As Atlanta’s population changes, so does the race for mayor

A crowd fills a room at Manuel's Tavern room to hear mayoral candidates at a forum hosted by The Young Democrats of Atlanta on Aug. 4. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
A crowd fills a room at Manuel's Tavern room to hear mayoral candidates at a forum hosted by The Young Democrats of Atlanta on Aug. 4. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Over the last 10 years in TJ Austin’s intown Atlanta neighborhood, the typical home value has gone up eightfold. A brand-new park promises to bring new development to the historically African-American area.

And the residents?

“A lot of my neighbors are still the same, but people have moved in, people have moved away. It’s not some cataclysmic change, but slowly you can start seeing a difference,” said Austin, who lives in Grove Park on Atlanta’s Westside and used to lead the neighborhood association there. “Even today, I’m at my house, I see ... some of my neighbors are white, some of my neighbors are minorities.”

The shifts Austin noticed over the years were evident in new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau this month.

Among the findings: Atlanta grew by 71,400 people from 2010 to 2020. But the number of new white residents far outpaced Black population growth. Atlanta recorded an influx of almost 36,000 additional white residents in the last 10 years, compared to just 6,700 more Black residents. The city’s Hispanic and Asian populations grew by 8,000 and 8,100, respectively.

Black residents, the data showed, are no longer the majority in Atlanta, though they are still the largest racial group, making up 47% of the population. And with more than 100,000 Atlantans added to the voter rolls since the last mayoral election, campaigns are facing a different landscape than they did in 2017 as they ramp up crucial ground-game campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts.

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The demographic shifts are important in a city where race is often an undercurrent in local elections and a central part of Atlanta’s history and identity. In 2009 and 2017, when white candidate Mary Norwood lost tight runoffs against Kasim Reed and Keisha Lance Bottoms, the question of whether Atlanta should be led by a white mayor for the first time since 1974 was an underlying factor throughout both races.

The divide played out at the ballot box in 2017 — Bottoms won 73% of the vote in majority-Black districts, but just 29% in majority-white areas, according to an analysis by Chism Strategies, a voter contact and research firm.

It remains to be seen how much race will be a factor in this year’s election, in which only one of the five leading candidates is white. With neighborhoods becoming less homogeneous and the share of white voters increasing, Clark Atlanta University political science professor Tammy Greer said the mayoral candidates may angle for a more “mainstream” approach to appeal to a wider swath of the electorate.

Caption
Atlanta mayoral candidates (from left) Council President Felicia Moore, Councilman Antonio Brown, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, attorney Sharon Gay, Councilman Andre Dickens, and local businessman Richard Wright take part in a mayoral forum on August 4. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Atlanta mayoral candidates (from left) Council President Felicia Moore, Councilman Antonio Brown, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, attorney Sharon Gay, Councilman Andre Dickens, and local businessman Richard Wright take part in a mayoral forum on August 4. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Atlanta mayoral candidates (from left) Council President Felicia Moore, Councilman Antonio Brown, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, attorney Sharon Gay, Councilman Andre Dickens, and local businessman Richard Wright take part in a mayoral forum on August 4. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“We don’t want to say race out loud, yet we had the subtext of race in the previous two elections,” Greer said. “Now, one could argue that the issues that are being discussed are more along the lines of policy and not so much with a racial undertone.”

African Americans still make up a majority of the registered voters in Atlanta, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will always make up a majority of voters who cast a ballot. In last year’s presidential election, white voters in Atlanta made up a slim plurality of voters, according to the Chism analysis.

ExploreCould Atlanta elect a white mayor in 2017? Does it matter?

But the upcoming local election, which is sure to attract less attention and turnout than the national races, could favor the Black electorate, said Brannon Miller, the director of voter targeting for Chism.

“In a mayoral race, you would expect a low-to-medium turnout race. You would expect the electorate to be disproportionately older, and older people in Atlanta are disproportionately African-American.”

Miller noted that while the number of voter registrations spiked over the last four years, it didn’t translate into an equal increase in turnout.

“Even once you get someone registered to vote, it’s really hard and really expensive to get them to turn out,” Miller said. “The apathy is very, very strong.”

As mayoral campaigns look to get out the vote this fall, Miller said candidates may look geographically rather than demographically to find pockets of votes. For example, the city’s mostly white northside and eastside, as well as its predominantly Black southwest corner, grew at a faster rate than the rest of the city over the last 10 years, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis shows.

“We don't want to say race out loud, yet we had the subtext of race in the previous two elections."

- - Tammy Greer, Clark Atlanta University professor

Many demographic shifts, meanwhile, occurred within historically Black neighborhoods on the southside and westside. Many of those neighborhoods, like Grove Park, West End and Peoplestown, are still majority-Black, but saw an uptick in white residents since 2010. Meanwhile, many neighborhoods in Buckhead saw a rise in their share of non-white residents.

To experts like Greer, the data shows the extent to which rising housing costs have gentrified historic neighborhoods, pushing Black residents out.

“Legacy residents cannot afford to live in the city proper anymore,” Greer said.

While Atlanta’s succession of Black mayors goes back nearly 50 years — and could continue after this year’s election — the drop in the Black population further challenges the narrative that Atlanta is a mecca for Black people and Black political power, Greer said.

“It will be interesting to see how long … the city of Atlanta will continue to hold this perception in the country of being a beacon for Black people,” Greer said.

Caption
The Grove Park neighborhood on Atlanta's Westside. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Grove Park neighborhood on Atlanta's Westside. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
The Grove Park neighborhood on Atlanta's Westside. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Austin, who has lived in Atlanta since 2005 and in Grove Park since 2016, said higher-income professionals of all races have moved into the neighborhood, while renters have borne the biggest burden.

“What’s truly changing,” he said, “is the income difference between the people moving over here.”

Atlanta population changes

Total population, 2010: 427,312

Total population, 2020: 498,715

Percent change: 16.7%

Black population, 2010: 226,292

Black population, 2020: 233,018

Percent change: 3%

White population, 2010: 156,338

White population, 2020: 192,148

Percent change: 22.9%

Hispanic population, 2010: 21,966

Hispanic population, 2020: 29,988

Percent change: 36.5%

Asian population, 2010: 14,076

Asian population, 2020: 22,208

Percent change: 57.8

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