One of the clearest signs of how times have changed in this little Southern town is literally a sign. It’s the outline of a faded red, oblong Dairy Queen sign that towers over Buford Highway just a few miles from the city line.
It used to direct residents to a fast food franchise, a beacon of Americana, where a hamburger cost 79 cents. The building is gone now. Only the sign remains, and at its base is a Hispanic man with a machete, slicing open coconuts piled in the back of his trailer.
His English is shaky. His coconuts cost $4.
A generation ago, this Atlanta suburb was 95 percent white and rural with one little African-American neighborhood that was known as “colored town.” But after a tidal wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants who were attracted to Norcross by cheap housing and proximity to a booming job market, white people now make up less than 20 percent of the population in Norcross and surrounding neighborhoods. It’s a shift so rapid that many of the longtime residents feel utterly disconnected from the place where they raised their children.
“It’s not that much anger, but you don’t feel comfortable knowing that all this is around you,” said Billy Weathers, 79, who has lived in the area for his whole life and doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish.
Many from Butler High School’s class of 1976 are now weary, worn, or furious. For some, those feelings are driving their votes.
Many say they feel isolated in their own hometown, pushed to change their ways, to assimilate to the new arrivals instead of the other way around. They resent the shift, even knowing it’s nobody’s fault, really. And they have mostly kept their feelings to themselves. Who, they wonder, would listen to folks like us, anyway?
But this year, in Norcross and places like it, resentment has found its voice. The concerns of a white citizenry feeling displaced have been reinforced by the rhetoric of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who swept most of the state in the Republican primary.
Roberto Gonzalez, of Mexico, gets a newspaper out of boxes catering to the Hispanic community as his wife Cecilia, watched late last month in Norcross, Ga.
His slogan, “Make America Great Again,” appeals to people here who don’t talk much to their newer neighbors anymore, not out of malice but because they often don’t even share a common language. When Trump talks about building a wall between the United States and Mexico, these largely white, Republicans nod in agreement.
“There used to be a place where we could go out to eat to get southern cooking,” said Billy’s wife, JoAnn Weathers, 79. “Well there’s no more southerners left here … They came from other countries and completely changed our lives.”
Part of the attraction was the cheap housing. Part of it was the easy access to interstate highways and the jobs in Atlanta. But also, once the area had a beachhead of immigrants, more came to live near family or acquaintances, according to Mary Odem, an associate professor at Emory University who has studied the immigrant influx in Georgia.
Now roughly 16,000 people live within the Norcross city limits, and about 40 percent are Hispanic. In 1980, only 23 people in the city were foreign-born.
Bell, like many others interviewed, said he distinguishes between immigrants who are making an effort to fit into the existing culture and those who he thinks aren’t trying to assimilate. The Vietnamese and the Koreans, he said, are at least keeping to themselves.
“The Latinos just throw it in your face. They’re here for the money. They don’t want to be American,” Bell said. “They don’t care about America.”
He listed big changes that he’s noticed: More renters in the neighborhood who seem to him to care little about the upkeep of their property, single-family houses that he says are filled with multiple families, garbage bins overflowing and litter in the streets.
There are also the subtler things that get under his skin.
“You can see them at the Kroger customer service center desk,” he said, saying that many of his neighbors line up there to send money home to Mexico. It’s a flow of cash leaving this little community, not building it.
And there’s another annoyance, the kind of thing that isn’t a big deal but grates at him. “That’s why there’s always a huge line at the service desk,” Bell said. “If you want to buy a lottery ticket, good luck.”
The prevalence of Spanish signs and discourse can be a flashpoint for hostility between the longtime residents and the newer ones.
Pablo Casas moved to the town in November 1999 shortly after coming to the United States from Colombia on a student visa. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Hispanic culture, but we’re kind of loud,” he said.
When he gets together with friends, six or seven of them, the volume goes way up.
And white people will complain, he said, but not about the noise.
“They don’t say ‘Keep it down.’ They say ‘Speak English; this is America,’” he said.