Hemphill was the son of a long-haul trucker and grew up in Birmingham, an avid fan of the Birmingham Barons and an aspiring ballplayer. While a student at Woodlawn High School he attended baseball camps in the summers. He made his way as far as spring training with the Class D Graceville, Florida Oilers, but was cut and turned to semi-pro ball in Kansas before setting sports aside. He enrolled at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, where he studied journalism and wrote for the Auburn Plainsman
Hemphill served in the Alabama Air National Guard before going into public relations and journalism. He moved to Atlanta in 1964 to take a job with the Atlanta Times, and was later hired by the Atlanta Journal as a columnist. Inspired by Jimmy Breslin's New York stories, Hemphill's daily columns on page 2 chronicled the working class south and built the foundation for the success of Lewis Grizzard who followed him at the paper.
Beginning in 1968, Hemphill spent a year-long Niemen Fellowship at Harvard University writing The Nashville Sound, the first of several non-fiction books. He left the newspaper and pursued writing and teaching full time. One of his most noted works is a memoir entitled Leaving Birmingham which describes his rejection of segregationist policies and attitudes, especially the hatred which he saw consuming his father.
The success of his first book was not repeated and Hemphill struggled with alcoholism. He returned to journalism with a job at the San Francisco Examiner. He quit soon later in a dispute with the publisher and returned to Atlanta. He continued to write and eventually tackled his alcholism, repairing his second marriage in the process. His last book was a history of Auburn Tigers football.
Hemphill suffered a stroke in March 2005 and was later diagnosed with mouth cancer. He spent several weeks in hospice care, but returned to his home shortly before his death. He was survived by his second wife, Georgia Trend editor Susan Percy and four children David, Lisa, Molly and Martha.
- Hemphill, Paul (1970) The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music.
- Hemphill, Paul (1979) Long Gone: A Novel.
- Hemphill, Paul (1981) Too Old to Cry.
- Hemphill, Paul (1985) The Sixkiller Chronicles.
- Hemphill, Paul (1987) Me and the Boy.
- Hemphill, Paul (1989) King of the Road.
- Hemphill, Paul (1992) The Good Old Boys.
- Hemphill, Paul (1993) Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son. New York: Viking Books ISBN 067084778X
- Hemphill, Paul (1996) Heart of the Game: The Education of a Minor League Ballplayer.
- Hemphill, Paul (1998) Wheels: A Season of Nascar's Winston Cup Circuit.
- Hemphill, Paul (2001) Ballad of Little River: A Tale of Race and Unrest in the Rural South.
- Hemphill, Paul (2002) Nobody's Hero.
- Hemphill, Paul (2003) Lost in the Lights: Sports, Dreams, and Life.
- Hemphill, Paul (2005) Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams.
- Hemphill, Paul (2008) A Tiger Walk through History: The Complete Story of Auburn Football from 1892 to the Tuberville Era.
- Monroe, Goug (September 14, 2005) "Hemphill's return: Atlanta author Paul Hemphill calls on a kindred country spirit in his comeback bid." Creative Loafing
- Emerson, Bo (July 11, 2009) "Noted Atlanta author Paul Hemphill dies." Atlanta Journal-Constitution.