As Seen On TV: A Road Trip Tracks the Shows of the South

Posted December 19, 2017 7:08 p.m. EST

The Gin Property, a housing development in Senoia, Ga., that serves as the Alexandria colony on “The Walking Dead,” in Senoia, Oct. 20, 2017. Senoia, a picturesque town about 35 miles southwest of Atlanta, has become famous as the home of “The Walking Dead,” and its local businesses have embraced the connection. (Robert Rausch/The New York Times)

“That’s where Andrea died.”

It’s not the sort of remark one normally hopes to hear on vacation. But on a dazzling spring morning in Senoia, Georgia, it spurred a chorus of “oohs” as the assembled aimed cellphones at the site of her demise.

It was an understandable response: The frisson that came from seeing, in real-life, the same building where poor Andrea met her maker in the Season 3 finale of “The Walking Dead” was delightful. But so was the tidy historic downtown, the toasty but not yet oppressive Southern sun and the pervasive scent of honeysuckle, which apparently actually happens in Georgia towns.

I came for “The Walking Dead” tour but stayed for the ambience. For a few hours anyway, because there were more places to see where fictional people got killed, cursed, discovered, drunk, fed and further enmeshed in a Gothic murder mystery. Along the way I ate well, drank better and zoned out on rocky-top foothills and in kudzu canyons, letting my mind wander as hundreds of miles rolled beneath the wheels of my overpriced rental car.

Which is to say, I undertook a mythic getaway (an American road trip ...) for a slightly corny reason (... based on TV locations). And it was great.

Nobody needs an excuse for a road trip, although it helps to have hooks for the thread of your adventure. Friends or family, or sites you’ve always wanted to visit: national parks, Civil War battlefields, Waffle Houses. (No judgment.) It doesn’t matter what it is, really; all you need is a framework. I write about — and thus watch a metric ton of — television. So that was mine.

I chose the South because, well, so has TV. Producers seeking ever more evocative backdrops — and fat tax credits — have turned the region into a popular shooting spot. Atlanta, in particular, has become a hub, the home base of both numerous series (“Atlanta,” “Stranger Things”) and box office blockbusters, like “The Hunger Games” and “Avengers” films.

So that seemed like a good place to start an As Seen on TV trek that would take me to Nashville, site of, er, “Nashville,” and then New Orleans, whose indelible atmosphere has enlivened shows like “American Horror Story,” “Treme” and “True Detective.”

The broader point, of course, is that the cultural and aesthetic charms that look good on-screen also make these cities excellent spots to visit, and using TV as your travel agent turns out to be a decent way to see things that give an area its character. The same things that beguile location scouts looking for a sense of place can be a great way to get a sense of a place.

In Atlanta, these include nearby small towns whose picturesque squares have served as settings for shows like “Stranger Things” (Griffin) and “The Vampire Diaries” (Covington).

But no place has embraced its TV guests like Senoia (pronounced suh-NOY) as “The Walking Dead,” the hit zombie drama based in a nearby production facility. The town, about 35 miles southwest of Atlanta, has starred on the show, serving as Woodbury, the stronghold ruled by the maniacal governor, and built an economy upon its undead back. Multiple companies offer “Walking Dead” experiences, ranging from tours to zombie wedding packages. Amid the boutiques on Main Street are the Waking Dead cafe and the Woodbury Shoppe, selling “Walking Dead” merchandise and featuring memorabilia like a motorcycle ridden by Daryl Dixon, the show’s renegade with a heart of gold and guns of steel. Down the block, Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl, and Greg Nicoterro, an executive producer, have opened Nic and Norman’s, a stylish American grill where “Dead” heads can enjoy “Norman’s Pick,” a bison burger with beetroot and a fried egg. (The menu recommends it wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun. Actors.)

I’d planned to visit sites at my own pace but if there was a place to fan out, this was it. So I grabbed a Zombie Dark drip from Senoia Coffee & Cafe and strolled with my fellow “walker stalkers” as our guide, Alex Adams, pointed out sites. Then we headed across the railroad tracks to Alexandria, the colony led by the show’s hero, Rick Grimes.

The Alexandria scenes are shot in an actual housing development called the Gin Property — anyone who moves in must accommodate the show’s filming schedules and needs, like the unsightly metal wall that surrounds the subdivision to protect Rick and the gang from invaders. We stared at the wall and then headed toward more visible homes from the show, including the graceful bungalow atop which Rick’s son Carl ate an enormous can of chocolate pudding in Season 4, a scene that inspired a thousand memes. “Everybody wants to see the pudding house,” Adams said as the cellphones fired away. I’d wanted to see it, too, but zombie fatigue was setting in. I breathed deeply from the sweet-smelling breeze, building escape fantasies around the town’s elegant houses and enjoying a walk that eventually veered off course. “Don’t go in her yard!” Adams shouted, jerking me back to attention. Apparently not every Senoian is down with walker stalkers.

The next destination was my hotel in Atlanta, where I hoped to de-zombie before dinner. But I stopped at J.R. Crickets, the midtown wing shack that had a cameo last year in “Atlanta,” Donald Glover’s offbeat FX comedy. The order: “Lemon pepper wet,” which wasn’t technically on the menu until the scene’s popularity inspired the owners to adopt the name. Back at my hotel, the buttery crunch and tang of the chicken left me sated and teetering toward a nap, but I fought it off and took an Uber to the opposite end of the culinary spectrum.

Staplehouse in the Old Fourth Ward has been a tough ticket since Bon Appétit named it the best new restaurant in the U.S. last year. But early birds can get seats at the bar if they’re lucky, and I was. As glib foodies Instagrammed, I hunkered down over crab with kohlrabi and an exquisite chicken liver tart, then stumbled on toward two great bars with peculiar entrances: a parking garage (Ticonderoga Club) and a London-style call box (Red Phone Booth). But I didn’t stay out late, because the next day I was heading to vampire country.

Roughly 30 miles east of Atlanta, Covington is a small town with a robust filming history, including “Friday the 13th,” “Cannonball Run” and “Remember the Titans.” On TV, the town has served as the Hazzard County seat (“The Dukes of Hazzard”), Sparta, Georgia (“Heat of the Night”) and Mystic Falls, Virginia (“The Vampire Diaries”).

“The Vampire Diaries,” which ended this year, brings Georgia more film and TV tourists than any other title, according to the state’s film office (apparently it’s big in China). In Covington, fans can take location tours or eat at the Mystic Grill, which brings to life the cafe from the show. I haven’t seen much “Vampire Diaries” so can’t attest to the grill’s verisimilitude. But as a child of the ‘80s, I logged lots of time watching the now deeply problematic General Lee defy gravity on “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which shot its first few episodes in Covington before moving to California.

So I made a pilgrimage up Flat Rock Road to the white cinder block building that served as the exterior of the Boar’s Nest, where Daisy Duke slung beers in her namesake micro-shorts.

It now appears to be a church, so I guess there’s hope for us all. Then it was time to head to Nashville.

‘Most People Leave Changed’

As I approached Chattanooga, Tennessee, the rolling Georgia terrain gave way to dramatic vistas of the Appalachian foothills before the highway bent west toward Nashville. In recent years, the country music capital has become your cool friends’ favorite city, thanks to New South cuisine and a fertile cultural scene. On this trip, I was there for the Bluebird.

Since opening in 1982 in a strip mall, the 90-seat Bluebird Cafe has become a favorite spot for songwriters to play for locals and friends. Then Rayna Jaymes and Juliette Barnes began singing there on “Nashville.”

“Now we have hundreds of people, many who just want to have their picture taken in front of the venue,” said Erika Wollam Nichols, the general manager. “Or they get desperate about trying to get inside, to the point of trying to break the door down, waving $20 bills at me.”

“It gets kind of insane,” Wollam Nichols added.

The crowd is now largely tourists inspired by the venue’s regular appearances on “Nashville,” where the fictional country stars extol the venue’s intimacy. (The show is shot on a replica Bluebird set.) The parking lot was thrumming when I got there 30 minutes before showtime, the line for reservation holders like me dwarfed by the serpentine one full of hopefuls angling for a walk-up seat. Inside, a cocoon envelops the space as the night’s acts take their turns.

Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks are among the superstars who were discovered at the Bluebird. The night I was there, Joe Martin, a young Englishman with a rich, resonant voice, seemed primed for bigger things.

As mawkish as this sounds: The Bluebird is about songs, not stardom — their power to crystallize ephemeral emotions and reach places inside you that don’t see them coming. And the warm aura of the place makes it hard to do anything other than open yourself to them.

“It’s the quintessential listening room,” Monte King, a veteran Bluebird performer, told me before showtime. Later he reduced me to tears with “I Will Always Be Your Dad,” his song about a son who had left home for the Marine Corps.

“Most people leave changed, and that’s the best part,” Wollam Nichols said. My only other Nashville agenda item was hot chicken, although locals tended to smirk at my request for recommendations. The fiery, cayenne-laden style of yardbird, born in the city, is a foodie obsession.

It may be trendy, but I still wanted it. Prince’s, said to be the dish’s birthplace, wasn’t open the next day, so I hit Hattie B’s, an acclaimed newish entry.

Pro tip: Order online and get it to go. But however smug I felt bypassing the line, the tenders cut me down to size. I got the extra hot Shut the Cluck Up flavor — a silly name for some serious chicken that had my head leaking multiple fluids and my mouth burning in delicious agony.

Nashville had made me cry twice in two days, which felt like enough. So I pointed the car toward New Orleans.

‘We Can Convert People’ The Natchez Trace Parkway is one of the great drives in the U.S., a 444-mile strip of two-lane blacktop, stretching from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi, that follows a route established by Native Americans trailing buffalo and later used by traders, settlers and soldiers.

On a weekday with few other cars in sight, it felt like the primordial artery that it is, with a mystical feel as I drove through a landscape of deep-shag kudzu and dense trees. It also has a 50-mph speed limit, so at Tupelo, Mississippi, I opted for the more pragmatic highway to New Orleans.

I arrived late at my hotel, the Pontchartrain in the Garden District, a mashup of old-school elegance and kitsch — vintage room keys, velvet and chandeliers, an oil painting of Lil Wayne — with a terrific rooftop bar. I went up for a nightcap, but the panoramic views and southern breezes breathed the city’s vitality into me, and soon it didn’t feel so late. An Uber ride later and I was on Frenchman Street in the Marigny, catching the end of the Jazz Vipers’ Monday night gig at the Spotted Cat.

The Gypsy jazz stalwarts are among the many local musicians who appeared in “Treme,” the HBO drama that, with its colorful strivers putting their lives and the city back together after Katrina, functioned as a love letter to New Orleans. Later I’d explore other spots it showcased, including Bacchanal, a wine shop and restaurant with one of the prettiest patios anywhere, and the legendary jazz dive Vaughan’s, both in the Bywater. I plowed through a football-size barbecued shrimp po’boy at Liuzza’s By the Track, the last meal of John Goodman’s doomed professor Creighton Bernette. (You could do worse.)

But music formed the soul of the show, as it does for the city itself. At least that’s how it felt amid the churn of revelers in and out of the bars on Frenchman, my head humming with the crash and clang of a half-dozen bands. I caught one last set at Blue Nile by Dr. Klaw, the funk supergroup made up of members of Soulive, Dumpstaphunk and others, and made it back to my hotel after 3 a.m. Which made the next morning a bit foggy. My first destination was only blocks away, so I forced myself out of bed and walked down St. Charles.

The Garden District, with its ancient oak trees that tower and twist over the sidewalks, is so named because its mansions were originally surrounded by gardens, before lots were subdivided and smaller houses were added. But it was a big one I was interested in: the Buckner Mansion on Jackson Avenue, known to “American Horror Story: Coven” fans as Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies.

Built in 1856 by a cotton kingpin named Henry S. Buckner, the home also housed a business school until the 1980s. While it wears its opulence gracefully, its recent stint as a witch school — and all the murders, resurrections and tongue removals that entailed — gave it a sinister undertow even on a spring morning full of birdsong.

It was the first stop on a macabre itinerary. That night I would visit the infamous LaLaurie Mansion in the French Quarter, the site of the ghastly crimes that inspired Kathy Bates’ sadistic character on “American Horror Story.” (The show actually used the nearby Gallier House as the exterior.) First I headed to the wilder precincts outside New Orleans, where “True Detective” wove a Gothic mystery of existential angst and unspeakable evil in its first season.

Bayou Gauche is a sliver of civilization where the trees are draped with Spanish moss and the border between water and land is ever shifting. I pulled up in front of a white metal building that houses Fisherman’s Wharf, the village watering hole. It felt like a bar at the end of the earth, which made it an ideal employer for Rust Cohle, the haunted ex-cop philosopher played by Matthew McConaughey.

In “True Detective,” it was called Doumain’s Domain, but everything else felt the same — the wood-paneled interior, the air thick with cigarette smoke. But if the Buckner Mansion retained the gloom of its fictional counterpart, the opposite happened here. Across the road the bayou glimmered like a jewel and my cellphone had no service, so I settled down with a longneck and jotted in my notebook. Sometimes the end of the earth isn’t bad.

I heard there might be alligators out back, but instead I found Lula Riviere, 84, cleaning golfball-size snails out of a marshy pond. For years, Miss Lu, as she’s known, had an alligator that lived there and became so tame she would paint its claws with fingernail polish. (The bartender confirmed this.) During filming for “True Detective,” she helped Woody Harrelson and McConaughey’s young son feed it hot dogs.

“We don’t fool with them, but if they come to us, then we’ll talk,” Riviere said of Hollywood’s occasional visitors to the bayou, including films like “The Skeleton Key.” The gator eventually moved on, she said.

It was time for me to do the same. I made one last stop on the way out of New Orleans, at Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, the beloved Tremé institution. The R&B great Ernie K-Doe opened the bar in the 1990s, naming it after his biggest hit, “Mother-in-Law.” He died in 2001 and his widow, Antoinette, ran it afterward, bringing it back after it took on 5 feet of floodwater after Katrina, until she died in 2009. It closed in 2010.

Later it was bought by Kermit Ruffins, the affable trumpeter and bandleader who played himself on “Treme.” In 2014, he reopened the lounge, a landmark with vivid murals of jazz scenes, Native Americans and Ernie and Antoinette looking down from heaven. At the bar I found Ruffins himself, an auspicious development — he was a good person to ask about something that had been on my mind.

Travel can be fraught with questions about appreciation versus appropriation — heedless tourists can treat cultures as instruments for their own enrichment and risk trampling them in the process. It seemed to me that if you approach places with humility, respect and an open heart, it didn’t matter how you discovered them. But I saw how facile it could seem, checking off a list of things you saw on TV.

I posed some version of this to Ruffins, who acknowledged that many people who come to his bar do so because they saw it or him on “Treme,” rather than because they are devoted jazz fans.

“But we turn them into jazz fans once they hear the band play,” he said. “We can convert people real fast.” If he’s untroubled by it, who am I to wring my hands? The show was about to start so I took a chair in front of the stage. Ruffins sat down, too, and the band kicked in. As I watched him blow a bright solo in his version of “Sunny Side of the Street,” I stopped worrying about authenticity, or anything else. After five days, 1,200 miles and God knows how many nuclear calories, my back was sore, my heart was homesick and my guts sizzled in misery. But in a nice inversion of TV’s old brain-rotting reputation, my head felt pleasantly empty.