AT THE Waffle House on Tara Boulevard, Jonesboro's official Scarlett O'Hara had dusted down the seat to her satisfaction and was ordering breakfast. 'I'll have the scrambled cheese eggs,' she said. 'And raisin toast. But I want no butter on my toast. And no extra butter on my grits. And bacon. And decaf coffee.'

After each new little order I half-expected the waitress to murmur, 'No, Miss Scarlett. Yes, Miss Scarlett. Miss Scarlett, I'm glad to see you's eating cos if you ent you ent going to no barbecue at Twelve Oaks.'

Why fiddle-de-dee.

Jonesboro, now a little dormitory town half-swallowed into metropolitan Atlanta, styles itself The Home of Gone With the Wind. This is no idle boast. In Margaret Mitchell's book and David O Selznick's film, Jonesboro is a microcosm of the South and the transformation caused by the Civil War. We see it go from prosperous county seat, surrounded by the fine homes of rich plantation owners, to devastation during Sherman's campaign to sack Atlanta, to a burnt-out shell overwhelmed by carpet-baggers and rogues.

It is an accurate picture of Jonesboro, both geographically and historically, the background against which the powerful figure of Scarlett O'Hara struggles, battling against almost insuperable odds to hang on to the red earth of Tara, her home.

But Jonesboro today is by no means immediately recognisable from the film or the novel. The Jonesboro Road south from Atlanta, on which Scarlett fled the burning city with Rhett Butler, heading back to Tara in a broken-down carriage pulled by a broken-down horse, is now a four- lane highway through sub-suburban Atlanta. Only the names give a clue to the connection. In Jonesboro there is a Tara Boulevard. You can spot Tara Auto Sales, Tara Pawn, Tara Methodist Church, Tara State Bank, O'Hara's liquor store, a housing estate named after Twelve Oaks and another called Ashley Woods, both offered for sale through Tara Realty.

When I arrived, the day before my breakfast with Scarlett, I drove into Jonesboro's tiny, half-abandoned downtown, following the railroad tracks to the station that, on the last day of August and the first of September 1864, northern troops burnt to cut off Atlanta's last link with the South.

On the hill to the east stands the courthouse in which Margaret Mitchell did much of her research for Gone With the Wind, fleshing out childhood memories of summers spent on the Fitzgerald Plantation, her grandparents' farm in Jonesboro. The railway depot, rebuilt in 1867, now houses a shop called Tara Relics. You can buy a snub-nosed, lead confederate bullet for dollars 1, or one whittled by a soldier in the dull periods between murderous activity for dollars 2. And there are letters from soldiers in a folder, frightened missives to loved ones, up for sale. Such mementoes sit ill with garish Scarlett dolls, Gone With the Wind plates and Elvis posters.

Gone With the Wind has a strange, compelling power. It is arguably the most popular American novel of all time. It sold a million copies during its first six months in 1936 and has sold 28 million to date. It regularly returns to the best-seller lists. The film lifted the characters of Scarlett and Rhett to the pinnacle of US popular culture. Millions aspire to be like them, and in Atlanta anyone who looks like them can become a star.

When plans were announced to turn the sequel, Scarlett, written by Alexandra Ripley, into a television mini-series, 20,000 women auditioned for the lead. Melly Meadows, Jonesboro's official Scarlett O'Hara, got to the last 23, one of five women from the United States and the only one from the South to stand the course.

Melly Meadows was telling me, as she shovelled down her Waffle House eggs, how she entered her first lookalike contest in 1986, at the age of 16, and won, and what an amazing coincidence the whole thing is. It's pretty unusual to look just like Scarlett, as portrayed by Vivien Leigh. But to look like her and to be from the same town (population 4,132) . . . and to be named Melly (short for Melanie), the very name of Scarlett's rival for the wimpish Ashley Wilkes - amazing.

Finishing her eggs, Melly daintily picked up a crisp sliver of bacon between thumb and forefinger and nibbled at it as she told me about the first time she saw the film properly. 'It was on television,' she said, 'and at the end of the movie when Rhett left Scarlett, honest to goodness, for 20 minutes I had a breakdown. I sobbed and I cried and my sister, who is 11 months older, just sat and she stroked my hair and she rocked me and she said, 'Melly, it's OK. It's just a story, it didn't really happen.' '

The waitress, who had come by to top up our coffee cups during this tale, was caught up in the recollected emotion and stood at the table until it was over, um hum-ing in sympathy.

Being Scarlett was something any Southern girl would like to do, said Melly. She was sooooo lucky to have this opportunity. She has toured Japan as Scarlett, been to France, welcomed to Atlanta the International Olympic Committee delegates. She is official Scarlett O'Hara spokesperson for MGM/UA Home Video. Four or five times a week she is Scarlett for a fee, and fifty times she has gone into local schools on a Scarlett-says-no-to- drugs scheme.

But Rhetts, she confided, are hard to find. One she took to a party got drunk and disgraced himself. She was so embarrassed]

Melly told me that the thousands of tourists who came looking for the real Tara would be disappointed. 'Tara is not a real place. Gone With the Wind is not a land you can visit,' she said, with touching sincerity. 'It's a place in your heart.'

That said, there sure were enough people obsessed with Gone With the Wind in Jonesboro. I met three Scarlett O'Haras in a week. I also met a Rhett Butler, a man called David Spohn, so dedicated to playing the part to the full that he even has an American Express card in the name of Captain Rhett Butler - a real card, which he uses when he is in character.

There are collectors, too. Herb Bridges has probably the finest collection in the world, including the Paris bonnet that Rhett Butler brings to Scarlett during the wartime blockade of Atlanta and which she puts on upside down, being so out of touch with Paris fashion.

Herb's house was 20 miles south- west of Jonesboro, out towards Newnan, which has all the charm that Jonesboro lacks. Built around the courthouse square, it was a hospital town - for both sides - during the Civil War. It is a few miles from the Chattahoochee River, which formed a barrier and for a time held back the northern troops.

Herb also said that he could show me nothing of Tara. But he could show me a bit of the old South, at a restaurant called Sprayberry's Barbecue, where in a pit outside, pork and beef joints cook over hickory charcoal for eight hours. I got a barbecue plate, which included a bowl of Brunswick stew like a thick soup of meat fragments, and a mound of barbecued meat stirred into a sauce of a sweet- and-sourness that approximates remarkably closely to stomach juices. I had not tasted anything like it since I last threw up.

'Now this,' Herb said proudly, 'is exactly what would have been eaten at the Twelve Oaks barbecue. This restaurant is nationally famous. Dan Quayle has eaten here.'

That clinched it for me.

Hanging around Newnan I heard about a local woman called Carolyn Busby who did have a fragment of the movie-set Tara: one of the windows and a shutter. She lived six miles away down a snaking road that wove through damp and steamy pine woods to her Greek revival house in the little hamlet of Roscoe. It is an eerily backward place where there are still Civil War trenches down near the river, and where the graveyard in the local church is home to Confederate soldiers, Yankees and slaves.

Between my speaking to Carolyn and arriving at her house she had spoken to her lawyer, who advised against letting me see the window, for security reasons; so only the shutter, a dusty green, was leaning against the wall in her hall, beside a photo of Mammie, Scarlett's black maid, peering through a window - her window?

She apologised for her caution, but said that the window was about to go on show in a new Atlanta museum called 'The Road to Tara'.

Carolyn runs a visitor tour service, taking tourists to ante-bellum (pre- Civil War) mansions in Newnan and allowing them to have their photos taken with her window and the shutter. It was an overwhelming experience for true fans, she said. The president of the Coca-Cola bottling company in Japan just could not believe it. He touched it, he shook his head, he was in awe.

I asked her what had happened to the rest of Tara. The door, the rest of the windows, and other bits and pieces, she said, had been bought by a woman called Betty Talmadge, who lives on the Lovejoy Plantation, near Jonesboro. She had it all locked away and would not let anybody see it.

But maybe I would like to visit her home anyway, because the Lovejoy Plantation had been well known to Margaret Mitchell and was the model for Twelve Oaks. More importantly, Margaret Mitchell's grandparents' Fitzgerald Plantation house, the model for Tara in the book, had also been moved there from its original site four miles away when it was threatened with demolition. Which was the first I had heard of it, in a week of talking to GWTW fanatics.

I drove over that afternoon, through a fine chill rain. I approached the house up a long private drive through pine woods until the fields opened out before me. There was the house to the left and, to the right, across a field behind two towering oaks, an old wreck that must be Tara.

There was a light on in a back room of the Lovejoy Plantation. My knock was answered by a woman who told me her name was Dee. She held the door open just a crack against the rain. Mrs Talmadge was not here, but I could look around if I wanted to. She shut the door on me as she went to get a leaflet. She came back and thrust it at me, saying she was sorry but she had a call holding. 'That's Tara over there,' she said, pointing to the wreck in the field. 'They took the Victorian front off and the settlers' cabin part.'

I walked around the front of the house. It was impressive, with six fluted Doric columns supporting a broad, two-storey porch with a long hanging balcony on the second floor. Cocooned in its 1,200 acres, Lovejoy was a peaceful, time-locked place.

There were stories about the house, my leaflet told me. One that the columns were hollow, and filled with grain after the fall of Atlanta, to keep it from the Yankees. Another, which forms a part of Gone With the Wind, is that a woman fired down from the stairs on a Yankee deserter who had come to loot the house.

The rain grew heavy as I walked across to the field and Tara, or the Fitzgerald place. It was in a sorry state, jacked up on breeze blocks, the roof covered in black plastic sheeting lifted at one corner by the wind, folded back to reveal decaying green felt. It was just the shell of the main house, denuded of its porch and verandas, with two doors and four windows, the wood blackened by the damp air.

Beside it stood a single-storey section, the original settlers' home that Dee had mentioned. It was in an even worse state. The breeze-block supports had fallen away under the right hand side of the building and it slumped, deflated to the ground. But for all those tourists who came in search of the real thing and were told it did not exist, here was the proof that it did, though the reality might not live up to the movie fiction. It seemed good enough to me, though, and I walked the dirt track that skirted the field for a closer look.

As I did the rain came pouring down, and I noticed it was forming orange puddles on the red earth of Tara.

Andy Bull is author of 'Coast to Coast, a Rock Fan's US tour' (Black Swan, pounds 5.99).


Atlanta The Road to Tara Museum, 659 Peachtree Street, opens 2 June and will contain memorabilia about Margaret Mitchell, her book and the film. Margaret Mitchell's former home in Atlanta, known as The Dump, stands at the corner of Peachtree and 10th. Three blocks north, at Peachtree and 13th, is the spot where she died in 1949. She is buried in the family plot at Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery.

Jonesboro Lovejoy Plantation, Lovejoy, Georgia 30250; 010 1 404 478 6677. Open by appointment.

Newnan Mansions and Magnolias tours by Carolyn Busby, 4039 Roscoe Road, Newnan, GA 30263; 010 1 404 251 2109. Sprayberry's Barbecue, 229 Jackson Street, Newnan, GA 30263; 010 1 404 253 4421.

Reading Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (Macmillan, pounds 5.99). Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley (Macmillan, pounds 5.99).

(Photographs and map omitted)