The upcoming Georgia primary election will attract attention for David Perdue’s challenge of incumbent governor Brian Kemp, but a down-ballot, nonbinding advisory question in the state may have its own implications for cities nationwide. Republican voters will be asked whether Buckhead, the wealthiest neighborhood in Atlanta, should be allowed to vote to leave the city and create its own government.
It’s the latest tactic in a campaign by residents of this 24-square-mile area of approximately 90,000 people—which accounts for about 40 percent of Atlanta’s property-tax base and was made famous by Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full for its lawns that “rose up from the street like big green breasts”—to incorporate independently. A binding referendum seemed like a real possibility last year, but Atlanta’s business establishment and a state leadership wary of permitting the majority-white neighborhood to split off from majority-black Atlanta have managed to thwart the Buckhead City effort for now. This vote is an attempt to ramp up the pressure.
The prospect of Buckhead’s secession is a dramatic development in Atlanta politics. Bill White, a New York City transplant and leader of the Buckhead City movement, cites “crime, crime, and crime” as the driving force behind it. Since 2020, when waves of rioters smashed and grabbed through the high-end Peachtree Street retail district, spikes in violent crime, including some high-profile incidents—a security guard shot at the Lenox Square mall, a Buckhead father of three shot while out for a morning jog—along with other disorder, such as carjackings and drag races, have shaken residents. Polls show a significant share of Buckhead residents would support secession.
Buckhead City advocates hope to create an independent police force of at least 250 officers. In theory, Atlanta should already have enough cops to provide such a level of protection, but residents say that far fewer police have been assigned there. The city has pledged that a new Buckhead station will eventually assign at least 24 officers to the neighborhood full-time, with support from the rest of the force.
Adding to Buckhead residents’ list of grievances is the city planning department’s proposed zoning change, which would permit accessory dwelling units—additional spaces that may be within or detached from a primary housing unit—and denser construction near transit corridors. Though the proposal would spare most of Buckhead’s tree-lined streets, some residents nevertheless view it as punitive.
The secession push has affected city politics. Newly elected Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens has backed away from antipolice rhetoric and opened a new Buckhead precinct station. But “the problem of how we got here is not solved—that being the crime problem,” says Georgia House speaker David Ralston, a Republican, “and I’m going to be watching to see what actions are taken by the leadership of the city of Atlanta.”
Opponents of Buckhead independence frame the movement as another example of racial tensions in Georgia. Michael Owens, a political science professor at Emory University, lambasts the Buckhead City movement as an assertion of white political power at the expense of poor black neighborhoods, which have far higher crime rates. “If we think about U.S. urban history . . . there is this sort of embedded coding that crime equals black,” Owens says. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce announced its opposition to Buckhead secession, while a coalition of 30 major Buckhead businesses asked either for the referendum not to go forward or for the commercial part of Buckhead to remain in Atlanta, even if the residential area became independent.
Metropolitan residents who feel they aren’t getting the public services they pay for have sought distance from their cities before. As urban consolidation ran its course in the twentieth century, suburbs resisted joining nearby city governments, which touted their superior water systems and public schools to justify densification. More recently, in 1990, 82 percent of Staten Island residents voted to draw up plans to split from the other four boroughs of New York City, and in 2002, residents of the San Fernando Valley tried to secede from Los Angeles. Neither effort succeeded: New York requires state legislative approval for a city to break away, while California requires a majority of the entire city to vote for approval. In Georgia, however, all that is needed is the approval of voters within the boundaries of the proposed new municipality.
Buckhead residents themselves could therefore declare independence if the state legislature were to permit such a vote. Over the past 20 years, this provision has led to the incorporation of several new cities in the state. One is Sandy Springs, a municipality of more than 100,000 just north of Atlanta. It surely did not go unnoticed in Buckhead that, when rioters set upon a Sandy Springs mall in 2020, local police arrested them, and no further incursions occurred. Once it incorporated, Sandy Springs contracted with private providers for most of its city services, managing to keep its tax rates low. Three-term mayor “Rusty” Paul, a Republican and Jack Kemp protégé, won about 70 percent of the vote in a city that pulled the lever for Joe Biden in 2020. But having previously existed as unincorporated areas of Fulton, DeKalb, and Cobb counties, Sandy Springs and its ilk were able to vote for incorporation without facing the financial and political complexities of secession.
Buckhead’s situation is different. It was, by state legislation, annexed to Atlanta in 1952, along with a large group of neighborhoods. Then-mayor William Hartsfield saw the Buckhead annexation as a way to add white voters and dilute the growing black vote. Now, it would have to de-annex, something that has never happened before in any big American city. One longtime state official who opposes Buckhead cityhood compares de-annexation to “unscrambling scrambled eggs.”
Indeed, a municipal divorce would pose substantial practical challenges. How would Buckhead’s debt and pension obligations be accounted for? Legacy costs that Atlanta and Buckhead would divvy up include $262 million in bond debt, $5.2 billion in defined-benefit pension payments for city employees, and $950 million in promised retiree health-insurance benefits. The Buckhead City group, which includes a municipal bond professional, proposes to compensate Atlanta by continuing to pay a pro rata share of the city’s debt-service costs. The goal is to convince Georgia’s state legislators and governor that putting de-annexation on the ballot will not jeopardize city finances. But the Buckhead group doesn’t specify how it would handle the pensions of current Atlanta employees. The existing pension system would likely have to be closed to new entrants, while Buckhead City residents would have to add benefits for former Atlanta officials to those of its prospective new employees.
The challenges extend to schools. Though Georgia makes urban incorporation easy, it doesn’t permit new cities to establish their own independent school districts. Buckhead parents generally like the public schools in their neighborhood, but the new city would have to compensate the Atlanta Public School system via “inter-governmental agreement” to retain access. Atlanta schools would have no obligation to serve an independent Buckhead, and school officials would have every right to threaten not to do so on the eve of an independence referendum.
De-annexation would certainly cause a financial shock to Atlanta’s tax and revenue base. No city wants to lose almost one-third of its real-estate valuation and 40 percent of its property value. In the short term, Atlanta would have to cut back on city services while providing them for a poorer population. Opponents of Buckhead City, some with experience at high levels of Atlanta government, estimate that the city would lose $252 million in tax revenues in the event of de-annexation. Meantime, Buckhead’s population is 11 percent black, just shy of the black share of the national population; without it, Atlanta’s black population would increase from 51 percent to 59 percent of the city. In the new city of Buckhead, median household income would be $140,500—more than double the median household income of Atlanta, which is currently just under $60,000. That figure would drop to $52,700 if Buckhead secedes.
And yet, de-annexation would not be a death blow. Buckhead isn’t guaranteed to retain its advantages: the Lenox Square mall can’t remain high-end under current conditions, where one has to submit to metal detectors just to enter and secondary security protects the food court and brand-name retailers; the hotels built for business travelers could empty out in an era of Zoom; and younger buyers may not want the large single-family homes on huge lots and the car commuting they require. Buckhead offices are already plagued by high post-pandemic vacancy rates, though the office market ended 2021 with a gain in occupancy, the first in seven quarters.
And Atlanta has promising prospects. It is home to the nation’s most imaginative ongoing urban park project: the conversion of abandoned urban rail into the 22-mile BeltLine loop, a circumferential greenway running through dozens of neighborhoods. The project has already boosted property values and investment in walkable areas such as midtown, where newcomers are diversifying what has historically been a strictly black-and-white city and where Google has announced a massive office expansion. Forced to generate revenue without Buckhead, Atlanta may have to look for organic growth, not redistribution, to foster investment—and to do that, control crime.
The ballot question will be an important indicator of how much momentum the de-annexation movement still possesses. Buckhead residents must consider how much they’d be willing to pay to make their own decisions. A heated and expensive election would ensue if Buckhead cityhood ever makes it to the ballot. The state legislative leadership, which would have to authorize an election, has said only that newly elected Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens should be given a year to reduce crime. The ultimate question is simple: How far are voters willing to go when they feel that progressive governance has failed them?