In 2012, Mini’imah Shaheed had the unique opportunity to design a school for which she would serve as founding principal. As part of a fellowship with national charter school network KIPP, the Teach for America alum outlined her mission, business plan, and curriculum—feeling a bit inadequate as peers dreamed up performing arts schools, blended-learning programs, and STEM academies. “What was rumbling in my spirit was a school rooted in love. That felt simplistic, very retro,” she says.
Today, KIPP STRIVE Primary School on Atlanta’s Westside is known as “the school that love built”—a place where no student is a lost cause and teachers work hard to know kids’ unique personalities. And Shaheed is CEO of KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools, which operates 11 K-12 public schools in the city. She’s the first Black woman to hold the post in a district that’s overwhelmingly Black and low-income but sends kids through college at an impressive rate.
Sister to Shaheed’s personal theme of love is joy, a word used often and earnestly at KIPP. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as school kids across America struggled, Atlanta’s KIPP community mourned the lives of three students lost to violence, including 17-year-old Vincent Truitt, killed by Cobb County police. “Black joy is a form of revolution,” says Shaheed, who grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, California. “In this day where our scholars can turn on the TV and see repeated videos of people who look like them being shot down in the street, one way we can participate in the resistance is to ensure our schools are havens for Black joy.”
She hopes the post-COVID era will usher in opportunities for educational innovation. Her district recently challenged its own lottery-based model, last year opening KIPP Woodson Park Academy, a residentially zoned school, in partnership with Atlanta Public Schools. Says Shaheed, “I want my team to be a part of that reimagination and to seize the moment to make schools better for all of our nation’s children, but particularly for our children who have traditionally been left behind.”
Roughly 80 percent of Americans charged with a crime cannot afford a lawyer and put their fate in the hands of a public defender. These court-appointed advocates typically face staggering caseloads and an entrenched culture of expediency. Even the most well-intentioned among them fall into the habit of “processing” people, not representing them, says Ilham Askia, executive director of Atlanta-based nonprofit Gideon’s Promise, which trains and supports public defenders according to the fundamental belief that every client’s humanity is worth honoring. “If you see someone as human, it’s hard to lock them away in a cage,” she says.
When Askia was five years old, her father was arrested for a years-old crime and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His public defender never interviewed his family or business community, never told the story of his struggles or transformation. In an instant, her mom became a single parent to three kids and another on the way—a son who would later be incarcerated.
Despite her initial distrust of the profession, Askia ended up marrying a public defender, Jonathan Rapping, and in 2007 left her teaching career to help him transform the field that had shaped both their lives. From a handful of attorneys in Georgia and Louisiana, Gideon’s Promise has grown to reach more than 1,000 participants in 29 states, offering values-based training throughout their careers, mentorships to young defenders, and fellowships to recent law-school grads. According to the nonprofit Measures of Justice, clients of Gideon’s Promise–trained lawyers are incarcerated less often and less likely to file unnecessary guilty pleas. “We produce the best defense lawyers in the country,” says Askia, “but our primary focus is, do you care about the people you serve?”
Outside of work, Askia and her husband cheer on their two teenagers at athletic events, and they recently celebrated the publication of Rapping’s book, Gideon’s Promise: A Public Defender Movement to Transform Criminal Justice. Says Askia of the book, “It provides the road map. It’s not just public defense that needs reform. You can use the Gideon’s Promise model to reform all areas of the criminal legal system.”
For a kid, the center of heaven might be the Walnut Street Bridge, built in 1891 in downtown Chattanooga. Between its cerulean-blue trusses, little legs can scramble 2,400 feet across the Tennessee River, pausing to peer at the water from a raised sidewalk removed from bicyclists and dog walkers. The iconic walkway links the popular Tennessee Aquarium with Coolidge Park, home to thirteen acres of greenspace, a splash pad, and a restored carousel from 1894. Another local landmark, Clumpies Ice Cream Co., backs up to the park and serves handcrafted, seasonally inspired goodness in flavors like Honeycomb and Campfire.
Nestled on a picturesque riverbend in the Appalachian foothills, this cheerily named town has long delighted the young at heart. They have slept in vintage train cars at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, and they have seen Rock City and its kitschy black-lit gnomes. In the last decade or so, as those wizened creatures (the gnomes, not the tourists) graduated from creepy-and-dated to creepy-and-cool, the city’s restaurant and nightlife scene also came into its own. James Beard Award darlings like St. John’s and Easy Bistro mingle with colorful, low-key hangouts like Champy’s Chicken and Mojo Burrito. Add in a wealth of options for outdoor recreation, and you have the Pixar movie of vacation destinations—a treat for the whole family.
The city owes its versatile appeal to geographic good fortune, decades of careful planning, and a pluck that’s only possible in a place that has experienced rock-bottom. In the early twentieth century, Chattanooga was a prosperous manufacturing and rail center known as the Dynamo of Dixie. Forces that played out across America—globalization and suburbanization—would turn it into a rust belt city of the South, while the surrounding mountains trapped air pollution. By the 1960s, the corrosive soot was known to peel paint off cars. In 1969, the EPA ranked Chattanooga’s air the dirtiest in America, which Walter Cronkite famously announced on the evening news.
In the 1980s, a new generation of civic leaders mapped out a vision for a post-industrial city. Renouncing the closed-door decision-making of the past, they courted citizen engagement and forged public-private partnerships, a collaborative approach that became known as the Chattanooga Way. Devised in community meeting rooms, the Tennessee Riverwalk—now a thirteen-mile-and-growing multiuse path—opened in 1989. Three years later, the heralded walkway debuted a 400,000-gallon freshwater aquarium that’s still considered among the finest in the world. (An oceanic sister aquarium was added in 2005.)
More recently, that forward-thinking spirit powered the town’s rebirth as a tech hub. Smart investments in fiber-optic infrastructure mean Chattanoogans enjoy one of the fastest citywide internet speeds in the country, 10 gigabits per second. A downtown “innovation district” lures entrepreneurs with spaces for coworking, networking, and coffee drinking. This burgeoning creative class includes chefs and mixologists. “We have these incredibly talented chefs and businesspeople, and they all embrace the idea that we can raise our city up by collectively bettering ourselves,” says Kaleena Goldsworthy, beverage director at Proof Bar & Incubator, which helps local businesses in that industry get off the ground.
Over the years, an environmental renaissance has matched the economic growth. Spurred by the devastating EPA report, an air pollution control bureau worked to clear the smog, achieving federal clean air standards in 1989. In 1992, long before green transit was cool, the city commissioned a fleet of free electric buses to shuttle tourists and locals around town. A decade later, forty-eight miles of the Tennessee River became a recreational “blueway,” replete with kayak launch points and campsites on protected land. Chattanooga’s natural assets—seemingly endless mountain trails for hiking and biking, a sweeping river gorge for paddling, world-class sandstone for climbing—were ready for their close-up. “Best Town Ever” proclaimed Outside magazine in 2010, and again in 2015.
Broadly speaking, that superlative is up for debate. The city grapples with problems like poverty and racial income disparities. Global climate change means more harmful ozone for those mountains to trap; the American Lung Association gave Chattanooga’s Hamilton County a “D” grade last year. In the midst of 2020’s global pandemic, a 2019 Forbes article forecasting Chattanooga as America’s next top hiring market seems painful.
But if the city hasn’t finished its comeback story, it has surely come a long way. A weekend visit is plain fun: Feeling the pull of nature? Rent a kayak or paddleboard from L2 Outside, an outfitter in Coolidge Park, and hit the river. Or drive fifteen minutes to Lookout Mountain, where the National Park Service maintains about forty miles of vista-filled hiking trails. “There’s a style of trail for everybody, from flat and meandering to lung-busting straight up the mountain,” says Schandra Loveless, customer relations specialist with Outdoor Chattanooga, a division of the city’s economic development department that connects people with recreational activities.
For an urban hike, climb the switchbacking Riverwalk to the Bluff View Art District, a quaint enclave perched atop cliffs. Here you’ll find the acclaimed Hunter Museum of American Art; the River Gallery Sculpture Garden; and an herb garden that serves the neighborhood bakery, coffee shop, and trattoria. Or head to the Southside Historic District, home to some of the city’s best restaurants and bars—including the Flying Squirrel, a gastropub that’s won national awards for its design and cocktails—as well as Station Street, a cobblestone strip with an open-container ordinance. Got little ones? Try Public House, a refined Southern spot where the kids menu includes a required veggie and (pending good behavior) a sweet treat.
The grande dame of the Southside is the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Formerly Terminal Station during the town’s rail heyday, the Beaux Arts–style building was erected in 1909 and spared the wrecking ball in the 1970s when investors turned it into a hotel. An ongoing overhaul has converted hundreds of units into apartments and added restaurant and entertainment amenities. In 2021, the remaining guest rooms will get a boutique hotel–style revamp.
At the Choo Choo, the city’s evolution is on full display. You see it in the pretty arched dome beneath which travelers passed a century ago. You see it on the cartoonish rooftop sign from its earliest days as a hotel. And you see it in Glenn Miller Gardens, once the station’s fourteen-track platform area, where kids can play oversized checkers while adults sip craft beer poured from a historic train car. This rose-accented courtyard is quintessential Chattanooga, a charming playground for everyone.
Ways to Play
Drive a Swincar The Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center opened in the 1950s as a “botanical drive-through.” These days, the only cars exploring its 300-plus forested acres are Swincars, electric off-road vehicles that make almost no sound and use spider-like arms to tackle tough terrain. (They also come in a wheelchair-friendly version.) The nature center partnered with Chattanooga-based Adventure Sports Innovation, the vehicle’s first North American distributor.
Scale a wall The crags around Chattanooga are world-famous, but beginner rock climbers are better off learning the ropes at a climbing gym. That’s not a sacrifice at the flagship of High Point Climbing and Fitness, a retrofitted movie theater offering 30,000 square feet of climbing, including a Kids Zone and transparent outdoor walls soaring sixty feet above Broad Street.
Ride the Incline This mile-long cable railway has escorted passengers to the top of Lookout Mountain at a cool 72.7 percent grade (read: straight up) since 1895. The attraction recently upgraded its trolleys for the first time in thirty-two years. They now offer air conditioning, wheelchair accessibility, and bigger windows for more aah!-inspiring views of the Chattanooga valley.
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.
Atlanta has always been a city of transplants. In a metro population of six million, about fourteen percent of residents were born in other countries (compared with New Orleans’s seven percent or Nashville’s eight percent). But if the international presence here is sizable, it’s also scattered. You won’t find a Chinatown or Greektown or Little This or That, at least not in the urban core (Gwinnett County does have the nickname Seoul of the South). The most famous strip of immigrant-owned businesses, Buford Highway, is not a singular ethnic enclave but a melting pot.
That’s why seeking out Atlanta’s best international offerings is a treasure hunt, one that requires a full tank of gas and a trusty navigation app. Of course, when the scope is literally the whole world, even a list of eighty destinations is bound to leave off more than it includes. Consider our guide a jumping-off point, whether you’re looking to expand your horizons or get a taste of home.
An Atlanta cultural institution, the center houses a theater and the state-of-the-art Worlds of Puppetry Museum, where Muppets hold court with relics from around the globe, including Sicilian rod marionettes and Vietnamese water puppets. 1404 Spring Street
An anchor of Decatur Square, this crowd-pleasing tapas spot recently expanded to Buckhead, affirming the city’s love for Ibérico mac and cheese, pork-cheek tacos, and other Spanish-inspired nibbles. 121 Sycamore Street, Decatur; 3150 Roswell Road
This family-owned shop shares the culture and healing powers of Africa via medicinal herbs, spiritual resins, and an in-house line of body products. Fuel up with vegan soups and smoothies from the Afrobeets Juice Bar. 668 Metropolitan Parkway
4. View a segment of the Berlin Wall
Both Kennesaw State University and Suwanee’s Town Center Park house large-scale slabs of the iconic Cold War–era barrier. (A third slab, not open to the public, resides at Atlanta International School.) Find KSU’s outside the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
5-6. Buy goods from across the pond
If Flake, Curly Wurly, or Crunchie mean anything to you, head to the Queen’s Pantry to stock up on these Cadbury favorites, along with British pantry staples and gifts (4235 Merchants Walk Drive, Marietta). Fancy a fry-up? Taste of Britain keeps the freezer well-stocked with meats like British bacon (thicker and chewier than its Yankee cousin) and bangers. You’ll also find tea and teapots for days (73 South Peachtree Street, Norcross).
Visited and blessed by the Dalai Lama, this Brookhaven temple is the North American seat of the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of the same name. Its free Sunday meditation draws a full house to the small sanctuary, where a monk teaches topics like self-compassion and leads guided breathing exercises. 1781 Dresden Drive
At Atlanta’s go-to international grocery store, wander among tanks of live catfish and blue crab and browse meat counters with hormone-free Berkshire pork and Australian goat. Check out dizzying displays of produce and aisles of dry goods stocked with organic goji berries and Himalayan pink salt. It all costs a fraction of what you’d pay at Whole Foods. 3000 East Ponce de Leon Avenue, Decatur
The city’s foremost craft-beer haven is home to an upstairs hideaway devoted to Belgian brews. Sip a lambic or tripel out of properly shaped glassware and awaken your inner beer snob. 125 East Court Square, Decatur
The charming patio of this Buckhead mainstay will transport you to Provence. Swirl a glass of rosé, drag crusty bread through the broth of your moules marinières, and say ‟bonsoir” to your fellow diner’s dog. 2974 Grandview Avenue
More than a Mall: A trip to these four indoor shopping centers is like a visit to another country
Paper banners strung across corridors and shops packed with soccer jerseys, quinceañera dresses, and cowboy boots give this Latino hub the feel of a Central American street market. Find fresh paletas (popsicles) and tacos galore in the food court. 4166 Buford Highway
12. Chinatown Mall
Among the tenants at this Asian cultural center are a Chinese-language newspaper and bookstore and the local dim sum institution Oriental Pearl. Bring cash for the food court and try authentic Chinese dishes like soup dumplings (New Lan Zhou) or whole-roasted duck (Hong Kong BBQ). 5383 New Peachtree Road, Chamblee
This South Asian gathering place is home to sixteen clothing stores selling traditional and fusion wear. A standout in the excellent food court, Humpty Dumpty will make you rethink how you like your eggs (try them in a curry or crushed with spices in a panini). 5675 Jimmy Carter Boulevard, Norcross
This massive Hispanic destination houses a soccer field, rodeo ring, and the largest Supermercado Jalisco in the state. Shop for Western wear and Mexican crafts, and refuel with Venezuelan street food and fresh fruit drinks in the food court. 733 Pleasant Hill Road, Lilburn
Suburban Atlanta is home to one of the continent’s largest Hindu mandirs. The palatial temple features an intricately carved exterior, an interior of gleaming Carrara marble and vibrant shrines, and a reflection pond with elephant-shaped fountains. Don’t skip the $5 audio tour. 460 Rockbridge Road, Lilburn
The Emory University museum’s collection of art and artifacts from around the world includes four human mummies (among them the oldest Egyptian mummy in the Western Hemisphere). Slated for fall: Islamic art and Piranesi’s prints of Rome. 571 South Kilgo Circle
Though it was founded in Atlanta by an Argentina native, this men’s footwear brand shows off 100 percent Spanish craftsmanship. The “bespoke-inspired” oxfords, drivers, and sneakers afford instant shoe connoisseur status. 675 Ponce de Leon Avenue; 265 Buckhead Avenue
Scoop up aromatic meats and a rainbow of vegan stews with spongy injera bread, Ethiopia’s national dish, at this standard-bearing restaurant. 3086 Briarcliff Road
19-22. Discover the Seoul of Korea
Gwinnett County in Atlanta’s northern suburbs is home to the South’s largest Korean population (22,000 at last count). Amazing eats and experiences abound. Here’s a sample itinerary: Bring friends to dinner at KBBQ spot E.M. Bop, where servers cook your preferred protein (try the oyster blade balgi) over a smokeless charcoal tabletop grill (2442 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth). Afterward, head to Agit karaoke lounge to belt tunes in a private room accented with graffiti-like art (3492 Satellite Boulevard, Duluth). Mask your late-night indulgence with cushion compacts and BB creams from Aritaum, Georgia’s first freestanding location of the Sephora of K-beauty (1295 Old Peachtree Road, Suwanee). Or exorcise it completely in the ornate baths and mineral-encrusted saunas of Jeju Sauna, where nudity is required for many services and the body scrubs are punishing (3555 Gwinnett Place Drive, Duluth).
Although the global arm of the TV news giant broadcasts mainly out of London and Hong Kong, CNN’s Atlanta Studio Tour lets visitors peek into its newsroom, where all the research, writing, and editing happens, along with that of CNN en Español. 190 Marietta Street
24-26. Explore art of the African diaspora
The Spelman College Museum of Fine Art is the nation’s only museum specializing in art by and about women of the African diaspora. Its permanent collection features heavy hitters like South Africa’s Nandipha Mntambo and Cuban-born María Magdalena Campos-Pons (350 Spelman Lane). The nearby Hammonds House Museum showcases art of the diaspora in a historic Victorian home. Its current exhibition, co-created by Kenyan artist Grace Kisa, depicts modern women as warriors and queens (503 Peeples Street).
The High Museum of Art recently completed a reinstallation of its wide-ranging African art collection. See the ancient, serpent-wrapped terracotta torso of Sogolon, mother of Mali Empire founder Sundiata Keita, and a rippling “cloth” of metal fragments fashioned by contemporary Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui (1280 Peachtree Street).
Empire Builders: Restaurant moguls to know
27. Eddie Hernandez
For twenty years, Atlantans have queued up for Hernandez’s Mexican-Southern cuisine—such as barbecue pork tacos and turnip greens stewed with chile de arbol—at Taqueria del Sol, now seven locations strong (including two in Nashville).
28. Meherwan Irani
With four restaurants in Asheville and Atlanta, Irani specializes in Indian fare that’s accessible and addictively good. At Decatur’s Chai Pani, kids may color on their own menus while adults imbibe clever cocktails and indulge in chaat (street snacks).
29. Giovanni di Palma
The Naples-born chef opened Antico Pizza Napoletana in 2009, and its runaway success—it’s perennially ranked among the best pie shops in the country—helped him spawn his own “Little Italia” on the Westside, including Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano, Caffé Antico, and Bar Amalfi.
30. The Niyomkuls
Atlanta’s first family of Thai cuisine has three restaurants to their name. Parents Nan and Charlie preside over white-tablecloth Nan, while daughter DeeDee helms street food–centric Tuk Tuk and modern Thai spot Chai Yo.
31. Justin Anthony
The South African restaurateur opened 10 Degrees South in 1998 and hasn’t stopped unveiling fresh takes on his native cuisine. His other concepts are Yebo Beach Haus, Cape Dutch, and Biltong Bar, which serves up the delicious beef jerky known as biltong alongside craft cocktails.
The Buford Highway Dozen
Thousands of immigrant-owned businesses line the busy artery that stretches from Atlanta to Buford. We’ve zeroed in on an eight-mile stretch that’s particularly rich in culture and cuisine, but even within that narrowed scope, these twelve points of interest amount to a mere first bite of a multi-ethnic feast.
A fire sidelined it to an alternate Buford Highway location for years, but this cheery yellow landmark—purveyor of savory Cuban sandwiches and empanadas—is now back in its original spot. Open since 1976, it’s considered the first immigrant-owned business on BuHi. 2905 Buford Highway
33. Our Lady of Buford Highway
In 2017, the public art nonprofit Living Walls commissioned nine muralists to leave their mark on Buford Highway. This piece by Laotian-American artist Sanithna Phansavanh shows how the street (represented by the woman) nurtures the lives of its residents. Buford Highway and Drew Valley Road
Find the restaurant’s talked-about dumplings here, along with a wider menu of Sichuan specialties, including the uber-Instagrammable Chengdu cold noodles. (So revered are the dumplings, they command their own stall at Krog Street Market across town.) 4897 Buford Highway
35. Lee’s Bakery
The city’s best banh mi is a subject of debate, but many would make a case for this no-frills Vietnamese mainstay, where the veggies are plentiful and the bread pillowy perfection. 4005 Buford Highway
The interior looks like a hip food hall and the menu is an actual magazine, but even traditionalists can’t go wrong on this tour of Malaysian street fare (try the decadent fried-rice plate known as Cheese ’N Cheese). 5000 Buford Highway, Chamblee
Tamales look a little different in Guatemala (for one thing, you might encounter a bone-in chicken wing), and this friendly cafeteria is the place to try them. Or start your day with a hearty Desayuno Chapin—eggs cooked to order plus rice, beans, queso, fried plantains, and a basket of fresh corn tortillas. 5268 Buford Highway
The authentic Mexican tacos are as tasty at 1 a.m. as they are at dinner with attending chips and a marg. You’ll have a hard time picking your fillings, like smoky pastor or tender cow’s cheek. 5288 Buford Highway
40. Buford Highway Farmers Market
This massive, well-organized grocery store houses goods from around the world, but the highlight is the produce selection that’s both exotic (fancy a rambutan or soursop?) and encyclopedic (all of the peppers). 5600 Buford Highway, Doraville
41. Yet Tuh
Despite its tucked-away location just off the main drag, this Korean spot is front and center on foodies’ maps, thanks to its homey, well-executed fare—the kind your grandma would make if she made kimchi pancakes, bori bop, and banchan. 3042 Oakcliff Road
James Beard–nominated chef Atsushi Hayakawa is both notoriously exacting—starting with the top-shelf fish he sources from Japan—and utterly affable behind the bar. High rollers can splurge on a fourteen-course omakase. 5979 Buford Highway
This unassuming but aptly named Sichuan restaurant earned Chinese master chef Rui Liu a James Beard nod. Bring friends (and an empty stomach) so you can try as many dishes as possible, starting with the best-in-class fried eggplant. 3940 Buford Highway
This Italian restaurant and market offers made-from-scratch items like lemon-artichoke pesto and lasagna Bolognese to go, and best of all, fresh-cut dry pasta sold by the pound (including offbeat varieties like squid ink and chickpea). 3167 Peachtree Road
45-47. Sample international baked goods
In Atlanta, specialty bakeries abound. To name a few: Aussies and New Zealanders get a taste of home on Marietta Square, where the Australian Bakery Cafe handcrafts some thirty varieties of meat pies (48 South Park Square). Also in Marietta, Bernhard’s German Bakery supplies nutrient-dense, organic German breads such as Bavarian farmer’s bread and country rye (1592 Atlanta Road). Stone Mountain’s Royal Caribbean Bakery is the only outpost of the Bronx-based empire (founded by Jamaican expats) outside New York; the savory patties are beloved (4859 Memorial Drive).
Australian-rules football, aka footy, is something like rugby but also entirely different. (Passes look like volleyball serves, for one thing.) Bring a fold-up chair and an open mind to N.H. Scott Park, where Atlanta’s own squad in the United States Australian Football League hosts teams from around the country from April to October. 2230 Tilson Road, Decatur
For more than two decades, this Moroccan destination has fulfilled Atlantans’ clear desire to recline on pillows and eat lamb tagine and couscous with their hands while a belly dancer swivels nearby. 2285 Peachtree Street
50-52. Spot the replicas
Drive around town and you might notice some familiar sights. Atlanta’s Millennium Gate is modeled after Rome’s Arch of Titus (which was also inspiration for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris). The conspicuous Atlantic Station landmark houses a museum dedicated to Georgia history, where you’ll find artifacts such as a musket owned by the Marquis de Lafayette and a well-worn Bible belonging to Martin Luther King Jr. (395 17th Street).
As you pass the High Museum of Art, keep an eye out for the sculpture of a despondent figure, head eternally bowed, on the front lawn. Rodin’s The Shade (a bronze cast of the artist’s original 1880 mold) was a gift from the French government following the 1962 plane crash at Paris Orly Field, which killed 103 Atlanta arts patrons (1280 Peachtree Street).
Head to the neighborhood of Ormewood Park and look for the squat stone outlier among brick bungalows. The Burns Cottage, a reproduction of the 1757 birthplace of Scottish poet Robert Burns, actually dates to 1911 and is itself on the National Register of Historic Places. The private building hosts meetings of the longstanding literary society formed in his name (988 Alloway Place).
Zoos are lessons in geography; Atlanta’s houses Bornean orangutans, fossas from Madagascar, and a host of other exotic émigrés. Its new African Savanna habitat has tripled the elephants’ space and includes a huge indoor retreat for the gentle giants. 800 Cherokee Avenue
This Buckhead dining stalwart is a blue-and-white shrine to Greek seafood. Share meze plates, including the signature wood-grilled octopus, or go for a whole fish straight from the Aegean. 3085 Piedmont Road
This Japanese speakeasy lures celebs and tastemakers with its swank interior, masterful cocktails conceived by NYC legend Shingo Gokan, and small bites from the city’s poshest sushi spot, neighboring Umi. Email the restaurant to try and snag a reservation. 3050 Peachtree Road
Owners Ann Huff and Meg Harrington are avowed Francophiles who lead guided shopping trips abroad. Chic finds include antique barometers and Louis XVI chests, Loxwood handbags, and designer baubles. 3872 Roswell Road
In the downtown attraction’s tasting room, say “ahhh” or “ugh” to 100-plus flavors from around the globe, like Peru’s bubble gum–flavored Inca Kola, India’s bold Thums Up, or Italy’s much-discussed Beverly. 121 Baker Street
Grab a caipirinha and hit the patio of this Grant Park coffee shop and bar, where the house samba band and other Brazilian music acts play on many weekend nights. A food truck serves street snacks like chicken croquettes, known as coxinha. 1039 Grant Street
At this longstanding Decatur retailer—a go-to for traditional Indian and Pakistani clothing and fabric—the friendly staff will guide you if you don’t know the difference between a sari and lehenga. Tailoring services ensure a perfect fit. 1554 Church Street, Decatur; 1707 Church Street, Decatur
Downstairs, artfully presented photographs and immersive experiences chronicle the American civil rights movement. Upstairs, engaging displays—including a digitized map of human rights abuses around the world—illuminate the ongoing struggle. 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard
The moving memorial at the Marcus Jewish Community Center features a series of outdoor rooms depicting Jews’ journeys through the Holocaust. Donated by Polish survivor Abe Besser, the display includes a life-sized statue of Besser’s mother holding her young grandchildren; at Auschwitz, she escorted the children to the gas chamber to save her daughters’ lives. Call 678-812-4161 to visit. 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody
Revisit geopolitical events like the Iran hostage crisis and learn about the beloved ex-president’s work to eradicate disease and promote human rights around the world (his Nobel Peace Prize is on display). The museum hosts frequent author lectures; former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power was a recent guest. 441 John Lewis Freedom Parkway
The impassioned Persian poet is a fitting namesake for this glamorous Sandy Springs locale, where patrons dine on ghormeh sabzi (herbed beef stew) and saffron-scented kabobs amid potted orange trees and gleaming blue tiles. 6112 Roswell Road; 7105 Avalon Boulevard, Alpharetta
65-66. See vestiges of Olympic glory
Centennial Olympic Park is surrounded by downtown’s top tourist attractions, but the twenty-one-acre greenspace—once the central fan hangout during the 1996 Summer Games—is worth a walk-through on its own. Commemorative features include the iconic Fountain of Rings; a new rings statue-slash-selfie perch known as the Spectacular (pictured); and five memorial “quilt plazas,” among them a tribute to the bombing victims (265 Park Avenue).
A lesser-known landmark rises over Midtown traffic at the point where Peachtree and West Peachtree converge. A gift from Prince Charles during the Olympics, the World Athletes Monument depicts five Atlases, one for each continent. The monument drew some 20,000 mourners when Princess Diana died a year later, prompting Atlanta City Council to rename the small plaza in her honor.
Located in Atlanta’s Westside Design District, this high-end furniture and upholstery atelier carries vintage Swedish pieces from the 1940s and 1950s. A pair of olive barrel-back chairs or a signed lithograph by artist Bengt Lindstrom will expand your horizons beyond Ikea. 1200 Old Chattahoochee Avenue
The small municipality of Clarkston, northeast of Atlanta, is known as the country’s most diverse square mile, thanks to the 40,000-plus refugees that have settled here from every corner of the globe. This unique coffeehouse provides jobs and mentorship to these newcomers. Order from the truck outside (trust in the chai latte; the shop hosts a chai-making workshop each Saturday), then grab a seat inside the homey retrofitted gas station. A second location recently opened in downtown’s Sweet Auburn historic district. 4170 East Ponce de Leon Avenue, Clarkston
For twenty years, Atlantans have filled this warmly lit dining room to savor traditional Italian pasta (like tortelli di Michelangelo, a fifteenth-century ravioli recipe), perfect risotto, and stellar vino. 313 North Highland Avenue
International Affairs: Mark your calendar for these annual cultural immersions
It’s got the requisite bagpipers, drill teams, and floats, but this celebration on the streets of Midtown also boasts legitimate Irish cultural cred. It was founded in 1858 by Atlanta’s Hibernian Benevolent Society—still co-organizers today. (March 13, 2021)
This forty-five-year tradition brings music and dancing, an agora-style market, and a feast of culinary delights (including a drive-through menu) to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. (September 25–27)
The Infinite Energy Center in Duluth hosts a two-day showcase of Japanese traditions, from martial arts and tea ceremonies to anime and Marie Kondo. Snack on ramen, shaved ice, and other specialties. (September 26–27)
Hosted by Midtown’s Synchronicity Theatre, this annual film festival screens thought-provoking indie documentaries from around the world. (November 5–7)
80. Atlanta Christkindl Market
Sip Glühwein and shop for handmade German gifts amid the twinkling lights of Centennial Olympic Park. The curly-haired Christkind (the traditional German gift bearer) pays a visit. (Late November–December)
This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound.
At the Jekyll Island Club Resort (established 1888), guests can swing a croquet mallet on the front lawn, take high tea in the Grand Dining Room, and immerse themselves in a Victorian fairytale in the surrounding Historic District. When America’s wealthiest families wintered on Jekyll a century ago, they did much of the same: a bike ride, a tee time, and plenty of vitamin D were always included. Here’s a look at some beloved island pastimes, then and now.
A Trot to Remember
In 1916, Charles Lanier, president of the Jekyll Island Club, wrote: “Too much cannot be said of the attractiveness and beauty of the thirty miles of drives, also of the bridle and bicycle paths, through the pine and live oak forests and the palmetto, holly and magnolia, thence out on the magnificent beach.” Experience this majesty on horseback with the help of Golden Isles Carriage and Trail at Three Oaks Farm, which offers guided rides.
Golf arrived on this golden isle in 1894, when the Jekyll Island Club became the 36th chartered golf club in the nation. The first links came along a few years later but have been lost to time. Of the island’s four public courses, Great Dunes, designed in 1928 by noted golf innovator Walter Travis, is the oldest; nine of the original 18 holes remain in play. All of the courses are Audubon-certified wildlife sanctuaries.
Jekyll Island Club member William Rockefeller was such a bicycle enthusiast that he owned one of the first adult tricycles in the country, an “oil-burning motor cycle,” and several classic two-wheelers. He financed a bike path on the island in 1901; the island now offers more than 20 miles of trails spanning lush forest, open coastline, and historic sites. If you want to make like a Rockefeller, rent a trike, tandem bike, or multi-rider surrey from the Jekyll Island Bike Barn—reserve your ride by calling 912.635.2648.
Sands of Time
Jekyll beachgoers of the early 20th century loved to swim, collect seashells, and tuck into a good picnic. The area now known as Great Dunes Beach Park was and remains a popular hangout. To the south, St. Andrews Beach Park would become Georgia’s first stretch of coast open to African Americans—but not until 1955. Today, Jekyll’s beaches are best known as a haven for wildlife—threatened shorebirds and sea turtles, frolicking dolphins—and a collection of ancient driftwood. On the right day, you can have it all to yourself.
In 1887, the Jekyll Island Club Prospectus advertised tennis as a prime attraction for female guests, who would have practiced their forehand in floor-length skirts. The Goodyear family built the first known courts on Jekyll in 1903, and by 1905 tennis was the most popular sport on the island. Today Jekyll boasts 13 Har-Tru clay courts at the Jekyll Island Tennis Center, where pros like Stewart Atkins (above) offer private lessons.
Thrill of the Hunt
The Jekyll Island Club has roots as a hunting club, with members making trophies (or meals) out of pheasants, quail, deer, alligators, wild boar, and other game. Hunting is now illegal on the island, and shotgun-toting sportsmen have given way to binocular-wielding birders scouring for painted buntings and bald eagles, white ibises and roseate spoonbills, royal terns and piping plovers, and thousands of migratory birds on stopover. If you’re new to bird watching, reserve a guided walk with the park ranger here.
As president and CEO of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, Sharon Mason’s job is to help build consensus on tough issues surrounding economic development. But where many see a stumbling block—a politically fractious county, region, and state—Mason, 39, sees an advantage. “We have a very diverse community and state with diverse views, and that’s a great strength of ours,” she says. “Whenever we address a challenge, it’s important to bring all stakeholders to the table.” For example, after the state passed House Bill 930 last year, opening up opportunities for regional transit planning, the chamber convened a transportation and mobility committee with representation from local and state government, Cobb CIDs (community improvement districts), and businesses of all sizes.
Mason took over the chamber’s head post in January 2018 after a 10-member search panel unanimously selected her. The Snellville native boasted broad chamber experience, including five different roles at Cobb and a position at the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. Under her leadership, Cobb’s chamber has collected input from more than 1,000 local businesses to devise a five-year strategic plan that, in year one, generated nearly 6,000 jobs and $350 million in private investment. Looking back further, Mason says she’s proud of her work in creating SelectCobb, the economic development strategy that has brought in some 28,000 high-quality jobs in six years.
In her spare time, Mason loves going on family hikes (she lives in East Cobb with her husband and fifth-grade daughter) and attending Atlanta United and Braves games. She’s intimately involved in several nonprofit organizations, including Marietta-based MUST Ministries, which serves the homeless. She also sees her chamber work as a way to give back. “We all know someone who has been without a job or underemployed,” she says. “[The chamber] makes a tremendous difference in the livelihood of the community.”
Linda Matzigkeit, chief administrative officer of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, wakes up every day at 4:30 a.m. to swim, bike, or run. The accomplished triathlete (she’s completed about 50, including an Ironman) considers it a non-negotiable appointment with herself. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t be there for your kids, your job,” she says. She lists her priorities in this order: herself, family, work.
It might sound like lip service—does an executive at one of the country’s largest pediatric healthcare systems really prioritize her job third?—but Matzigkeit, 52, says she’s not shy about leaving early to watch her son, a high school senior, play baseball. Emphasis on work-life balance is part of the reason Children’s has earned a spot on Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for 14 years straight. Of its 11,500 employees, 83 percent are women and 65 percent are mothers. “When you’re about kids, you’re more caring,” says Matzigkeit. “Don’t get me wrong, we run ourselves as tightly as any Fortune 500 company, but there’s a softness.”
Matzigkeit added to this supportive culture by creating MomForce, a 12-week program offering job training and, often, employment to parents re-entering the workforce after three or more years of an absence. It’s not her first innovative idea. In 2012, she launched a buzzy ad campaign surrounding childhood obesity. Called Strong4Life, it’s grown into a broad outreach program encompassing a website, pediatric training, school activities, and a summer camp. Recently, Matzigkeit led the design of two forthcoming buildings for support staff, slated for the company’s new North Druid Hills campus. “I’ve sat on every chair. I’ve picked out every fabric,” she says. “It has been really fun, just always thinking how can we make this the greatest place to work.”
The Jewish concept of “tikkun olam” is a call to “repair the world.” Penelope McPhee, president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, cites this phrase as inspiration for her chosen careers—first in journalism and then, thanks to what she calls “an accident of timing and good fortune,” philanthropy. She worked at Miami’s prestigious Knight Foundation for more than a decade before accepting, in 2004, the helm of the charitable enterprise of Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank.
Since then, there have been few Atlantans with greater capacity to influence and change the city. McPhee oversees one of the Southeast’s largest family foundations, which has awarded almost $400 million in grants since its 1995 inception, along with the giving programs of Blank’s other businesses, including the Atlanta Falcons. The foundation tackles a broad array of issues, including education, green spaces, the arts, and community improvement. The Atlanta BeltLine, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Georgia Organics’ Farm to School program are just a few among thousands of beneficiaries.
In addition to serving as president of the foundation, McPhee is vice president for government affairs for the Falcons. In that role, she worked with state and local officials during the construction of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. She also worked closely with the Westside Neighborhood Prosperity Fund, which aims to rejuvenate the area around the stadium. “At the time the stadium was just a glimmer in his eye, Arthur was very adamant that we were not going to build an iconic stadium on one side of Northside Drive and have these impoverished neighborhoods on the other,” she says.
Pivoting between diverse projects and causes suits McPhee, who spends her spare time with her six-year-old granddaughter and relaxing at her home at Serenbe. “One of the things I love is that there is no typical day. I am not at all change averse,” she says.
It’s South Carolina’s most populous city and the home of its largest university, but as a tourist town, Columbia doesn’t register. Foodies head to Charleston. Families flock to Myrtle Beach. Greenville, poster child for downtown revitalization, gets the nice press. Meanwhile, Columbia only grabbed the spotlight in 2015 when the state legislature removed the Confederate flag from its longtime perch on state house grounds.
For many Columbians, that divisive banner was a point of civic shame, and its banishment only fueled the creative, communal energy that was already propelling the town. Like Louisville or Asheville or other mid-sized cities, Cola (as it’s nicknamed) has experienced a renaissance over the last couple of decades. On its Main Street you’ll find the Nickelodeon, South Carolina’s only nonprofit, art house film theater, which in 2012 resurrected the historic Fox Theatre building downtown. There’s the Soda City Market, which started with a handful of vendors in 2005 and blossomed into a weekly three-block street party. Everywhere you go, you get the sense the city is enjoying itself.
It turns out Columbia is a wonderful place to visit. Its downtown is compact and walkable. The Saluda and Broad rivers converge in the city to form the wild Congaree, which spills into one of the country’s oldest forests (and its newest national park) just outside town. Now, while Cola’s charms are still relatively undiscovered, may be the best time to go.
Home Chic Home
Local couple Marcus Munse and Rita Patel opened Columbia’s first boutique hotel in 2018, and it’s a stunner. Occupying a trio of historic downtown buildings, Hotel Trundle is a little bit mod, a little bit art deco, and altogether playful. Take, for instance, the wallpaper print of hand-shadow puppets near the elevator, or the gilt ice bucket in your suite accented by a retro telephone in robin’s egg blue. Many rooms bear hallmarks of their early 1900s origins: exposed brick (some with residual graffiti), an old elevator shaft converted to a reading nook. Local makers find expression everywhere, from the hand-crafted beds to the Carolina Kernels gourmet popcorn at turndown. Even the “Do Not Disturb” signs—featuring a T. rex, fitting for this whimsical setting—are the work of a Columbia artist. Toast your arrival with a complimentary wine or beer (local, naturally) on tap at the front desk.
6 p.m. An Inspired Sip
Just steps from your hotel, Lula Drake Wine Parlour opened in 2016 in another historic building. As the story goes, sommelier Tim Gardner was stuck for a name for his wine bar when, during renovations, his team discovered a trunk belonging to a previous occupant. The enigmatic Lula Drake owned a hat shop in the 1920s and left behind personal effects, including a gold-embossed calling card that lives on in the bar’s logo.
One thing that never wanted for inspiration: the comprehensive but tightly curated wine list promoting small-batch, sustainable vintners. How about a white Nero d’Avola or a Macedonian grape you’ve never heard of? There’s also sherry on tap and an extensive beer selection at this warmly lit, brick-walled spot.
7 p.m. The Anchor
With all the new businesses emerging, you’ll be surprised to learn that your dinner destination, Motor Supply Co. Bistro, opened way back in 1989. The restaurant was an early force in the renewal of the Vista, Columbia’s mixed-use warehouse district, and bears the original neon marquee of its predecessor, an engine supply shop (note to shuttering businesses: stow signage for posterity). Chef Wesley Fulmer crafts his daily changing menu using local ingredients and global influences (recent example: crispy Peking duck sourced from nearby Bowers Farm), and the creative “farm-to-shaker” cocktails are reason enough to visit.
9 p.m. Hoppy Hideout
Stroll two blocks east up Gervais Street to the Columbia State House, its blue granite aglow at night. Across the street you’ll spy a wrought iron railing bearing a sign for the Whig. Head down these stairs, and you’ll find yourself in the self-proclaimed “greatest dive bar in North America.” That superlative may be up for debate, but the Whig—a dimly lit cavern lined with taxidermy and Millennials quaffing craft beer—certainly has a place in Columbia history. It was here that patrons plotted the protests that helped fell the state house Confederate flag in 2015. Order a Westbrook Brewing gose and savor the feeling of insurgency.
9 a.m. To Market, To Market
Every Saturday from 9 to 1, rain or shine, white tents pop up like daisies along a three-block stretch of downtown’s Main Street. If it’s grown or made nearby, it’s sold at Soda City Market: fresh produce and artisan cheeses, paella and arepas, jewelry and soaps. Grab a coffee and a Belgian waffle—or a kombucha and gluten-free Brazilian cheese bread—as you tent-hop from Taylor Street to the state house.
If you’re not visiting on a Saturday, head down this strip anyway to the Blue Flour Bakery and start your day with quiche or avocado toast and perhaps a bakery sweet (the lemon-honey-ginger cookies are heavenly).
Variations on a Theme
Strolling Main Street, you can’t miss the sleek silver lettering of the new entrance to the Columbia Museum of Art. The museum is capping off a $5 million renovation that overhauled the erstwhile Macy’s department store and re-conceptualized the visitor experience. Downstairs hosts temporary exhibitions (Jackson Pollock’s immense Mural is on display through May 19), while the permanent collection lives upstairs, no slouch with pieces by Warhol, Monet, and Botticelli. Its greatest asset is the novel thematic layout that groups art by topic instead of time period. A room on “Gods, Heroes, and Legends,” for example, pairs a Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington with John Wilson’s modern depiction of Martin Luther King Jr.
11:30 a.m. Speedy Civics Lesson
From atop a small hill, the South Carolina State House presides over Main Street. Stroll the grounds dotted with monuments and magnificent trees, looking out for bronze stars on the west and southwest walls marking damage from General William T. Sherman’s cannon fire. Inside, grab a brochure for a quick, self-guided tour of this temple of marble and granite. Peek into the legislative chambers lined with portraits of civic leaders, among them late state senator Clementa Pinckney, slain pastor of Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church.
12 p.m. College Try
A block from the state house is the entrance to old-campus USC, known as the Horseshoe for the curve of its buildings around an oak-shaded quadrangle. Meander through campus southeasterly to Greene Street, passing a stretch of grand, if weathered, houses bearing the occasional sorority flag in the window. You’ll soon find yourself in Five Points, USC’s colorful strip. Stop for pour-over coffee at Drip, handmade gelato at neighboring Scoopy Doo, or souvenir rhubarb-raspberry jam from the Gourmet Shop, a city-block-spanning boutique and cafe stuffed with cookware, wine, and specialty pantry items.
Double back to the southeastern edge of campus to an inviting brick building with a striped awning. Di Prato’s Delicatessen departs from its menu of Italian and Jewish deli staples to offer a killer pimento cheese appetizer, often called the best in town. Indeed it’s the perfect blend of sharpness and creaminess, but what cements its status as a legend are the attending “pita chips,” which more closely resemble savory funnel cake (but no one’s splitting hairs). The smoky pastrami is aptly named “Psst-Try-Me”; it’s sound advice.
Head to Blanding Street, the heart of Columbia’s historic house and garden district. The nonprofit Historic Columbia maintains four properties here, including the Woodrow Wilson Family Home, an 1871 Italian-style villa where the teenaged future president lived during the height of Reconstruction. Oldest and loveliest is the Hampton-Preston Mansion, repainted and refreshed in 2018 in honor of its bicentennial. Its four-acre gardens are laced with walking paths around grand live oaks and a romantic fountain and gazebo. Stop by the gift shop at the neighboring Robert Mills House to book a tour.
After a stop at the hotel to freshen up, drive (or summon a rideshare) to the Rosewood neighborhood, taking the scenic route through historic Shandon to admire charming bungalows and mature trees. You might pause on Devine Street, Columbia’s boutique row, to grab a souvenir six-pack at Craft and Draft or browse the feminine frocks of local designer Annabelle LaRoque at her namesake boutique.
Your ultimate destination is the Jim Hamilton–L.B. Owens municipal airport, specifically the 1920s hangar now home to Hunter-Gatherer Brewery. It’s the second location for the city’s first microbrewery, and the light-filled structure—now housing steel fermentation tanks instead of airplanes—is an ideal spot to enjoy the signature ESB (Extra Special Bitter). Climb the stairs to the rooftop observation deck and spy the harvest of City Roots across the way; yes, it’s the same urban farm you’ve seen on menus around the city.
7 p.m. Local Flavor
Every Southern city needs a standard-bearing New Southern restaurant to showcase the bounty of local farmers. In Columbia, that’s Terra. Chef Mike Davis opened his slow-food haven in 2006, the first serious farm-to-table spot in town. Situated on a hill across the river from downtown, the restaurant offers striking views of the city skyline. Davis’s sophisticated-yet-accessible approach shows up in signature dishes such as the Quack Madame, a riff on croque madame, featuring duck confit, caramelized onions, and a Manchester Farms quail egg over house-made brioche; or the Lamb Mac, smoked lamb shoulder with poblano peppers, fontina, and Split Creek Farms goat cheese. Bookend your meal with house-made charcuterie and an inspired seasonal dessert.
9 p.m. Sips and Strikes
Head back in the direction of the hotel—but not to bed. Order a Cottontown Tropicarolina IPA and a pair of bowling shoes at The Grand, a restaurant and boutique bowling alley housed in a former vaudeville theater of the same name. (Wouldn’t you know, they found the old sign.) While you wait for your lane (reserved online in advance, ideally), play bocce on the patio, or test your pouring finesse on the self-serve beer taps in the basement.
8 a.m. Walk in the Woods
The early bird gets the rejuvenating hike. Snag a complimentary pastry from local bakeshop Ally & Eloise in the hotel lobby or a house-made croissant from SmallSugar, a cafe in the Vista. Then hit the road, traveling about twenty miles southeast to Congaree National Park. America’s youngest national park, dubbed “Redwoods of the East,” boasts six national champion trees (the tallest known examples of their species), plus the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the Southeast. The Congaree and Wateree rivers have long flooded the land some ten times a year, fueling these giants with nutrient-rich sediment while deterring loggers. (The remote forest has also proved an ideal refuge for runaway slaves and moonshiners in years past.)
The most popular trail is a 2.4-mile boardwalk loop that keeps your feet dry, except on the soggiest days. (Do bring bug spray.) Besides towering loblolly pines and moss-covered cypress knees, you’ll spot plenty of snakes and turtles, maybe even a gator or two.
Requisite Big Brunch
Head back to your hotel with enough time to shower, check out, and make an 11 a.m. date at West Columbia’s Cafe Strudel. Bottomless coffee and flowing breakfast booze draw a crowd to this artsy eatery (you can’t make reservations, but call twenty minutes ahead to get on the wait list). Bypass the popular “hangover hashbrowns” and order the pillowy cinnamon pancakes. Tip: If the hike left you famished, ask for a bowl of grits as a starter. Eating the creamy concoction—stone-ground from a Columbia mill—piping hot is an almost religious experience.
You don’t need a kid in your crew to justify a trip to one of the Southeast’s best zoos; you’ll feel like one as you proffer a handful of kale to the darting tongue of a giraffe. The Riverbanks Zoo counts lions, tigers, koalas, sea lions, and gorillas (including a gorilla baby) among its diverse residents. Immersive experiences such as giraffe feedings (hurry, they end at 1:30) and the barrier-free Kangaroo Walkabout are highlights. Even the non-immersive habitats feel up-close; you might exchange eye contact with an elephant as she munches vegetation near your path. Save time for a tram ride to the adjacent botanical garden, famed for its heirloom roses.
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue ofSouthbound.
In the pilot of Greenleaf, the Oprah Winfrey Network drama about a black megachurch, protagonist Grace Greenleaf returns home to Memphis after years in New York. Her family’s palatial estate is awash in golden sunlight as she drags her suitcase to the front steps, but her pained expression suggests a storm is brewing. Sure enough, as Grace (played by Merle Dandridge) embraces her father, an imposing figure approaches in the background: her mother, clad in pearls and a form-fitting black dress, eyes narrowed. “Promise me you didn’t come here to sow discord in the fields of my peace,” she tells her daughter by way of a greeting.
As Lady Mae Greenleaf, matriarch of Calvary Church and the scandal-ridden Greenleaf family, Lynn Whitfield frequently steals scenes with an icy glare beneath a perfectly arched eyebrow, or even with an unguarded display of fragility. The actress, sixty-five, is herself parent to a grown daughter (coincidentally named Grace), and she exudes an air of polished elegance that translates well to the role of Formidable Mom. In the 2018 Netflix movie Nappily Ever After, for example, she plays a flat iron–wielding perfectionist who eventually drives her daughter to rebel with a set of men’s electric clippers.
But Whitfield also can relate to the role of Grace Greenleaf, the golden daughter from the South. She grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in a prominent, respected family. One family-owned building held the medical practices of her grandfather and uncle; her father’s dental office was a block away. Her mother worked for and eventually headed the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency.
During summers as a child, Whitfield visited her paternal family homestead in Charleston, West Virginia, a Greenleaf-ian brick Greek Revival on a hill surrounded by apple orchards. Her own home was a modern house in suburban Baton Rouge with room to roam. “I can tell you how to get the sap from the honeysuckle: You’ve got to find the right one of those stems—there’s only one that will pull it all out. Blackberries also grew wild by our home, and pecan trees,” she says.
Her father, Valerian Smith, was active in the local theater, founding the Baton Rouge Community Chorus and Playhouse in 1952. “He would have an Easter sunrise service on the steps of the state capitol, and it was really a sight to behold, these people singing the sun up,” she says. “To have a black man leading a mixed choir in those days—my father really did contribute.”
Whitfield left Baton Rouge to study drama at Howard University, then moved to New York and eventually Los Angeles. She followed in her father’s theatrical footsteps, garnering acclaim on stage in the 1977 production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enufand on TV with The Women of Brewster Place, the 1989 Oprah Winfrey–produced miniseries. But it was HBO’s The Josephine Baker Story that made her a star. The 1991 biopic about the French-American vaudeville star and civil rights activist earned Whitfield an Emmy and foreshadowed the network’s transformative era of original programming (Sex and the City and The Sopranos came later in the decade). “This film was our biggest event at that time, and it did very well critically and in terms of viewership,” says Quentin Schaffer, HBO’s executive vice president of corporate communications, who worked on the film’s promotion.
After a brief marriage to the film’s director, Brian Gibson, Whitfield returned to New York to work and raise their daughter. Plum job offers didn’t pour in—a 1995 People magazine profile blamed the “serial bind of pregnancy, new motherhood, and the scarcity of roles for black actresses”—but Whitfield managed to keep a steady paycheck throughout the nineties and 2000s, playing numerous supporting roles on film and TV and showing her range as Martin Lawrence’s unhinged ex in the 1996 dark comedy A Thin Line Between Love and Hate.
When Oprah Winfrey began casting for Greenleaf in 2015, she had one person in mind for the role of Lady Mae: her old colleague from Brewster Place. “She is naturally sophisticated, and I just felt that she could knock that role out of the park,” Winfrey said of Whitfield. The show, which also streams on Netflix, has earned the second-highest ratings in the Oprah Winfrey Network’s history, averaging more than 2 million viewers in each of its three seasons.
When she’s not filming the show in Atlanta (season four premieres this summer), Whitfield is enjoying a homecoming of sorts in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where she shares an apartment with her daughter, a Berklee College of Music graduate. “I just feel like I belong in New Orleans—walking around in the morning and hearing the sounds of the steamboats and the musicians in the street, this cacophony of sounds; looking down and seeing people being happy,” Whitfield says.
She is also indulging an itch to travel the world, though the South has a way of cropping up in far-flung places. On a recent trip to South Africa, she observed how straw is sometimes incorporated into stucco, which got her thinking about the substance of a place. “There’s brick in New Orleans where you can see the true texture that was made by African slaves,” she says. She finds similar inspiration in the city’s European ironwork and “gracious” shotgun houses and even in the sturdy columns of the Greenleaf mansion. “What springs forth from the South is so authentic—the good, the beauty, the bad, the historical pain of some of it. It’s this fantastic quality of authenticity.”
Lynn’s New Orleans
French Quarter “Entertainment is all around you; you’re walking through it. That’s how I felt in the West Village in New York and in Venice Beach. But of course, none of that is as old as the French Quarter.” frenchquarter.com
One Eyed Jacks “Being in the center of it all, it’s been great for my daughter, Grace. She’s right near One Eyed Jacks, where all kinds of great musicians play; she’s performed there.” oneeyedjacks.net
French Quarter Festival “For three days of the French Quarter Fest, you can just walk around the Quarter and decide what you want to hear. Be sure to get your crawfish and sit out on the grass and listen to great local music. I’m angling to be there.” April 11–14, frenchquarterfest.org
Louisiana Historical Society “The Louisiana Historical Society is around the corner from my home. I like to go in there and go through the books; I’m fascinated by Storyville and Basin Street.” louisianahistoricalsociety.org
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue ofSouthbound.
Since 1961, Atlanta magazine, the city’s premier general interest publication, has served as the authority on Atlanta, providing its readers with a mix of long-form nonfiction, lively lifestyle coverage, in-depth service journalism, and literary essays, columns, and profiles.