“Exaggerated individualism” is a pretty good description of the Southern approach to politics—especially in Georgia, which has more counties than any state in the country except Texas. “Atlanta” is actually a 10-county metropolitan region which is home to more than 4 million people and 68 separate municipalities. In some places, such an amalgamation might make people think about consolidating services. Not in Atlanta: In Fulton County alone, home to most of the city proper, three suburban municipalities have formed their own governments just since 2005 in an effort to distance themselves from the urban problems of their big-city neighbor, and there’s a growing push among residents of the affluent northern end of the county to form a whole new county, as if Georgia doesn’t already have enough of those. Secession movements have percolated in various metropolitan areas across the country for years, and lately western Maryland and the entire state of Texas, among other places, have made a lot of noise about seceding from greater Maryland and the United States, respectively. But in the Deep South, people don’t just talk about secession; they do it. Southerners love them some local “gummit,” the local-er the better. But when regional disaster hits—whether it’s the years-long drought of a few years back, or this week’s snowstorm—that means umpteen local and state politicians have to work together on a deadline, putting aside their various ambitions and competing constituencies under adverse conditions in order to deal with a common threat. It could work in theory, I guess, but here’s how it looks in practice:
Then there’s the part about having “too narrow a sense of social responsibility.” Exhibit A here is the failure in 2012 of a massive $7.2 billion transportation initiative, which would have paid for sorely needed regional highway improvements and funneled $600 million into the Atlanta Beltline, an innovative proposal to link neighborhoods in the city by light rail, using 22 miles of abandoned cargo lines left over from Atlanta’s heyday as a railroad hub. To which the voters of the metropolitan Atlanta area said: Hell, no. Here is a region that even without freak snowstorms is choking on its own traffic, which has built its reputation on being a transportation hub, which is looking at a future when gas will never be less than $3 a gallon again, and all voters could think about was how much they hated government and paying taxes. They had their reasons—Georgia has no shortage of political corruption, and in 2012 the economy was still deeply in the tank—but even so, it was like watching folks refuse to get out of a burning house because they objected to the way the firemen were holding the ladder.
And, of course, there’s race. Race is a recurring motif in the long history of the city-rural divide in Georgia politics, as well as the uneasy history of relations between the leaders in City Hall and the state Capitol just down the street. Much as White Southerners despise being labeled “racist” whenever they vote Republican—and I do understand why that makes them mad—it is still a fact that you cannot separate anything in the South entirely from the question of race.
I was a kid when then-Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. proposed a rapid rail system to link Atlanta to its surrounding suburbs, and I distinctly remember the joke circulating among White people back then, the one that said that MARTA (the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) actually stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.” Plain and simple, it was White folks’ fear of Black folks that explained the failure of a sales-tax hike to fund rapid rail in three of the then five counties making up the metro Atlanta area. Today, Atlanta’s rapid rail map looks kind of like a crooked plus sign that doesn’t venture outside Fulton County and part of DeKalb, instead of the web of rail lines connecting the entire region that was originally envisioned.
The results are not just suburban sprawl, which Atlanta is hardly the only city to suffer from; another result is widening income inequality—which Atlanta leads the nation in, by the way—since sprawl creates a dearth of close-in affordable housing and forces poor people spend a larger portion of their income on transportation.
Today, Atlanta’s affluent northern suburbs, which have no mass transit, stretch practically to Chattanooga—and south Fulton County, which does, is a sea of mostly poor, mostly Black neighborhoods. But at least those Black folks in south Fulton—who benefit from mass transit because they live close to Hartsfield International Airport—got to take the train home on Tuesday night, so there’s that.