The carpet in the lift said, 'Have a pleasant Saturday'. Ride up or down in Atlanta's Stouffer Concourse Hotel, and you get a timely greeting from the shag pile.

Life, you might think, is too short to change the lift carpet every day, especially in a city with its eyes fixed on the 21st century. But on its journey to the future, Georgia's capital veers unsteadily from ultra-modernity to Southern conservatism, and totters between innovation and perversity. The most prominent characteristic is pragmatism, a quality which has made Atlanta the convention city par excellence. Photocopier sales people and textile buyers are courted assiduously by hoteliers. A lift carpet which keeps pace with the calendar is just one gimmick from the hospitality industry's repertoire.

The lurid crimson number dangling above Interstate 75, where the freeway carves through the city's heart, changes every day, too. This morning it will announce 916 days to the start of the 26th Olympic Games. In two weeks, thousands of American football fans will touch down for the 28th Super Bowl.

Atlanta wields an extraordinary influence on the world. It was the birthplace of Coca-Cola and the company still orchestrates its campaign for world soft-drink domination from here; it was also the birthplace of Martin Luther King. Screens of news pulsate from CNN, setting the world's agenda from Atlanta; the pulse drops elsewhere in the city, at the HQ of the purveyors of standardised sleep, the Holiday Inn chain.

The city's development began arbitrarily in 1837 when a railway surveyor hammered a stake into the ground in the middle of the Georgian wilderness. This random point marked the eastern extreme of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, and the settlement which sprouted around it was called 'Terminus'. The name came to an abrupt end when a railway manager suggested Atlanta - derived from the company's title - would be more decorous. In the Civil War, which erupted shortly afterwards, nine-tenths of the young city was destroyed by General Sherman to humiliate the Confederates.

The war was fought over slavery. Before it, a negro could be bought in Atlanta for dollars 1,200. Even after the South was defeated and the slaves freed, black people were still firmly at the bottom of the social scale; yet the black community in Atlanta prospered. Auburn Avenue, later called 'the richest negro street in America', came into existence a century ago. On 15 January 1929, Martin Luther King was born at No 501. His boyhood home is open for visitors. As you tiptoe around the modest house, your mood is one of quiet reverence for a man who believed in equal rights.

His tomb is 100 yards away. 'Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I'm Free at last', is the simple epitaph. A Center for Nonviolent Social Change has been established in Dr King's name, but a sign in a shop a few blocks away is evidence of problems still to be solved. To mark his 65th birthday today, local people are invited to exchange 'workable handguns' for dollars 50 of groceries.

From the sombre to the ridiculous: Georgia's other famous son, the peanut-farmer-turned-President Jimmy Carter, sells imitation White House crockery at his museum. But you have to find the place. The standard Metro Map of Atlanta shows the Jimmy Carter Museum to be a few minutes' walk from Martin Luther King's boyhood home. In fact, it is a two-mile hike, the last stretch of which involves clambering over a construction site for an eight-lane freeway.

The Jimmy Carter Museum is intended to depict the former president in the best possible light, and make a buck or two on souvenir sales. But a thoughtful succession of exhibits genuinely helps to explain the stresses facing the most powerful person on the planet. Carter, you conclude, was defeated after one term because of his honesty rather than mediocrity.

He might have met with more electoral success in 1980 had he gone to Little Five Points, a crossroads still living in the Seventies. The Crystal Blue store sells a dozen different types of joss stick, each with a specific purpose such as 'New Beginnings' or 'Inner Guidance'. You can buy a fridge sticker with the handy reminder 'I am connected with the endless source of God-energy' each time you reach for the milk.

Efforts to navigate around the real world of Atlanta are impeded by the fact that the city is inordinately proud of the official state plant, the peach tree. No fewer than 84 street names contain the word Peachtree. But it is worth distinguishing between the Road, the Avenue and the Plaza, to see some splendid sights.

Start at one of the few addresses without a tree in its name: 395 Piedmont Avenue. This hangar-like affair houses SciTrek, a science museum which battles bravely to bring mathematics to life. But catchy slogans such as 'Rationality is equal to or greater than Reality', cannot disguise the fact that differential equations were never meant to be fun. SciTrek also tries to explain how a television functions to a nation whose attitude is summed up by the man who took one look at the phosphorescent dots and exclaimed, 'I don't care how it works so long as I got my big-screen TV.'

Atlanta fills screens, big and small, around the world. News is harvested by CNN and scattered from the station's headquarters in the city centre. You can tour the CNN studios in 45 minutes, see the presenter broadcast live (during a videotape insert he winked at us - honestly), and cavort in front of the weather map, which is a plain blue wall on to which a chart is electronically superimposed.

Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, also owns the rights to the film Gone With The Wind. Margaret Mitchell's Civil War epic used to be shown continuously at the CNN cinema, but the romance between Rhett and Scarlett is fading. Not only have they been taken off the screen, but Miss Mitchell's former home on the corner of Peachtree and Peachtree (Street and Place) is a boarded-up shell waiting vainly for funds for refurbishment.

For so influential a city, Atlanta has as surprising extent of inner-city squalor - desolation rows of dilapidated parking lots dotted with buildings as shattered as their windows. Yet a strand of urban magnificence threads north. The empty space enhances the panorama: unlike New York, where thrusting skscrapers intimidate, you can appreciate the soaring structures of the Georgian capital in their Gothic, cloud-piercing excess.

Atlanta resembles an artist's impression of how a city on the moon might appear, with towers scattered across alien terrain. The void inspires a certain lunar chill, but Peachtree (Street) has its moments. That maharaja's palace halfway along is the Fox Theatre, a Thirties auditorium dolled up to the nines. The Spanish room is full of Iberian kitsch, while the Egyptian Ballroom sells itself as a venue for bar mitzvahs. Next month, the Fox is staging Jesus Christ Superstar, followed by Meat Loaf.

Then you reach the most beautiful art gallery in the world. The High Museum of Art is modest in its exhibits - Aesthetic Movement furniture, African crafts, a few Rodins - but the contents are irrelevant compared with the space they occupy. It is as if a stack of sugar-white cubes has been piled up beside Peachtree Street and swathed by a curve of glass of mathematical perfection: big, blank and beautiful. Inside, visitors are impelled upwards on delicately inclined ramps that wrinkle their way across the arc. The building, designed by the American architect, Richard Meier, commands all three dimensions with awesome authority.

Any other space is humdrum by comparison. Except, perhaps, the Buckhead Diner. Where the High is sublimely majestic, the Diner is sheer glitz. It loiters alongside Peachtree Road like a Fifties saloon, all chrome and extravagant fins. The illusion continues inside, with bench seats, walnut trim and loud music. The eggs benedict are terrific, too.

In terms of volume, the Diner cannot compete with the Varsity, the world's biggest drive-in restaurant. Carless, I wandered in off the street to discover a culinary hell: carbohydrate, fat and unspecified meat, doused in garish ketchup and called a 'fried pie'. Mine is a minority view, however, since this fast-food factory is extraordinarily popular - and the biggest single sales outlet for Coke.

Coca-Cola was originally marketed as an 'intellectual beverage' by the chemist who invented it in 1886. Sales frothed up from a mere nine glasses a day to the point where Coke is the world's most successful soft drink. The World of Coca-Cola, a sort of soft-drink theme park in a building which overshadows the gold dome of the State Capitol, is a study of a marketing triumph. After immersion in the history of the product, you end up at the tasting room. Besides gulping unlimited free Coke, you can sample the other products the company markets around the world. You may wonder why the Costa Ricans, for example, blessed with all manner of tropical fruit juices, think things go better with the sticky, fizzy yellow drink which Coca-Cola sells there.

When Coke was first being concocted, Atlantan life revolved around a network of subterranean streets near the railway. The hub was Humbug Square, so called because of all the confidence tricksters and charlatans who plied their dubious trades on the streets. Little has changed in a century: you can find 'stress analysts', an Old Time Magic Show which seems largely aimed at trainee card sharps, and the Atlanta Games Organising Committee, which will try to convince you that dollars 35 ( pounds 23) is reasonable for a 1996 Olympics T-shirt.

The official Olympics exhibition gets the location for the original Games wrong by 200 miles. (As any Question of Sport viewer will tell you, the Greeks started playing games in the city of Olympia, nowhere near the barren slopes of Mount Olympus.) Neither does the city now know where its own origins lie. The Zero Mile Marker, where the first railway terminated, lurks hidden somewhere in the United parking lot.

Back at my hotel with Channel 11, the local cable TV station, I listened to a gospel preacher and simultaneously watched the airline departure schedule live from the airport. As the last red-eye flight vanished from the midnight screen, my imagination summoned the lift at the Stouffer Concourse Hotel in anticipation of the carpet-changing ceremony.

Getting there: Delta flies from Manchester and Gatwick to Atlanta for pounds 350 return. Discount tickets from Thomas Cook Direct (0733 555225) are pounds 220.

Accommodation: Woodruff Bed and Breakfast, 223 Ponce de Leon Avenue (0101 404 875 2882), is an up-market B & B costing pounds 55 double, and a youth hostel with dormitory beds at pounds 9 each. The Granada Suites, 1302 West Peachtree Street (876 6100) has handsome rooms at pounds 60 with breakfast. Days Inn Midtown, 683 Peachtree Street (874 9200), is pounds 45 for a room. Cheaper still is the Days Inn Forest Park (768 6400), four miles beyond the airport with a free 24-hour shuttle bus. I paid a special rate of dollars 25 for a room and breakfast. The management says the same rate will apply to Independent readers.

Further information: Best guidebook is The Unofficial Guide to Atlanta by Fred Brown and Bob Sehlinger, from city bookshops (dollars 13).

(Photograph and map omitted)