John Mayer's status in his adopted hometown has afforded him plenty of time to enjoy the finer things, like hybrid sushi dinners with Elton John. But the real reason he keeps coming back? People in Atlanta know that escalators are for chilling out.

Folk-pop wonder boy John Mayer has just bitten his lip between bites of tortilla soup at a small and trendy Mexican café. That in itself isn't all that remarkable - we've all been there. It's just that Mayer gets all up in arms over it. "I just bit my lip good," he announces. "This is now going to set off a vicious cycle of continual biting. This means I will end up chewing like this [makes funny sideways chewing face]. That was great. Thanks, John!" Well, it's a good thing he didn't choke.

Actually, choking is not part of Mayer's routine thus far. Intensive word of mouth - much of it on the Internet - eventually led the record-buying public to his whimsical major label debut in 2001, Room for Squares. The album spawned the hits "No Such Thing," "Why Georgia," and "Your Body is a Wonderland." The Dave Matthews comparisons were swift and unrelenting, but Mayer soldiered on. His second album, 2003's Heavier Things, gave us the smash hit "Daughters," proved Mayer was no chat-room fluke, and bridged the sonic generation gap between introspective suburban teenagers and overworked soccer moms. John Mayer had become a household name.

But before his unconventional (at the time) career climb gave hope to anyone with a computer, a guitar, and a MySpace username, Mayer sort of tried to take a more predictable route to musical stardom: He enrolled in Boston's Berklee College of Music. Needless to say, it didn't take. So Mayer ditched his education, packed up his guitars and songbooks, and headed south to Atlanta with a fellow classmate. It was an unknown land for this Connecticut native, but this time, something did catch hold.

"I'm always most inspired when it comes down to me," he explains. "Put me in a room, and tell me I can leave but first I have to put this thing together out of 100 pieces, and I'll stay there and do it. If I know there's a way, I'll do it. Atlanta was the first time I discovered there was a way to do it."

Mayer spent four years playing the starving­-musician role, toiling away in the city's vibrant live-music culture, taking in all this Southern capital had to offer both on- and offstage. Now, on the eve of his third major-label effort, Continuum, Mayer­ remembers his adopted hometown as a dizzying array of diverse cultures, all living in coexistent equilibrium. "Atlanta is one game board with a dozen different games being played on it at the same time, and no two pieces hit each other. That's what's so cool about it. Honest to God. Somehow or another, it all completes itself."

Or maybe that's just how he remembers Waffle House (more on that later). Either way, Atlanta was very good to John Mayer, so now it's his turn to give back to the people who knew him before every member of your family did.