My friend Daria’s teeth were still chattering from the New England cold when she touched down in Atlanta a year ago. I’d hounded her for years to come visit, and now here she was, climbing into my car. I wanted to show her what my hometown was all about, and I could tell she needed a drink.
Our first stop was the Righteous Room on Ponce, which pretty much has it all, Atlanta-wise. Its neighbors include not just one but three of the city’s great neon landmarks: the Plaza Theater, the Majestic Diner, and, just down the road, the Hotel Clermont and its storied lounge. The Righteous Room’s walls are hung with the works of R. Land, the local artist whose “Pray for ATL” stickers cling to nearly every other street sign in town. You can hear Atlanta bands like the Black Lips playing from the jukebox, or even catch them sitting at the table next to you. And, like most everywhere in this town, it serves decent wings.
We were sitting at a table, waiting on those wings, when I pulled out a cigarette, put it in my mouth, and, watching Daria’s expression, struck a match. She stared at me as if I had pulled out a pistol. “Welcome to Atlanta,” I said.
As she watched the thin cloud of smoke ascend, she seemed to drift along with it somewhere back in time. She talked about how the years had dulled and gentrified Boston, her home, into a place she barely recognized anymore, let alone one where she could afford to live. Atlanta was gentrifying too, but not at the same pace. Time can’t help but slow down in a city that still puts ashtrays on the tables.
I was thinking of that moment last month, when the city of Atlanta finally banned smoking in the handful of bars and clubs that had continued to allow it. The ban was a victory for public health advocates and, let’s be honest, the vast majority of bargoers. And it was a step forward for a city that has tried to distinguish itself as the progressive hub of the South.
It also made me just a little bit sad. I’m no longer a smoker. I quit nearly a year ago, and in many ways, I’m glad that the bars have to quit, too. If you’re an employee, it means you not only will breathe easier but can come home from a long shift and, for once, not smell like someone tapped the ashes of an entire pack of smokes on you. If you’re a non-smoker, it means you can eat those tasty Righteous Room wings without having to hold your nose and damage your lungs. And if you’re a smoker, you’ll have to take your cigarette outside. Tough luck. A little fresh air isn’t going to kill you. Those American Spirits on the other hand . . .
So why this sadness? It took me a while to put my finger on it, then it hit me. There are two certainties in a bar that allows smoking: 1) The drinks are cheap, and 2) The bar has history. Those are two precious commodities these days, especially in a city that, like many cities, is morphing into one giant luxury apartment building with a generic name. Boston isn’t Boston anymore; it’s The Bostonian. And I don’t want to live in The Atlantan.
To be fair, I don’t think the smoking ban, or anything at all, could drastically alter the character of a place as beloved and enduring as the Righteous Room, the Earl, 529, Northside Tavern, El Myr, or any of the other bars that permitted smoking for as long as they could.
What the smoking ban did do was wipe away some of Atlanta’s grit, and grittiness is part of what makes Atlanta so special. Maybe it comes with being a Southern city, but Atlanta possesses a certain outlaw spirit. Try naming another city where the tourist attractions include a strip club in a seedy basement where grandmothers give lap dances.
On the night Daria came to town, I took her, as one does, to the Clermont. Tales of that place had traveled all the way up to Boston. Even still, when the bouncer swung open the door, she couldn’t believe what she saw. It wasn’t just that there was a woman of a certain age in a French maid costume gyrating above the bar, or that the crowd was showering her with dollar bills. It also was the smoke—the way the red lights from the bar made it glow, and how the whole scene before us seemed to warp and glimmer inside of one giant plume.
As we were leaving the Clermont, Daria told me she’d never experienced anything like it. I told her that of course she hadn’t. There’s no place like it on Earth, in the same way that there’s no city like Atlanta. I think that is still true, even now that the smoke has cleared. There’s still enough grit to go around. I just hope we can keep it that way.