newcomersguidegaWelcome to Georgia. If you are thinking of moving here or have already relocated, you can take comfort in knowing you are not alone. An estimated 30 percent of  the state’s 9,544,750 population were born elsewhere.

Georgia is the fastest growing state in the South, according to the latest Census figures. From 2000 to 2006, Georgia had gained 228,415 people from outside the United States and 378,258 people from within the country.

In other words, Georgia has a diverse population that is getting more diverse. While some may complain about the influx of “foreigners,” in general the addition of people of other nationalities, other races and other skills is a good thing. After all, the people who founded the colony of Georgia in 1732 were a pretty diverse group. Although they came from England under the leadership of General James Edward Oglethorpe, they were English, Scots-Irish, Italians, Moravians, Sephardic Jews, Salzburgers and Swiss. Slaves who were brought here from Africa would add their own culture to the melting pot.

Today, Georgia’s culture is a blend of Native American, African and Scots-Irish culture. Georgians generally are highly religious and mostly Christian. Seventy-six percent are Protestant and eight percent are Catholic. Nearly 13 percent say they have no religion and two percent have a religion other than Christianity.

According to 2006 statistics, 59 percent of the population is white (not Hispanic), 29.8 percent is black or African American, 7.1 percent Hispanic or Latino, 2.7 percent Asian and 1.4 percent from other or mixed races. Gender-wise, the state is almost equally divided with 50.5 percent of the population males and 49.5 percent females. Seventy-eight percent of Georgians are high school graduates and nearly a quarter of these have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Like other states below the Mason-Dixon Line, Georgia is known for its Southern hospitality. That’s not to say you won’t encounter someone rude on the expressways of Atlanta, in a long line at the Post Office or waiting at the Department of  Motor Vehicles. Even the most polite Georgian has his or her limits. Furthermore, you can’t be sure that the person criticizing your driving on I-85 by flashing a rude hand gesture is a true Georgian. He may be a newcomer or tourist from another state where drivers actually obey the speed limit and signal when they change lanes.

Politicians used to say there was Atlanta and then there was the rest of the state. That’s still true to a certain extent politically, but Atlanta is changing along with other cities and small towns in Georgia.  No longer a “big small town” of the 1950s and early 1960s, Atlanta now has acquired many of the perks of northern urban centers as well as the problems.

Yes, we have professional sports teams, a nationally-recognized symphony orchestra, live theater, art museums, a vibrant music scene, a busy international airport, and a booming economy. We also have traffic gridlock and other problems associated with rapid growth.

So if you’re moving to Atlanta from a big city, you probably will adjust fairly quickly. If you’re moving from a small town, remember to stay calm when you find yourself in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic.

But Atlanta is just part of Georgia. There are suburbanites who have nearly everything they need in their neighborhoods and only venture into Atlanta for ball games or special occasions. Some Georgians live happily in rural areas near medium size towns. Others would not think of living anywhere but the mountains or the coast.

One of the best things about Georgia is its geographical diversity. Even if you’re stuck in the city because of your job, you can still escape on the weekends to balmy beaches on the Golden Isles or to a whitewater river in the mountains.

Media-Made Georgia

How outsiders view Georgia has been influenced greatly by the books, movies and television shows about the people in the state. Some people in other parts of the country – and other countries – still believe the spirit of Scarlett O’Hara is alive and well and living in Tara. Others, who have seen the movie “Deliverance,” based on James Dickey’s novel, are convinced that perverted and inbred hillbillies stalk unwary city folks who take canoe trips down the Chattooga River.

The television show and movie, “The Dukes of Hazzard,” reinforced the stereotypical image some have of the state as a land of good ole boys, fast cars, bumbling sheriffs and overweight political kingpins. On the other hand, shows such as “In the Heat of the Night? and “I’ll Fly Away” painted a realistic portrait of racial relations in Georgia and the South.

54m9dndTo get an accurate picture of Georgia culture, read the literary works, listen to the music, and admire the art produced by Georgia’s native sons and daughters. “Gone With the Wind,” Margaret Mitchell’s novel, is very different and more realistic than the movie in its portrayal of the Old South and the changes the Civil War brought. Flannery O’Connor wrote about eccentric characters in the South, but with a keen insight into the influence religion had on their lives. Erskine Caldwell’s characters in “Tobacco Road” and “God’s Little Acre” may seem stereotypical, but his message about poverty in the South was painfully true.

Alice Walker’s description of black, rural life in Georgia in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Color Purple,” offers a different perspective than Atlanta playwright Alfred  Uhry’s story of an affluent white Jewish woman and her black chauffeur in “Driving Miss Daisy.” And contemporary writers such as Terry Kay (“To Dance With the White Dog“), Anne Rivers Siddons (“Peachtree Road“), Paul Hemphill (“Long Gone“), Harry Crews (“A Feast of Snakes“), Mary Hood (“Familiar Heat“) and Pearl Cleage (“I Wish I Had a Red Dress“) have written eloquently about their personal literary landscapes.

Musical Heritage

Georgia’s diversity is reflected most strikingly in its music, which ranges from country and folk to rock and roll and hip hop. This is the state that produced James Brown and Fiddlin’ John Carson, Little Richard and Travis Tritt, Ray Charles and R.E.M., Otis Redding and Usher.

Some of Georgia’s early music included religious “shape note” singing and the “ring shout” of African Americans, mainly in McIntosh County on the coast, that involved a circular dance with clapping, stick-beating, and call-and-response vocals.

Sacred Harp, or shape note music, is a technique that uses shapes of notes to help the performance of singers who could not sight-read music. The first Sacred Harp book was published in 1844 by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King of Georgia.

Atlanta has become a center for rap and hip hop with groups such as OutKast, TLC, Ludacris, Jermaine Dupri, L.A. Reid and Lil John.

Other musical greats from Georgia include opera singer Jessye Norman, the late Robert Shaw, musical director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Gladys Knight, whose Midnight Train to Georgia was her biggest hit.

Famous Georgians

The list of people from Georgia who have made their mark in history or excelled in their professions is long and impressive.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached non-violence as he led the Civil Rights Movement that changed the country, was born in Atlanta and preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Plains, stunned political experts when he won the presidential election in 1976. As an ex-president, he has continued his work for global human rights through the Carter Center in Atlanta.

Ralph McGill, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Atlanta Constitution, who gently – and sometimes not so gently – reminded Georgians that blacks were entitled to the same rights as white people were and that racial and religious hatred should not be tolerated.

89278032_4463e7aa29Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in major league baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers, was born in Cairo.

Hank Aaron, another baseball great, broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record while playing with the Atlanta Braves.

Margaret Mitchell, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal’s Sunday magazine, only wrote one book, but “Gone With the Wind” is a world-wide best seller that is considered by millions of readers to be the classic love story.

Ted Turner, who revolutionized the media industry with CNN in Atlanta, still lives part-time near the television studio when he’s not pursuing global peace and protecting the environment.

Jane Fonda, an Oscar-winning actress who gave up her career for a decade to marry Ted Turner, remained in Atlanta after the divorce and is active in a group to prevent teen pregnancies. She also returned to acting.

Zell Miller, a former U.S. Senator and governor, was instrumental in establishing the HOPE scholarship program that pays state college tuitions and fees for any Georgia high school student who graduates with a B average or higher.

Humorists Jeff Foxworthy of “You Might Be a Redneck” fame, Roy Blount Jr., author and a regular on “Prairie Home Companion,” and the late columnist and author Lewis Grizzard all grew up in Georgia.

Actress Julia Roberts, the star of “Steel Magnolias” and “Pretty Woman,” is from Smyrna. So is her brother, actor Eric Roberts. Georgia has sent a number of its other native sons and daughters to Broadway and Hollywood.  Joanne Woodward of Thomasville is an Oscar-winning actress and wife of Paul Newman. Burt Reynolds of Waycross gave one of his best performances in the film, “Deliverance,” which was shot in North Georgia. Dakota Fanning of Conyers is a rising child star who has appeared in films with Denzel Washington, Robert DeNiro and Tom Cruise.

The late Oliver Hardy, the larger half of the comedy film act Laurel and Hardy, was born in Harlem near Augusta. And the late Melvyn Douglas of Macon is perhaps best known for his role in “Hud” opposite Paul Newman. Other stars from the state include Ossie Davis, Kim Basinger, Lawrence Fishburne, Miriam Hopkins and Stacy Keach.

In politics, Georgia has produced not only a U.S. president, but Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, Attorney General Griffin Bell and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Atlanta made history when it elected Maynard Jackson as the first black mayor of a major Southern city and Shirley Franklin as the first black woman of a major Southern city.

In sports, former University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley and Bobby Dodd, the late Georgia Tech coach, are considered legends by their team’s fans. The state’s outstanding athletes include football greats Herschel Walker and Jim Brown, NASCAR star Bill Elliott, golf champion Bobby Jones, baseball hall of famer Ty Cobb and boxing champions Larry Holmes and Evander Holyfield.

Other famous Georgians include songwriter Johnny Mercer, who composed “Moon River” and many other hit songs;  Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus tales;  Carson McCullers, author of  “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter;”  artist Jasper Johns, blues pioneer Blind Willie McTell,  Wild West hero John Henry “Doc” Holliday; big band leader Harry James; and U.S. Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low.

Talking the Talk

The way we speak in different parts of the state is as diverse as the geography. In Atlanta, for instance, you can go for days without hearing a Southern accent because of the large numbers of  Northerners and Midwesterners who have moved here.

Head to rural South Georgia or the coast and you’ll hear different sub-dialects of Southern American English. Former President Jimmy Carter’s accent (from South Georgia) is different from former Governor Zell Miller’s accent (from the Appalachian mountains). The Cracker dialect is heard mostly in South Georgia while more of the people in North Georgia speak with a Southern Appalachian accent. And not everybody talks like comedian Jeff Foxworthy, author of “You Might Be a Redneck If . . .”

In Savannah, Atlanta and some parts of the state, there is a refined version of the Southern accent that makes words flow out as slowly as honey on a cold day.  On the coast, you might hear the Gullah or Geechee dialect spoken by African Americans on the barrier islands.

Yes, we do say y’all a lot, but remember that y’all is plural.  Don’t embarrass yourself with native Georgians by saying “Y’all come back now, you hear,” if you are saying good-bye to an individual. And always remember to respond correctly when a Georgian asks, “How’s your Mama’nem?” Translated, it means “How are your mother and the rest of the family?”

Outsiders have poked fun at the way the mountain people talk, but the language of Appalachia actually can be traced back to Elizabethan England during the time a reasonably adept wordsmith named Shakespeare was writing a few plays. In Zell Miller’s memoir, “The Mountains Within Me,” the former governor and U.S. Senator explains how some mountain terms are the same ones used in England hundreds of years ago. Mountaineers might say betwixt instead of between, nary instead of neither, puny instead of sickly, bar for bear and cheer for chair.

Miller notes that mountain people are also apt to use colorful expressions, many of which have become part of universal usage:

Purty as a speckled pup under a red wagon.

Rough as a cob.

Rode hard and put up wet.

Borned tired and raised lazy.

All tuckered out.

If you stay long enough in Georgia, you’ll hear more of these expressions and maybe invent a few of your own.

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from the introduction to Don O’Briant’s latest book, “Newcomer’s Guide to Georgia” (John F. Blair, Publisher, $18.95). Don O’Briant and University of Georgia history professor Jim Cobb (“Georgia Odyssey) will appear at the Decatur, Ga., Library on June 22 at 7 p.m.

Books and Resources
If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I’m Gonna Nail My Feet to the Ground” by Lewis Grizzard. Villard Books, 1990.
Media-Made Dixie: The South in the American Imagination” by Jack Temple Kirby. University of Georgia Press, 1986.
The Mountains Within Me” by Zell Miller. Cherokee Press, 1985.
New Georgia Encyclopedia


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Don O'Briant

Don O'Briant

Don O'Briant is a former book editor and reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is the author of seven books, including Looking for Tara: The GWTW Guide to Atlanta; Travel Smart: Georgia; and Backroad Buffets & Country Cafes: A Southern Guide to Meat-and-Threes & Downhome Cooking. He lives in Lilburn, Georgia.