Who Benefits From ‘Buckxit’?

A Wealthy, White Atlanta Neighborhood’s Bid to Secede Shows What Happens When the Toxicity of National Politics Seeps into Local Affairs

Yard signs in Buckhead, promoting the neighborhood’s secession from Atlanta. Courtesy of AP Images.

Former House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill’s observation that “all politics are local” has been borne out in countless cases where divisions over hot-button state and local issues have derailed efforts to reach consensus on matters of more national importance. As recent developments remind us, though, polarization in national politics can just as readily exacerbate divisions over state and local issues.

This scenario seems to be playing out in Atlanta, where acolytes of former president Donald Trump are calling for the affluent, predominantly white enclave of Buckhead to secede from the city.

Proponents of secession say the timing of their effort simply reflects concern about a recent spike in crime in the area, but it also serves a broader strategic purpose, as part of the national Republican Party’s efforts to regain its footing in Georgia after its surprising stumble in the state’s 2020 presidential and senatorial elections. GOP leaders have already pushed through legislation calculated to suppress minority voting in this year’s gubernatorial and congressional midterm contests in Georgia. Yet they also face a need to rekindle the partisan loyalties of traditionally Republican metropolitan whites, which appeared to lapse nationwide in 2020—especially in places like Buckhead, where Donald Trump claimed only four precincts in 2020, compared to nine in 2016.

The stated case for Buckhead’s breakaway is not wholly lacking in substance. For some time, residents of the area have expressed concern about how much safety their substantial tax payments really buy them. The outcry has intensified in recent months. Buckhead secessionists point to a 44 percent jump in homicides in 2021, with all shooting incidents up by 31 percent and aggravated assaults up by 20 percent. Meanwhile, the city of Atlanta’s efforts to combat a citywide surge in violent crime have suffered from the departure of roughly 1 in 5 of its police officers over the last year in the face of former mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ hard-nosed response to incidents in which police appeared to use excessive force. Predictably, the key plank in the Buckhead Cityhood Committee’s (BCC) secessionist platform is the promise of the highest-paid and most carefully screened police force in Georgia—including 175 active patrolmen, which would purportedly quadruple the number of officers on duty per shift.

Although the percentage increases in Buckhead’s crime rate seem striking, the 44 percent rise in homicides reflects an absolute increase from 8 in 2020 to 13 in 2021, while the area’s police zone recorded substantially fewer violent offenses than the average in Atlanta’s other zones last year. Even so, secession proponents have declared Buckhead a “war zone,” where “the killing never stops.” Such calculated hyperbole is a favorite device of career political subversives like longtime Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who rely on it to shock their followers into actions whose consequences they may not fully comprehend. In this sense, the Buckhead secession movement seems like something straight out of Bannon’s playbook, which envisions hard-right voters seizing control of the Republican Party “village by village, precinct by precinct.”

A great many Buckhead residents are against secession, including the two Democrats who represent the area in the state legislature. In both houses of that body, the sponsors of bills to enable the withdrawal vote are Republicans whose districts lie in other counties, one 50 miles away, and another 100. Not all of the state’s prominent Republicans have openly endorsed the measure, but one who has is former U.S. Senator David Perdue—another non-Buckheader who, with Trump’s endorsement, is now challenging incumbent Brian Kemp in their party’s upcoming gubernatorial primary. Far-right Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a frequent guest on Bannon’s podcast, has also praised the efforts of the Buckhead Cityhood Committee (BCC) and its CEO, Bill White. Greene doesn’t represent Buckhead either. But she has found a kindred spirit in White, a fellow conspiracy theorist who has raised copious sums for Donald Trump, rallied support for the “Stop the Steal” movement, and lauded the “patriots’” who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Further evidence of the partisan allegiances at work in the secession campaign emerged from a BCC poll showing 86 percent of Buckhead’s Republicans favoring the pullout, compared to only 38 percent of its Democrats. The presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, Stacey Abrams, has declared her opposition, as has the newly elected Democratic mayor of Atlanta, Andre Dickens. Proponents of the secession initiative insist that their campaign is colorblind. Still, the number of Black leaders who have lined up with Abrams and Dickens to denounce the effort, combined with BCC-er Bill White’s re-tweet of disparaging comments about Black-majority cities from a white nationalist website, attest to the pronounced racial overtones of the secession campaign. Some 74 percent of the proposed new city’s population, estimated to be in the neighborhood of 100,000, would be white. Without Buckhead, the black share of Atlanta’s population would rise from just over 50 percent to just under 60 percent.

Buckhead secession serves a broader strategic purpose, as part of the national Republican Party’s efforts to regain its footing in Georgia after its surprising stumble in the state’s 2020 presidential and senatorial elections.

This aspect of Buckhead’s departure is particularly ironic in view of the circumstances that led to it becoming part of Atlanta in the first place. Historian Matthew Lassiter has explained how Buckhead became a strategic pawn in Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield’s plan to sustain both his city’s post-World War II economic boom and its reputation for racial stability.

A pragmatist of the first order, Hartsfield prided himself on maintaining a close working relationship with the conservative leaders of the city’s well-established Black middle class. Yet population trends in the mid-20th century suggested Black people would soon outnumber whites in Atlanta, and Hartsfield believed that the prospect of dealing with a Black governing majority would discourage corporate managers from making major investments in his town. Warning that Atlanta was “finished” as a city if it could not expand, he managed in 1952 to push through a legislative annexation plan that tripled its geographic area while adding some 100,000 whites from the Buckhead community lying just to its northeast. The infusion immediately reduced the Black share of the city’s population from 41 to 31 percent.

Hartsfield meant to maintain Black-white relations through moderation, rather than sheer strength of numbers, however, lest he put the lie to his own claim that Atlanta was “Too Busy to Hate.” The prosperous, self-assured, racially tolerant, pro-business white denizens of Buckhead proved critical to this mission. They backed him in 1960, when, with Atlanta schools facing court-ordered desegregation, Hartsfield and allies like prominent attorney and Buckhead resident Griffin Bell thwarted demands to cut state funding for any public school system complying with integration efforts.

In return, Hartsfield’s strategy for school integration in Atlanta minimized its impact on his well-heeled white supporters in Buckhead. The small, carefully selected cadre of Black students assigned to transfer into schools in their neighborhoods in 1963 boasted higher average test scores than their new white classmates, while the numerical brunt of integration fell on the white working-class neighborhoods south and west of downtown.

And much as the mayor had promised, after annexation Buckhead became an economic dynamo, awash in high-income consumers and free-flowing investment capital. When Buckhead’s gleaming, futuristic Lenox Square opened in 1959, it was billed as the South’s largest shopping mall. There would soon be other, smaller, but no less fashionable shopping plazas, as well as a proliferation of steadily higher-rising office towers and a bustling restaurant and bar scene. A Buckhead address, residential or commercial, became synonymous with wealth and power. Not by chance did Tom Wolfe make Charlie Croker, the hard-charging, relentlessly entrepreneurial protagonist of his 1998 novel, A Man in Full, a resident of Buckhead.

Today’s Buckheaders who trumpet secession the loudest don’t seem to have spent much time pondering the practicalities of getting what they say they want. Funding an expanded police presence in an independent Buckhead today shouldn’t be a problem, the BCC insists, citing a feasibility study that foresees the new city’s massive tax base generating a budget surplus in the neighborhood of $114 million annually. But this figure fails to account either for standard municipal expenditures like waste removal and street maintenance or for Buckhead’s substantial portion of Atlanta’s billions in bond and employee pension obligations. A December city council move means nearly $200 million in bond repayment would come due in full 12 months after Buckhead’s official departure.

Another loose end the secession proponents don’t seem keen to discuss is the fate of some 5,500 Buckhead pupils currently enrolled in the Atlanta Public Schools system. While Georgia law is friendly to the creation of new cities, the state’s constitution forbids the creation of new independent public school systems. Who would educate the Buckhead students whose parents can’t afford or don’t choose to send them to one of its ritzy private schools?

Broader fiscal consequences of Buckhead’s withdrawal would be unavoidable. The proposed boundaries of the new city contain all or part of three of the four richest zip codes in Georgia. The richest, 30327, boasts an average household income of $285,000, with 40 percent of its homes valued above $1 million. With its high-dollar commercial properties thrown in, Buckhead’s departure would strip Atlanta of some 40 percent of the total assessed value of its taxable property, and more than half of the budgeted revenue for its public schools. So much for the city’s credit rating—and ultimately, perhaps, that of other Georgia cities that might see their tax bases decimated by similar desertions should Buckhead’s come to pass. (There are already copycat movements in places like Athens, where there is talk of the upscale Five Points neighborhood withdrawing from the city.)

For some supporters, the secession drive seems to be more about wounding Atlanta than benefiting Buckhead.  Fox News host Tucker Carlson was so taken with the prospect of punishing “woke” leaders of a Black majority city that when the BCC’s Bill White appeared on his show, he grew animated in urging White and his cohort to “leave immediately. That’ll be a lesson to the rest of the country.”

The substance of that lesson may prove less to their liking than Carlson and other Buckhead Cityhood proponents envision. Efforts by white conservatives to hold Atlanta’s political influence in check have been a fixture in Georgia politics for more than 150 years. But pushing the city that accounts for roughly two-thirds of the state’s GDP to the brink of receivership hardly promises to sit well with executives of the 29 Fortune 1,000 companies who currently call it home, or other mega-investors who might now think twice about joining them.

There are indications that enthusiasm for what some Atlantans call “Buckxit” is on the wane, but even if the deeply partisan venture ultimately fizzles, it has already shown that the same political mentality that stirs vindictiveness and division in national affairs stands to be no less toxic when it surfaces in matters of more local concern.


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