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Atlanta, always renewing, relishes its role as host

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IT'S common to hear Georgians say Atlanta is not a ``Southern'' town in atmosphere, only in geography. Their city is forward-looking, cosmopolitan. Don't come here, they say, expecting ``Gone With the Wind.'' Those who really know ``Gone With the Wind'' may remember that Atlanta was burned to the ground by the original architect of the ``New South,'' Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Since then, Atlanta has made a specialty, in fact a virtue, of rising from the ashes.

But even the sleepy Southern town that was so quickly rebuilt has disappeared. The new symbol of Atlanta, after the conventioneer and the atrium hotel, is the construction crane, so much building is still going on here.

Many Southern touches linger, though. The Northerner can be overcome by the engaging politeness of the people. Kindly doormen beam down on the visitor, giving directions with delight. In one hour, a Northern woman walking around Peachtree Plaza can have more doors opened for her than in her entire previous lifetime. All this among the silvery high-rises and endless parking lots.

Atlanta came into being as a transportation hub, a major junction on railroad lines connecting with Georgia cities and towns like Macon and Milledgeville. Today it has the second busiest airport in the country after Chicago's O'Hare. This accessibility, combined with thousands of hotel rooms near generous convention facilities, has led to Atlanta's success as a convention capital. Its 1.5 million square feet of convention space 90 percent are spoken for through 1990.

Some of Atlanta's high-rises are even more impressive from the inside. Take the newest hotel, the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, a kind of rectangular skyscraper that bulges out at the bottom. Inside is what Atlantans say is the largest hotel lobby in the world. You hear a lot of superlatives here -- the newest, the longest, the biggest, etc. But this one I do not doubt. The guest rooms surround the lobby, which is 48 stories high. This huge flowing space is like a sculpture turned inside out.

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