Yeah, I know we’ve got two Southerners running on the Democratic ticket. Don’t rub it in, OK? As Miss Scarlett used to say, I’ll think about it tomorrow. Let’s talk about sports.

As you probably know, in four years jocks and TV cameramen from around the world will converge on Dixie for the next Olympic Games. Atlanta beat out Athens (the one in Greece) for the privilege of playing host that year, a victory all the sweeter because 1996 will mark the 100th anniversary of the modern Games. Georgia in July is not where I would choose to exert myself, but I guess the folks who make the decision aren’t the same ones who do the exerting. Anyway, those of us who enjoy secondary sweat will be seeing a lot of it.

We’ll also be seeing a lot of Atlanta, which is pretty much the point as far as the boosters arc concerned. Years ago, W. J. Cash wrote about the skyscrapers going up in Southern towns with “little more use for them than a hog has for a morning coat” that these buildings were erected just for the glory of it, another “native gesture of an incurably romantic people, enamored before all else of the magnificent and the spectacular.” That observation helped me understand the Knoxville and New Orleans World Fairs, financial catastrophes but nevertheless successes, and it helps explain Atlanta’s obsession with the Olympics, too. Besides, Scarlett’s hometown and this quadrennial festival of commercialism and jingoism were made for each other.

On the bright side, there’s no question that the Barcelona Olympics were great for the morale of Catalonia, and the 1996 Games could be equally bracing for the South. My buddy Chris was impressed, for instance, by how the International Olympic Committee was bullied into using Catalan as one of the official languages at Barcelona. “The sports commentators,” he wrote me, “mindlessly reading what they were handed, told us that ‘Catalan is not a dialect of Castilian,’ which is technically correct. Similarly, Southern English is not a dialect of Nebraskan.” Chris wants to start a campaign for both Yankee and Southern English announcements in Atlanta, and I think that’s a splendid idea. It would be deeply satisfying to hear “The javelin competition will begin momentarily” also rendered as “The spear-chuckin’ contest is fixin’ to commence directly.” You all want to form a national committee?

Anyway, seriously, the Atlanta Games could be very good for the South. But that’s not the way they’re shaping up. As it happens, I was in Atlanta just after the Olympics, when Atlantans were all agog about what they’d let themselves in for. At supper one night I listened to Michael Lomax, the articulate chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, who had just returned from Barcelona and was talking about how Atlanta is going to do it better. What he had to say was troubling. Although Barcelona managed to present itself as both an emerging world city and the proud capital of a proud region with a distinguished history and culture, it sounds as if Atlanta is fixing to pretend that it’s not a Southern city at all. When a couple of us objected that Atlanta’s plans seemed to be ignoring the city’s history and regional context, Lomax cheerfully agreed. Atlanta has been the capital of the New South for the last hundred years, he said, and it’s time to move on. “We plan to present Atlanta as the New America.” Now, that’s a scary thought. Take away its history and its status as the South’s de facto capital and the only thing remarkable about Atlanta is the number and variety of its “table-dancing” establishments.

But I do understand the impulse. In the first place, Catalonia can afford to be proud: it’s pretty much carrying the rest of Spain economically. The South, though, is still to some degree a colonial dependency. Emphasizing our cultural distinctiveness and separatist history could be bad for business, discouraging outside investment—and nowhere does that argument carry more weight than in Atlanta.

Moreover, like Michael Lomax, most members of Atlanta’s political elite these days are black, and when V. S. Naipaul toured the South not long ago, he was struck by black Southerners’ almost willful lack of interest in their own and their region’s history. Although Naipaul may not have met a representative sample, his observations certainly apply to Lomax and his colleagues, but this is the first post-segregation generation, and like first-generation immigrants elsewhere in the U.S. they may prefer to emphasize their American future, not a past that they find painful. Personally I’d rather they forget it (“move on,” as Lomax put it) than dwell exclusively on their historical grievances, but I hope those aren’t the only choices.

In any case, just because I understand what Atlanta’s doing doesn’t mean I like it. The South, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, is a region with more than a future, and I’m happy to say that ignoring Atlanta’s heritage may be easier said than done. Several events have been scheduled for nearby Stone Mountain, for instance, and Lomax acknowledged that that’s going to be a problem. It’ll be easy enough to get rid of the hoopskirted hostesses, but the visages carved in the “Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy” will be a little harder to obscure, and if the television cameras don’t linger on those figures it will be a triumph for Atlanta’s p.r. people. (Alas, we can probably also count on announcers informing us that it was on Stone Mountain that the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan was marked with a giant flaming cross, a fact that few Atlantans, nostalgic or otherwise, want to dwell on, and I’m with them there.)

A taste of what we can expect from Official Atlanta in the next four years was given to viewers of the Barcelona Games’ closing ceremonies when the city unveiled the mascot for the 1996 Games, a blue, computer-designed noid called “the Whatizit.” (Incidentally, the dancer inside the Whatizit turns out to be a graduate of my university, a former head cheerleader—in case you wondered what cheerleaders do when the}’ grow up.) Even the thing’s name speaks to the city’s loss of identity, and its form— well, one Atlantan described it as just “a g-damn comma,” but at least five others took pleasure in telling me that, despite its tennis shoes and lightning flash eyebrows, it looks like nothing so much as a spermatozoon. (Its race is indeterminate, but we may hear demands for equal time for ova.)

Come to think of it, though, this spermiform critter may be appropriate in a way: Michael Lomax told me that 120,000 condoms were distributed at the Olympic Village, and the Dream Team wasn’t even staying there. (He joked about the opportunities for commercial tie-ins. Atlanta humor.) I also read in the paper that visiting Atlantans were impressed by the absence of bikini tops on Spanish beaches and by Barcelona’s popular co-ed bathroom with see-through walls. Where’s Franco when you need him?

Anyway, even some non-Establishment Atlantans aren’t wild about the Whatizit. The city’s alternative newspaper found one young woman who liked it (“It’s cute, the big blue body and the big eyes”), but even she didn’t like the name. Another reader complained that “there must be some venerable symbol of Atlanta culture that bespeaks our heritage as well as our future.” Even as a symbol of the future, he said, “I prefer to believe the future holds something a little more inspiring for us than an amorphous blue blob.” A recent arrival added, “Just moving here from the North, I was expecting so much more. I was expecting something representative of the South, like Southern hospitality, which is known throughout the country, not some animal that no one knows what it is or what it’s about.” Exactly. The man who said that, by the way, is black. /,p>

It wouldn’t have been hard to come up with something better. I can do it myself. So Georgia, like the rest of the South, is no longer a rural kind of place and you don’t want to use the obvious peach, or peanut? OK, I can live with that. Colonel Rebel (the little Yosemite Sam-like figure usually shown saying “Forget, Hell!”) is unemployed, now that Ole Miss has retired him, and so is Chief Nockahoma, who used to pitch his teepee in the Braves’ outfield, but even I can see that those guys would have some drawbacks.

Let’s just think about animals. One Atlantan suggested roadkill, and I kind of like that, but maybe it’s not cuddly enough to be commercial. A great choice would have been Br’er Rabbit, a symbol rich in associations: the trickster figure of African-American folk culture lovingly exploited by a white Atlanta newspaperman and now known worldwide thanks to Walt Disney. It’s almost a metaphor.

But if he wouldn’t do (and it might be misunderstood), then how about Pogo Possum? I think it was Roy Blount Jr.—if not it should have been—who suggested once that Pogo was an appropriate mascot for the entire South, and Pogo’s a Georgian, from just down the road in the Okefenokee Swamp. He’s cute, he’s smart, he’s lovable, he’s marketable, he’s native, and nobody has to ask “What is it?” But no, Atlanta has stuck us with this meaningless, embarrassing nothing—in Union blue, no less. Every nation gets the capital it deserves, I guess, but what has the South done to deserve Atlanta?

You’ll be hearing more about the struggle for the soul of the 1996 Olympics—or, more precisely, the struggle about whether they are to have any soul. As a matter of fact, you may be hearing more from me next month, if I can bring myself to write about the Georgia state flag controversy.