Atlanta is one of America’s great modern-day boomtown stories. In 1960, the Atlanta region contained only 1.4 million people, not much larger than Birmingham. But over the next several decades, it exploded into a metropolis of nearly 6 million people. It became “the capital of the New South,” site of the world’s busiest airport, an Olympics host, and home to blue-chip corporations including Coca-Cola, UPS, and Home Depot. While its self-billing as “the city too busy to hate” may have been wishful thinking, Atlanta did establish itself as the de facto capital of black America. Its rise as a city of black aspiration occurred in tandem with its civic growth, making it one of the only American cities whose black community was seen as a pillar of stability and prosperity.
Though still growing rapidly, Atlanta’s fortunes have taken a hit in the new century. From 1980 to 2000, metro Atlanta grew in population by an astonishing 82.3 percent, outdistancing Dallas–Fort Worth and Houston. But in the 18 years since 2000, its population growth rate was only 39.6 percent, which trails its Texas peers. Since 2000, the population gap between Houston and Atlanta more than doubled, rising from less than 500,000 to more than 1 million. And growth has continued to slow. From 2000 to 2010, Atlanta’s average annual population growth reached only 2.13 percent, and that has fallen to 1.45 percent since 2010.
Any boomtown, as it reaches maturity, will eventually see a decline in population growth. But in Atlanta, this slowdown has come with troubling economic indicators. The city’s per-capita income as a percentage of the U.S. average declined from 110.5 percent in 2000 to 96.2 percent in 2017. Regional income levels have diverged across America, but what’s more troubling for Atlanta is that its real per-capita GDP started declining in the 2000s, especially during the Great Recession, which hit the city hard. It ranked 42nd out of 52 major metro areas in jobs performance during that era, and per-capita employment in the region fell from 51.2 percent to 40.6 percent from 2000 to 2013. Atlanta added 1 million people but lost jobs in that decade.
The economy turned around in 2013. GDP per capita started growing again, and per-capita incomes relative to the U.S. average started improving as well. Jobs are up 22.4 percent since 2010. Atlanta got great press for its Beltline, a greenway encircling the city along an abandoned rail corridor. Its urban center began growing and gentrifying, in the familiar pattern. The Census Bureau estimates that the city’s population has grown by 16 percent since 2010. Atlanta’s tech industry has blossomed, too, and the city has become an unlikely center for financial technology.
But the region continues to face structural challenges that suggest it will be difficult to restore boom-era growth. Atlanta is no longer the shiny new thing in the Southeast or the only game in town for talent and employers. Nashville is the new hot city, and Charlotte, Raleigh, and Charleston are booming, too. Migration to Atlanta has significantly slowed. The city welcomed fewer domestic migrants than much smaller Charlotte and Austin did last year, and it’s drawing far fewer immigrants than Dallas, Houston, and even Philadelphia. Atlanta’s boom-era suburbia is showing wear. Around the country, older suburbia, of which Atlanta has vast tracts, has struggled to hold its appeal, once rehab and deferred-infrastructure bills come due. For people looking for a new place to build a future, Atlanta is looking frayed around the edges.
Historically, much of suburban Atlanta was unincorporated because the Democratic state legislature wouldn’t give these Republican areas the right to form cities. State GOP control has led to the so-called “cityhood movement” of suburban incorporations, with new cities springing up including Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, Brookhaven, and Stonecrest. The cityhood movement is controversial and often decried as racist. But as weaker suburbs age, the stronger areas rush to protect themselves from being taxed to prop up declining ones; otherwise, they might be in a bad position after other newly incorporated entities grab all the prime land. The cityhood movement shows the rise of a kind of zero-sum thinking that’s a feature of mature or declining cities—not booming ones with faith that future growth will help everyone.
Atlanta also has huge transportation challenges. Its freeways are among the nation’s widest but also the most congested. Atlanta failed to rearchitect its freeway network as it grew, retaining its sixties-era beltway-and-spoke system. By contrast, Houston is working on its third beltway. The net result: Atlanta outside its I-285 perimeter is by far the most developed urban area in the world without non-radial freeways, according to demographer Wendell Cox. The metro area has the nation’s third-lowest share of jobs accessible to the average commuter in 30 minutes or less.
The highway problems may be unfixable. Regional planners have been pushing transit expansion into the suburbs, but in the highly dispersed Atlanta region, transit has no chance of making a dent in mobility needs. The only mitigating factor is that competing regions like Nashville have similar problems.
Atlanta retains critical strengths—its airport, educated workforce, corporate presence, and Sunbelt location. Until someplace like Charlotte hits a population of, say, 4 million—a long way off, even with rapid growth—Atlanta will continue to be the Southeast’s dominant city. And yet, the region does appear to be entering its maturity phase. The transition from growth to maturity was one that many Northern cities failed to make. Atlanta doesn’t face the deindustrialization that hammered those cities—but moving beyond its go-go years to a still-productive future will take some work.
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