Welcome to Mapping Atlanta

Everything happens somewhere.

It just so happens that a lot of different things happen in Atlanta, and a lot of things that happen outside of Atlanta are in some way connected to or derived from things that happened here. Atlanta is one of the most interesting and unique cities in the US, if not the world, but it’s also one that’s been chronically understudied relative to other large cities. Even if more were written about Atlanta on a consistent basis, the city’s rapid changes necessitate ever more investigation of what’s happening, where and why.

Atlanta consistently has some of the highest levels of income inequality of any city or metro across the entire United States. And while the city had a reputation for being one of the most affordable large metros, the last several years have seen some of the most rapid housing price increases of anywhere across the country, with unchecked gentrification running rampant in some historically Black neighborhoods. Real estate speculators aren’t just coming in and buying up single family homes and building glitzy new mixed-use condo developments, they’re also transforming the broader cultural landscape of the city, changing the names of longstanding neighborhoods and changing the people that live in them too. But it’s precisely those people and places who have been most threatened and affected by the city’s changes that helped to make the Atlanta we all know and love (and sometimes hate).

The approach

All of these issues are fundamentally about geography, about how places are the way they are and how they change over time and how all of that matters to the people that occupy those places. And what better way than to explore these fundamentally geographic questions than through the most explicitly geographic medium there is: maps.

People love maps. There are multiple Twitter accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers who do nothing but just post pictures of (sometimes extremely mediocre) maps. Even our former president was said to love maps. Seriously, I get it. I love maps too.

But as I wrote some years ago, it isn’t enough to love maps. You also have to be critical of them, and approach the seemingly objective and neutral visualization of spatial data in the same way you might approach any other kind of text, questioning the motives and possible impacts a map might have based on who made it, what they focus on, what rhetorical strategies they deploy. Because just like any other text or technology, maps are anything but an objective, scientific, apolitical mirror of nature. They reflect – if sometimes in a distorted way – the thoughts and values of those that make them. They are fundamentally subjective documents, but which carry an air of authority precisely because they’re so intuitive to us. We tend to think that if it’s on the map, it must be true.

This is as much an opportunity as a challenge though. Rather than just use maps as a way of showing what is, we can use mapping as a way of calling things into question, as my colleague Jeremy Crampton has written. We can use maps to uncover spatial patterns and processes we’d never thought to look at before, to explore why things are the way they are where they are, who’s responsible, who benefits and who loses. Maps can not only help us to understand the rapid changes taking place across Atlanta’s landscape, they can also (hopefully) help us resist them and assert an alternative future for the city.

Why this?

By day, I make my living researching and teaching about maps and data and the ways they are – and can be – used to shape our understandings of the places we live in (in case that’s not obvious already). But some days, the typical academic research and publishing process doesn’t really feel like it lets me do all the kinds of work that I want to do or think is important. But maps and words are still the medium I’m most comfortable working in, even if it isn’t “for work”. And it’s been several years since I was making maps and writing for a more public audience on a consistent basis, and I’ve been itching to get back into it.

So taking a page out of the books of fellow geographers at Bostonography and Detroitography, I wanted to start this blog as a way of both giving myself an outlet for some of my maps and writing that don’t fit so neatly into the conventional academic format, as well as providing me the opportunity to get to know my adopted home all the better. Since moving back to Atlanta in the early days of the pandemic, I’ve been relatively isolated from a lot of the things that drew me back here after my brief foray living here from 2015-2016. Like most everyone else, I’ve spent a lot of time pent up in my apartment, and hardly enough getting out and enjoying the city and all it has to offer. But digging into data about the city and understanding the social and spatial structures that shape it has been a halfway decent replacement, and something I want to share with people besides my partner and dog.

The hope is that the maps and ideas I share on this blog will run the gamut from the whimsical to the critical, but all with an eye towards providing an alternative, fundamentally geographic, perspective on Atlanta and its environs. Whether it’s probing the depths of how inequality is engrained in the fabric of the city or exploring Atlanta’s everyday eccentricities, if it’s got maps and is about Atlanta, it’ll have a home here. New posts may not be entirely regular, but just having a place to put ideas and works-in-progress is half the point of doing this in the first place.

Hope you all enjoy!

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