This is where the South died. It is also where it was reborn -- as something that looks suspiciously like the North.
It happened in the big industrial parks off I-75 with their gleaming glass buildings and multinational corporations, along the suburban strips of fast-food joints, in the outdoor cafes with umbrellas advertising European beer, in the countless new housing developments with names like Abington Green and Hamby Place and at Town Center Mall at Cobb.
In Cobb County, a fast-growing suburb north of Atlanta, the South has succumbed to homogenization -- in its appearance, in its life style, in its politics. The one-party Democratic South is a faint memory here; so is the annual march formerly held from Marietta High School to the Confederate Cemetery to place flags on graves of the dead from the Battle of Kennessaw Mountain.
It is a place where you can work for IBM, shop at Macy's and vote Republican for county commissioner. "I could go to sleep at my desk here and wake up in Rochester, N.Y., and everything would look the same," joked an editor who lives here.
"We're living in the fast lane here. We're so busy making a living, we don't have time to enjoy life," said James Lavender, who moved from rural Mississippi 24 years ago to teach in Cobb County schools. Lavender and others, including a good many Yankees, found much of what they sought here: more money, career advancement, a better education for their children.
But progress, or what author John Egerton called "the Americanization of Dixie," has come at a price. It has cost the South some of its cherished sense of identity. It has created a harsh new reality of two Souths -- one prosperous, urban and booming; the other poor, rural and declining. And it provides an opening to the Republicans that they are trying mightily to exploit.
The threat of becoming indistinguishable from the rest of the country has haunted southerners for much of the century, providing grist for countless essays, seminars and political debates. No other region has engaged in myth-making and soul-searching on such a grand scale.
In a famous tract from the 1920s entitled "I'll Take My Stand," 12 southerners argued that what made their region distinctive was a "humanist culture," that this culture was rooted in its agrarian way of life and that it would perish unless the South rallied against the advances of industry.
Like most such schemes, it failed. "Cotton has moved west . . . the farmer has moved to town, the townfolks have moved to the suburbs, the Negro has moved north, the Yankee has moved south," political scientist William C. Havard wrote of the modern South.
This passing of "southernness" is not mourned in all of its aspects. There is the matter of race. "Much of the South's intellectual energy went into a desperate effort to convince the world that its peculiar evil was actually a 'positive good,' " historian C. Vann Woodward once wrote of slavery, although his words apply also to the racial segregation that outlived slavery by a century. "It writhed in the torments of its own conscience until it plunged into catastrophe to escape."
Escape was twice imposed from the outside. A century ago, it took the Civil War; a generation ago, it took a series of Supreme Court rulings, landmark federal legislation and a decade of political and social upheaval to finally secure the full legal measure of citizenship for blacks.
If desegregation was foisted upon the South, it was the South that had to live with it. To an extraordinary degree, it has. The South is no paragon of racial harmony. No region is. Nor has the white power structure of the South easily yielded political and economic power to blacks. Much of the instability in the region's politics, much of the rise of the Republican Party here, grows out of the dilemma of whether blacks and whites can share power.
But today there are 166 black mayors in the South, and there are hundreds of young black bankers and lawyers in the skyscrapers of Atlanta just south of here. They work side by side with the first generation of white southerners that does not shoulder the the burden of defending the indefensible.
If the South is no longer so readily identified as two worlds, one black and one white, it is more aptly than ever identified as two economies -- the thriving cities and the dying rural areas.
This is a new development. As recently as a decade ago, the industries that came south settled in both the urban and rural areas, drawn by the lures of low wages, an abundant work force and an absence of unions. Both city and countryside prospered.
But now, the traditionally rural industries -- textiles, apparel, furniture, as well as agriculture -- are suffering from imports, high interest rates, cheap overseas labor and now a drought approaching crisis proportions. Despite its urbanization, the South is still the most rural region of the country. And despite its investment in education, residents of the rural South are still the nation's least educated. When structural economic change occurs, as it is occurring now, they are ill-prepared to adapt.
"There are really two South Carolinas," said Bud Ferillo, the deputy lieutenant governor, in a comment that applies equally to the other states of the region. "The low unemployment metropolitan counties, with 3 or 4 percent joblessness, where the interstates, thriving universities, military installations and business create a very positive atmosphere. But the other half of South Carolina counties have unemployment of 10 to 12 percent, where blacks and whites are both hurting, where the lack of education and the strong family ties mean they don't want to move to the cities, and where there's a real sense of vulnerability."
Cobb County is a 30-minute drive north of Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport. Drive 85 minutes the opposite direction and you find Talbot County and the other South, a place both envious and suspicious of urban Georgia.
"I wouldn't go to Atlanta for anything short of a death or to pick someone up at the airport," said Susan Robinson, the manager of Bill's Discount Store in the county seat of Talbotton. "I wouldn't live in that cesspool for nothing. They live a faster life. It affects their sense of courtesy. They're pushy; they're rude."
It is hard to imagine two more different places. Cobb County is booming, affluent, mostly white and optimistic. Talbot County is poor, 65 percent black and pessimistic. According to the Georgia Extension Service, its per capita income in 1982 was $5,337, less than half that of Cobb County; 20 percent of the households received food stamps.
"There's no question that the rural counties are being left out," Talbot County Sheriff Bill Johnson said in his office, a converted jail cell. "Atlanta is booming and overflowing. Sure, we're missing the train."
"Atlanta is like a giant tornado. It's sucking in the whole state of Georgia," said Gary B. Byrd, a struggling young lawyer. "Some of its growth comes at the expense of the rest of the state."
Talbotton, a city of 1,100 built around a decaying courthouse square with the inevitable monument to "Our Confederate Heroes," is in what once was the heart of the west Georgia cotton country. (Jimmy Carter's Plains, Ga., is 56 miles further south.)
In the years before the Civil War, Talbotton was the state's fifth largest city, a cultural and commercial center with a college. Today, only a handful of antebellum mansions remain as a reminder of the city's golden era. The county's population is 40 percent that of 1850.
The vestiges of the South's past are very much alive in Talbot County -- the region's history, racial segregation, common tragedies, pessimism and one-party politics. "Just about everyone in Talbot County is a Democrat," said Talbotton Mayor Eddie Bassett Jr. "There's never been a Republican Party to even put up a single candidate for office here."
When people here speak of the economic decline of the county, some still blame the Civil War, Reconstruction and the boll weevil. Others blame the county's ruling white economic elite, or more recent events like the closing of two large textile plants in nearby Manchester.
"Talbot County is isolated socially. We're a predominantly black county. There are a few whites who control the purse strings. No one has been willing to take risks," said county school superintendent John E. Terry, a black. "Our students are like those everywhere. They're looking for a way they can succeed. But when they finish high school, they know they'll have to look for it somewhere else."
Terry, 41, is one of a number of young Talbot County natives, black and white, who returned home in the 1970s, drawn by the area's pleasant, slow-paced life and a desire to change the county. Today there is a sense of resignation among many of them.
"When you're young you think you can improve things," Bassett said in his drugstore across the street from the courthouse. "But after awhile you get burned out. You take the status quo and let it go."
Talbot County is not unique. Max Cleland, the former Veterans Administration director who is now Georgia secretary of state, describes the two economies of his state:
"There's the 21st-century economy of north Georgia, with thousands of new people arriving every month, and there are counties where the value of farm land is declining 10 percent a year, and you're back to the 1930s.
"Seventy percent of our growth is within 100 miles of the Atlanta airport or 25 miles of an interstate. The numbers are in that area, and that's where the Republicans win. New people moving in have no connection with the southern experience. They vote Republican because they don't know the local Democrats. That straight-ticket vote kills us in the presidential years in the suburbs."
The two economies pull the state in opposite directions politically and it is the tension between the old and the new that makes southern politics so dramatic and unpredictable. Democrats are deeply entrenched, but Republicans are winning where the growth has occurred.
Cobb County is a case in point. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won 77 percent of the vote, sweeping Democrats out of local offices. In 1980, the county gave Reagan 12,820 more votes than Georgian Jimmy Carter, and now-Sen. Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.) 41,020 more votes than Herman E. Talmadge, a four-term senator and former governor.
Mattingly, in fact, is the perfect symbol of the political and social change that has come to the South. Georgia's first Republican senator since Reconstruction is a former IBM salesman.
And he grew up in Indiana.
NEXT: The two parties.
Reporting and research for this series was provided by staff writers David S. Broder, Milton Coleman, Thomas B. Edsall, David Maraniss, Bill Peterson, Tom Sherwood and Paul Taylor and staff researcher Michael S. Slevin.