It seems that about every other day someone is asking whether to stay in downtown, midtown, or Buckhead and most of us on this board don't give very detailed responses anymore because we're tired of repeating ourselves. So, I though we should have a single thread (and hopefully get TA to make it a sticky) so that visitors can decide which area of town best suits them. I'll go first, but I hope all of you who are familiar with Atlanta will chime in.
If you're coming to Atlanta and want to take advantage of MARTA, the three parts of town you should consider are downtown, midtown and Buckhead. My thoughts on each:
Downtown Atlanta has primarily been a business center, although a lot of businesses have migrated to midtown. There are not many residences downtown, which means that when the sun goes down and the business people go home, the streets are pretty empty except for panhandlers and tourists. When there's a big event, like the NCAA tournament, downtown the streets are lively, but you really won't see anyone who lives in Atlanta there, just tourists. Downtown has never had the best dining scene in the city, but there are some up and coming bars and restaurants that are starting to turn that around. There is no shopping to speak of, and Underground is a dangerous, uninteresting tourist trap. Downtown as a whole is a place to exercise caution when walking around after dark, but during the day and during big events I would not have extraordinary safety concerns. However, I don't think staying in an area that boasts a Hard Rock Cafe gives a good sense of what Atlanta is really like.
I almost always recommend that people stay in midtown. I'm biased because I live there, but I live there because I love it. Midtown is a great blend of businesses, restaurants, shops, and residences. It is very pedestrian, and you will see people strolling to and from restaurants, eating and drinking at sidewalk cafes, walking dogs, jogging, etc. until late at night. Although it is newer that downtown and has several skyscrapers, midtown has more of a neighborhood feel. It has far more bar and restaurants, the majority of which are local and unique as opposed to big chains. There are tons of boutiques for shopping. From midtown, you can walk to the High Museum, Piedmont Park, Fox Theatre, Margaret Mitchell House, Atlanta Botanical Gardens. You can also catch a free shuttle to Atlantic Station. As to safety, I think midtown ranks in between Buckhead and downtown but I think that the vibrant feel of the neighborhood makes up for that. There are some areas to avoid, but they're generally not areas where tourists would find themselves anyway. As with anywhere in Atlanta, I recommend using caution when walking at night but that doesn't deter me from walking around whenever.
Buckhead is about a 20-30 minute MARTA ride from downtown. It is marked by big malls, big hotels and big box stores. It has tons of condos and fewer office buildings. It is more spread out, though, and few people walk the neighborhood, preferring instead to drive from place to place. Buckhead has some excellent high-end restaurants, but generally they're not the trendiest or most innovative. It's an area where I take my parents for dinner when they're in town, or where I take clients. The eclectic nature of midtown restaurants are more to my taste. Buckhead used to be known as Atlanta's nightlife mecca, but it hasn't been hip in at least 10 years and now Buckhead Village, which housed most of the bars, has been bulldozed to make way for more upscale developments. Buckhead is where you will find the Governor's mansion, the Atlanta History Center, and neighborhoods of huge old mansions. It is a lovely drive through these residential areas but in my opinion the shopping district, where the hotels and restaurants are mainly located, lacks a sense of uniqueness and personality. If you're going to Atlanta to shop, though, Buckhead's the place to be.
So, what does everyone else say? I know there are different opinions out there.