Review: Objects that define Atlanta make up History Center show


“Atlanta in 50 Objects”

Jan. 16-July 10. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; noon-5:30 p.m. Sundays. $16.50 adults; $13 seniors 65+, students 13+; $11 youths 4-12; free for members and children under 4. Note: Free during regular hours on Jan. 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Road N.W., Atlanta. 404-814-4000,

Bottom line: An amiable but not necessarily illuminating stroll down a highly selective memory lane.

We’ve all read those hyper-opinionated Top 10 city guides, the “things you have to do in Atlanta before you die” imperatives in which a writer runs down the definitive restaurants, sites and experiences in the city. It’s very hard for such hit lists to get it right, especially in a city as onion peel complex as this one.

"Atlanta in 50 Objects" is, in essence, a crowd-sourced exhibition that attempts a similar feat. The Atlanta History Center asked Atlantans to offer their picks of the items that best represent their city. Of the 300 objects — from trees to traffic — proposed, 50 were culled by curators Don Rooney and Amy Wilson.

There is Rich's original 1959 "Priscilla" Pink Pig ride, that tiny bright pink sausage casing that grown men and their families somehow stuffed themselves into for what had to be the most claustrophobic ride of their lives. Also on display: a "Save the Fox" T-shirt from 1974 testifying to the populist movement to rescue the magnificent 1929 Fox Theatre from demolition. That gesture of preservation in a town in love with the wrecking ball finds its bookend in one of the strange plaster diorama figures added in the '30s to the 19th-century "Battle of Atlanta" Cyclorama painting. The Atlanta History Center thankfully saved the Cyclorama from the dustbin of history and will debut the painting's complete restoration in 2018.

Also included is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s handwritten, in multicolor ink, acceptance speech for his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. An icon of African-American endurance, ability and grit, Hank Aaron gets a shoutout in his 600th home run baseball bat from 1971. Opposite that bat is segregationist and Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox’s terrifying wooden club, a “Pickrick Drumstick” used to drive African-Americans away from his Pickrick restaurant in civil rights-era Atlanta. Thankfully, the curators, or Atlanta’s own community, have made sure that local history isn’t whitewashed into a pleasant stew of false memory, and so other icons of Atlanta’s uglier moments are also presented in the exhibition, like a reproduction of a Jim Crow-era sign for a “Colored Entrance Only.”

In general, though, “Atlanta in 50 Objects” is the kind of show to kindle a warm glow of recognition and affirmed expectations in spectators as they steer a path through a surprisingly compact exhibition space, bonding over familiar sights and sounds — whether the plastic model of a Varsity Combo Meal #1 cholesterol bomb of onion rings and chili dogs, a Chick-fil-A cow or a representation of that hellish snakepit we know as Atlanta traffic in a live Web broadcast of the diurnal certainty of gridlock.

There is even that pleasantly officious female voice — another native cyborg lass like Siri — resounding through the gallery at regular intervals, guiding passengers riding Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s Plane Train. It’s an inspired touch, almost guaranteed to make you laugh out loud when a sensor activates those familiar strains of “the next stop is for T gate, T as in tango … .”

Though there are some fascinating mementos on view, the Atlanta History Center has probably set itself up for disappointment in even attempting such a greatest hits show: Nearly everyone is going to resent the lack of inclusion of their beloved touchstone; the restaurant, or the annual event or the person that defines what Atlanta means to them. The show feels like those just-skimming-the-surface city guides that somehow testify for the big brands, but leave the grit and the funk and a hundred more obscure but telling relics alone.

But what does come through in “Atlanta in 50 Objects” is a populace rightfully in love with their burg, warts and all.