Nashville Has Been Losing Blacks to Atlanta for Decades and It Must Stop

Maybe it’s because of cheering the tragic Falcons in Sunday’s Super Bowl 51. Maybe it’s because I just discovered my new favorite education blog, EdLANTA. Whatever it is, the events of the past week have forced this lifelong Nashvillian to unpack my connection to and numerous networks within the city of Atlanta and think about the mass exodus to Atlanta from Nashville.

That’s right, every day hundreds from all over the country choose Atlanta. Relocating there in droves as they have been for decades. Especially Nashvillians. I personally moved my aunt and baby sister there. My best friend of 36 years also found the allure too strong to ignore. 

So, I can’t help but mourn the loss (personal and otherwise) of thousands of upwardly mobile, creative black Nashvillians and the never-to-be realized return on investment as our schools pour into an unofficial talent pipeline to Atlanta. What’s up with that?

Atlanta vs. Nashville

I suppose the connection shouldn’t be a surprise, since the cities have so much in common. Though the city of Atlanta boasts only 450,000 residents, the metro area is a staggering 5.7 million—not your typical sleepy Southern city.

Similarly, Nashville is exploding with nearly 700,000 residents in the city and an additional 1.1 million in the surrounding area. At this point, we’re welcoming 85 newcomers per day. What can I say, the “creative class” loves this place. (No, I didn’t just smirk when I said that.)

Atlanta was always known for its accessible cost of living, but in the past decade it has become one of the most expensive major cities in the United States. But let’s be honest, Nashville is suffering the same fate. Gentrification is rampant, squeezing out Nashville’s most vulnerable with more ridiculously expensive housing and impossible traffic hassles that are creating the need for regional transportation options that will translate to a shocking increase in cost of living. I can’t wait. (Yes, this time I did smirk.)

Atlanta traffic – Picture by AJC
Nashville traffic quickly catching up to Atlanta – Picture by The Tennessean

Why Is Everybody Leaving?

So what’s the real reason everyone’s headed down to the ATL? I’ll just say it: Atlanta is way Blacker than Nashville. Period. More than half the city (58%) is African American, compared to only a quarter of Nashvillians.

My childhood friend, Add Seymour, who works at Morehouse College in Atlanta, told me why he always knew he would eventually leave Nashville: “I needed a place that was much more progressive.”

He also made a good point: “It’s funny that a city that was so integral to the civil rights movement, home to a gazillion colleges and universities and the country and gospel music industries, wasn’t progressive, but it wasn’t.”

And then this: “I wanted to live in a place that was happening. I knew Atlanta was it. Full of Black people important to making things happen. You don’t see that in Nashville.”

I must admit, entering the city my first time and bombarded with images of black doctors and attorneys was both startling and incredibly comforting. I felt accepted in every store and neighborhood. The experience made such an impact that I remember with a smile 25 years later.

And as my friend Atlanta transplant TaTanisha Jackson Shumpert explained:

“Although, I am in the South, I feel that most of the people here get it. When I come back home, back to Atlanta, even from a short trip. I can breath. I literally feel like I have been holding my breath the entire time I was away and when I return I can breath again.”

Reverse Migration is a Thing

Apparently, the mass exodus of black people seeking identity vindication is not unique to Nashville. There is also a major movement of blacks from North to South reversing the trend started by blacks during Jim Crow and continuing through the end of the civil rights era. Today, the black middle class is moving South, many to Atlanta, in search of safety, financial promise, and cultural reattachment.

Alternately, my little sister, 32 year old Amber North, when upon graduating from college in Kentucky, was eager to move to the big city because “Atlanta is one of the most diverse and progressive cities in the country.” Adding that the major factor was “to live in a city where being black is the majority.”

Nashville, despite the It City status and its newest distinction as U.S. News and World Report’s 13th best cities to live, still eludes its black creative class. I love my city, but I get it. There are few images and symbols around the city that ensure blacks feel appreciated, part of the city’s movement. Nashville Scene writer Betsy Phillips wrote in a ThinkProgress piece:

“Nashville is an “It City,” a great, money-making fantasy – for white people with expendable income. The culture we’re commercializing is from white people for white people.”

Maybe that’s why it’s not a problem for me to hit the road at a moment’s notice. I’m just 267 miles away from soul-saving cultural appreciation.

What’s The Key To Keeping Us Here?  The Children.

There is no shortage of Nashvillians willing to make the trip to simply play. My Facebook timeline is evidence of fellow city slickers sliding south for weekends filled with shopping, nightclubbing, and civil rights memorial hopping; it’s a city that does a great job satisfying the culturally starved.

It’s also a city that is greatly benefitting from black tax dollars sorely needed for Nashville’s schools. Instead of modeling the reinvestment of dollars into the community that made us, we are grooming another generation of Atlanta transplants. Further, we fail to elect, hire, and appoint in proportion to our demographics.

Black children go to schools where 75% of teachers are white. And while a teacher’s race is not a major determinant of student success, models of success matter. So, when 85% of the police force is white and a child sees only blacks in handcuffs, the messaging is near fatal. Our children need us here and our leaders must want to keep us here.

If we are to be a city of authentic inclusion, even as we’ve become a great place to live for the largest Hispanic population in the state as well as the largest Kurdish population in the United States, we must care enough to make Nashville a haven for its black residents, too.

If it matters. Those of us who have chosen to stay believe it does.


23 thoughts on “Nashville Has Been Losing Blacks to Atlanta for Decades and It Must Stop

  1. Great article! Sorry I’m just now seeing this, three years after it was written! I moved to Nashville with my mother about 28 years ago as a 7-year-old boy, from my hometown of Chicago, another mecca for Black intellectualism, and progressiveness. After living and spending time in Nashville for so many years, I unfortunately must come to the same conclusion that, despite being home to THREE HBCUs and playing a significant role in the Civil Rights movement, Nashville is just not as progressive, and Black-friendly as Atlanta–it seems like not all, but too much of this city’s Black population, for too long, has had an intergrationalist mentality, trying to cape for and get in good with the city’s non-black population, and it’s for this reason I believe today’s generation of grassroots-backed Black intellectuals and advocates such as Dr. Boyce Watkins, Tariq Nasheed, Dr. Umar Johnson, and many others, rarely, if ever, schedule events and set up institutions here in Nashville, in favor of Atlanta, and seemingly every other city and town in the country. However, I also been using this as motivation to utilize my graphic design and photography talents to remind the aforementioned figures, as well as Black people around the country, of Nashville’s significance in Black history, and to let them know that, today, there are in fact, wonderful, progressive Black people, doing wonderful, progressive things in this town. My ultimate dream is that one day Black people around the country will be as attracted to Nashville as they are to Atlanta!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Where are your sources on this? I think you made some good points (specifically about the impact of a predominantly white “authority” figures) but there are some pretty strong assumptions in this article even if it an opinion piece.


  3. Hello, I graduated from TSU and I’ve lived in Washington DC, L.A and now Atlanta and I want to move back home, Atlanta is a city in the deep south in the middle of nowhere, one of the things I forgot about Nashville was your ability to drive to cities in the Mid-West, also what people the blacks that leave Atlanta don’t come back because your stuck down here, I’ve also learned give me diversity over blackness.


  4. Another underlining “poor us” story about how whites are trying to keep you down.
    Anyone look to see that Atlanta’s the 6th leading city in the nation for violent crime?
    Chicago, Baltimore, Oakland, Detroit, what’s the common denominator here?????
    Quit blaming whites for all your troubles and look in your “Progressive” mirrors!
    I Think Atlanta’s a great place to move!


    1. Good grief. Talk about a total lack of empathy by the previous commenter. If you’re unable to appreciate an essay, “Sick & Tired,” just move along.
      Vesia, I get your point. When I lived in Salt Lake City in the 1970s as a non-Mormon, I got a taste of what it’s like to be in the minority in a city where the power structure and culture was totally controlled by another group. Not a direct comparison, I know, but it was still hard. It was my first experience of being outside looking in, of being an Other.
      I’m optimistic Nashville is changing and becoming more progressive,but not fast enough.
      Thank you for helping me see this issue
      through your eyes. You’ve enlightened me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for reading, Chris. Wow, UTAH! I’m sure that was an experience.

        Since writing this, the racial composition in Nashville has not gotten better and the racial politics are worse!


  5. Just to piggy back on another comment, Nashville has been a big relocation place for blacks recently from places like Chicago,Detroit and even Memphis.It also has ranked high for blacks reverse migrating to South for years.We still have several hbcus a decent black middle class a strong small business owner population.Atlanta has always been the shinier of all the cities for black Mecca’s but so was Washington DC ,St Louis and Memphis at one time. Also people never report about the millions of people who relocate there and then move back home or another city because they realize the city is too high good jobs are at a minimum it’s too much competition.


  6. I’m originally fron Chicago, but now live in suburban Atlanta. I have two daughters who attended colleges in the Nashville area. So I’m in Nashville often, and its a great place to move if you have job, and career. Just because Atanta is much blacker does not make it a better place necessary. If that is the case everyone should just move to Washington DC metro area, which is larger than Atlanta and has the largest black middle class in America. Chicago has also large black middle class. Hispanics and Asians come to America and they don’t just pour into one city. They diversify into many cities. African-Americans have to spread out. To many seem to think that Atlanta is it and there is no other place. That’s all the false hype that Atlanta is known for. Now its interesting, that Nashville is also drawing many out of Atlanta too. A recent report had that Nashville is drawing more blacks out of Chicago than any city. Atlanta was number two. Nashville also drawing many out of California, New York, Michigan, Ohio, and even Florida. I think, this is Nashville to boom and shine now. Its projected to add a million more people by sometime in the 2030’s, and we already getting near 2020. In the Southeast U.S…. Atlanta, Charlotte, Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Raleigh, and Richmond are the growing metro areas that are drawing many blacks, not just Atlanta. You can live in Memphis, or New Orleans which are more blacker than Atlanta, but how many blacks are relocating there? People go to cities not just because of how many blacks live there but careers, jobs, good schools. Phoenix and Seattle have small black popularize in terms of the total population of the area, but are drawing thousands of relocating blacks because of other factors like good paying jobs, retirement and etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Tennessean reported today that as small as the black population is in Nashville, our traditionally black neighborhoods are becoming less black as they are squeezed out to make room for richer, whiter new Nashvillians. So even as we get Blacks from Chicago, those native to Nashville are being pushed out.
      My family and friends who left Nashville for Atlanta left for job opportunities.


  7. This arcticle just may be the reason I don’t move to Nashville.I live in ATL and I’m from Florida but I don’t like the traffic in ATL and Floridas wages are a joke.Im going to look in to Charlotten nc next I suppose.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I must respectfully disagree. I try to be careful to compare today’s traffic against the traffic of Nashville past, because, of course, it’s going to worse than 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. But the rush hour timeframe is no longer 3pm-6pm; it starts slowing down around 1:30 and goes hard until about 6:30pm. The upside is that there are still ways to get around it.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. A.good read! My son was at Morehouse with his classmates last month. We, also, spend the weekends there shopping, toiring or attending a sports event. In fact, had our favorite hotel, (yes, we have one) had rooms we had purchased NBA tickets & planned on celebrating for my son’s 16rh birthday. We instead headed to Memphis. My concern with 3-4 young Black men attending the game alone & sitting is the “very good seats” was safety or the need to have an adult to legitimize them. My husband said, “this is Memphis, don’t worry.”. Which is what we normally say about Atlanta, because Black people seem to be able to move around more freely without resistance. We want our children to have as many racial free experiences as possible & for them to see themselves in all walks of life simply being. Memphis isn’t on that level, but the guys did have a great time. However, we still wonder how much more fun it would have been in the ATL. By the way, two of my cousins have moved there & one, as empty nesters, enjoy the nightlife & culture. This was an article that makes you think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sheri, first, thank you for sharing your view. Atlanta, for many of us, is a home away from home – “able to move around more freely without resistance.” Interesting that in 2017 we are traveling a different kind of Underground Railroad for pretty much the same reason.


      1. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out of town, bye. Just keep moving east on 24 and South on 75.


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