It’s November and your 737 dips below the clouds and a golden-red sea of oak stares up at you from between perfectly spaced houses and you feel a twitch in your gut—this is suburban sprawl. This is Atlanta. In these McMansions are rappers and celebrity chefs, directors fresh off the boat from Hollywood. You swear you see Ludicrous, his three-carat smile a beacon of opportunity. You touch down and just past the world’s busiest terminal you spot the congested Atlanta skyline rising up from a manufactured fog, each square of progress stacked on years of tradition and bigotry, war and reconstruction, the result a city as diverse as its inhabitants.
The seatbelt sign flashes and for a moment you consider mutiny, to hold your ground and ride the two-hour layover out in your Delta-blue vinyl seat…but then your stomach rumbles, rejecting the stale bag of pretzels you substituted for a lunch, and you remember where you are: You’re in Atlanta and just past that accordion walkway is a gastro’s wet dream masquerading as an airport restaurant. So you fold your worn copy of Flannery O’Conner short stories into your back pocket and shuffle with the rest of the herd until you spill out into Terminal E.
You’re in it now, and the belly of the beast seems to swell and contract, forcing you between sweaty Germans and confused Americans. Or maybe they aren’t confused. Maybe that’s just what we look like. Maybe that blank gaze is a product of our anti-culture, the aftermath of spring break and celebrity gossip, Duck Dynasty and 60-hour workweeks—or maybe they’re just hungry.
Your stomach rumbles again and snaps your focus back to the task at hand: navigating this labyrinth of steel and flesh. You push forward and resist the urge to clothesline the pack of blue-hairs standing stock still on the moving walkway, and just as you feel your last ounce of civility slipping from your anemic fingers, you round the corner and a faint whiff of mussels and toasted pumpkin seeds lift you out of your hunger rage. You break from the pack and slip through a doorless threshold into an oasis of unexpected class. This ain’t no Fridays and the only piece of flare is a subtle wink from the mixologist as she shakes your gin fizz like she’s just been waiting all day to do this. Toki—the chocolate dream standing behind the teak bar—is no bartender; she’s an angel sent down from liquor heaven and her only task is to wipe that travel frown from your face. She is successful.
You paw through the menu and realize every word you’ve heard about Chef Duane Nutter is true—except maybe the man-baby rumors. Visions of pecan dusted scallops, thyme roasted pork belly, and duck swimming in a cherry miso sauce have you in a Homer Simpson stupor and Toki slides over to wipe the drool from your chin and suggests the meatloaf sandwich. You nod and before you can question the slightly schizophrenic mix of Southern and Asian cuisine wafting through the mural of redwoods that help create the nerve-settling atmosphere, your sandwich—scratch that, your food art arrives. With this level of service, even a 30-minute layover transforms into a relaxed meal.
After you’ve devoured every crumb of the local grass-fed beef, mash potatoes, ginger peas and carrots, hoisin sauce, and peach kimchi (not what you were thinking when you read “meatloaf sandwich,” huh?), you order one more cocktail just to monopolize another minute of Toki’s time and dream about what it’d be like to be the swivel stick between her fingers; then your pocket vibrates and snaps you back to reality. The flight alert reminds you why you’re here…in an airport. So you scoop up your luggage, blow a kiss across the bar, and steady yourself to reemerge into the stream of organized confusion. Your feet hit the hard tile and you look back to catch one more glimpse of the oasis hidden within this urban anthill, and as the swarm of suits and Samsonite fill your vision, you wonder if it all—the quiet luxury, the unexpected haute cuisine, Toki—if it all was just a mirage, a sleepy wish for what travel should be…
Next time you are traveling, stop over in Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and give One Flew South a try.