When NBA star Lou Williams made national news in 2020 for breaking the league’s quarantine bubble to visit the world-famous Atlanta strip club Magic City — not for the performers but for the food — people scoffed in disbelief.
“I remember watching ESPN the next day, and it kind of really annoyed me at one point,” says Nick Love, who served as the club’s brand manager from 2017 until early 2020 when the pandemic hit. “All the pundits were like, ‘Yeah, right, wink-wink. He went to the club for the food.’ And everybody in Atlanta was like ‘… Yeah.’ ”
Atlanta residents have known the strength of Magic City Kitchen (the club’s affiliated restaurant) for decades, long before the recent media fixation on the signature seasoning. Despite the joking winks and smirks from out-of-towners, they’re never shy about grabbing a late lunch, an early-evening dinner, or delivery and pickup orders from the institution. L.J., who has led the kitchen at Magic City for 20 years and asked to remain anonymous due to her ongoing work in the hospitality industry, says Williams was a regular who eventually saw the kitchen team formalize his order, name it after him, and add it to the establishment’s menu well before he broke the NBA bubble and garnered the club’s chicken wings a new flood of national media attention.
“At first, when the whole incident happened with Lou, people kind of thought it was a joke; like, there’s no way this man is really going there for food,” says L.J., who handpicks each item on the menu. “I’ve personally seen where people came in ... to see if it’s true that the food is good, and they have been completely surprised by the fact that it is.”
Even if you’ve never had an Atlanta area code or seen the glimmering neon, you’ve heard about Magic City. And while the club itself has no issue drawing high-profile music executives, professional athletes, and average Joes alike, one specific feature has further established the venue — and the city itself — as an undeniable culinary destination: its iconic chicken wings.
But don’t get it twisted. These aren’t your typical wings that have been drenched in store-bought sauce and spices to make up for the meat’s blandness; these are the deeply seasoned subject of conversations, debates, and scandals. They’ve inspired countless articles in local and national publications, numerous YouTube videos racking up millions of views, and song lyrics by Lizzo, Drake, Rick Ross, and so many others. These drums and flats have been lacquered and dusted in a range of sauces and spices to create both familiar flavors like barbecue and lemon pepper and unique combinations like Uncle Jeff Honey Jerk and Juju Rude Boy Jerk. One look at a hot sauce-slathered wing coated in lemon pepper sprinkles will be enough to convince any diner that they’re worth the crowds of people who literally sing and mumble-rap their praises.
When it was founded by Michael “Magic” Barney in 1985, the club sat on the southern edge of downtown (in the space that is now across the street from the Greyhound bus station and below the Garnett MARTA station). At the time, there wasn’t much around, but its location proved to not be a barrier to the venue’s evolution into a pillar of Atlanta culture — bringing its noteworthy drums and flats along with it. The club’s sign, a neon-lit woman’s silhouette, has beckoned an eclectic collection of characters: people traveling to the city by bus itching for adventure; locals searching for a sense of familiarity in a place where it always feels welcoming, in part because the staff doesn’t change often; music executives looking to connect with industry movers and shakers; and celebrities who just want to hang out and grab a bite, like Big Boi, Rihanna, Meek Mill, and Future.
“I always joke that it’s a national landmark,” Love says. “People come to Atlanta, and it’s like: Coca-Cola, Dr. King, and Magic City.”
These days, the wings are as popular as the club itself. Catch visitors ordering at the kitchen window, just past the lobby where the cashier awaits guests’ cover fees, slight left of center. Usually at least one performer is putting on a show on the giant H-shaped stage in the middle of the main room, winding, flipping, spinning, and yes, twerking — sometimes even from high above the stage, either at the top of a pole or on the graspable metal bars jutting from the ceiling.
For years, Magic City has been a safe gathering place for celebrities of all sorts and a hub for the rap industry’s elite because of its notoriously strict rules for how its guests act while in the space (i.e., no touching the performers unless they have consented) and its even stricter security. The club has long been protective of the privacy of its performers, who are among the highest earning in the industry, as well as the staff and patrons. Where other clubs might swarm with paparazzi or rubbernecking guests looking to snap quick photos or footage of celebrities after hours, Magic City cracks down on anyone attempting unauthorized photography in the space in the hope of protecting the performers’ and guests’ safety, anonymity, and the separation between their personal and professional lives. This, along with its growing stature as a signifier of status, more than justified famous musicians’ desire to visit the location. As the business grew, so did the food and drinks it offered (catfish nuggets, lobster tails), but it never lost sight of the small chicken wings that established it among the competition.
Every great Atlanta wing spot has its signature stamp, and at Magic City, it’s the small wings that soak up the flavors from all of the sauces and seasonings into the bone’s marrow. L.J. recounts stopping by multiple distributors in search of wings that were exactly the right size when there was a chicken wing shortage during the pandemic. While the club temporarily closed, Magic City’s kitchen remained open for takeout orders. During the closure, the kitchen could have changed the size of its wings or latched onto social media stunts. But changing the style or closing the kitchen felt like disappointing customers, and that just wasn’t an option.
“We’ve always stuck to our own recipes,” L.J. says, pointing to a menu that includes salmon, black bean burgers, and lamb chops.
L.J. says the menu has “evolved a lot” over the years and that some of the items on it were created or inspired by the club’s regular guests (see: LouWill Lemon Pepper BBQ). Customers can still order from a list of wing sauces — honey garlic, Thai chili, garlic Parmesan, and more — and treatments, including battered, breaded, and, of course, naked. Magic City’s kitchen has been intentional about carving its own lane with menu items that capture the essence of the establishment and the city it calls home.
“It’s kind of like a security blanket,” L.J. says. “Lenox Mall has changed. The Braves have moved, Philips Arena has been renamed, but Magic City has not moved, and it hasn’t changed.”
That may be why the food often serves as an icebreaker for first-timers who’ve never experienced Atlanta’s strip clubs and want to get the full experience but might be a little uncomfortable.
“You can always say, ‘Oh, I’m going for the wings,’ which, 99 percent of the time, is exactly why people are stopping by,” L.J. says. “If you have food in front of you, you have something to do with your hands. You can talk about it. So, I think that’s a big reason eating is the thing to do here.”
Atlanta’s DJ Jelly (Jonathan Jackson) started his career spinning at Magic City in the early ’90s when he was hired by Cecil Glenn, aka “DC the Brain Supreme” of Tag Team, the group responsible for “Whoomp There It Is.” He moved on to host the city’s first hip-hop show on Hot 97.9 and helped break major acts like Outkast.
“The food was always on point,” says Jelly, who orders his wings breaded and with hot sauce on the side. “[Magic City] always had good, down-home, Southern cooking, whether it was the fish or the wings.”
He remembers the early energy that shaped the club in the 1990s, back when Atlanta’s rap sound was largely influenced by the bass music coming out of Florida. Today when he stops by, he’s greeted by some of the same people who worked there years ago, including a DJ whose mom was a dancer back in the day. That kind of familiarity is a huge part of the club’s appeal.
“Atlanta is a very transitional place, but Magic City is the Mount Rushmore of the strip clubs,” Jelly says. “As a DJ, I travel all over the world, and whether it’s in the Middle East or Asia, wherever, they know about Magic City.”
While the wings have long been popular, Love estimates they really took off for Magic City when they became a food staple all around town in the mid-2000s, bolstered by inexpensive eateries like American Deli. If Atlanta has a signature wing, it’s lemon pepper, as illustrated in a memorable episode from Stone Mountain native Donald Glover’s Emmy Award-winning television series Atlanta. Love believes lemon pepper got another boost during Atlanta hip-hop’s “white tee” era in the mid-2000s, when popular rappers wore white T-shirts and didn’t want to get their clothes dirty while hanging out at the club and ordered the wings dry-rubbed in the iconic seasoning.
“The great thing about lemon pepper, especially dry, and why they became popular in the [strip] club is because hot wings are messy,” Love says. “Think about the white tee era — you’re doing your thing, you’re trying to eat some wings, and now you have wing sauce on your hands. At the end of the night, your T-shirt looks like a disaster area. The lemon pepper was less messy.”
Since then, Atlanta has continued to wrestle with lightning-fast gentrification and the cultural changes that come with it, and Magic City hasn’t been exempt from that tension. Still, some say the club feels like one of the last remnants of ’90s Atlanta that’s been buoyed by its collection of regulars and commuting guests, publicity from internationally known celebrities, and even the national media attention it’s received as of late. It’s a glimmer of the culture and energy that made Atlanta so dynamic and attractive in the first place. And though some city residents might be concerned about Magic City’s legacy in a rapidly evolving Atlanta and the role the club plays in current cultural conversations, the Magic City staff isn’t among them.
“The city has changed and grown with different people moving to Atlanta,” L.J. says. “Boundaries are growing, the city limits are changing, but you can always count on Magic City being exactly where it is.”
Jacinta Howard is an Atlanta-based culture writer, editor, and author who believes there’s an André 3000 lyric to fit any situation.
Sydney A. Foster is an Atlanta-based image-maker and director who focuses on capturing the spirit of community, vibrance, nuanced queer identities, and southern black culture.
Patrick Addy is an Atlanta-based photo assistant.
Talent: Princesca; Makeup: Breanna Jones; Wardrobe stylist: Alexandria Scott; Manicurist: Kim Cao
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein