Buckhead’s tumultuous bid to break away from Atlanta has been scuppered for now, but its demise in the Georgia legislature made way for four new proposed cities, all in Cobb County.
Three of those proposed cities continue the established Atlanta story about who tries to incorporate and why. East Cobb, Vinings, and Lost Mountain are majority-white communities, wealthier than the surrounding area, where some residents have expressed frustration at being yoked to the wider county.
But the proposed city of Mableton would be majority-Black, and, like a few other new Black cities in metro-Atlanta, it’s telling a different story about why municipalities incorporate.
All of these cityhood projects share some common ground. Organizers of the four potential new cities in Cobb County cite a desire for more direct representation, greater local control over zoning and taxation, and an existing sense of community identity.
Mableton is distinct, in part because it already had been a city. Mableton incorporated well before it was in vogue, way back in 1912, but catastrophic flooding five years later sent its residents back to Cobb County for help with recovery costs.
Many of Mableton’s residents still think of it as a distinct city, which is part of what’s driving the cityhood push, according to Leroy “Tre” Hutchins, an organizer with the South Cobb Alliance, the group behind Mableton’s incorporation bid. “Mableton, as a community, is often thought to already be a city,” Hutchins said in an email.
The driving reasons for cityhood go beyond a sense of community. Mableton’s supporters say incorporation would give residents better representation through a city council, and provide the community with more influence over land use and local tax revenue, especially from lucrative commercial sites like Six Flags Over Georgia.
But Mableton’s previous existence as a city has drawn support for the new incorporation movement, said Hutchins: “We take pride in being ‘Mableton,’ and desire an opportunity to further enhance and redevelop our community.”
Cityhood and race
That sense of community generally underlies cityhood projects. They tend to spring up in areas where residents within the new city boundaries share a racial and class identity, creating what Michael Leo Owens, an urban politics professor at Emory University, calls “affinity cities.”
Historically, Atlanta-area cityhood movements have sprung from a very specific kind of affinity. It started in 2005, when Sandy Springs incorporated from Fulton County. That led to a decade of incorporation in which wealthy, predominantly white communities seceded from counties whose wider populations were poorer and Blacker.
Communities push to form new cities for reasons ranging from greater control over zoning and taxes to frustration with county-level corruption. But at its roots, Atlanta’s cityhood movement has always been intertwined with race, and racism.
Atlanta’s romance with new city creation actually began in the early 1970s, partly as a reaction by suburban white residents to school desegregation. Sandy Springs originally tried to incorporate in 1975–officially, because of residents’ frustration with Fulton County’s control over their zoning and taxes, but race-based concerns underlay that.
“This was the era of school desegregation, and Sandy Springs was concerned about being pulled into the Atlanta school system,” said Ronald Bayor, a Georgia Tech history professor who wrote “Race & The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta.”
Locally and nationally, white fears about bussing and government-mandated integration for public schools helped fuel movement conservatism, which criticized the so-called national “welfare state” and advocated for local control of tax revenue and public services.
A Democratic majority in the state legislature blocked Sandy Springs’ bid to incorporate for the next 30 years, but when control finally flipped in 2004, the Republicans, who supported the idea of local control and the would-be city’s plan to privatize city services, swiftly opened the door for a local referendum.
Sandy Springs’ successful breakaway from Fulton County set off an incorporation wave from Dunwoody to Johns Creek, but for the next decade, each new city looked a lot like Sandy Springs–majority-white and disproportionately wealthy.
Today, those racial and class dynamics are still at play in some incorporation efforts, but in new ways, Bayor said. He points to the cityhood push for East Cobb, where population shifts have realigned political power, leading to a new Democratic majority on the Cobb County Commission and leaving some Republicans disgruntled and looking for an exit sign.
“Race isn’t the only factor,” said Bayor. “But there are racial undercurrents in terms of trying to change being controlled by a Democratic and Black-led [county] commission.”
The new wave
Beginning in 2016, however, a new incorporation movement emerged. Majority-Black cities began forming, drawing new municipal boundary lines out of the unincorporated counties that earlier, majority-white breakaway cities had left behind.
Stonecrest was the first, incorporating out of Dekalb County in 2016, which was followed by the city of South Fulton in 2017. Mableton would be the third Black breakaway city for the metro-Atlanta region, while south Dekalb County is gearing up for another incorporation effort next year after its bid to become the city of Greenhaven stuttered to a halt in 2015.
After a decade of majority-white city creation, these majority-Black cities signal a new chapter in the wider cityhood movement. But the various incorporation pushes aren’t a single monolithic story. Their proponents are influenced by many of the same “affinity community” factors as earlier white cityhood movements–and they’re also reacting to the effects that those cities forming out of metro-Atlanta counties have had on their communities, left behind in the counties.
South Fulton, for instance, had to incorporate to survive, said the city’s newly elected mayor, Khalid Kamau.
“Wealthier areas are very strategic in their incorporation – [they] cherry-pick the wealthiest neighborhoods and commercial areas,” said Kamau.
“We had lost so much commercial property by annexations to surrounding cities, that if we did not become a city, we were not going to have enough money to provide basic services like police and fire,” Kamau said, explaining that voters initially rejected South Fulton’s incorporation bid in 2007, but approved it in a 2017 referendum.
When new cities form out of unincorporated counties, they take their tax revenue with them, a phenomenon social policy researcher Brian Highsmith refers to as “municipal hoarding.” That can lead to something of a municipal arms race, where the left-behind communities feel pressure to also incorporate, or watch their tax revenue be stretched even thinner across the county.
Would it have been better for Fulton to remain one unified county, instead of becoming a balkanized region of small cities? “When you’re one unit, it’s easier to share resources,” Kamau acknowledged.
But, he said, the creation of majority-white cities like Chattahoochee Hills, Johns Creek and Milton sucked an increasing amount of tax revenue out of unincorporated Fulton–and Black communities have become fed up with footing the bill.
“It’s about self-determination,” Kamau said, echoing the same sentiment white communities have expressed for creating their own cities–and, in an earlier era, for resisting public school integration.
For South Fulton, that means embracing its slogan, “Blackest city in America” as an opportunity, not an afterthought. Kamau said his vision for the city, “Black on Purpose,” is about building a community identity as robust as those that prompted other metro-area cities to incorporate.
Hutchins, the organizer for Mableton’s cityhood movement, said the municipal “arms race” is a reality in Cobb County, too. “There are concerns with parts of Mableton being annexed into neighboring municipalities,” he said in an email.
Although there’s a desire for local control, Hutchins added, Mableton’s cityhood effort isn’t driven by the kind of antipathy towards county governance that’s been expressed in some of Cobb County’s other incorporation efforts, particularly East Cobb, where cityhood proponents have argued that Cobb County officials are waging a “war on the suburbs.”
Hutchins emphasized that Mableton is a distinct community, not a carve-out from the suburbs. Mableton residents, he said, have spent years talking about whether to form a city, and Mableton proponents commissioned its city feasibility study two years ago, while other cityhood projects in Cobb County only did so last fall.
That strong sense of community identity and Mableton’s past history as a city, provide an existing framework for cityhood, Hutchins said, noting that the area is one of just a few census designated places (CDPs)–a term for an area with a concentrated population–in metro-Atlanta that has yet to be incorporated.
New majority-Black cities like South Fulton and Mableton mark a new chapter in Atlanta’s cityhood story. Their creation is changing the traditional tale about who incorporates and why, but the unique circumstances driving the process in each city make it clear that new incorporation efforts aren’t identical.
Wherever the story goes, the end of the book is a long way off. Even as Cobb residents consider the county’s four proposed new cities, the supporters of a city of Buckhead say they want another shot at secession, the proposed city of Dekalb is gearing up for its own incorporation bid, and unincorporated areas are watching closely, as they consider their own cityhood prospects. There are many chapters still to come.