LAST FOURTH of July, thousands lined Atlanta's Peachtree Street, patriotic parents and children awaiting the usual procession of high-stepping high school bands and big-haired beauty queens. Shortly before parade time, volunteers walked down the route, handing out thousands of tiny flags: not the red, white and blue but the five colors of the Olympic Games. The parade itself was led by a banner: Atlanta 1996.

Cameras recorded the parade, and videotapes (carefully edited) were sent to Bali and Morocco and Sweden, where members of the International Olympic Committee were left with the impression that all Atlanta had turned out to support the Olympic spirit.

It wasn't a sham, just a dress rehearsal. Thousands did turn out for the Olympics -- but that was last Tuesday, at 7:49 a.m., when Atlantans filled Underground Atlanta to cheer the news that they had brought home the gold.

The spoils of the 1996 Summer Games -- a $3.5-billion economic infusion (that's 100 Democratic conventions or 50 Super Bowls), the 84,000 jobs, the status -- all will go to Atlanta, not Athens or Toronto or a dozen American cities that might properly ask, "Atlanta? The Olympics? How come we didn't think of that?"

Indeed, why Atlanta? And why not, for example, Washington, D.C.?

Olympic leaders cited several tangible reasons for their choice: a world-class airport, scads of hotel rooms, good public transportation, cheap labor, East Coast TV profits.

Add one intangible: Andrew Young. The former mayor, former U.N. ambassador and former aide to Martin Luther King Jr. personifies Atlanta's two slogans: "The City Too Busy to Hate" and "The Next Great International City." Olympic insiders say Young, chairman of Atlanta's Olympic committee, sewed up Third World IOC delegates for Atlanta over runner-up Athens.

"Atlanta doesn't just have a mayor. It has an international personality," an Atlanta newspaper editor said last week. "After a fashion, so does Washington, but the notoriety factor there is pretty high."

But more than the mayoralty separates Atlanta from other cities. Young may be Atlanta's chief salesman, but all Atlanta aims to please: It is, unfailingly, a town for sale. Not without reason is Atlanta known as a peddler's paradise, the capital of commercial seduction and voluptuous rhetoric, a raw plutocracy that can make a deal faster than you can say "a Co'Cola, please, ma'am." As Calvin Trillin has pointed out, Atlanta has graduated from bigotry to Babbittry. Witness the motto of the largest bank in town: "In C&S We Trust."

Public-relations savvy and boosterism may explain why Atlanta got the Olympics, but not why it needs the Olympics:

Atlanta needs distraction. The leaders of the many "New Souths" that have risen and faded -- the creations of businessmen, politicans and editors -- have always sought distraction from Reconstruction, distraction from Ku Kluxry, now distraction from a recession. (The Olympics announcement crowded news of layoffs by Atlanta's largest developer off the front page.) Atlanta finds its distraction in building, in deal making, and in sports ("Go Dawgs!").

Atlanta needs recognition. Without a port, a coast or any other geographic reason for being, it is afraid of slipping off the world stage. Big-time sports brings that recognition. Of all the stories in U.S. newspapers written from Atlanta last year, more than half were sports stories. The Olympics and two new stadiums will keep the Braves and Falcons in town for decades.

Atlanta needs a winner. With the worst record in major league sports, the city has a chip on its shoulder. Two headlines from Tuesday's Atlanta newspapers tell the story: "Forget Losersville" and "Finally we won something!" On Thursday, though, only 3,790 fans could bear to see the Braves, America's worst team, play and lose. (That crowd would fill fewer than one in 20 seats in the Braves' new home, Olympic Stadium.)

With this much civic angst, snaring the Olympics is a triumph, yes, but a triumph for what? For mythmaking. The Olympic myth is merely the confluence of Atlanta's two popular projections of itself: racial harmony and international status.

"The City Too Busy to Hate" loves to tell the stories of how the public schools were desegregated without the police-state violence of Birmingham or Little Rock, how its Auburn Avenue was a mecca for black-owned business, how black suburbs rivaled the homes of whites anywhere.

These stories are true, and yet they are not complete: Atlanta's schools remain among the most segregated in the country; "Sweet Auburn" is dilapidated; the streets change names as they pass from white to black areas; the poor blacks are pushed into shrinking slums; the banks do little business with blacks of any income.

To its credit, and unlike Washington, Atlanta has long had a strong coalition of white business leaders and black political leaders. But the coalition forms with special efficiency when there's a dollar to be made. City leaders recognize the monetary value of a respectable reputation.

The coalition's guiding force has always been the Coca-Cola Co. When white businessmen turned up their noses at attending a dinner to honor King for his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Coke magnate Robert W. Woodruff put out the word, "Gentlemen, we can't operate from a base where our town is reviled." The dinner sold out in a day.

The mayor for two decades after World War II, William B. Hartsfield, told historian Pat Watters that "in his every act, his every decision as mayor, he always kept in mind that Atlanta was the headquarters of the Coca-Cola Co.. . .and that anything that would reflect unfavorably on Atlanta would hurt the company."

"The Next Great International City," the second slogan, was just a dream when the international airport was named for Hartsfield. He saw what Coca-Cola saw: Its next great market was overseas. Selling sugar water in 62 countries, Coke earns 78 percent of its profits abroad.

Atlanta's black-white coalition made the speeches, but it was Coca-Cola that brought the Olympics home. Coke is already the first international sponsor of the Games. And Coke was the largest contributor to the $7-million effort to lure the XXVI Olympiad. IOC members visiting Atlanta in the past two years laid wreaths at Martin Luther King's tomb, then toured the Coca-Cola headquarters and museum.

Atlanta may reach its goal of becoming an international city, but is it a great city? Will it become one?

The truth about Atlanta, the Paris and Gomorrah of the South, is that it has found it difficult to resist the vulgarization of the region, the quick buck or the new building. All of which makes Atlanta perfect for the modern telegenic Olympics. Torn down and rebuilt constantly in the past 20 years, it is a movie set ready for imagemaking.

No crowds turned out in Peachtree Street to stop the destruction of Atlanta's historic buildings, its train station, its theater district. (Remember the charming street scenes of 1960 Atlanta in "Driving Miss Daisy"? No? There were none, because not enough remains from that era for a backdrop.)

Atlanta's apparent indifference to the impact of its actions reaches its apex in the building of sports stadiums. In 1965, when the public spent $18 million for the Braves' stadium, Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. said revenue would be applied to serious needs, such as housing the poor. In fact, low-income housing was torn down for the stadium; in that decade alone, Atlanta lost 15,000 public housing units.

Last week, in the flush of the Olympic announcement, Young actually said the Games would bring in revenue "to eliminate substandard housing and homelessness," a goal he didn't find time to endorse in his eight years as mayor. In fact, low-income housing will be razed to make room for the Olympic Village, in a city with 10,000 homeless and one in nine residents living in sordid public housing.

Atlanta has always been better at promising than fulfilling its promises. It has built an arts center but not the first-rank symphony or ballet to perform there; it has neglected its libraries and done much to obliterate its indigenous victualry. Its newspapers have long leaned toward boosterism over journalism. (Today's Journal-Constitution includes a 48-page special section on the Games of 1996.)

Of all the needs at Clark-Atlanta University, long an intellectual center for black Americans, could the most pressing really be the two new stadiums (yes, two!) to be built on campus (in addition to the Georgia Dome, the Olympic Stadium and the velodrome)?

The willpower of the city to get things done is unquestioned. Last week while a unified Atlanta was capturing the Olympics, Washington was sending two competing groups (suburban groups at that) to bid for a National League baseball team. Neither group had the benefit of a mayor -- or even a former mayor.

Getting the Games is a victory for what's good in Atlanta. What's in question is the application of all that civic willpower. Why can Atlanta, why can the South, why can America summon the political powers of city and state, join hands black and white, even turn people out into the streets -- all for 16 days of high jumping and rhythmic gymnastics -- while they neglect education, health, the arts, their own children? If every community could ask that question, it has a special resonance in Atlanta, a city with so much energy -- so much willingness -- to remake itself.

Apostscript: In the year 776 B.C., as runners began the first Olympic Games, ancient Athens was not unlike modern Atlanta: a fledgling city-state, an insecure regional center for finance, transportation and trade. The great age of literature and philosophy, of art and architecture, was centuries in the future. The first games, to be sure, were not in Athens in the state of Attica; they were held in the city-state of Ellis, at the town of Olympia.

Today you can visit Olympia and put the toes of your Nikes into the grooved stones that served as starting blocks. But the rest of Olympia is gone. Only the lyric poetry and art and philosophy of Athens survive.

Maybe Atlanta will get around to all that in a couple of centuries.

Bill Dedman, a Washington Post staff writer, is a former staff writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.