When Michael Stipe wrote "Shiny Happy People," the R.E.M. front man, a former University of Georgia art student, must have had Athens in mind. The 100,000 residents have a number of reasons to smile:
The indie music scene
Athens is the southern seat of independent music, with R.E.M. playing the part of local boys made huge. It all started in 1979 at Wuxtry Records, where Stipe was a regular and Peter Buck a clerk (197 E. Clayton St., 706/369-9428). They then picked up their other two bandmates, also UGA students, in Athens. R.E.M., the B-52's, and Widespread Panic all played the 40 Watt Club early on in their careers. The club has changed locations a few times; the latest venue, where Sufjan Stevens recently performed, has a tiki bar (285 W. Washington St., 706/549-7871, 40watt.com).
A bulldawg with spirit
Sanford Stadium--despite its 92,746 capacity--sells out well in advance for big football games (877/542-1231, georgiadogs.com). Scoring a ticket is tough without an alumni connection, though it's not impossible; scalpers usually hang around outside. The university's athletic teams are known as the Georgia Bulldogs, and locals twang it out slowly and proudly, spelling it "dawg" on T-shirts. The school mascot, Uga VI, is the latest in a line of English bulldogs. Uga and his ancestors have gained national renown as the stars of a 2004 "dogumentary" called Damn Good Dog, which chronicles 48 years of beloved Ugas--trotted out at the beginning of each game--and the Savannah family that has cared for them. (It's pronounced uh-guh, by the way.)
Spirits with bite
The signature drink at the Manhattan Cafe, a cool dive downtown, is Maker's Mark and Blenheim's spicy ginger ale (337 North Hull St., 706/369-9767). On occasion, aspiring rock stars, emboldened by one too many, play the room.
Food for the people
Dexter Weaver has been behind the counter at Weaver D's, a soul-food restaurant east of downtown on the North Oconee River, for 19 years (1016 E. Broad St., 706/353-7797). Weaver is marvelously predictable. After he takes an order for plates of fried chicken, mac and cheese, or warm apple cobbler (platter with two sides $8), his favorite thing to say is "Automatic for the people." The phrase--a promise for quick service--went national when R.E.M. got Weaver's permission to use it as the title of the band's 1992 album.
A liberated tree
A white oak on Finley and Dearing streets is known as the Tree That Owns Itself. In 1832, the professor who owned the land deeded the tree--and some land around it--to the tree. When the oak was uprooted in 1942, the Junior Ladies' Garden Club planted its replacement, which the nice ladies continue to keep well-watered today.
Many green acres
Grand Oaks Manor B&B, five miles outside of town, is an impressive 1820 antebellum mansion on a 34-acre estate (6295 Jefferson Rd., 706/353-2200, grandoaksmanor.com, from $129). The full breakfast, included in the nightly rate, regularly features caramel apple French toast and is served in proper southern style--on china, of course.