Feb. 19, 2001: I don’t know about you but I am not exactly dancing on the rooftops over the 2000 census.

According to the nose counters at the Census Bureau, Georgia is now the 10th largest state in the union. Our population grew from 6,478,216 in 1990 to 8,186,453 in 2000, an increase of 24.6 percent. This growth reminds me of something my wise father once said. Daddy opined that the state wasted a lot of money painting stripes down the middle of the road. Nobody ever went north. They all came south.

I haven’t been able to analyze the census numbers in great detail yet because I have been too busy reorganizing my sock drawer but I have a sneaking suspicion that of the 1,708,237 who came to Georgia in the last decade, 37 came from Alabama and Mississippi. The other 1,708,200 came from Guatemala, Hanoi, Cleveland, Newark, Detroit, and New York City. Of that number, 1,000,000 brought preconceived notions that we are a bunch of rednecks who live on dirt roads and marry our cousins.

We are just going to have to learn to adjust. We could start by not continuing to fight the Civil War, known to some as the War of Northern Aggression. The last time I checked the history books that unpleasantness had ended about 136 years ago. We lost. You keep bringing it up to the newcomers and they will keep telling you how their great grandfathers kicked our great grandfathers’ butts. It is bad enough that I have to listen to my UGA compatriots continue to talk about losing three in a row to Georgia Tech but why keep reminding everybody that we came in second in a two country war?

The chamber of commerce won’t tell you this, but the crowd that showed up over the past decade didn’t come cheap. We had to build more roads, import more gasoline, bulldoze more land, open more strip malls, install more red lights, suck up more water and foul more air.

Alas, there is something at work here even more serious than finding room for a bunch of snowbirds. If this in-migration keeps up at its present rate, we risk losing our unique Southern heritage. We must stay ever vigilant or it won’t be too long before our barbecue joints with sawdust on the floors and Willie Nelson on the juke box will be replaced by Sushi Bars and waiters named Greg, telling us to have a nice day. Pickup trucks will be supplanted by SUV’s. Yard dogs by poodles. High school football by ice hockey and sweet tea by microbrewed beer. Some of this I can live with. But I draw the line at losing our lilting, honey-smooth Southern drawl. We seem to have some kind of inferiority complex about the way we speak. Maybe that is because our friends from north of the Mason-Dixon line take great delight in tweaking us about our “slow talking,” as though slow speech equates to slow thinking. Guess what? We aren’t too dumb. We didn’t move north, did we? Besides, what is so intelligent about “fuhgedabowdit”?

One more census like that last one and you might never again hear words like “ranch” (“Honey, would you hand me my ranch? Ah’m gonna tighten the bolts on the pickup.”) or “far” (“Ah luv you so much, my heart’s on far.”) or “bard” (“Your no-good brother just bard my last dollar.”) or “thank” (“Ah thank ah’ll have a Co-Coler.”)

Fortunately, we dodged a bullet this time. Two-thirds of the newcomers settled in the Metropolitan Atlanta area and Atlanta isn’t Georgia. In fact, Atlanta has about as much in common with Georgia as butter does with butterfly. Atlanta has always wanted to be like New York City and got its wish. Now everybody in Atlanta drives too fast, eats sushi and watches ice hockey.

So take heart, Hahira. Rejoice, Roopville. Celebrate Cedartown. The fact that all these folks decided to congregate in Atlanta over the past ten years means that you can crank up Willie Nelson in the pickup as loud as you want, drive to your favorite barbecue joint as slow as you want and eat chitlin cornbread and drink sweet tea as much as you want. But let me give you some advice. Don’t go around bragging about how good you’ve got it. Otherwise, when they finish counting us in 2010 you may find Greg serving you raw fish and telling you to have a nice day. That would ruin everything.