Publication Date

December 1, 2006

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

W.E.B. Du Bois once described Atlanta as “South of the North, yet North of the South.” As this observation suggests, Atlanta is not easily defined by regional characteristics. Geographically, it lies below the Mason-Dixon line and shares important historic, religious, and political ties with the rest of the South. Yet at times in its history the city’s orientation and behavior have been decidedly “unsouthern.”

So how do you interpret a city like this? How do you explain how it developed or even why it looks and acts the way it does today? I would suggest that there are four key factors to consider in explaining Atlanta.



Atlanta was founded in 1837—more than a century after Savannah—in the last section of Georgia to be settled by non-Native Americans. The relative youth of Atlanta may help explain a number of things about the city, including the absence of a long-entrenched aristocracy. There are, to be sure, some pioneer families in Atlanta who have resided in the area since the 1830s, but the majority of the city’s most influential families arrived much later. As a result, the city is hospitable to the nouveau riche and the newly arrived. The city’s age also helps explain, in part, why there are so few 19th-century buildings still present in Atlanta. Contrary to popular perception, all of these buildings weren’t destroyed by Sherman. Many more were leveled by developers and businessmen in the name of progress and modernity.

Trains, Planes, and Automobiles

Atlanta’s origins and history are closely tied to advances in transportation. In fact, railroads created the city. There was no striking topographical feature, no unique natural resource that brought Atlanta into being. Instead, the settlement that would become Atlanta (appropriately named “Terminus”) emerged in 1837 around the zero mile post for a proposed new state rail line—the Western and Atlantic.

When two other major rail lines connected with the W&A in the center of the city, Atlanta became a regional transportation hub with rail connections to cities in and beyond the South. Not surprisingly, the movers and shakers in pre-Civil War Atlanta were not the plantation owners (as the movie Gone with the Wind would seem to suggest) but the railroad men and merchants, whose business interests and connections—like the rail lines themselves—extended beyond the South (a factor that may help explain why the majority of voters in Atlanta in 1860 supported unionist rather than secessionist candidates).

Railroads remained the city’s foremost employers until the 1920s, but they were soon supplanted in popularity and usage by two other forms of transportation—airplanes and automobiles.
The automobile had a profound effect on the city’s growth and development. Its early presence and popularity spurred the construction of viaducts in downtown Atlanta to alleviate congestion and accidents by raising roadways above the railroad lines. (When you visit Underground Atlanta today, you are actually going down to the original level of the city.) Automobiles also facilitated the movement of Atlanta’s elite and middle classes away from the center of the city to the early suburbs, the construction of superhighways (years before the federal government launched its national interstate highway project), and, in recent years, increasing traffic congestion, smog alerts, and the nation’s longest average commute time.

Atlanta’s air connections began in the 1920s. By the end of World War II, two major airlines—Delta and Eastern—were already headquartered and operating out of Atlanta’s municipal airport. By 1971 Hartsfield International Airport (now Hartsfield-Jackson) was already the second-busiest air terminal in the United States. The city’s growing domestic and international air connections helped support both the rapid growth of Atlanta’s convention and tourist industry and its claims to being a city of international importance. Today, of course, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport remains a key hub for almost all major domestic and international airlines, giving rise to the popular saying that “to get to heaven or hell, you have to go through Hartsfield-Jackson.”


Race relations have served to connect Atlanta to and distinguish it from other cities in the South. In the antebellum period, Atlanta had both slaves and slave auction houses in its midst. In the years following Reconstruction, the city’s white leadership, including “New South” spokesman Henry Grady, remained firm believers in white supremacy and the need to keep whites and blacks separate and unequal. In the 20th century, Atlanta was both the site of a brutal race riot in 1906, and the “Imperial City” (or national headquarters) of a rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

Despite this history of racial violence and discrimination, Atlanta also gained a reputation as a racially progressive southern city. In part this was due to the presence of such racially focused organizations as the Committee on Interracial Cooperation, the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, the Southern Regional Council, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During the 1960s, the image gained wider national acceptance following the peaceful (albeit slow) desegregation of city schools, the skillful use of the slogan “The City Too Busy to Hate” to set Atlanta apart from the racial violence occurring in other southern cities, and Mayor Ivan Allen’s testimony before Congress in favor of the Equal Accommodations Act.

Today, many of the traditional barriers to desegregation are no longer in place, and the racial divide between city and suburb is beginning to weaken as whites move in increasing numbers back to the city; black suburbanization accelerates; and an influx of new ethnic, immigrant, and refugee groups continue to make their way into the city and metropolitan region. Nevertheless, segregation is still pronounced in many areas of Atlanta and the surrounding metropolitan region. In fact, an Associated Press study of the 1990 and 2000 censuses concluded several years ago that Atlanta was the most segregated city in Georgia and the second-most segregated city in the nation in terms of black-white housing patterns. (Chicago was number one.)

The Atlanta Spirit

The fourth important element to consider in explaining Atlanta’s history and development is the nature and impact of city’s peculiar form of boosterism, often called the “Atlanta Spirit.” Many, if not most, towns and cities have chambers of commerce and visitor and convention bureaus that market and advertise local attractions and city amenities. But in Atlanta, business and political leaders don’t just promote the city, they reinvent it. Throughout the city’s history, Atlanta’s leaders have relied on clever slogans and sometimes outlandish claims to emphasize and lay claim to the city’s regional, national, and even international importance. While Atlanta was still a small town, for example, greatly eclipsed in size by great port cities of the South, it nevertheless began calling itself “The Gate City” to the region. In the latter decades of the 19th century, Atlanta leaders declared the city the capital of the New South, and aggressively promoted its regional and national importance through grand fairs and expositions (including the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition). During the 1920s, the chamber of commerce launched a massive national advertising blitz (called the “Forward Atlanta” campaign) that succeeded in convincing a number of large companies to establish regional headquarters in the city. And in the 1960s, as mentioned above, political and business leaders used the slogan “The City Too Busy to Hate” to set Atlanta apart from other southern cities and emphasize the city’s pro-business environment. That same decade, boosters launched a second Forward Atlanta campaign and attempted to build Atlanta’s image as a “Big League City” by attracting both Fortune 500 companies and the region’s first major league sports teams, including the Braves, Falcons, and Hawks.

In their aggressive pursuit of growth, business, and outside investment, Atlanta campaigns sometimes strained credulity. (The municipal airport, for example, was renamed Hartsfield International Airport when it had only one flight out of the country—to Mexico City). These campaigns also earned the city a reputation for greed and hucksterism (one northern newspaper renamed Atlanta “The Big Hustle”) and distanced it from the traditions and attachments of the region. In the post Civil War period, for example, some city leaders welcomed the touring Radical Republicans and the occupying military forces and even considered erecting a monument to Lincoln. Small wonder that southern critics denounced Atlanta as a “Damn Yankee Town.” One newspaperman from Macon rejoiced that his city was dominated by “Southern men with Southern principles and instincts,” while Atlanta was filled with “itinerant adventurers who come today, swindle somebody, and are off tomorrow.”

Atlanta’s seeming uncertainty over whether it is truly a southern city was reflected in the 1996 Olympic Games (which were viewed locally as verification of the city’s claims to international or global importance). Organizers chose a mascot with no ties to the region (“Izzy,” which appropriately stood for “What Is It?”), yet included a wide spectrum of southern icons and images in the opening and closing ceremonies, ranging from Old South costumes and musicians to cheerleaders in pickup trucks.

Despite changes over time in the size of the city and metropolitan region, the composition of its population, and Atlanta’s economic orientation, these same four historic forces—the city’s age, changes in transportation, race, and the Atlanta Spirit—are still in play today. They are reflected in the relative paucity of historic structures; the passion to emulate and adopt the latest national and international trends and successes; a sprawling, automobile-centered distribution of the metropolitan population; limited usage and development of public transportation; increased highways, traffic lanes, and traffic congestion; entrenched patterns of residential segregation; and a propensity by both black and white city leaders to aggressively promote and reinvent the city through clever slogans (such as the current ATL campaign, where “every day is an opening day”). Today, Atlanta can still be described as “South of the North, yet North of the South”—occupying a position connected to, but in many ways separate from, the region in which it resides.

Andy Ambrose is director of the Tubman African American Museum and the author of two books on Atlanta—Atlanta: An Illustrated History and Metropolitan Frontier, and co-editor of The South in the Twentieth Century. He is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.