Coca-Cola and Elvis Presley

Photograph of a historic yellow Chevrolet delivery truckAtlanta began life as an Indian village known as Standing Peachtree. It was the scene of a number of important Civil War battles before being razed in 1864 by General William Tecumseh Sherman. It has suffered racial tensions from the bloody Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 to the demonstrations of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, and was of course the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. In other words, this is a city with a rich and colourful history.

So what are the first two suggestions on the city’s own “What to Do” Web site? That’s right: fizzy drinks and fish, in the form of the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium. So we dutifully make our way to Centennial Olympic Park, 21 acres of gardens, fountains and playgrounds and home to both attractions.

Now, while I’m certainly not one of those for whom “multinational” automatically equates to “corporate evil,” I must admit to arming myself with a degree of cynicism as we queue up outside this temple to carbonated syrup. And, as the lights dim and we’re introduced to a short film on how the kisses are added to each bottle, my expectations drop by at least a couple of notches.

Five minutes of brilliantly animated fun later, I have a glow in my heart, a smile on my face, and love for everything red and white. OK, maybe not the love, but so genuinely endearing are the characters in the film that we leave the theatre delighted to have the opportunity to immerse ourselves further in a drink invented in 1886, just a few blocks away, by one John Pemberton. And, as you’d expect of the world’s No.1 consumer brand, the whole experience is exceptionally well done, from the interactive museum areas right through to the tasting room.

Our second port of call, built next door on land generously donated by the wonderful Coca-Cola company (OK, I’ll stop now), is the Georgia Aquarium. All the usual suspects are present: luminescent tropical fish, graceful rays and fearsomely toothed piranhas. But it’s the big ticket attractions that people really come for: the beluga whales and the sharks – above all, the whale sharks. I’ve been to more than a few aquariums over the years but never have I seen anything quite as impressive as the world’s largest species of fish viewed in a tank so large that the windows need to be 2 feet thick.

The third attraction to look out over the park is the CNN Center, so in the hope of spotting Robin Meade in the flesh, we hand over our $12 each to follow the CNN studio tour. And it’s from this point that Atlanta begins to lose something of its charm.

The first incident involves an unnecessarily aggressive CNN employee who barks at me to move along instead of waiting for my wife, Carole, to emerge from the airport-style body scanner that we have to pass through before being allowed onto the tour. (“Get on the escalator now. She will meet you at the top. Get on it now!”) And the tour itself involves CNN staff telling us what we must and must not do, while shepherding us through back corridors past unsmiling guards. We’re paying guests, yet we’re treated as an inconvenience. And there’s no sign of Robin Meade’s flesh, either.

The second incident takes place as we explore the Five Points area, a district whose population includes a higher than average number of drunks and begging war veterans. It’s not actually threatening, just uncomfortable, but as one nutcase goes out of his way to catch my eye so he can enquire as to what the fuck I’m looking at, we curtail our walk and head back to the safety and comfort of our hotel.

It would have been a real shame if this had remained our abiding memory of Atlanta, so a planning mistake on my part three weeks later, which brought us back to Atlanta a day earlier than we needed to be, proved a blessing in disguise as it gave us the opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site.

As well as being home to an outstanding museum, the center is also just yards away from 501 Auburn Ave. (the house in which King was born), Ebenezer Baptist Church (where he, his father and his brother all preached), and the King Center tomb, in which his body, together with that of his wife, Coretta, now lies. Forget fish, forget Coke. This should be the No.1 destination for any visitor to Atlanta. Right, sermon over. Time to hit the road.

Our destination today is Tupelo, Miss., so we head west out of Atlanta on U.S. Route 78 and make our way across the state line into Alabama past an endless offering of thrift stores, pawnshops, yard sales and, above all, Baptist churches. And this being Sunday morning, the car parks outside the churches are full to overflowing. Coming from a country where, for most people, “Church of England” (our Episcopal church) is no more than a box to be ticked before surgery, it’s impressive to see such a display of faith, particularly as some of these communities were clearly way down the line when the good Lord was handing out his more material blessings.

We stop for lunch at Machristie’s restaurant in Anniston, Ala., and are conspicuous not just for our English accents but for the fact that we’re the only diners who weren’t at church 20 minutes earlier. “Y’all have a blessed day,” calls the waitress as one group leaves. “The Lord let me wake this morning – I’m blessed already,” replies Pop as he gets into his car, licence plate “JESUS.”

A mountain of chicken, sweet potato casserole and giblet gravy later and we’re set for the afternoon’s drive, one that takes in two classic roadside attractions.

The first, the 270-foot-long Clarkson Covered Bridge, which spans Crooked Creek 10 miles west of Cullman, is one of those diversions that’s essentially just an excuse to stretch the legs. You take a couple of photos, absentmindedly read the signs (“How about that? The only covered bridge in Cullman County!”) and set off again happy to have added, however fractionally, to your knowledge of the world.

From here we continue west past the woodlands, lakes and waterfalls of William B. Bankhead National Forest and on to Natural Bridge, a two-for-the-price-of-one attraction that is indeed a natural bridge (“The Longest Rock Arch East of the Rockies”), but also Alabama’s smallest inhabited town, with a population of just 28.

The bridge itself opened as a public attraction in 1954. As the arch is around 200 million years old, what this actually means is that 55 years ago, some folks fenced it off and started charging people to visit, but no matter, it’s worth every penny. From the rusty metal entrance sign to the homely gift shop run by Jim and Barb Denton – the couple who bought the place some years back – you know you’re visiting an attraction from a golden age of road tripping, a time when Mom, Pop, Junior and Sparky the Dog would pile into a wood-panelled station wagon and, in a scene lifted straight from a 1950s Oldsmobile advertisement, wave at all the other blissfully happy families travelling purposefully from one attraction to the next.

As for the arch? It’s great, too, but that’s not really the point.

Not long after, we cross our second state line of the day and arrive in Tupelo, Miss., birthplace of Elvis Aaron Presley. I have to confess that I approach his natal home in much the same frame of mind as I did the World of Coca-Cola: interested in the cultural significance but anticipating overcommercialisation. And again, my concerns prove entirely unfounded.

The house consists of just two rooms: a bedroom and a kitchen. Next door there’s an excellent museum and, it goes without saying, a gift shop, both staffed by perfectly normal Mississippians, not the weird Elvis obsessives I’d imagined. And the welcome we are afforded is delivered with a level of courtesy that stands out even in a country where politeness is the norm. It’s a cliché, I know, but Southerners do have extraordinarily good manners.

Of course, it’s in the best interests of those in the tourism industry to make visitors welcome, but this is a natural politeness, one that can’t be faked. We encounter it everywhere we go on this first leg of our trip through the South, from the bellhop who asks my surname so he can address me as “Mr. Thody” right through to the girl in the gas station who is so sorry that local licensing laws prevent her from selling us a six-pack on a Sunday. Even Eugene, the panhandler who “escorts” us back to our hotel in Atlanta in exchange for $20, extracts our money with impressive courtesy.

The South really is a different place.