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2003 Annual Meeting . . . The Question of Culture

The Changing Face of Atlanta

The first in a series of articles highlighting the sociological context of ASA’s next Annual Meeting location . . . Atlanta, Georgia . . .

by Charles Gallagher and Karyn Lacy,
Co-chairs, ASA’s Regional Spotlight Committee

The last time the American Sociological Association’s meetings were held in Atlanta, Ronald Reagan was president, George Bush Sr. and Michael Dukakis were jockeying for the White House, UB40’s “Red, Red Wine” was the summer’s number-one pop song, and The Cosby Show dominated America’s living rooms. Just as national politics and popular culture have under-gone dramatic changes in the last 14 years, so has Atlanta. If you last traveled to the area in 1988, you might not recog-nize much of the city and the surround-ing in-town neighborhoods today.

From “Sleepy” to “Metropolitan” in 10 Years

Over the years, Atlanta has grown from a sleepy city to a thriving metropolis with more than four million people. The city offers major cultural amenities (The High Museum, Botanical Gardens, Zoo Atlanta), dozens of colleges and universities, and winning sports franchises (Braves, Falcons, and the Hawks). Atlanta also is home to corporate headquarters of several prominent corporations (e.g., Coca-Cola Company, Home Depot, CNN, UPS), and boasts hundreds of dining establishments, ranging from down-home to upscale.

The broad appeal of today’s Atlanta is reflected in the burgeoning number of transplants who settle in the city year after year. A long running joke among residents who live ITP (inside the I-285 perimeter) is that there is little in the way of the Old South left in Atlanta because almost everyone is a transplant. The Atlanta that each of us encountered when we moved here began to evolve soon after the last ASA meeting and accelerated in the mid-1990s in anticipation of the 1996 summer Olympics. You may know that Atlanta was the first southern city to host the summer games, but Atlanta is distinguished by many other firsts as well.

Still Growing, Changing

To begin with, Atlanta is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. From a classic urban sociological perspective, Atlanta’s size, density, and population heterogeneity have changed dramatically in a relatively short amount of time. The Atlanta metropolitan area grew from about three million residents in 1990 to almost four and a half million in 2002. The majority of this growth took place in the surrounding suburbs, but a small, yet significant, part of this growth took place in revitalized in-town neighborhoods. The extent to which these neighborhoods were revitalized or were appropriated by white gentrifiers at the expense of older, lower-income, primarily black residents will be the focus of a forthcoming Footnotes article in this series.

Second, Atlanta is fast becoming one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the southeast, challenging the inveterate black-white dichotomy that typically frames how people see the south. About 500,000 African Americans moved to the metropolitan area in the last decade, making it the city with the sixth largest black population in the country. While the notion that Atlanta “is too busy to hate” may be exaggerated, the high rate of black migration supports the claim that Atlanta is “the black Mecca” or a “modern day Harlem.” An influential black political power structure helped to elect the city’s first black woman mayor, Shirley Franklin, in 2002.

But black migration is no longer the only measure of Atlanta’s diversification. Prior to 1990 the Latino and Asian populations were relatively small. This is no longer the case. In 2002 there were close to 500,000 Latinos and these numbers are thought to be significantly larger due to underreporting. Latino immigration has transformed the region in a number of ways. The residential and commercial real estate boom of the last decade would not have been possible without the influx of Latino laborers. The result has been a growing Latino presence in city and state politics and Latino-run businesses. The recent state elections put a number Latinos in the state house and on various city councils. The black-white dichotomy that has historically defined Atlanta politics is triangulating to include the political, cultural, and economic concerns of Latinos. The ranks of Atlanta’s Asian population have swelled to double their numbers a decade ago to over 175,000 residents.

The Color of Money and Neighborhoods

Third, black suburbanization in the Atlanta metropolitan area has increased significantly. In 1970, about 8% of Atlanta’s suburban population was black. By 2000, this percentage had grown to over 25%. Atlanta has surpassed Washington, DC, as the metropolitan area with the largest concentration of blacks in its suburban ring. However, a greater concentration of blacks in suburbia has not produced higher levels of racial integration in the metropolitan area. Suburban blacks in Atlanta tend to live in predominately black communities. Atlanta’s suburbs are stratified along class lines as well. Middle-class black Atlantans have begun to concentrate in black, distinctly middle-class suburban communities, apart from both the white middle class and the black poor.

Local Color

The Spotlight Sessions at ASA Annual Meeting that the Regional Committee has planned highlight the unique character of Atlanta and of the South more broadly. Three Spotlight Sessions will focus on a variety of topics: emerging trends in southern cities, suburbanization trends, gentrification processes, immigration patterns, and the influence of southern culture. The latter topic will explore a range of issues—from movie going and viewing in Atlanta in the first half of the 20th century, to the relationship between southern culture, gender, and changes in the labor force, to a lively panel discussion about one of the country’s largest collections of privately owned African-American art. Two Spotlight Sessions are devoted to political and social conflict. A session will consider movement emergence and political outcomes among a variety of social movements launched in the South. Another session focuses on W.E.B. DuBois’ contribution to the discipline during his tenure at Atlanta University. This panel is timely since 2003 marks the 100th anniversary of the Souls of Black Folk.

To really appreciate how much Atlanta has changed, you will have to leave the Marriott Marquis and the Hilton Atlanta. The Regional Spotlight Committee has organized an array of tours that will take you away from downtown, into Atlanta’s residential and historical communities. Conference participants may elect to join the popular New Urbanism bus tour, to study Atlanta’s history and culture via a tour of black Atlanta, to learn more about Atlanta’s famed historically black colleges and universities on a tour of the West Side, to observe Atlanta’s growing diversity first-hand on a tour of immigrant communities, to root for the Braves on a trip to Turner Field, or to learn more about Nobel Peace Prize recipient President Jimmy Carter’s commitment to social change on a tour of the prestigious Carter Center.

As you can see, there is no shortage of things to do and experience in the city described by Tom Wolfe in A Man in Full as a place where “Old South values collide with the new world.” In the next five issues of Footnotes, scholars from four Atlanta colleges and universities will present various snapshots of the city, outlining activities, events, and sites for you to enjoy while you are here for the annual meeting. We hope to see you there.

Charles Gallagher ( is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. Karyn Lacy ( is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Emory University and Core Faculty Member at the Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life.