Labor Day weekend has long been a crowded time on the Atlanta social calendar. It's as if, after months of being pulverized by the summer sun, Atlantans declare as one, "Fuggit, we want to have fun!"
Over the years, the first weekend in September has amassed annual events such as Dragon*Con, the Decatur Book Festival and Drive Invasion, but in 2011 the situation threatens to reach critical mass. Summer's last blowout delivers enough activities to appeal to every ATLien, from gay African-Americans to bookish nerds to NASCAR fans to gay, bookish, African-American, nerdy NASCAR fans.
It's a time when Atlanta truly celebrates itself, not some test-marketed concept for what a New South metropolis should be. We gun our engines at the Starlight Drive-In and the Atlanta Motor Speedway. We paint our faces to support the Georgia Bulldogs and emulate "The Walking Dead's" zombies. We put our hands in the air for raunchy rockabilly and crunk hip-hop. And we take our sweet time browsing for local artwork or books, T-shirts or trucker hats.
The estimated attendance at the events tops a quarter million, so expect the city and the surrounding environs to be crazy crowded. Basically, anyone not confined to an iron lung will be out this weekend. But rather than let the ClusterFest™ of competing activities overwhelm you, use the following guide to help you navigate the events and make the most of Atlanta's biggest weekend.
WHEN: Sept. 2-5
WHERE: Hilton Atlanta, Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Marriott Marquis Atlanta, Sheraton Atlanta Hotel and the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel
HOW MANY: 40,000+
OUT OF POCKET: $120 for all four days
WHY PEOPLE LOVE IT: It's the 25th anniversary of the multimedia and pop culture convention that encompasses every geeky pastime you can think of, and even more that you can't. Promising more than 3,500 hours of panels, workshops, contests and other events, "Nerdi Gras" lets casual fans and hardcore obsessives meet their idols, buy collectibles and hold debates in hotel rooms and food courts.
PEOPLE WATCHING: It's like downtown Atlanta temporarily transforms into the Mos Eisley cantina from the first Star Wars movie, especially during the 10th annual Dragon*Con parade.
STAR POWER: Dozens of celebrities from the A through the Z-list. Marquee names this year include William Shatner, Carrie Fisher, Stan Lee, Martin Landau and tons of people from the new "Battlestar Galactica" show. Pioneering animator Ralph Bakshi should be particularly interesting. Not to mention: Jefferson Starship in performance. "We built this citeeeeeee!"
SEX FACTOR: Fans and cosplayers express their kinky sides via breastplates, body paint and skintight spandex superhero suits. Expect bodies to be on display at the Comic Book Vixen Contest, Miss Star Trek Universe pageant (where you'll find Klingon chicks) and Saturday night's Dragon*Con After Dark event, which kind of scares us.
CHANCE OF INJURY: Despite the prevalence of battle armor and ersatz weaponry, the organizers and attendees tend to be safety-conscious, but there's still the chance of getting struck by a makeshift lightsaber or Klingon bat'leth. You also risk coming down with "con crud," the kind of cold that inevitably strikes big conventions.
COMPETITIONS: In addition to the seven costume contests, Dragon*Con includes the Comic Book Quick Sketch, a Cosplay contest and Robot Battles.
FAUX PAS TO AVOID: Mixing up various franchises, a la, "Kirk is my favorite captain on 'Stargate.'"
Decatur Book Festival
WHEN: Sept. 2-4
WHERE: Decatur Square
HOW MANY: 70,000
OUT OF POCKET: Free
WHY PEOPLE LOVE IT: One of the largest book festivals in the United States, the Decatur Book Festival cultivates the good vibes of a casual, lemonade-and-kettle corn street fair. This year's event hosts 300 writers for lectures, signings and panel discussions, as well as variety of other performances and activities, and shopping opportunities at the book market.
PEOPLE WATCHING: The children's parades on Saturday and Sunday morning will put cuteness on display.
STAR POWER: The Decemberists' singer/songwriter Colin Meloy and illustrator Carson Ellis (who happens to be his wife) will deliver the keynote address about their new young adult book, Wildwood. Other big-name authors include Chris Adrian, Karen Russell and "The Wire" producer/mystery author George Pelecanos.
SEX FACTOR: Off the chart, if pale skin and eyeglasses turn you on.
CHANCE OF INJURY: The morbid among you can hope for a mishap at one of the cooking demos.
COMPETITIONS: The Great Decatur Treasure Hunt provides a chance to get to know local businesses, and you can always be all jerky and competitive about it.
FAUX PAS TO AVOID: Don't tell anyone at a vendor booth, "This looks great — I can't wait to order it from Amazon!"
WHEN: Sept. 2-4
WHERE: Atlanta Motor Speedway
HOW MANY: 100,000+
OUT OF POCKET: Tickets range from $39-$135
WHY PEOPLE LOVE IT: The biggest NASCAR race on the Atlanta Motor Speedway's calendar, the AdvoCare 500 pits 43 of NASCAR's most famous drivers against each other for a $3 million prize. Between the racing, camping and fan events, the real estate in and around Atlanta Motor Speedway turns into Georgia's fourth largest city over the three-day weekend.
PEOPLE WATCHING: The gatherings outside the speedway have the vibe of a giant tailgate party, so check out who has the most elaborate setup for libations and grilled meat.
STAR POWER: NASCAR luminaries such as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart. Does the performance by Lynyrd Skynyrd count, given that guitarist Gary Rossington is the only original member left in the lineup to play "Free Bird"?
SEX FACTOR: The drivers look pretty hot in those jumpsuits.
CHANCE OF INJURY: Aren't we all secretly hoping to see a spectacular car crash?
COMPETITIONS: Friday's Atlanta 200 Camping World Truck Series Race, Saturday's Great Clips 300 Nationwide Series Race and Saturday's Battle of the Bands.
FAUX PAS TO AVOID: Loudly saying things like, "Wouldn't it be awesome to see a spectacular car crash?"
Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game
WHEN: Sept. 3
WHERE: Georgia Dome
HOW MANY: 71,000
OUT OF POCKET: Sold out
WHY PEOPLE LOVE IT: Known as "The Daytona 500 of College Football," this Bowl-style season opener pits the seventh ranked Boise State Broncos against our own Georgia Bulldogs who are ranked, uh, 22nd. There are also fan nights at the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coke, Bronco Bash and Bulldog Bash tailgate parties and special events for fans.
PEOPLE WATCHING: Look out for drunk collegians and team-themed costumes and body paint, like the bald guy who paints Uga the bulldog on his head. Sometimes they can rival the creativity of Dragon*Con fans.
STAR POWER: Only if you're into state politicians or Heisman-hopeful players like Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore.
SEX FACTOR: Cheerleaders and athletes perform in their prime, but you haven't got have a chance with any of them.
CHANCE OF INJURY: The players face the usual risk of grievous bodily damage. The fans face the usual risk of falling down stairs.
COMPETITIONS: A Kickoff Cook-off, with online entry and six finalists competing on Sept. 3. Also, shouldn't Chick-fil-A have a Puppy Bowl-type spectacle with baby calves running around?
FAUX PAS TO AVOID: Wearing Boise's blue and orange among UGA fans. (This could also be filed under "Chance of Injury.")
WHEN: Sept. 4
WHERE: Starlight Six Drive-In, 2000 Moreland Ave.
HOW MANY: 5,000+
OUT OF POCKET: $5-$28
WHY PEOPLE LOVE IT: What's not to love? You've got hot rods, hot girls, rockabilly bands and a slate of '70s flicks that range from awfully entertaining to entertainingly awful. For the most avid participants, those who revel in retro redneck low culture, it's a day of fellowship, comparing tattoos and subjecting passers-by to the roar of a revving overhead-cam hemi.
PEOPLE WATCHING: With most of the crowd dressed like moonshiners, grease monkeys, beatniks or Ellie May Clampett, there'll be eye candy everywhere.
STAR POWER: Apart from the big-screen presence of Burt Reynolds and Lee Marvin, the biggest name in actual attendance is Roky Erickson, the schizophrenic rocker who founded the seminal psychedelic band 13th Floor Elevators.
SEX FACTOR: Even without the heat discouraging layered clothing, it's a good bet you'd see plenty of guys in wife-beaters and girls in short skirts and low-cut dresses.
CHANCE OF INJURY: Besides the chance of sunstroke or dehydration, there's the real possibility of a mishap involving PBR-fueled showing off.
COMPETITIONS: In addition to the movies and live music, Drive Invasion is a daylong car show in which owners of pre-'70s hot rods and bikes compete to see who has the best engine, truck, custom builds and other bragging rights.
FAUX PAS TO AVOID: Going around asking, "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?" is unlikely to get you laid in this crowd.
- Jose Oquendo Mojica
Black Gay Pride
WHEN: Aug. 31-Sept. 5
WHERE: Melia Hotel, 590 W. Peachtree St.
HOW MANY: 1,000+
OUT OF POCKET: $100 for full pass or various by event
WHY PEOPLE LOVE IT: BGP bills itself as the world's largest celebration for African-American lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered folks. Even if it were only the second largest, it provides a supportive, empowering haven for a demographic that faces more than its share of intolerance, with an array of workshops, meet-and-greets and a vendor's market.
PEOPLE WATCHING: The black LGBT community from far and wide will be here in force and looking to express themselves. Who knows — maybe even a few DL brothers might show up.
STAR POWER: How about performances by Grammy-winning recording artists Brandy and Mary J. Blige, with the white-hot Nicki Minaj putting in an appearance?
SEX FACTOR: Even though BGP has a big emphasis on education and acceptance, you may just meet the Don Lemon of your dreams.
CHANCE OF INJURY: There's a chance you could see Miss Lawrence from "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" take a tumble if his Louboutins are too tall.
COMPETITIONS: The weekend culminates in a Sunday night fashion show. You better work!
FAUX PAS TO AVOID: Following a closeted megachurch preacher into a bathhouse.
- Courtesy Marietta Art in the Park
Art in the Park
WHEN: Sept. 3-5
WHERE: Marietta Square and Glover Park
HOW MANY: 40,000
OUT OF POCKET: Free
WHY PEOPLE LOVE IT: Downtown Marietta showcases old-school Southern hospitality with the 25th anniversary art walk, a self-guided tour of work from more than 150 artists, hosted by more than 30 restaurants, galleries and boutiques. There's also a farmers market Saturday morning, making this the ideal event for people who don't want to deal with the sensory overload of the other activities.
PEOPLE WATCHING: Most of the weirdos will be in other parts of the city this weekend, but the "Scary-etta Trolley Ghost Tour" hosts should be hammy eccentrics.
STAR POWER: Michael White, illustrator of The Library Dragon, will be featured in the artist demonstration area.
SEX FACTOR: It's a family-friendly outdoor event in Cobb County, but you might spy some hot parents (un)dressed for the heat. There's a faint chance you'll get into some kind of sexy situation with a potter's wheel, like Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in Ghost.
CHANCE OF INJURY: Given the railroad tracks adjacent to the square, it's possible you could walk into an oncoming train, but if you're that oblivious, you probably shouldn't be walking around unattended.
COMPETITIONS: In addition to the juried art show, the event includes a Chalk Art Competition in categories ranging from kindergartners to professional artists.
FAUX PAS TO AVOID: Don't mistake the children's art alley with the booths of professional artists, or vice versa.
- Courtesy Powers Crossroads
Powers' Crossroads County Fair And Art Festival
WHEN: Sept. 3-5
WHERE: 4766 W. Highway 34, Newnan
HOW MANY: 12,000+
OUT OF POCKET: $7; free for kids 6 and younger
WHY PEOPLE LOVE IT: Founded in 1971 by artist Tom Powers, the 41st annual event south of Atlanta presents a three-pronged festival of music, food and more than 150 artists presenting their work. Held on the site of the Powers Family Plantation, the fair includes demonstrations of "plantation skills" such as chair caning, blacksmithing and running the original gristmill.
PEOPLE WATCHING: Check out Historical Society folks in hoop skirts and other antebellum outfits.
STAR POWER: Three days of country, gospel, blues and "Southern Fried Folk" includes acts such as Rachel Starnes, Lard Bucket, Skeeterz and Sons-N-Britches.
SEX FACTOR: You're more likely to see GILFs than MILFs.
CHANCE OF INJURY: Given the sheer quantity of junky country food available — including fried Oreos, Doo Dad's fried pickles, "Hillbilly Funnel Cakes" and Hunt's Crazy Corn — you could do some serious damage to your gastric and circulatory systems.
COMPETITIONS: Exhibitor categories for the juried art event range from painting to pottery to needlecrafts to wearable fiber.
FAUX PAS TO AVOID: Gorging yourself on fried pies and barfing on the artisanal pottery.
Red Bull Soundclash
WHEN: Sept. 5, 6-11 p.m.
WHERE: West Plaza of the Georgia World Congress Center
HOW MANY: 1,000+
OUT OF POCKET: $10
WHY PEOPLE LOVE IT: Two bands or artists on opposing stages trade songs and riffs back and forth with the audience sandwiched in between. This will be the first Soundclash held outside in Atlanta.
PEOPLE WATCHING: Of all ClusterFest™ events, this promises to be the most racially diverse.
STAR POWER: The dueling artists are hometown hip-hop star Ludacris, facing off against Provo, Utah-based dance-punk band Neon Trees. The press release also promises "special secret guests."
SEX FACTOR: Plenty of scantily clad twentysomethings hopped up on Red Bull bumping to Ludacris.
CHANCE OF INJURY: Only if you get overamped on the sponsor's products.
COMPETITIONS: Just the one taking place on stage.
FAUX PAS TO AVOID: Ordering a can of Full Throttle at the concession stand.
- Nu Space Media
House in the Park
WHEN: Sept. 4, noon-8 p.m.
WHERE: Perkerson Park, 770 Deckner Ave.
HOW MANY: 1,000+
OUT OF POCKET: Free
WHY PEOPLE LOVE IT: The "house" refers to house music. For folks whose license plates read "130 BPM" or who named their cats "Sasha" and "Digweed," this is like an afternoon in Ibiza, without the jet-lag — or the Mediterranean beaches.
PEOPLE WATCHING: Your best bet is to keep an eye on the dance floor, which gets crowded despite the heat.
STAR POWER: The headlining DJs are Salah Ananse, Kemit, Kai Alce and event founder Ramon Rawsoul.
SEX FACTOR: Many folks bring their families, so don't get too fresh.
CHANCE OF INJURY: Unless someone gets tangled in her glow necklace or tips over his hibachi, pretty slim.
COMPETITIONS: None, just a day of chunky grooves.
FAUX PAS TO AVOID: Driving around the park with your Bazooka tubes thumping will be frowned upon.
Atlanta Caribbean Jerk Festival
WHEN: Sept. 4, noon-10 p.m.
WHERE: Panthersville Stadium, 2817 Clifton Springs Road, Decatur
HOW MANY: 1,000+
OUT OF POCKET: $12; free for children 12 and younger
WHY PEOPLE LOVE IT: In addition to workshops, demonstrations and sales of the titular food, the family-friendly event is a celebration of Caribbean culture, with live reggae, calypso bands and a small vendor market.
PEOPLE WATCHING: South DeKalb boasts one of the largest Caribbean populations in the Southeast, so expect to meet plenty of Jamaicans, Haitians and Bahamians.
STAR POWER: The festival scored a coup by booking reggae legends Third World.
SEX FACTOR: Another family event, but you may find something spicy here.
CHANCE OF INJURY: You could burn your tongue if you use the hot sauce with habaneros.
COMPETITIONS: The festival is accepting entries for home cooks who hope to be crowned Atlanta's Top Jerk Chef. Shouting like Gordon Ramsay with a Southern accent doesn't count.
FAUX PAS TO AVOID: Wearing one of those fake dreadlock hats and repeatedly yelling, "Yah mon!"