You Gotta Hope Tomorrow's Another Day...

For unending local drama, it's hard to beat Clayton County, Georgia. It seems like half the headline-grabbing crimes in the region occur there. Its school ...
July 28, 2008

Claytonco_3 For unending local drama, it's hard to beat Clayton County, Georgia.

It seems like half the headline-grabbing crimes in the region occur there. Its school board is so dysfunctional that the schools are actually threatened with losing their accreditation -- which would give Clayton the distinction of being the first U.S. community in almost 40 years to watch its high-school diplomas become meaningless bits of paper as far as colleges and universities are concerned. Its sheriff, who fired 27 deputies his first day on the job -- after posting snipers on the roof -- seems to be spending as much time in court defending his actions as in his office.

In truth, Clayton is one of the country's more riveting experiments in the political effects of rapid demographic change. Once largely rural (it's where Margaret Mitchell set Tara in Gone With the Wind) and then home to white working-class residents, Clayton in the 1990s saw an immense influx of African-Americans from Atlanta and elsewhere, drawn by reasonable housing prices.

For a time, as one resident told me not long ago, it seemed as though, if you were African-American and running for office, all you had to do was put up a billboard with your photo on it to get elected. Now, Clayton's new political structure is struggling to come of age.

Media coverage has tended to focus on the foibles and disasters, but no one has really tried hard to step back and look at the county more comprehensively.

Until now.

Thomas Wheatley, a writer for Atlanta's alternative paper, Creative Loafing, has done a masterful job under trying circumstances -- a fair number of people important to the story refused to talk to him -- of pulling Clayton's multitude of strands together, both good and bad.

For anyone who cares about local government in a fast-changing metro area, this is riveting stuff.

Image: Creative Loafing

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