Photo: Richard Sisk/Panoramic Images

She sometimes gets a bad rap, but the Big Peach has never looked better

Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would ever ask such a question, but isn't it time someone spoke up on behalf of Atlanta? Back in 1987, a New Yorker writing for The Wall Street Journal described Atlanta as "an archipelago of shopping malls and condominiums with an atrophied downtown, snarled traffic and a fading sense of community." As a native, I should've taken offense at this description, but, in fact, I was the journalist's editor at the time, and I applauded his acuity in grasping the essence of my hometown.

Now, entirely to my surprise, after roaming the world for 40 years, I've had a change of heart. I have come to realize the city has just been misunderstood.

Yes, Atlanta is a mess. But you might be too if you were a rickety little railroad town of fewer than 10,000 folks that was sacked at the end of the Civil War, then rebuilt rather quickly into a megalopolis with an area the size of Massachusetts and a population double that of Mississippi.

And yes, everyone prefers my adopted hometown of Charleston—with its meticulously preserved historic architecture, ancient mossy live oaks, and acclaimed culinary culture. But Charleston is a very old place. Founded in 1670 and built on the backs of slave labor, it was the richest city in North America at the time of the American Revolution. Atlanta? It wasn't even legal for white people to live where it sits until 1821, when the Creek Indian nation ceded it to the state of Georgia. Charleston bears the regal name of England's King Charles II; Atlanta is a coined word, a fake brand name like, say, "Lunesta," slapped on it by a Yankee railroad promoter in 1845.

No port. No beach. No mineral wealth. No there there. But Sherman was on to something when he burned it to the ground. He could see clearly that it was already becoming a vital transportation hub. And that was a plan Atlanta was happy to run with as it quickly grew from a burnt-out husk of a town into a burgeoning city crisscrossed with railroads.

Something else important happened in the aftermath of the Civil War, as carpetbaggers from up North poured into the boomtown. John D. Rockefeller came south and adopted the cause of educating the former slaves. He backed Spelman College (named for his wife's family), which would one day count among its graduates both the grandmother and mother of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He also adopted fledgling Morehouse College, which taught generations of black professionals, including such notables as Julian Bond, Spike Lee, and the Nobel Prize-winning Dr. King himself.

Almost a century later, this effort reaped huge rewards for the city, and the country, as Atlanta became the Southern oasis for both the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and the national press covering this profound American struggle. Since then, it has been the mecca for African Americans returning to their Southern roots, and for aspiring black entrepreneurs. I once asked entertainment mogul Tyler Perry why he left his native New Orleans for Atlanta instead of New York or L.A. He responded: "Because I visited relatives here when I was a kid. It was the first time I'd seen so many black people living in nice houses and driving nice cars. I couldn't wait to get here."

While much of the rest of the South turned inward well into the 20th century, Atlanta was as open as a Quickie Mart and remains so today. Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and CNN were all built there. Giants like UPS moved there. Today it boasts the busiest airport and one of the world's largest airlines—Delta.

In the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter deregulated the airlines, breaking the stranglehold that a handful of cities had on travel to Europe and Asia, Atlanta's international trade exploded. Immigrants from all over the world flooded in, bringing with them all manner of exotic products, customs, and foods. The strip malls of Chamblee, near the old Naval Air Base, became known as "Chambodia." The Dekalb Farmers Market has become one of the most amazing cornucopias of global foodstuffs in the world. In Gwinnett County, where we camped in cow pastures as Boy Scouts, the malls today feature acclaimed Korean food.

For all that, Atlanta never wins any style points. Getting from where it started to where it is today just wasn't as pretty as everyone might have wanted.

I am happy to report, though, that yet another new Atlanta is growing up in the shadows of the city most people see while passing through. This new Atlanta is authentic and fresh and energetic but has managed to restore some ties to its ephemeral history.

The BeltLine, for example, is a 22-mile greenway linking 45 neighborhoods on old railroad rights-of-way; it finally gives Atlantans an enjoyable way to get out of their cars and feel their city on foot or bicycle. The once provincial little town of Decatur has become a hot spot for music clubs, ambitious restaurants, and an amazingly audacious cocktail culture exemplified by the Kimball House, set in the old railroad station near Agnes Scott College.

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And, with multiple chefs anointed by the James Beard Foundation, Atlanta is now fully participating in this whole gush of romanticism over Southern cuisine. Anne Quatrano's Bacchanalia, Linton Hopkins' Restaurant Eugene, and Hugh Acheson's Empire State South led the way. Steven Satterfield of Savannah has reinvented "comfort food" at Miller Union, in the long-overlooked but architecturally appealing old meatpacking district. These hot spots aren't pretenders; they are seriously good.

After dinner one night around the corner from Miller Union at the distinctively reimagined Star Provisions complex, I was walking across the footbridge that spans the Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks when I had a moment. Two lengthy freight trains were passing under the bridge in opposite directions—one leaving Atlanta for points west, the other headed into the nearby freight yards. If you grew up here—especially in the open-window days before air conditioning—the sound of these trains rumbling across the city all night long is what you remember, and maybe miss the most, about Atlanta. It was comforting that night, but somehow exhilarating, to realize that the little old railroad town is still working away down there somewhere under the formless glitz.

What was that feeling washing over me? Could it have been pride?