Mapping Migration in Atlanta

Lyman Stone
Jan 7, 2015 · 7 min read

Visualizing Local Migration Trends in the South’s Biggest City

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In yesterday’s post, I looked at migration around the state of Georgia. I especially pointed out how a few military bases and universities impacted migration in a disproportionate way, and also Atlanta’s relationship with the rest of the state. For today’s post, I’m going to delve a little deeper into Atlanta-specific migration: and specifically the question of race in migration.

When I started thinking about this post, I considered a voluminous everything-you-need-to-know post, looking at migration by race, income, census tract information, commuter range, property values, etc, as I’ve done for Louisville and Cincinnati in the past. I’ll still look at some of that data for this post, but really I want to drill down on just one big question: what role does race play in Atlanta’s local migration? I’m a southerner to the bone (raised in Kentucky and half my family tree is Georgian), so the question of race is an ever-present consideration. I could wax on about the “haunted south” as Flannery O’Connor put it, but for now I’ll just say that I think race is an extremely important issue for any study of migration, but especially for Atlanta, the south’s central metropolis.

Regions of Atlanta: The Core and the Suburbs

I’ve divided Atlanta into 7 regions based on trends in population and transportation. I first looked up a service map for public transit, and defined “suburbs” as counties with little or no public transit access. Then I divided the suburbs into three groups based on major road connections into Atlanta. That left me with three corecounties (Cobb, Fulton, and DeKalb) and three major suburban sectors. After looking at more demographic and population data, I made Gwinnett County its own region as well, for reasons I’ll discuss below.

Describing the Regions: What is Life Like?

Major modern cities cram hugely different communities close together. For example, the map below shows a dot for each person in Atlanta, color-coded by race. As can be seen, the city has an enormous amount of racial diversity, still segregated in a de facto basis into separate neighborhoods.


Green represents black individuals, blue represents white, orange represents Hispanic or Latino, and red represents Asian. The white population in Atlanta is like a wedge cutting into the heart of the city from the north, while the black population is spread out around the south, east, and west. On the border between white and black areas in the east and west are hispanic communities, and the northeast has a large Asian population. The extremely multi-colored patches in the northeast you see are mostly Gwinnett County and Forsyth County (part of the northern suburbs).

These trends also show up in property values and housing costs. Predominantly white areas tend to have higher home prices, while the “black belt” in the south has much lower home values and housing costs. Notably, variations in rental costs are smaller than home prices: so while homeowners may get a discount in the south, renters do not get as much of a discount.

This difference also coordinates with disparities in educational attainment. Minority-majority areas tend to have a far lower percentage of the population with a college degree. By now, you should get the point: we’re talking about a tale of two cities. The “White Wedge” is one Atlanta, and the “Black Belt” is another. The two have different industrial clusters, household characteristics, political alignments, average incomes, even linguistic traits. Southwest Atlanta has its own special nicknames in rap and hip-hop music as well.

But even as Atlanta is really two different cities, it’s also a city in the midst of change.

Net Migration Rate by Atlanta Subregions: Suburbs Filling Up, Core Hollowing Out

Within Greater Atlanta, suburbanization continues to be the dominant migration trend. Overall, the central counties like Fulton and DeKalb are losing local migrants, while the suburbs gain. It is notable that some of these losses are offset by other forms of migration: much migration to other parts of Georgia comes from the suburbs, while much interstate migration flows to the core.

For example, DeKalb County lost 0.23% of its population per year to other parts of Atlanta, coming to about 1,600 people. But it gained about 4,400 people from interstate migration per year. In general, interstate migration was about 60% larger in the core counties in terms of total volume, and about 40% more positive in terms of the net rate.

This tells us something interesting: out-of-state people are moving into the core, and core residents are moving to the suburbs. This could just be the normal life cycle showing up: the “young and restless” move long ranges more frequently, so move into Atlanta, and prefer the urban core. They get older, have kids, and suburbanize.

However, there are good reasons to think this isn’t what’s happening.

Racial Disparities in Migration: Urban Whites and Suburban Blacks

If you go to Paris and talk about people in the suburbs, it will be widely understand that you’re likely talking about minority groups. Not always, but often. The same is true in many places around Europe and Asia: suburbs tend to be poorer minorities. In the United States, it’s the reverse: “urban” is practically synonymous with “black” in conventional parlance. However, there is evidence that, in Atlanta, this may be changing.

Among migrants within the Atlanta region, whites were far more likely to prefer the urban core, while blacks were more likely to prefer the suburbs. The flows of black migrants to suburbs, especially into southern suburbs like Henry County, were disproportionately large. For example, over 4,200 black individuals per year migrated from the core counties (Cobb, Fulton, DeKalb, and Gwinnett) to the southern suburbs per year. Meanwhile, about 400 white individuals made the opposite trek. Even within the core counties, there were racial disparities. About 200 blacks a year, on net, migrated out of DeKalb County to other Atlanta counties, while almost 2,000 whites moved in. For Gwinnett County, about 2,300 blacks moved in per year, while about 1,200 whites moved out. The total result of all this is a “net demographic redistribution” of about 18,000 individuals. Across Atlanta regions, suburbs are getting blacker and the core is getting darker at a rate of about 18,000 people per year. This means that about 10% of the migration in Atlanta involves some kind of racially-biased relocation.

I don’t have data for comparison across other cities, so I can’t say with certainty whether that is a lot or a little. Really, it’s up to Atlanta residents to look around and ask themselves: are we okay with the racial reshuffling going on around us?

Race has been a component of American migration since before we were a nation. I’ve written fairly extensively in the past about race and metro migration around the country, but, in Atlanta’s case, it seems likely to be especially significant. Migration within Greater Atlanta has a measurable and significant racial bias. Even as educated, white, out-of-state migrants move into the core, they’re pushing black residents into the suburbs. Because these white migrants tend to be higher-income, they may prefer more living space, with the possible result of declining urban density in Atlanta’s core. If Atlantans want a dense urban core, they may want to work to stem the tide of out-migration by high-density populations.

Migration within Atlanta is impacted by numerous factors from transportation access to cost of living to education. But race is also a major factor, and one concerning which any southern city must, for historical reasons, take extraordinary care. Is Atlanta doing a good job measuring up to that task? That’s up to residents to say: hopefully the data I’ve presented here can be useful for informing that discussion.

See the previous post!

Start the series from the beginning!

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Follow me on Twitter. Follow my Medium Collection at In a State of Migration. I’m a grad student in International Trade and Investment Policy at the George Washington University’s Elliott School. I like to write and tweet about migration, airplanes, trade, space, and other new and interesting research.

In a State of Migration

People Move. I Ask Why.

Lyman Stone

Written by

Global cotton economist. Migration blogger. Proud Kentuckian. Advisor at Demographic Intelligence. Senior Contributor at The Federalist.

In a State of Migration

People Move. I Ask Why.

Lyman Stone

Written by

Global cotton economist. Migration blogger. Proud Kentuckian. Advisor at Demographic Intelligence. Senior Contributor at The Federalist.

In a State of Migration

People Move. I Ask Why.

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