The quake, whose epicenter is in Alleghany County, was felt as far away as South Carolina and Georgia, according to social media posts. The USGS received reports from more than 300 miles away, in Atlanta.
It struck about 8:07 a.m. ET.
“It felt like a big locomotive going by and a big wave coming underneath the bed,” said Sparta Mayor Wes Brinegar, who was awakened by the quake. “A big wave coming to lift you.”
There are no immediate reports of injuries, but there is some minor damage in the town of about 1,800 people, he said.
“Cracked foundation, and stuff falling off shelves in houses,” Brinegar said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and have never felt anything like that.”
The USGS says earthquakes become destructive at a magnitude of 4.0 to 5.0, depending on variables. A 5.3-magnitude is considered a moderate quake, the USGS says.
Town Councilman Cole Edwards, too, was jolted awake by the quake, he said. There was no damage to his home, but it broke some dishes and knocked some pictures off of the wall, he said.
“We’ve had a lot of scared folks this morning,” the mayor said. “That was the most intense one we’ve ever had.”
The earthquake rumbled at a depth of about 5.7 miles, which is considered a shallow quake. Quakes shallower than 43 miles tend to be more destructive than deeper ones, the USGS says.
Sparta is about 100 miles north of Charlotte. A Charlotte firefighters union tweeted there were no reports of injuries.
The Sparta area sits among three seismic zones, in Charleston, South Carolina, eastern Tennessee and central Virginia. Several smaller quakes, all 2.6-magnitude or lower, rumbled near Sparta on Saturday and early Sunday. Two more temblors struck a few miles from Seymour, Tennessee, last weekend, the USGS says.
CNN’s Chandler Thornton and Chuck Johnston contributed to this report.