Yessir. Build and destroy, build and destroy - that's our motto

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Only in America are state-of-the-art, zillion-dollar sports arenas built and then knocked down less than 30 years later. "Yessir," said my taxi-driver, beaming with pride as we sped in from the airport past the steel and concrete skeleton rising next to the gleaming, white Fulton County Stadium where the Atlanta Braves have been playing baseball since 1966.

"First, they're gonna finish that one, then they're gonna pull the old one down. Turn it into a parking lot, I do believe." Only two excuses may be put forward for this squandering of mostly public money. First, the new stadium is being purpose built for nothing less than the Olympics. And second ... well, this is Atlanta.

Put aside all thoughts of Scarlett O'Hara, all ye who enter here. Gone with the Wind may have been written in a burnt out Atlanta town house (of which more in a moment), but this is a city which re-invents itself about as often as it changes sports stadiums - once every 30 years or so. Atlanta is not the railroad hub of the old Confederacy that General William Tecumseh Sherman laid waste in 1864, nor even the cradle of the civil rights movement, but a glistening, modern American metropolis, self- proclaimed showcase of the New South, whose supreme adornments are Ted Turner, CNN and the Coca-Cola corporation. Stand amid the skyscrapers on Peachtree Street, and but for the soft southern air, you could be in downtown Chicago, Denver or St Louis. Except that none of the aforementioned are booming like Atlanta. And in the process the South's true capital, of 3 million people, has shed most traces of its secessionist, racially segregated past. Only the odd unexploded shell, fired by one of Sherman's cannons, dug up on a construction site, testifies to the Civil War which ended 130 years ago this week.

Like every American city, Atlanta has suffered its flight to the suburbs, turning tracts of the inner city into a no-go urban wasteland. But some of those suburbs house what is, proportionately, the largest black middle class in the US. Racial tensions are palpably less than, say, in Chicago, not to mention Washington DC. This, after all, is the home town of Martin Luther King, and the operating base of America's contemporary peace-maker par excellence, the former president Jimmy Carter. And no American city boasts a more civic-minded business community.

But then again, giving is easier when the local economy is growing year in, year out at 5 per cent or more. The "City too Busy to Hate" was the description dear to William Hartsfield, the city's former mayor who gave his name to the airport, the second busiest after Chicago in the entire world. Thanks to Atlanta, Georgia is poised to enter the Top Ten most populous states this year, displacing North Carolina. So why then all the insecurity?

For rather like Chicago, Atlanta is chronically insecure. In Chicago's case it is the inferiority complex to New York, but Atlanta too has the same compulsive tendency to brag, the same constant need for reassurance, born of the eternal need to show it has escaped the rednecked, racist South for ever. "The Next Worldclass City" runs the slogan (although some Atlantans have now dropped the "next"). Thus the bid in the late Eighties for the Olympics, a search for proof that the city had finally arrived.

But, someone observed: "It's like a dog chasing a car. Finally it catches up - but what does it do then?"

For Atlanta the answer is, build and destroy, build and destroy. Apart from the new stadium, there will be a new Olympic Centennial park and an Olympic village, which subsequently could become the nucleus of a new residential area, close to downtown, perhaps even reversing the suburban exodus. Most instructive of all, however, is the fate of an old apartment house on Peachtree. There, in the basement, between 1925 and 1932, Margaret Mitchell wrote a novel. Now Olympics come and Olympics go, but Gone with the Wind marches on for ever: only the Bible has sold more copies.

Ms Mitchell called the house "the Dump", and when she died in 1949 she left instructions that no monument for her be preserved. But each year the Atlanta tourist board receives 200,000 enquiries about the book and its author.

Amazingly, for decades no one in this city of entrepreneurs showed the slightest interest in restoring the building, despite its obvious, colossal tourist potential. Finally, the Olympics organisers woke up to the treasure on their doorstep - only for someone, inexplicably, to set fire to it on 17 September 1994. Now the gutted structure is being restored, at a cost of $2.6m (£1.6m).

And who is paying for it? Not Turner Broadcasting, Coca-Cola or any other of those civic-minded local corporate titans, but Daimler Benz, of Germany. Still better the foreigners than another sports stadium.