How history made this Atlanta neighborhood a secession battleground


The skyline of downtown Atlanta, Georgia. | Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Some residents of one of Atlanta’s wealthiest (and whitest) neighborhoods want to form their own city.

Some residents of Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood want a divorce. For more than a year, a secessionist movement has been brewing in Buckhead, a wealthy neighborhood of about 100,000 people on Atlanta’s north side. The movement claims to have raised millions of dollars, enlisted the support of Georgia gubernatorial candidate (and former senator) David Perdue, and deeply unnerved a city already split by race and class.

On her debut episode as co-host of Today, Explained, Noel King reports from Atlanta, where she talked to supporters and detractors of the secession movement. Along the way, Noel explores the claim that secession would have far-reaching implications on Atlanta’s economy and public school system.

Listen to the full episode:

The Buckhead City movement mirrors other secession campaigns in recent American history. In Louisiana, residents of an unincorporated part of Baton Rouge Parish that is wealthier and whiter than the city of Baton Rouge voted in 2019 to leave the parish and form a separate city with a separate school district. In Alaska, a conservative community in Anchorage is seeking to break off and form its own city. And in rural Oregon, some residents are hoping to join Idaho.

Those seeking to keep Atlanta together argue that the secession movement is driven in part by racism, which King explores in interviews with proponents of the campaign on Today, Explained.

In preparation for the episode, she also spoke with historian Dan Immergluck, professor of urban studies at Georgia State University, who explained Buckhead’s rise as the most privileged community in Atlanta. Their conversation helps us answer the questions: Why this community? Why now?

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity.

Noel King

What do you know about Buckhead these days?

Dan Immergluck

Buckhead is a very affluent part of the city of Atlanta. It’s on the north side, the far north side of the city, and a good chunk of it is composed primarily of very large, very expensive homes on large lots, homes that were built primarily before the 1940s and often quite a bit before that. There are some of them I would call mansions. This is traditionally the neighborhood of the biggest movers and shakers in the city and sometimes in the region; CEOs, high-priced lawyers, it’s a very affluent community. And on the east side along the expressway is an intense commercial district which has large office buildings and significant numbers of apartments also known for a lively nightlife, let’s put it that way. And also a large mall: The preeminent high-end mall in the city is in Buckhead.

Noel King

In addition to CEOs, I understand some of the Real Housewives live in Buckhead?

Dan Immergluck

Yes. A lot of drama — and also influencer houses. Some of these expensive homes have spread some controversy around. You know, sometimes music stars, but also influencers who will rent a house and create some hubbub in the community.

Noel King

All right. So we’ve got a sense of what it’s like now. It has a particular history. Tell me about the history of Buckhead.

Dan Immergluck

Well, Buckhead was a high-end white suburb during much of the 20th century. The white power structure really lived in Buckhead, primarily during the 20th century, and to some degree it still does. And during the 1940s, the longtime mayor, William Hartsfield, recognized that he could build up a coalition between the white, highly educated, affluent power structure and the Black power structure, often comprised of ministers, Black leaders, and Black businessmen. And he developed this coalition that Atlanta became famous for later in the century that some people called the Atlanta Urban Regime. The city was growing, the metro was growing, and increasingly the suburbs were growing and white flight was starting. But also the suburbs were where people were moving into the region — directly to the suburbs, particularly white people.

Noel King

And they weren’t bothering with the rest of the city?

Dan Immergluck

Yes. Increasingly, they were not coming to the city. This was 10 years or so before Brown v. Board of Education. Hartsfield recognizes that he needs to think about expanding the city to keep the kind of power balance in his favor so that the city doesn’t become all Black.

And then in 1944, a really important thing happens. The Supreme Court outlaws what had been an all-white Democratic primary, so Blacks were not allowed to vote in the Democratic Party primary. And of course, this is the south in the ’40s so the Democratic Party is the dominant party. And when that gets overturned, all of a sudden Black voting power becomes much more significant. And the threat of the Black power structure taking over the mayor’s office and the City Council becomes a real threat to Hartsfield. He argues that also what could happen is that the white working-class community could somehow expand Atlanta in a way that would take power from this coalition. But really, he’s about preserving corporate white power. And so he wants to expand the city quite dramatically.

Buckhead is the real prize. This is before the commercial district is so big, but still he wants to include it because of the tax base. He also expands Atlanta westward, and in 1952, the city basically triples in size.

Noel King

I think what you’re telling me is how Buckhead became part of Atlanta. Tell me how that unfolded.

Dan Immergluck

Sure. So during the ’40s, especially with the Supreme Court decision giving Blacks the ability to vote in the Democratic primary, Hartsfield puts forward a number of proposals to expand the city to annex suburbs. Some Black suburbs, but especially white suburbs and especially Buckhead. And he fails a couple of times, but in 1950, he puts forth this big plan for expansion. And in 1951, it goes through, and the city formally annexes to about what it is now. So the city basically triples in size.

Noel King

And when Hartsfield annexed Buckhead into Atlanta, that would have added how many people to the population of Atlanta?

Dan Immergluck

It added over 100,000 people.

Noel King

And almost all of them were —

Dan Immergluck

White. Almost all of them, well, a very large percentage of them were white.

Noel King

How does that change the balance of power?

Dan Immergluck

Well, it added half a dozen white city councilmen to the City Council, for one. It gave [Hartsfield], at least for the next 20 years, iron control of the city. So it kind of locked in the Black/white urban regime. It also gave that regime power during a really important part of the 20th century, right? The middle part of the 20th century is this period where cities are growing, the middle class is growing. And unlike some cities during this period, Atlanta retains this significant upper-income population. What they don’t retain in the middle part of the 20th century as much is the kind of white middle-class and working-class population. That population definitely flees the city. They go to the suburbs, they go to the suburbs and they create a set of working-class and middle-class white suburbs.

Noel King

Okay, so this is interesting. Hartsfield annexes a rich, majority-white area. Other white people get out of Atlanta and go to the suburbs. How did the people in Buckhead feel when Hartsfield annexed them into this city that they hadn’t been part of? Was there any resistance?

Dan Immergluck

There was some resistance, but generally this is a period of time … and there was resistance that made him fail in the ’40s the first few times. But generally, Hartsfield basically says, “Look, if we leave the city to go on that trajectory, it’s going to be a Black-run city and that will create more problems.” So he basically scares Buckhead into saying (and this is ironic given what’s going on, given how fear is being used now in the opposite direction), “Do you want the primary city in the metro in Georgia to be Black led?”

Noel King

That is an extraordinary role reversal when we consider what’s going on now. Also worth noting Atlanta is a Black-led city.

Dan Immergluck

It is, and it has been since Maynard Jackson. But it is now, for the last couple of years, a minority-Black city. So it’s still Black led. But to some degree the question is how much longer? Because the city is about 52 percent non-Black at this point. But it is a real role reversal because the annexation was driven by racism, and the drive to secede is driven by racism.

Listen to the full Today, Explained episode about Buckhead’s secession battle on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Today, Explained is celebrating its 1,000th episode! To celebrate with us, ask your friends and family to listen — it’s a huge help to grow our show.