OPINION: Buckhead Bill heads to lakefront. Cityhood movement dries up

 Bill White looks through some of the boxes that are left to move from the Buckhead City Committee Headquarters Thursday, Mar. 30, 2023.  (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Bill White looks through some of the boxes that are left to move from the Buckhead City Committee Headquarters Thursday, Mar. 30, 2023. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Look out Lake Burton Civic Association, there’s a heat-seeking missile heading your way up I-85. Buckhead Bill White is exiting the civic soap opera he fueled in Atlanta and is moving to an elegant lake house.

White, the face — and mouth — of the Buckhead City movement has deduced there’s nothing more he can do for the fine secessionists in Atlanta. The movement is kaput. At least for now, he figures, after Gov. Brian Kemp doused the flames White continually fanned.

If cityhood is dead, why remain, as he repeatedly has called it, in a “War Zone”?

Now, Buckhead is no more a war zone than Bill White is an introvert, but the New York transplant made his short stint in the South very notable and divisive.

Last week, he told my AJC colleagues Tamar Hallerman and Riley Bunch, he and his husband are leaving town and will eventually move south, where he can reach his full potential as Florida Man Bill. There are many contentious causes there to sate White’s appetite.

The idea of carving out a new city from Atlanta’s ritzy north side has bubbled for years, although a chunk of an existing city has never pulled away to create its own fiefdom. It’s horrible policy and could undermine all existing cities. In essence, such a trend could create a municipal race to the bottom in cities statewide with fierce debates about money, class and race.

White moved to Buckhead at a time when all that is needed to carry the day is grievance and bluster. He plugged into ongoing resentments that Buckhead is a piggybank for Atlanta. He convinced his old New York buddy, Donald Trump, to publicly support the idea of Buckhead pulling away from Atlanta, got a gaggle of rural Georgia pols to back the movement and even had a platform on the highly rated, yet malignant, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” show on Fox News Channel.

Bill White, right, on "Tucker Carlson Tonight."

Credit: Screengrab from Fox News

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Credit: Screengrab from Fox News

White came to the Buckhead movement after exhausting his efforts in the Stop The Steal sideshow in early 2021. At the time, there were already some Buckhead residents, tired of increasing crime, who were exploring the idea of cityhood.

“We were introduced to Bill White, oddly, under the money tree at OK Cafe,” said Sam Lenaeus, a real estate agent and a founder of the movement. He was referring to tree of fake money in the restaurant popular with old-time Buckheadites.

Lanaeus told me White was the right man for the job.

“He likes the camera more than I and he said he was there to take the bullets for the rest of us,” he said. “He brought in publicity, which also brought it money. It’s a two-fold thing in Georgia. You have to appeal to the legislators.”

White is a fundraising dynamo, an unabashed raconteur able to get folks to reach for their checkbooks and scribble numbers with zeroes. He says the movement under his control raised $2.5 million. Financial records for the organization were available only for 2021 and show it raised more than $1.1 million that year. The biggest expenditures were lobbying ($341,000), rent for the Peachtree Road HQ ($180,000), advertising and promotions ($118,000) and legal services ($58,000). The documents show White and other officers did not collect salaries.

White was the best thing that could have happened to the Buckhead City movement, until, of course, he became absolutely the worst thing.

He once told me the effort would be “rudderless” without him.

“He’s the reason it got as far as it got,” said longtime Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook, who represents half of Buckhead. “And he’s the reason that it died. The retweets, the Trump stuff and the Jeff Parker stuff. That was just lousy. You just don’t go there.”

White is a social media warrior and, among other things, retweeted and then deleted a post from VDARE, a white nationalist site. Worse, he took to Instagram last year and speculated about “missing” money and the suicide of then-MARTA CEO Jeff Parker. There was no missing money and eye rolls around town about Bill White were replaced by a sense of disgust.

White, who I’ve repeatedly likened to a well-coiffed carnival barker, did not respond to my request to talk.

February 16, 2022 Atlanta - Bill White, chairman and CEO of the Buckhead City Committee, speaks to members of the press during a news conference to discuss an important series of next steps outside the Buckhead City Committee headquarters on Wednesday, February 16, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

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Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Largely, cityhood died a month ago when Gov. Brian Kemp tossed a wet blanket on the movement, circulating a letter with a host of unanswered questions about the complicated — and uncharted — matter of removing an existing portion of a city and starting anew.

Of course, the fact that White was publicly a huge backer of former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who ran unsuccessfully against Kemp in the 2022 Republican primary, kind of ensured Kemp wouldn’t be too keen on Buckhead City.

White, still stinging, told my colleagues, “When the governor inserted himself in a shady, sleazy, backdoor kind of way, then the result was clear.” Totally sounds like a man packing his bags for Florida.

Councilman Shook agrees city services for Buckhead are still lagging, although Mayor Andre Dickens still enjoys a “honeymoon” with a large chunk of Buckhead.

The talk of cityhood, he said, “is never going to go away. It never has gone away. But without Bill White, it’s no longer a three-alarm fire.

“We’re now going back to regular programming,” Shook added. “People will talk about it, but we won’t go back there.”