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We Have to Talk About the Food in the Series ‘Atlanta’

It turns out the show has been telling food stories all along as part of its always-funny, often intentionally uncomfortable plotlines

Premiere Of The 3rd Season Of FX’s “Atlanta” - Arrivals
Season 3 of “Atlanta” premiered on FX March 24.
Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

After COVID forced production to pause in 2020, Donald Glover and the cast of Atlanta returned March 24 with the premiere of the long-awaited third season, which takes place in Europe. Food plays a role in the storyline during the first episode of Season 3, but looking back, Glover’s powerhouse FX show has been telling food stories all along as part of its always-funny, often intentionally uncomfortable plotlines.

Right out of the gate in the second episode of the first season in 2016, there’s the famous “lemon pepper wet” scene, when the world, and more than a few Atlantans, were first introduced to “Fester” wings. Back then, people unfamiliar with these wings were wondering if sauced lemon pepper flats and drums really existed — and if they were even tasty. Today, it’s hard not finding an Atlanta restaurant with a version of the zesty, citrusy wings on the menu, or even dishes seasoned with lemon pepper flavoring.

Also in the first season, Earn (Glover’s character) tries — and fails — to convince a fictional employee of the former Little Five Points Zesto to sell him a kids’ meal. While rejecting Earn for being older than 14, the newly promoted young manager tells him she didn’t earn her job title by “handing out discounted meals.” The power dynamics are clear: Earn has none. The best he can do is sneakily fill the water cup she provides him with fountain soda.

The show has used beverages to push comedic boundaries, too. In Season 1, Episode 7, the show mocked alcohol companies’ upscale marketing strategies with a commercial starring a Black couple enjoying Mickey’s malt liquor in champagne flutes. Then, in Season 2 (“Robbin’ Season”), it explored the ahistorically Bavarian town of Helen in the north Georgia mountains, where Earn’s inability to order a beer in German frustrates the bartender, pointing out the awkward nature of trying to fit into a Southern faux-Germantown when you’re a Black Atlantan. There’s also the Yoo-hoo commercial starring fictional trap rapper Clark County. His endorsement of the chocolate drink includes admitting he drinks Yoo-Hoo “like it’s Dirty Sprite” — a nod to Atlanta rapper Future’s famed love (and problematic promotion) of mixing promethazine and codeine with carbonated soda.

Now, with Atlanta back for its third season, Glover and the writers have come up with another way to weave food into its opener, “Three Slaps.

Spoiler alerts below

The opening scene takes place on Lake Lanier in Georgia, a location with its own complicated and tragic history that includes submerging the town of Oscarville to create the lake, and ties to the forced removal of 1,100 Black people in Forsyth County by white mobs in 1912. Many Atlantans believe the lake is haunted.

The episode’s main character is a young Black class clown named Loquareeous, who eats a bowl of spaghetti his mother made him as she cleans the house. What follows is nothing short of a mini-version of the movie Get Out, with both Lake Lanier and that bowl of spaghetti tying back into the episode at the end.

Loquareeous gets into trouble in class with his white teacher, and through a series of events, ends up at the home of two white women in a relationship who are also fostering three other Black children. The couple feeds the children fried chicken with slices of avocado and capers for dinner, completely coating the raw chicken legs in flour and microwaving them before plating.

Visibly disgusted by the pale poultry leg still covered in flour on his plate, Loquareeous says what everyone’s thinking: “Gross!” One of the women tells him their version of fried chicken is healthier, assuming his eating habits and the food served by his own mother must be unhealthy. The couple serves the children the same under-seasoned, undercooked, whitewashed fried chicken again the next day.

The women also make kombucha, stinking up the entire home with its overwhelming stench, which Loquareeous remarks upon when he first arrives. It’s supposedly made with vegetables from the family’s back garden, which the children tend as the women sit and watch. At one point, a hungry Loquareeous is asked to sing a song while he works in the garden preparing the vegetables for market. The song he chooses isn’t satisfactory, and one of the women suggests (and demonstrates) a song that resembles a tune sung by the enslaved.

Later, they all head to the local farmers market. The couple has the kids wear sandwich boards promoting the farm stand and offering free hugs. Loquareeous, scared and wearing a fedora, runs off and hugs a nearby white policeman, describing how he and the other kids are basically being forced into child labor and to eat terrible fried chicken. The women approach with the other three children, explaining away Loquareeous’s concerns, and offering the officer a free cup of kombucha. The episode snowballs from here, with Lake Lanier appearing again and Loquareeous finally ending up back home eating spaghetti while his mom does laundry. The audience learns Earn is in a hotel room in Europe dreaming it all.

The couple and children depicted in Atlanta are based on a real-life lesbian couple who committed familicide in 2018 by driving off a California cliff with their six adopted Black kids. That fedora Loquareeous wears at the farmers market references a 2014 photograph of Devonte Hart hugging a police officer during a protest in Portland, Oregon.

Naturally, the episode is deeply unsettling. But too often we see the whitewashing of Black culture on TV, in movies, and in food, and it appears Atlanta is directing the camera lens back on society, and particularly white people, by using the cultural ideas and stereotypes surrounding Black food as part of that delivery.

With this new season, Atlanta is turning uncomfortable parts of modern Black life into opportunities for others to acknowledge there’s reality in the show’s surrealism. Get Out was successful because it offered white people a hard glimpse into the microaggressions and racism they often see as benign. And while serving microwave fried chicken to an adopted Black boy might not seem racist to all viewers (although it’s definitely gross), there’s a stereotypical association in the recipe. It’s food, speaking in a larger context, becoming a touchstone threaded through the lives of the characters, which may become an overarching narrative of future Atlanta episodes during Season 3.

After all, the second episode, “Sinterklaas is Coming to Town”, ends with this text to Earn from Al (aka Paper Boi): “I need 300 pieces of fried chicken. All legs.”

Atlanta” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX, with episodes also streaming on Hulu. Season 4 (the final season) debuts this fall.

Mike Jordan is an Atlanta-based multimedia journalist and editor-in-chief at Butter.ATL, a media company dedicated to the dynamic culture of Atlanta. He’s also the southeast editor of content at Resy, a newsletter columnist for the Local Palate, and a frequent contributor at the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Atlanta magazine, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Eater Atlanta, where he regularly writes about food, business, entertainment, technology, politics, and more.