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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.

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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.

The Marquis is the latest project of architect John Portman, one of the people chiefly credited with the resurgence of Atlanta.

What does Atlanta offer the conventioneer at leisure or, for that matter, the average tourist?

One of the most unusual attractions here is the Cyclorama, which was moved into a new $8 million building in 1982. The Cyclorama is a combination painting and diorama of the Battle of Atlanta, which took place on July 22, 1864, and was a decisive event in the Civil War. The painting is a continuous circle, with seating for the audience in the center; the audience rotates to view the whole painting, which depicts rolling fields filled with hundreds of struggling figures.

Another new Atlanta attraction is the High Museum, which moved into a handsome, ultramodern building in October 1983. The building is of Le Corbusier-type design; ramps in and around the museum give a feeling of continuous motion. Large white tiles inside and outside seem hygienic rather than attractive on a gray winter day but could be refreshing during Atlanta's steamy summers. One wonderful feature is that the lobby-atrium and other areas are lit almost entirely by natural light.

The museum has a good collection of modern and African art. There is also an interesting decorative arts collection. I liked the Meissen figurines and the display of Renaissance Revival furniture -- Victorian at its most obsessive.

The High Museum is part of the Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center, which is also the home of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Shaw. If you're in Atlanta in the summer, ask what's playing at Chastain Park, where the Pops concerts are held. Said to closely rival the music is the sight of Atlanta ``yuppies,'' who bring the family silver and china for dining al fresco.

The Atlanta Historical Society is out in Buckhead, an area of rolling, piney hills and creamy-beige stucco houses with innumerable pillars. The society has 26 acres of gardens and woodlands with two historic houses: the Swan house, an exquisite 1928 Anglo-Palladian villa full of European antiques, and the 1840 Tullie Smith house, showing the way a middle-class family would have lived when this area was first settled.

The Rouse Company has undertaken the revitalization of Underground Atlanta, a popular underground mall of shops and restaurants, set to reopen this month. The new project will be ``twice the size of the old Underground,'' says Ted Sprague, president of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Broadcasting magnate Ted Turner is moving his Cable News Network studios to the Omni Center, right in the central area of downtown. He's planning to have tours for visitors.

Stone Mountain Park is the most popular attraction in the immediate Atlanta area. It's a bit out of the way, but you can pop onto an expressway and be there in 20 minutes. There's an antebellum plantation, petting zoo, a steam train ride, a gondola ride, a paddlewheeler ride, and facilities for camping, swimming, hiking, and so forth.

The main attraction is the mountain itself, an enormous gray-green and cream-striped mound as smooth as a football, with its carving of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis on horseback. The size of these immense figures is hard to appreciate. They don't look especially big, but the distance between Jefferson's chin and the bottom of his nose is six feet.

Just outside the park is the Stone Mountain Carving Museum, which opened in March of last year. Roy Faulkner, who did most of the carving, owns the museum and is there most of the time.

``When I first started carving the mountain, I knew right then I wanted a museum, and I saved everything I got my hands on,'' says Mr. Faulkner, a soft-spoken red-haired man with a powerful handshake.

Visitors can see a movie in which Faulkner stands casually on a couple of swaying planks hundreds of feet in the air, blasting away with the thermojet torch.