Atlanta has been a hormonal adolescent for decades, driven by youthful ambition, insecurity over its lack of identity, and resentment over the belief that it’s not taken seriously by its elders.
But the city is looking all grown up these days — emerging in the unfamiliar position of national leader on social and economic issues and even setting the record straight when the president falsely portrayed Atlanta as “burning and crime infested.”
Coming so close to its first Super Bowl victory in franchise history, just as the city prepares to open two pro sports stadiums, Atlanta is reaching for a civic dream as much as an athletic one. Sports have a special significance for this Southern city; the arrival of the Falcons and the Braves in 1966, and the Hawks in 1968, represented the beginning of Atlanta’s transcending its Southern roots and becoming a national city. Professional sports didn’t come to North Carolina until 1988. Tennessee didn’t get its first professional team until 1997.
Atlanta has embraced its growth, even defining itself as the thriving economic engine of the New South. Until the financial crisis in 2008, that meant an endless boom in suburban real estate growth and development.
Atlanta is a proud importer. As the foodie and craft cocktail movement found its way to Atlanta, one of the restaurants that epitomized this trend starting in 2010 was named Empire State South, a nod to New York. Thanks to tax credit changes in Georgia state law in 2008, Atlanta has become a center of movie production, but its nickname “Y’allywood” harks back to its big brother out west. And like so many cities, Atlanta has worked to grow and hype its startup and tech community, seeking to become the undisputed “Silicon Valley of the South.”
Over the past few months, something in the city has changed. The Braves played their final game in Turner Field, awaiting the opening of SunTrust Park, a controversial taxpayer-subsidized boondoggle that ultimately cost its architect, Cobb County Commissioner Tim Lee, his job in a July special election. The Falcons’ trip to the Super Bowl and move next season to its new, taxpayer-subsidized $1.5 billion home has focused attention not only on their on-field success, but also on some of the poverty and blight in nearby neighborhoods. Could a city famous for its boosterism finally be ready to acknowledge some of its shortcomings? That would be yet one more marker of Atlanta’s arrival in adulthood.
President Donald Trump’s attacks on U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Atlanta’s civil rights icon, have elevated the congressman into a sort of avatar for local and national Democrats. When Trump tweeted about how Lewis’s congressional district was “falling apart,” it brought Atlantans together on social media using the #DefendThe5th hashtag. After the Trump administration’s executive order on immigrants and refugees, Lewis rushed to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
If Georgia U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Roswell, is confirmed as secretary of Health and Human Services, Atlanta will be in the spotlight again this year when his suburban district holds a special election. While Price won re-election comfortably, Trump squeaked by in that district by just 1.5 points. Of all 241 House districts held by Republicans, the Georgia 6th had the second-largest swing toward Democrats. It’s a prime target if Democrats are to regain a House majority in 2018.
Long used to feeling like the little sibling of more-established cities, Atlanta believes it has finally earned its turn in the spotlight. For once, rather than trying to be more like New York or San Francisco, Atlanta can look at other cities and ask, “Who’s your John Lewis?” And with the special election likely, the wealthy white suburbanites of places like Alpharetta and Roswell may show congressional Republicans that their support can no longer be taken for granted.
A Super Bowl victory may have slipped through the Falcons’ hands, but Atlanta’s time at the top might be just getting started.
Conor Sen wrote this for Bloomberg View, where he is a columnist. He’s also an investment portfolio manager in Atlanta.