Southern State of Mind

When discovering why Georgia is so hard to shake from the mind, it’s best to think beyond peach trees and that classic song. I came with an image of the Deep South, where Northerners are still called “Yankees” and where the legacy of slavery still appears on plantations and in Confederate symbols. Although this isn’t my first time below the Mason-Dixon Line, I visited with open eyes.

I arrived at Athens, home of the University of Georgia and historical homes such as the Victorian Ware-Lyndon House and plenty of live music. On any given night, you can choose from a number of music acts and venues such as the 40 Watt Club. If Athens is the town that the indy rock band R.E.M. built, then Weaver D’s is the restaurant that fed R.E.M. The 18-year-old hot spot — whose slogan “Automatic for the People” was coined by owner Dexter Weaver and borrowed by the band for its landmark 1992 album — serves up delicious fried chicken, corn pudding, and sublime sweet potatoes.

I had to nap it off at the Foundry Park Inn & Spa before a visit to the Georgia Museum of Art to meet artist Leo Twiggs, whose stunning batik paintings reflect his life and Southern culture. I also checked out the Morton Theatre, the first vaudeville theater in America built (in 1910), owned, and operated by an African American. It still houses a variety of performing arts.

Farther south, Augusta, the second oldest and second largest city in the state, is nestled along the Savannah River. Visitors can take a cruise through the South’s industrial history at the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area Interpretive Center, located in a reclaimed 19th century textile mill.

In Savannah, I took a side trip along Georgia’s low country Sea Islands. The mysterious, quirky charm of the Hostess City is described in the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and through the films Glory and Forrest Gump.

I strolled through the Historic District, with its green, camellia-filled squares, art galleries, and dining options ranging from the upscale (The Olde Pink House) to down-home Lady & Sons Restaurant and Wall’s Bar-B-Que. At River Street, I shopped for trinkets at Juanita’s Fashion Boutique and stopped by the African American Monument for a performance of Gullah-Geechee history by Jamal Toure, a griot. A natural next stop was the First African Baptist Church, the country’s oldest (from 1773), where decorative diamond-shaped holes in the chapel floor provided air for Underground Railroad “passengers.” I took respite at the gloriously art-filled Olde Georgian Inn in the Victorian District, run by Maisha Evans.

By contrast, the low-lying coastal islands (including the Golden Isles) claim a mysterious calm, with a mixture of wildlife, family homesteads, and vestiges of long-ago glamour. Early 20th century industrialists with names like Carnegie and Mellon romped on Jekyll Island. Now visitors can have their own adventures on the spots the rich once called their summer home.

The Gullah-Geechee culture holds strong roots in areas like Sapelo Island, with a history