I’m one of us, but today I’m writing as one of them. I’m not talking about the conservative/liberal split. I mean the two Georgias split: metro Atlanta, and the rest of the state.
Having grown up in Dalton and now making my home in Atlanta, I’ve lived this divide. It isn’t unique to our state, or even our country. But it dearly costs both Atlanta and the state as a whole. And the power to change this dynamic lies with Atlanta.
Do some Georgians hate their capital city? Perhaps. But it’s safe to say that far more are grateful to live near a world-class city and its amenities — the international airport, the hospitals, the universities, the shopping, the professional sports teams, the museums and cultural events.
What they don’t appreciate is being treated as some kind of little brother whom Atlantans tolerate or just ignore. Or as the state’s version of flyover country. They don’t appreciate hearing Atlantans complain that the state wastes money on four-lane highways to nowhere that could be spent on MARTA. They don’t appreciate hearing the water wars with Alabama and Florida cast as a threat to Atlantans, ignoring the farmers farther south.
Beating non-Atlantans at the legislature hasn’t worked, as the AJC’s Margaret Newkirk well described in her Sunday article: “Georgia often sneers as Atlanta struggles.”
Nor has metro Atlanta’s greater population growth — it’s accounted for three of every four new Georgians since 2000 — given it more sway at the ballot box. In fact, in two of the last four statewide, top-of-the-ticket races have turned on the non-Atlanta vote. Sonny Perdue beat Roy Barnes in 2002 despite losing metro Atlanta, and John McCain pulled off the same trick in last year’s election. (In 2004, George W. Bush won Atlanta and the rest of the state; ditto for Perdue in 2006.)
A gubernatorial election in which one candidate ran a decidedly anti-Atlanta campaign might unite metro voters in a way that would swamp the results elsewhere. But neither a Republican nor a Democrat can afford to lose Atlanta heavily, so that’s a highly unlikely scenario.
Waiting for further population growth to change votes on the ground, either in elections or at the legislature, isn’t an option for Atlanta. Its biggest problems are too urgent for that.
So the city’s next mayor has an important task as soon as she or he is elected: Reach out to the rest of the state. I’m not talking about a charm offensive so much as a listening tour. If Atlanta’s leaders — including those in the suburbs — understand the rest of the state’s needs, they can find ways that those needs mesh with Atlanta’s.
For example, congestion in Atlanta affects more than the people who live here. Many products from South Georgia and goods that enter the port of Savannah pass northward through Atlanta. North Georgia carpet mills sometimes send their trucks south on I-75 through Atlanta so that they can take I-85 northward to the Eastern seaboard, for lack of another east-west connector.
Don’t try to buy their votes by supporting their own pet causes. Seek out projects that would help multiple regions. One is a proposal for a limited-access highway tracking U.S. 27 in western Georgia that would surely divert a substantial number of cargo trucks and Florida-bound tourists who now help to clog up Atlanta’s roads.
The two Georgias approach can take us only so far. If Atlanta wants more cooperation from the state, it can’t act like a state unto itself.