Charlie Harper - Five Georgias: Suburban Atlanta

Charlie Harper

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

In this fourth installment of a series explaining the regions that make up Georgia’s statewide geographic political factions, we’re going to explore the newfound statewide power broker. That would be the roughly four million people that live in Suburban Atlanta.

Georgia is a state of roughly ten million people, so any area that claims forty percent of the votes needed to form a simple majority would seem to have a dominant position.  This, of course, would assume that the region acted as one, and/or had leaders and constituents with well-honed political skills to exert the influence proportional to their votes.

Like many adolescent boys just given car keys for the first time, Suburban Atlanta seems to understand that it has an amazing amount of power some new found freedom, but little understanding what it takes consistently find the right partner for success.

Until Governor Perdue’s election and the subsequent assumption of power by Republicans, suburban Atlantans had little to no power under the Gold Dome.  Democrats ruled this state, using a coalition of urban Democrats and rural Democrats.  Republicans believed that those folks took all their money to overspend on schools in Atlanta and “roads to nowhere” in South Georgia. 

Folks in the suburbs know that Atlanta Public Schools spend more tax dollars to educate kids than any other system in the state, when they want their tax dollars going to their most cost efficient schools that produce better results.  They see a bunch of four lane highways in rural Georgia with little traffic, but sit idling in gridlock.  They’re less aware that Atlanta Schools receive the lowest dollars per student from the state, or that transportation money is balanced by population using equal funding per congressional district.

These and other suburban legends get in the way of exerting policies at the state legislature that would otherwise allow the region around Atlanta’s core to act in its own self-interest.  To do so, however, would require more self-awareness.

Several years ago, I was speaking to a civic group in the Atlanta suburbs.  After I was done talking about possible solutions to the region’s transportation problems, the first question I got was “When are the people in Atlanta going to let us solve these problems for ourselves?”

I wasn’t sure who he meant, as I interpreted “people in Atlanta” as “the state legislature”.  I was quickly redirected.  He, living less than ten miles from downtown, believed the City of Atlanta’s residents outnumbered folks in the suburbs.  The folks he (and quite a few others in the room) thought were controlling things numbered about 450,000 people.  Take all of what broadly can be defined the Urban Core and you may get 1.5 million.

Suburbanites outnumber them 3 to 1.  But they have yet to find common ground with folks just like them that live one or three counties away.

Folks in Cobb County rarely want to work with like-minded folks in Gwinnett County on regional solutions. In fact, they see “regionalism” as a socialist inspired enemy.  Cherokee County and Fayette County could be the same county if they weren’t separated by an hour’s drive.

Despite miles and miles of homogenous strip malls and McMansions, many folks in suburbia believe their corner of the world is unique, and everything outside their neighborhood is “Atlanta”.  And in suburbia, “Atlanta” is not who most folks want to work with.

The problem is compounded when you realize that there is no local clearing house in Suburban Atlanta for information.  In rural Georgia, if you talk to the local sheriff, the pastor at the First Baptist Church, the head of the Rotary or Kiwanis Club, and the High School principal (or head football coach), you’ve likely got a full pulse of the community.  In the Atlanta suburbs, if you do that, you’ve talked to four people.

Many of these folks aren’t from here.  Many have transferred in.  Many will transfer out in a few years.  Their time horizons are short, and they don’t tend to want to invest in plans that will come to fruition in ten to twenty-years. 

They get their news from cable or the internet if they get political news at all.  Their information diet, left or right, is based on DC partisan games that they then extrapolate to state and local politics.  They are not focused on mundane local problems, nor local solutions. 

The result is you have 4 million Georgians - many of whom share common backgrounds, education levels, goals, and income strata – who have no idea how to connect with each other, have no interest in working together, and believe they are better off insulated from their neighbors than finding shared goals.

The person who can figure out how to unite this region as one could control state politics forever.  The folks in the rest of Georgia likely don’t have to worry about this.

Suburban Atlantans like things the way they are.  They just wish someone else would let them fix a few things.  Until this region can learn how to unite to wield the power their numbers suggest, their role in setting state policy will continue to underperform the potential of their strength in numbers.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.