A love letter to Atlanta’s airport art

Why it's worth it to take a walk through the world's busiest airport

A love letter to Atlanta's airport art
Steve Waldeck’s Flight Paths was installed in 2016.

Courtesy of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

I had tried every trick in the book: chewing gum, yawning, gulping water, even pinching my nose and exhaling. Nope. My left ear stayed resolutely unpopped, leaving me even more disoriented than I already was after my late-night flight from Buffalo to Atlanta.

Even hearing the flight attendant announce the word deplane couldn’t cheer me up. I was hungry, tired, anxious about how much money and time an Uber back to Emory’s campus at midnight on Friday would cost. My headphones were dead. I had stashed my carry-on four rows back—a distance that felt like miles now, thanks to the dense throng of passengers that formed before “deplaning” even began.

In another half hour, I had battled my way off the plane, bag in tow, and was blinking stupidly under the too-harsh overhead lighting of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Uber fares were proving to be, as expected, outrageous. And, lo and behold, the plane train was out of service.

I took a deep breath, tucked my phone into my back pocket, and got to walking.

As I passed the next plane train station (not without a wistful glance or two), I saw a sign above the corridor reading “A Walk Through Atlanta History.” History isn’t really my thing, so I hopped on the people mover and refreshed Uber, looking up only to read a caption or two. If nothing else, the red pop-out displays and retro carpet made the walkway feel a little warmer and friendlier than the rest of the airport.

I didn’t really get hooked until the walkway between Concourses B and A. Even from a distance, I was intrigued by the cool darkness of the tunnel. As I stepped inside, I was delighted to find myself beneath a canopy of leaves, backlit by soft, ethereal greens, blues, and yellows overhead. I actually stopped and tilted my head back, enjoying a simulated thunderstorm complete with pattering rain and flashes of lightning.

For the 450 feet of the exhibit—which I later learned was Steve Waldeck’s Flight Paths, installed in 2016—I forgot about my airplane ear, my sore feet, my brewing headache, and the exorbitant Uber fares. I slowed down.

Since that trip, I’ve made a point of checking out the art scattered throughout the airport. Some exhibitions, like John Lewis: Good Trouble, pay tribute to local legends. Others showcase work from across the world. My favorite is Zimbabwe: A Tradition in Stone, a permanent installation between Concourses T and A. Every time I walk through it, I’m drawn to a different piece and prompted to Google a different artist.

Sure, most travelers hurry right past the displays. And sometimes I’m one of those people. But what art museum can claim that it attracts more than 90 million visitors per year?

The logistics of air travel—security lines, delayed flights, overpriced fast food, outlets that don’t work, the dreaded middle seat—might always be stressful. But I’ve come to love the views, even before takeoff.

This article appears in our December 2023 issue.