In immigrant dense metro Atlanta, the suburbs are rising power centers.
City planner Anna Joo Kim explains why Atlanta is a sign of what's to come.
If you’d been following Anna Joo Kim’s work over the last ten years, you wouldn’t have been surprised by Georgia’s turn to blue.
Kim is a city planner. She looks at cities and figures out where the gaps are - where is it most segregated? Where is it growing? And what do the shifts mean for the future?
For the last 10 years she’s been doing that in Atlanta, with a focus on the city’s immigrant dense suburbs. She’s the author of an upcoming book Immigrant Atlanta: Integration, Segregation and Sprawl in the New South.
Atlanta's immigrant population growth.
The latest Census numbers confirmed what many here have been living and breathing for the last decade - suburban immigrant Atlanta is growing - so much so that metro -Atlanta is now majority non white. The 11 counties around metro Atlanta, only three of which are majority white, grew by 16 percent. The state itself grew by 11 percent in the last decade.
A lot of that growth was concentrated in the Asian community, which grew by 53%, more than any other non-white group over the last decade. The Hispanic community grew by 32 percent, with the growth concentrated mainly in Clayton County and Gwinnett County. One in four children in metro Atlanta live in bilingual or non English households.
What’s behind all this? "The city is a global transnational capital destination. Companies are coming in and creating jobs for immigrants and creating more enclave economy clusters here,” says Kim.
She says it’s also the cost of living. “L.A. and New York are too expensive...we really have for the last decade already seen a shift in where newly arrived folks are coming and it’s not going to be the traditional global cities. It really is going to be places like Atlanta. And not even in the city. It’s places like Tucker. It’s in the suburbs.”
The rise of the suburbs, especially as immigrant destinations, isn't confined to Atlanta alone. Foreign born communities are moving to the suburbs all over the country. In 2010, 51 percent of immigrants moved to a suburb, while 33 percent moved to a city, according to the Census and American Community Survey data. “We’re used to talking about the ethnic enclave as an urban phenomenon. We’re used to talking about L.A. and New York. We have to learn to talk about the suburb as the first and primary destination for so many people of color,” says Kim.
A place to watch: Gwinnett County.
Gwinnett County is home to a lot of those suburbs - “it’s one of the most rapidly growing non white metropolitan areas in the United States,” says Kim. It’s also the second largest county in the state, one of the fastest growing, and has among the largest Asian populations in Georgia (second only to Forsyth, where the Asian population quadrupled in the last decade). It became a minority majority county within a span of just 10 years. Basically, you can wander around Gwinnett County for days and not spot a white person.
Over the last decade, these changes have started to be felt at the ballot boxes. Voter turnout in the 2020 elections was up 63 percent from 2016 in the Asian community alone in Georgia. “It is because of Atlanta and Gwinnett and those larger national patterns that those victories were able to happen,” says Kim.
And the organizing isn’t confined to just presidential election seasons. In June, the work of voting advocacy groups continued to bear fruit - the Gwinnett County election board approved a budget to translate voting materials into Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Korean.
“The Asian American community, the Mexican-American community, the African-American community, has been building power in Gwinnett County now for quite some time and together, constitute a very powerful voting block. Gwinnett County is one of the first to shift and one of the largest...but, it's not going to be the last, ” says Kim.
The urban-suburban disconnect
The challenge - going forward - is going to be to integrate those communities with the city itself.
While the suburbs of Atlanta are becoming dramatically and increasingly brown, the city of Atlanta itself, has not. Less than nine percent of the population is immigrant, black residents are increasingly being priced out, and more and more white residents are moving in.
“The unique thing about the ethnoburbs of Atlanta is the complete lack of relationship with the urban core which I don’t know that I’ve seen anywhere else in my research,” says Kim.
An ethnoburb is a suburban area with a cluster of a particular ethnic minority community and in metro Atlanta, there are lots of them: Chinese communities around Buford Highway; the Vietnamese community in Doraville, Indian and Korean communities in John Creek.
Before arriving in Atlanta, Kim said she thought of Atlanta as this “super immigrant, super Asian place.” But when she arrived, there wasn’t an Asian person in sight. "I lived near downtown, and I remember walking down blocks, and feeling off, and then realizing that I hadn't heard Spanish or another non English language for the entirety of that 15 minute walk, and that was so jarring to me.”
In her interviews with undocumented youth in Norcross, an immigrant dense suburb in Gwinnett County, LatinX and Asian teenagers made it clear the city of Atlanta doesn’t feel like home.
“They've explicitly said, I have no reason to go to the city. I don’t feel safe when I go there. I become hyper visible...The disconnect is concerning because the urban core has so many resources, it’s richer, there's cultural institutions. I would love my mom to be experiencing some of the rich deep cultural power, like black community power...And instead, her understanding of Atlanta is that it's just really Korean place.”
The segregation also leads to major gaps in funding and resources. “The city of Atlanta is the largest, richest city... But because so few immigrants live in the city of Atlanta, all those resources stay with the city of Atlanta.”
Kim says this pattern - of immigrant communities growing in the suburbs and increasing gaps between the urban centers and the outer core - is something you can see all over the South.
“The hope I have for Atlanta's going forward is that the Atlanta story is actually the more common story in American suburbs and American places. So if we can have a deeper understanding of what's happening here socially, politically, economically, Atlanta could be the new global city model.