Talk of Buckhead separating from Atlanta to become its own city is rumbling once again, with neighborhood groups said to be forming to discuss the idea. But local City Council members warn it’s a difficult path, and major business organizations are condemning the idea as divisive in a time of debates about racial and economic inequity.

City Councilmember Howard Shook of North Buckhead’s District 7 said he has heard new cityhood talk informally from residents and that it is driven by concerns about crime. But he also expressed skepticism about the complex process and the potential result.

“This crops up in direct connection with big spikes with crime,” said Shook, adding that now concern about “not just crime, but law and order, is at an unprecedented level, so it is angst and fear and anxiety, and people are curious as to whether the city of Buckhead is a viable answer.”

“Don’t think I don’t think about it,” Shook said of cityhood, but added that it’s far from simple. “People think, ‘OK, well, we’ll set up our city. There’ll be no taxes and cops will get cats out of trees.’ Well, not really.”

The Buckhead neighborhood flag created by the Buckhead Coalition.

The Buckhead Coalition, an invitation-only group of business and civic leaders, issued a statement opposing separate cityhood that was supported by three other closely linked business organizations.

“The Buckhead Coalition has historically opposed the incorporation of Buckhead into a separate city, and the Coalition leadership would like at this time to reaffirm that stance,” the statement said. “Our partnering organizations — the Buckhead Community Improvement District, Livable Buckhead and Buckhead Business Association — share this vision. Now, as much as at any time in our history, we believe Atlantans need to come together across racial, geographic and economic differences to find common ground and build a more unified community.”

The Coalition’s new president is Jim Durrett, who also heads the Buckhead CID. He took over this month for former president and former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell, who also long opposed Buckhead cityhood, even while promoting the neighborhood with such distinctions as a local flag. Coalition spokesperson Tracy Paden said the groups heard about the cityhood talk on the private social media network Nextdoor.

Jim Durrett, president of the Buckhead Coalition and executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District.

The press office of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms did not respond to a comment request. Neither did Mary Norwood, Bottoms’ former mayoral race foe, who now heads the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods. Norwood said last year that if residents raised the cityhood issue, she would neither “lead the charge” nor oppose them.

Shook and fellow Buckhead-area City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit said they recently met with Bottoms. They would not say much about the content of the discussion, with Matzigkeit saying it focused on “how we address crime and improve police morale.”

“I support citizens’ rights to determine how they are governed; this is fundamental to the founding of America,” said Matzigkeit in a text message about the cityhood rumblings. But, he added, the process would be “a long and difficult path” and he is focused on priorities in his district.

A history of cityhood talks

Buckhead has long stood out in Atlanta. It’s a majority-White and politically conservative enclave in a majority-Black and Democratic city. It’s also fantastically wealthy, with a major business district, internationally known shopping centers and residential real estate that anchor Atlanta’s tax base as well as illustrates its income inequality. The racial, economic and political differences, some historians say, date back to Jim Crow-era segregation; the neighborhood was annexed into the city in 1952 in part to keep the voting rolls majority-White.

Those differences have led to repeated cityhood talk over the years, largely cast as concerns that taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth. “It’s an old topic, been around for as long as I’ve been here,” said Shook.

The most recent serious discussions followed the landmark 2005 incorporation of the neighboring city of Sandy Springs. In 2008, the now-defunct Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation hosted a Buckhead cityhood meeting that drew more than 200 attendees — including state legislators who poured cold water on the idea.

A decade later, local rumblings revived as residents of a country club neighborhood in the Henry County city of Stockbridge attempted to secede as a new city called Eagle’s Landing. The Eagle’s Landing move triggered a debate about race, class and economic impacts that drew national media attention before the cityhood proposal failed at the polls.

Last year, local Nextdoor feeds were abuzz with a related idea: Buckhead being annexed into Sandy Springs. The idea drew little official enthusiasm.

Shook said that he has heard about the latest cityhood talk from various residents and that two groups may be forming to hold more organized discussions, but no one involved has contacted him directly.  “It’s organic. It’s residents. It’s ad hoc,” he said.

The new cityhood rumbling comes amid the ongoing upheaval of protests against racism and police brutality that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May, with further local unrest fueled by the Atlanta Police killing of Rayshard Brooks in Peoplestown in June. Many protests have come to Buckhead, with organizers sometimes citing the local demographics as a reason.

In the wake of the protests, the Buckhead CID previously issued a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The statement from the Buckhead Coalition on behalf of the CID, Livable Buckhead and the business association focused on unity rather than separatism.

“The Buckhead Coalition is committed to working with city government to ensure that the businesses and residents of our city are supported with the necessary municipal services and to build a more cohesive, equitable, safe, and prosperous city for all,” the statement said.

Crime concerns

Shook is a CID board member who says he was not aware of the Black Lives Matter statement before it went out, but did see a draft of the Coalition’s cityhood response.

Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook.

“I said … some residents are going to feel like this is sort of dismissive of the concerns that have people worried in the first place,” Shook said. The big concern now, he said, is crime.

Buckhead’s Zone 2 police precinct regularly posts the city’s lowest crime numbers, but a combination of recent incidents and citywide and national moods appear to be influencing the local talk.

A burst of gun violence earlier this year sparked neighborhood concern, including two killings, a masked gunman firing on an apartment security officer, and a man wounded while riding in a car.

During the first night of largely peaceful Atlanta protests in May about Floyd’s killing, some rioters showed up in Buckhead, looting and vandalizing stores. However, more influential on the cityhood politics appears to be the lingering tension between Bottoms and the Atlanta Police Department after the Brooks killing. Bottoms quickly declared the killing unjustified and Police Chief Erika Shields, who is popular among many Buckhead residents, resigned. Officers have reportedly called out in protest and worked less aggressively. The city allowed protesters, some of them armed,  to occupy the site of Brooks’ killing, and new controversy arose this month when 8-year-old Secoriea Turner was shot to death while in a car passing through the area. That killing came amid a spike in shootings across the city.

A ‘complex, difficult topic’

Whatever the politics behind cityhood, the politics of enacting it would be tough, according to Shook. He said he sees his role as one of providing facts about the idea, and that’s a big one.

“It is a very complex, difficult topic. Buckhead residents will not simply be able to meet in some church basements and rec rooms and, with a show of hands, secede,” said Shook. “There is no exit portal. The General Assembly and governor would have to create one.”

He noted that the Eagle’s Landing separatist effort failed despite a provision allowing only those living in the would-be new city to vote on it. He also noted that proposal made it through the General Assembly due to a Republican legislative delegation, whereas the local delegation is Democratic.

“And people also need to understand all the things that wouldn’t change,” Shook said. “People don’t realize, well, we’ll still be victimized by the Fulton County court system. We’ll still have the Fulton County tax assessor. The criminals aren’t going away. Development rights are all constitutionally vested, so there’s nothing we can do about Buckhead’s density. I mean, … it’s a lot to wrap your mind around.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.