD a head. Needless to say, I bought the cookbook. It’s being posted home for Juji to practice with until we return, demanding fried dishes. I should also mention that we have now discovered hushpuppies (balls of sweet dough deep fried) and grits, a wheat dish that should really be eaten for breakfast but because they are Americans, they put cheese on it.
On to Florida, with tightening waistbands.
StuMobservations Part 7: The SouthEast
- The ideal number of US to AU power converters is 3.
- 22 Garden Squares is about 12 more than necessary.
- 100% of Mrs. Wilkes food consumed is StuMo approved, even the desserts.
- Iced tea is stupid. Give me a second option.
- Savannah is cool with open alcohol in the streets.
- Stubbie holders are called koozies.
- Pet sits need the option of keeping the pet upon completion.
- ½ pound pulled pork, ½ pound beef brisket, two serves fries speaks to my heart.
- If you order a sandwich they replace two-thirds of your meat with a bread roll.
- Order rum, not beer, at a pirate house.
- A walker (zombie extra) gets a $50 pay bump when they get killed.
- There is only one set prop tank in Georgia, they just paint it different colours.
- Popcorn container refills are $1.
- Office chairs and small round tables make great cinema seating.
- “We are having salad for dinner, what else does it need?” “Beer and potato chips”.
- Put bourbon in your vanilla shake.
What we’re reading
Em: The Book Thief, Marcus Zuzak; The School of Good and Evil, Soman Chaibani; Man Size in Marble, E. Nesbit; The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy and The Ersatz Elevator, Lemony Snicket; In the Quiet, Eliza Henry Jones; Swing Time, Zadie Smith; Kill your Mortgage by Hannah McQueen (facts are good too).
Stu: Rage, by Richard Bachman
What we’re listening to
The Farseekers, read by Isobelle Carmody
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, read by Jim Dale
What we’re watching
We saw The Dark Tower movie! In a cute weird little movie theatre in Davidson – cabaret-style seating but with office chairs. Rather weak made-up plot only vaguely resembling anything from the books. But a fun couple hours if you don’t get hung up.
Trailers! The Walking Dead season 8, IT, Ready Player One
TV show: Adam Ruins Everything. Like ABC’s The Checkout, for minimalist nerds.