October 28, 2021

More and more Americans are desperate to redraw their country. In California and Texas, campaigners want their states to secede. In the Pacific Northwest, farming communities in Oregon’s rural, red counties want to split and form part of a reconfigured state called “Greater Idaho”. One recent poll found that 40% of Biden voters and 50% of Trump voters would rather blue and red states break apart and go it alone.

And nowhere does this sort of reconfiguration stand a better chance of success than in Atlanta, where an organised and well-funded group of residents is pushing for Buckhead, the city’s wealthiest neighbourhood, to break away from the de facto capital of the South and form a municipality of its own. But while ‘Buckxit’ may be a local campaign to create a city of just 80,000 residents, it also goes to the heart of the challenges facing cities — and the Democrats who run them — across America.

In Buckhead, as in so many places across the country, calls for secession are being driven by one factor: crime. “We feel like we’re living in a war zone,” says Bill White, who is running the campaign. White says the problem has driven many Buckhead residents out of town. “They’re not leaving because of the potholes,” he tells me. “It’s crime, crime, crime.”

Atlanta is one of the many major American cities that has seen violent crime spike in recent years. Between 2019 and 2020, the city’s murder rate rose by 62%. The problem has worsened further this year; as of June, the city’s homicide rate was up by another 58%, while in the first half of 2021, shootings rose by 40%. Meanwhile, the number of arrests has nearly halved. The city’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, once a rising star in the Democratic Party who was even talked about as a possible Vice-Presidential pick for Joe Biden, has been chastened by the crime explosion on her watch and is not seeking re-election.

Were Buckhead to go its own way, it would take with it a fifth of Atlanta’s current population and threaten to do real damage to the city’s finances. According to one estimate, Atlanta would lose 38% of its tax revenue were it to gain city status. David Sjoquist, Professor of Economics at Georgia State University and an expert of public finances, predicts grave fiscal consequences from Buckxit, as well as a tangle of lawsuits over a move that is without precedent; no neighbourhood in Georgia has ever broken off to form its own city. “Atlanta would be much worse off,” he tells me.

Buckxit, then, has the potential to be fiscally ruinous for a major American city. And Atlanta’s political and business elite are firmly opposed. Bottoms argues that Buckxit would not solve the city’s problems: “Even if an impermeable wall were built around this proposed new city, it would not address the Covid crime wave that Atlanta, the state and the rest of the nation are experiencing,” read one recent statement. “That is why the measure is opposed by many residents and the business community. A better use of this energy would be to work together to address the challenges facing our city, not divide Atlanta.” Every candidate in the crowded field to replace Bottoms agrees.

White, unsurprisingly, paints a rosier picture of a world after Buckxit — both for Buckhead residents and the rest of Atlanta. Much like a Brexiteer shrugging off “Project Fear”, he is dismissive of a political system that he says has become a “cesspool of corruption”. Under a plan put forward by Buckxit campaigners, an independent Buckhead would more than triple police numbers in the area, from 80 to 250, and ensure Buckhead City police were better paid than any other cops in the state. (Atlanta’s police force saw 200 officers retire last year.)

As for the rest of the city, White argues that a safer more prosperous Buckhead is in the interests of the metro area more generally, and would bring more jobs to the city. “If we get this right, we can be a wonderful example,” he says.

But White’s cheery win-win predictions are hard to square with the fiscal reality of a city losing such a huge part of its tax base. And, ultimately, White is open about the fact that he is first and foremost interested in the fate of his community, not the rest of the city. “You know,” White adds, “we’re not doing this to be an example for anybody. We’re doing it because we’re fighting for our lives.”

There are signs that White’s message is resonating. The campaign has so far raised a million dollars and an Atlanta Constitution-Journal/University of Georgia poll recently found that 54% of Buckhead voters support cityhood. Surveys commissioned by the campaign for cityhood also find a stronger majority in favour.

The man driving the Buckxit train is a colourful newcomer to the Atlanta scene with an unusual political story and a talent for fundraising. Until recently, White, 53, was a fixture on the New York Democratic scene. In 2016, he and his husband Brian Eure were devoted Hillary Clinton supporters, raising money for the Democratic candidate and hosting a $39,500-a-head fundraising dinner in their Chelsea townhouse with Barack Obama as the guest of honour. But since then, White, who relocated from New York to Atlanta three years ago, has been on a journey from Manhattan liberal to MAGA enthusiast.

He admits his flip-flopping has led to accusations of him being “a political whore”. He and his husband have been some of Donald Trump’s most vocal gay supporters and are close to the Trump family. They were reportedly at the White House on election night, and White spent the ensuing weeks lending his voice to the outgoing President’s efforts to overturn the result. (White has subsequently denounced the January 6 Capitol Riot and seems focused on the Buckhead campaign, but his political leanings hardly help his claim that the cityhood effort transcends party politics.)

Notwithstanding White’s politics, “Buckxit” maps awkwardly onto conventional political divides. The upmarket enclave may be the most Republican part of Atlanta, but that’s not saying much. In fact, swings in white affluent Atlanta suburbs such as Buckhead were crucial to Biden’s narrow win in Georgia last year; according to Atlanta Constituion-Journal analysis of the election results, 60% of Buckhead voters opted for Biden in 2020, and 51% backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. “We have people from the Left, from the middle, from the Right,” says White. “We have Biden people, Trump people, people who hate Trump, people who hate Biden. We have environmentalists, we have everyone.”

Buckxit’s critics also point to Atlanta’s racial politics — though this time as a cause for concern. Atlanta as a whole is 51% black, while 82% of Buckhead residents are white. Jim Durnett, CEO of the Buckhead Coalition, a group opposed to cityhood, argues that while he “[doesn’t] believe race is motivating the movement to create a new Buckhead City”, the “racial implications” of Buckxit will be obvious. “Drawing on Atlantas rich history of the civil rights movement, we are clearly best when we come together during times of challenge, not when we separate.”

White, however, has little interest in engaging with the possibility that his campaign drives a wedge between Atlanta’s white and black neighbourhoods. Race, he says, is the “go-to narrative” to cancel your idea. “What are your solutions as opposed to saying, ‘This is racist’?” he asks of his campaign’s critics.

The mechanics of securing popular support for Buckxit are reasonably straightforward. A bill needs to be passed in Georgia’s general assembly and state senate. Both are Republican-held and legislators will presumably be eager to stick it to the opposing party’s city stronghold. Votes on those bills will take place early next year and, if they pass, Buckhead residents will get a say on cityhood in November 2023. White claims that by spring 2023, a mayor and city council could be up and running, spending taxpayers’ money. A slew of complicated rows about settling debts with Atlanta and securing contracts to secure utilities from the city would follow.

But regardless of whether Buckxit becomes a reality, the campaign for cityhood should at the very least be a warning shot across the bows of Atlanta and other American cities, where comparable neighbourhoods might be tempted to try something similar. The success of a modern metropolis depends on persistent vigilance against the threat of crime, public disorder and economic decline. In a year of plague, shutdowns, protests, riots and a violent crime spike, too often political posturing has been prioritised over making sure cities work for all their residents.

For White, though, Buckxit is more than a warning. “The divorce should be something that both sides strive to make smooth, because it’s definitely happening,” he says. “At the moment, barring a lightning bolt or the second coming of Jesus Christ, the writing’s on the wall.”

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