Opinion - Is Atlanta the most toxic, frugal, gayest city?

Recent lists have ranked Atlanta as many unquantifiable things. So what are we?

It seems like pretty much every week one website or another is releasing a methodologically squirrelly “Top 10” or “Top 20” list that ranks American cities in an attempt to neatly enumerate and quantify things that are — let’s be honest — unquantifiable. Lots of them sound good for us; for instance, PETA named Atlanta the fourth-most vegetarian-friendly city in the U.S. last year. Others aren’t so good, like the 2009 Forbes list that oddly deemed Atlanta the “Most Toxic” U.S. city, based on air pollution, ground contamination, atmospheric chemicals and the number of Superfund sites. (Granted, pollution is more quantifiable than friendliness to non-meat-eaters, but who believes we’re really more toxic than, say, Detroit, Cleveland or other Rust Belt burgs?)

Hilariously, even when Atlanta doesn’t make a list, it’s news. Just this week, the AJC’s Biz Beat blog reported that Atlanta was not one of the Daily Beast’s 20 Vainest America Cities, a ranking based on how much time and money residents spend on things like spa visits, gym memberships and personal care products. So, is Atlanta a city of fat schlubs? Or, is Atlanta simply a frugal town, as it was identified by Coupons.com’s 2010 Savings Index, in which we ranked No. 1 based on per-capita coupon downloads?

Lists like these can influence how nonresidents view Atlanta — and can even affect how we view ourselves. Whether the results are good or bad, we probably shouldn’t put much stock in the list du jour. A recent case-in-point: The Advocate’s annual ranking of the Gayest U.S. Cities. For all of last year, Atlanta had the distinction of being the gayest city in all the land. Come 2011, that badge of honor was snatched from our neatly pressed lapel and handed to Minneapolis, and Atlanta was bumped all the way down to seventh. Because a city’s gayness is a thing that’s literally impossible to calculate — even the U.S. Census doesn’t account for sexual preference — the Advocate gets creative. Its admittedly unscientific methodology takes into account the number of local gay elected officials, as well as Gay.com profiles, listed officiants for gay weddings, lesbian bars, gay-friendly religious congregations and — get this — the number of times lesbian indie-pop act Tegan and Sara has performed during the past five years.

Forbes is, by far, the most enthusiastic list-maker. Besides being named “Most Toxic,” Atlanta has ranked high on several other lists in the past few years, but the veracity of the methodology used is questionable. In both ‘07 and ‘08, Atlanta was Forbes’ “Most Wired” city, which led a local telecom analyst to comment, “It’s a dynamic area with a lot of young people, but exactly why it’s No. 1 is a mystery to me.” In 2009, Forbes said we were sixth among the “Best Cities for Singles,” a verdict many Atlanta singles would likely dispute. Forbes based its rankings on cost of living, job growth, culture, nightlife, online dating and coolness — determined, no joke, by asking people, “Which cities are the coolest?”

So, is Atlanta really great for singles and vegetarians, but less great for gays than it was a year ago? Can frugality be determined by a coupon website? If you ask us, what Atlanta is or isn’t shouldn’t be determined by its rank on a list.