Metro Atlanta Cityhood

This post is very interesting for me to write, though bittersweet at that. In my late career as an urbanist, I studied the movement to split Fulton County in metro Atlanta. This movement consisted of a “municipalization” phase, in which new cities, almost always in affluent and mostly-white areas incorporated with the approval of the state legislature. This phase was, I argued, intended as a precursor to the secession of the affluent suburbs north of the city of Atlanta.

Since I published my work on the subject, the secession movement has moved to the back burner, largely because residents of north Fulton county found many of their grievances–notably the perceived excessive taxation of the affluent north to fund services for Atlanta and south Fulton–were solved by municipalization. With less unincorporated territory in Fulton County, fewer people remained as clients of county local services (the county still provides many large-ticket services, including courts, jails, public health, and social welfare). This both lessened the perception that north Fulton tax dollars were being redistributed southward, and justified actions by the state legislature to limit Fulton County’s taxing powers.

The municipalization movement exerted powerful pressure on unincorporated areas of the county to form cities themselves. While the first wave of incorporations involved very affluent areas like Sandy Springs and Johns Creek in north Fulton and Chattahoochee Hills in south Fulton, it culminated with the incorporation of a city of South Fulton in an area with higher poverty, a majority-minority population, and less economic development than the north. While the northern cities incorporated with the goal of hoarding their ample tax base (a result of geographically and racially biased planning and investment decisions), South Fulton’s incorporation was much more ambivalent and defensive. Seeing that Chattahoochee Hills had cordoned off an affluent area, and that the city of Atlanta eyed annexing high-value industrial property, South Fulton residents feared remaining the sole local service clients of a diminished county government.

This distinction between incorporating from a position of advantage or disadvantage is often swallowed up by the rhetoric of the incorporation movement; the choice of voters in South Fulton to form a city justifies the decision of voters in Chattahoochee Hills or Sandy Springs to do so, because the appeal of “local control” seems universal. Furthermore, perhaps the establishment of local government will enable areas previously excluded from prosperity to thrive (a formula that ignores that prosperity was the basis of early adopters).

The municipalization process has proceeded in adjacent DeKalb County, but at an even faster pace. Beginning with the city of Dunwoody, parts of affluent north DeKalb (which shares in north Fulton’s prosperity as a result of a segregated housing market and development along the northern arc of the Perimeter Highway) also municipalized. And, as in Fulton County, residents of the less advantaged southern half of the county have considered forming a city of Greenhaven, though they failed to advance legislation to hold a local referendum this year.

Brentin Mock has written a series of recent articles in Citylab addressing the DeKalb cityhood controversy, which highlights debates among prospective Greenhaven residents, 87 percent of whom are black. These debates don’t hinge on the question of whether south DeKalb’s underdevelopment is racist. Rather, they hinge on understandings of how racism in local government works. Is it racist that the legislature denied south DeKalb residents the chance to vote on incorporation (a goal white residents in the north valued highly)? Or, is racism evidenced by the underdevelopment of south DeKalb, or the devaluation of residential property there (the area includes many very affluent and mostly black neighborhoods, though property values lag north DeKalb neighborhoods with comparable housing stock and similar per capita incomes)? And even among those who hold to the latter view, the question remains whether forming a city would constitute a solution.

On the optimistic side, businessman Ron Bivins described his conversion to favoring cityhood:

He came around, however, after he found he couldn’t get the county to bite on any of his economic plans for South DeKalb. Those plans included pitching Amazon to set up its new headquarters there and also possibly a new Major League Baseball team and stadium, since the Atlanta Braves took its facilities out of Atlanta to a northern suburb in Cobb County.

It’s not clear how these types of deals, which typically involve extensive public subsidies, would favor an area which struggles to provide public services with an inadequate tax base. That issue of underdevelopment in south DeKalb points to questions of racism:

Formal opponents of the proposal include Ed Williams, the chair of a group called Citizens Against Cityhood in DeKalb. Williams said in an interview that he does not believe south Dekalb would suddenly attract new companies just because it turns into a city, and he says the reason is because of a theory called “Black belt economics.”

According to this theory, “If the population of a neighborhood or community goes over 40 percent African-American, then significant investments tend not to be made in that community,” said Williams. “You won’t get a Radisson or a Hilton hotel or any of the top-line food stores, and that’s just a fact.”

As Mock notes in another article, the cityhood debate clearly comes from a position of desperation, with choices constrained by the prior incorporation decisions of more affluent areas:

Proponents of Greenhaven, led by Rice, believe achieving cityhood is South DeKalb’s last chance for survival, after being starved for economic resources for decades by the county. Greenhaven’s opponents—and there are many—believe the entire Greenhaven proposition is a ruse that would only further ruin South DeKalb’s economic prospects. For them, joining the cityhood movement is not the answer, but South DeKalb is running out of solutions, and time and land are not on their side.

Untangling this debate requires a bit more analytical power, though. Here, I find Coleman Allums’s discussion in Atlanta Studies useful (and compatible with my own published arguments) that it contextualizes cityhood as a political project rooted in metropolitan spaces inherently shaped by what Allums calls “overlapping histories of white supremacism and capitalist development.” To shift claims for cityhood to the grounds of economic development or tax bases is to engage a sort of “anti-politics” that strips communities out of their histories and reduces cities to a role as managers of property value.

This is not a question of academic significance alone; the overlapping histories of white supremacism and capitalist development are embedded in ongoing spatial practices of residential choice, investment, and exchange. Imagining cityhood as a remedy for black disadvantage (whether it’s the disadvantage of the black poor or of black professionals relative to their white counterparts) doesn’t grapple with the sources of disadvantage, and displaces responsibility from deep and systemic processes (white prejudice, capital investment, redlining, intergenerational wealth transfers, opportunity hoarding in wealthy cities) to the technical question of how local government is organized to tax and spend. In critiquing the incorporation of Stonecrest (a majority-black city in south DeKalb that is both smaller and wealthier than the proposed city of Greenhaven), Allums writes:

[w]hile a black middle class city does, at least nominally, challenge legacies of racialized capitalism and uneven development, it simultaneously advances a form of class warfare wherein a racially marginalized black middle class rejects solidarity with those they perceive as beneath them in order to compete. Thus, not only does black cityhood fail to challenge racial power structures, it also actively reproduces in a classist mode the exclusionary and extractive systems that create and exacerbate inequality in black communities.


I’m gratified to see popular media embrace questions that were central to my own research. How does municipal formation reflect or create inequality in metro areas? How much is racism involved in the institutional politics of city formation and the symbolic values attached to local government? Is “local control” a universal political good, or an ideological cover for protecting the interests of economically and racially privileged groups? I do, however, wish that the discussion had opened up sooner. But, if anyone writing on the resurgence of cityhood wants to talk about it, drop a note in the comments!

4 comments on “Metro Atlanta Cityhood

  1. I don’t know Atlanta nor the south that well. But I find the city-county mergers of Louisville, Lexington and especially Macon interesting as counter examples. And as a kind of counter approach, the way the mayor of memphis de-whatevered the schools to force their merger with Shelby County (although as you undoubtedly know, comparable to the city incorporation movement in Greater Atlanta, now the wealthy areas of the county are creating their own school districts, opting out of the county system, to stay clear of responsibilities for Memphis cityP.

    • True. In many ways DeKalb County is more like what you describe in Memphis. Fulton County’s school district has the weird circumstance of being totally bisected by Atlanta’s. Tomiko Brown-Nagin tells the story of how the Armour v. Nix lawsuit, which sought the metropolitan integration of Atlanta, Fulton, DeKalb, and neighboring county districts, was undermined locally and ultimately foreclosed by Milliken v. Bradley. Accordingly, the north Fulton suburbs have a budgetary relationship to south Fulton schools through the county district, but not much of an integration relationship.

      I don’t know what the local politics were in Louisville or Lexington, but I’d venture that a key part of the context might be that the relative balance courts placed on desegregation versus preserving the neighborhood schools principle, along with the withdrawal of white students to private schools, meant that authorities could consolidate schools on the metro level voluntarily to satisfy courts, while not directly threatening that the schools would be substantively desegregated. I haven’t read Ansley Erickson’s Unequal Metropolis (on Nashville) but that might be relevant.

      DeKalb County’s school district has been subject to efforts to fragment it in ways that favor the residents of affluent northern areas, but the main political device has been to push the state legislature to approve many more charter schools within the district, rather than to propose a breakaway district as in Birmingham, for example (and I can’t praise enough Nikole Hannah-Jones’s reporting on that controversy).


  2. Elisa Lanari says:

    Thank you for providing, once again, a thoughtful analysis and commentary on Atlanta’s cityhood movement. As someone who’s been doing research on Sandy Springs since 2010, I am also glad that these debates have finally gained broader media attention. I have found your work on the subject incredibly useful to complement my ethnographic analysis, and I will continue to acknowledge it in my future publications.

    • Thanks, and I hope your research on the changing demographics in Sandy Springs is progressing–it’s a time period I didn’t study, but I think the issue of diversification in spaces created around protecting white advantage, and the question of what diversity means in terms of governing and daily life, are very important.

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