How Atlanta celebrates the Fourth

After years up North, the author decided to re-immerse himself in the Southern way by attending four different Fourth of July celebrations, chronicling the events on camera and on paper

A wise man once said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” I tested that theory by observing how Atlantans played during the city’s July Fourth festivities. With events that included a road race through the center of the city, parades in Dunwoody and Avondale Estates, activities at Centennial Olympic Park and Lenox Square, revelry in Downtown Decatur (one of the oldest municipalities in Atlanta), and a laser show and fireworks in Stone Mountain, it was difficult to figure out where to start to chronicle Atlanta’s July Fourth traditions.

MARTA: Bringing Everyone Home
Regardless of that decision, to begin, one needs to come in. In Atlanta, that means bringing everyone from outside the Perimeter into the heart of our peach state.

My pilgrimage began around 7:46 a.m., waiting on a MARTA platform at the Dunwoody station next to Perimeter Mall. Most of the people around me sported Nike and Reebok sneakers, heading to the Buckhead stop to join one of the later strings of the Peachtree Road Race. Once the air-conditioned train pulled in, everyone hustled through the doors. The cars were packed nearly as tightly as they were during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

Whether waiting to run the race or watch it, people were more energized than my favorite coffee-addicted English professor from my college days. The entire car oozed excitement—and pride. The onlookers poured out at the Midtown station as soon as the car doors opened, and for them, the holiday officially began. For me, the story began to unfold.

Peachtree Road Race: Starting Off with a Bang
Atlanta’s signature event for the holiday, the Peachtree Road Race, is a nationally regarded tradition that goes back to 1970, when it was a small race for about 110 local runners. For its fortieth anniversary, the now-international ten-kilometer race registered a capacity 55,000 racers, making it the largest race of its length in the United States. The first Georgia runner to cross the finish line this year was Marietta resident Ernest Kebenei, with a 28:42 running time, a minute and twenty seconds after the winner—Sammy Kitwara from Nairobi, Kenya.

I showed up to watch the race in the middle of the eight o’clock hour as the mid-level runners rounded the bend at Peachtree and Tenth for the final stretch. Seeing the city’s main street overflowing with people instead of cars was a rare treat. It made the Fourth in Atlanta just that much sweeter, especially for a semi-environmentalist like myself.

Walking down Tenth, I saw a young girl holding a red Krispy Kreme balloon and high-fiving runners as they passed by. Her mother, Maria Pappadakis, explained that this was all part of the family’s routine. Her husband, Chris, has been running the race since he was twenty-four, and waking up at six to drive down from Brookhaven to support Daddy was a natural part of young Angela’s—and her younger sister’s—Independence Day festivities. “The kids are very into it,” Maria said. The promise of an early morning donut probably doesn’t hurt.

As I walked farther east, I saw that families lined both sides of the street. I continued to bump into Georgians waiting to cheer on their loved ones. Marietta resident Jenny Leidell cheered with her son, Joseph, waiting to see her husband, Dan, and another son, Adam, run by. Dan has run the race for the past twenty-three years, and the family has been coming to Midtown to support him ever since the kids were born. “It just gives ’em something to look forward to—to run to,” she reflected.

Alongside Piedmont Park, I met Joe Marshall, from Decatur, carrying his son, Brandon, on his shoulders while they waited to catch up with his wife, Robin, who had run the race. He and Robin alternate running the Peachtree every other year, so someone can always watch Brandon. “When you run it, you don’t necessarily get the excitement because it’s just a run,” Joe said, “but when you’re on the side, you can see everybody and how exciting it is.”

Centennial Olympic Park: Playing in the Sun
I arrived at Centennial Olympic Park at noon, and my first course of action: getting a corndog. I then ventured over to the Fountain of Rings to watch the daily 12:30 p.m. show. Once the music faded away and the fountain had died down to an occasional burst, the kids resumed their games of punching or hopping or skipping through the walls of water. The pattern of the rings is meant to symbolize the interlocking of different cultures. Running along the periphery of the fountain’s overlapping rings, I saw kids from all backgrounds playing with one another, utterly indifferent to their differences. (If the occasion for which it was built brought Russia, Iceland, and Uzbekistan to the South, the Park brings all the rungs of Downtown’s business milieu together in one recreational location. Of all the events I visited on the Fourth, it offered the closest approximation of a cultural cross-section of Atlanta.)

Once they dried off, the kids had a plethora of other activities with which to entertain themselves. Street performers on stilts walked around in patriotic attire, juggling, spinning balls on their fingers, and doing magic tricks. People could design their own T-shirts at one station. Another offered kids the opportunity to paint a U.S. flag on a blank canvas. Face-painters swathed cheeks and foreheads in the flag’s colors.

I walked toward the north end of the park and decided it was time to start talking to some of its patrons. College Park resident Jasmine Tewolde and her extended family played Monopoly under the huge tree in the middle of the park’s main lawn. After getting drenched in the fountain, Jessica and Matthew Hardin and family shared a picnic they brought from their home in Lawrenceville. The Gonzalez and Rueda families relaxed against the bushes along the periphery of the park’s west side, listening to music and chatting about family affairs. CNN staffer Courtney Perkins and her husband, Shawn, took a break from their Norcross home to stay at the Omni Hotel with their two children for the weekend. Before going out to dinner Downtown, they reclined on a blanket on a sunny spot in the center of the park, and Shawn and four-year-old Sophia played a game of catch.

Avondale Estates: Relaxing in Suburbia
Just inside the Perimeter, Avondale Estates is a rustic suburb offering all the major elements of an idyll: antique-looking street signs, houses in period architecture, police cars with little more to do than dutifully guard each intersection, a gazebo set on a lake. I reached this lake just after five and found residents reclined on the grassy knolls as a summer breeze washed over them. A couple walked by with a stroller, a group of families enjoyed the comfort of a tent stocked with food and booze, and others relaxed on blankets with a few chairs scattered here and there.

“It’s just a good community spirit, community feel,” observed Avondale resident Mark Green, who had run the Peachtree Road Race a few hours earlier. “It’s a great way to spend your evening, finish out your day. How small-town Americana can you get?”

Kitty Wimbish sat with her friends on the hill. She looked out across the placid lake and pronounced, “It’s the best place in town because there aren’t so many people.” When one of her friends mentioned Lenox, Kitty guffawed. “You couldn’t pay me to go to that,” she said.

A group of seniors working for Avondale First Baptist Church, which catered the event, explained the appeal of Avondale over everywhere else: community coupled with tranquility. When I spoke with Judy O’Reilly, a singer for The Atlanta Blue Notes Orchestra, which gave the evening performance, she shared the sentiment. As she went over her vocal arrangements with her husband, Don, she spoke of the beauty of Avondale’s environment and the relaxation that the event’s proceedings—including her own—enabled.

Before continuing along my whirlwind tour of Atlanta’s diversions, I stopped to gawk at some of the houses overlooking the lake, each one resplendent in July Fourth patterns. At the Road Race in the center of the city, people drape themselves in patriotism; in the suburbs, the houses don the ornaments of national pride. Dave Blanchard’s house featured red-white-and-blue everything—a picturesque spot for a barbecue. Americana indeed.

Lenox Square: Finishing at Our Famous Mall
Big, loud, crowded—and worth it—Lenox Square offered a children’s section replete with inflatable slides, a climbing wall, and a twirling whosie-whatsit; live music from The Regulars Band, Sons of Sailors, and Party on the Moon; and the rare experience to be jam packed with a significant portion of your 5 million or so neighbors.

By the time I showed up, eight o’clock had swung around, and families were settling into the portable chairs they brought along for the evening, gathering around a shared blanket or rug topped with a cooler. Children continued to play on the slide, but family time had officially set in at one of the Southeast’s largest meccas of consumerism.

As dusk faded to darkness, I hurried around looking to speak with as many people as I could to get a feel for the affluent Buckhead area’s take on the holiday. Many, I discovered, did not come from Buckhead. I chatted up the Jeffay family from Sandy Springs, who preferred Lenox to Centennial or other alternatives because of the mall’s proximity to them. I tripped over the Watts family from East Cobb and the Webb family from Marietta. I became acquainted with the Holwills and Cundys of Alpharetta. For practically all of them, the appeal was the same: It’s big.

Fireworks: A U.S. Staple, with a Southern Twist
Barbecues, picnics, parades, and races are all very well and good, but at the end of the day, the Fourth is about fireworks. Lenox Square has put on a show every year since the year after the mall opened in 1959. New York has a fireworks show by Macy’s; we have fireworks that explode over Macy’s. Beginning around 9:40 p.m. and lasting just over fifteen minutes, the pyrotechnics burst onto the night’s canvas. There were smiley faces and hearts and what looked like peace signs in addition to the traditional bubbles of light. The fiftieth anniversary show was timed to audio recordings, which included clips about bettering our unity by Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” some “Sweet Home Alabama,” and a little song about Georgia.

I think at that moment, I found it—that essence of Atlanta that all its varying July Fourth celebrations had broken up into so many puzzle pieces. Of course, as with all things ethereal, I lost it fairly quickly as the connections faded into the city’s night sky. But I think the pieces still linger, somewhere mixed in between the smells of pyrotechnic residue, barbecue char, an aged fountain, and the sweat of many thousands of its residents.