“Wait, the rest of the world doesn’t have lemon pepper wings?”

Keisha Lance Bottoms, the City Councilwoman representing a significant stretch of Atlanta’s southside, was confused. A product of Atlanta and a woman currently running for mayor of her city, she was stunned to hear about life in New York, a life that involved getting chicken wings, typically without the option of choosing lemon pepper. It was a reminder of the reality of home—sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until you see, and taste, how the other half lives.

That’s the beauty, the gift, and the curse of being from Atlanta, a place equal parts “the city too busy to hate,” and so into itself that it often forgets the rest of the world exists. It’s why Atlanta remains an enigma, a place comically difficult to explain unless you’re from there, while simultaneously so visible, culturally relevant, and self-promotional that everyone thinks they get it, know it, understand it.

For the better part of two decades, the city’s hip-hop community has gone out of its way to remind the public where they’re from. First it was just “Atlanta.” Then street names and neighborhoods and pride-filled police zones followed, providing the innocent passerby with enough information to create his own star map. Following that, the establishments—from venues to strip clubs, to restaurants to even more strip clubs. People from Atlanta not only want you to know they're from Atlanta, but they also double as tour guides. It created a mystique about the city to the outsider, from the girl assuming she will see Ludacris after spending five minutes in the airport, to the guy who finally ventures to Magic City expecting it to be an eight-story strip club, but upon finally making the hajj to ass-clap Mecca, quickly discovers it's such a circus because it's actually the size of a two-car garage. 

Of all the things Atlanta is known for to the outside world, however, a signature dish is not high on the list, if present at all. It’s a proud city, but also surprisingly welcoming to an influx of new people, cultures, and tastes. It's a place increasingly defined by its ever-changing transplant population, due to the never-ending list of colleges full of young adults that decide to stay, and an obsession with sprawled-out neighborhoods with big houses that convince many outsiders that it's the perfect place to begin a new life. As a result: an Atlanta that once felt black and white, Southern and homegrown, is now more visibly everything outside and in between, represented in vast multitudes. At its best, that reality is responsible for an admirable melting pot, but at worst, it's an accessory to a city-wide identity crisis, making it difficult to distinguish what is authentically Atlanta unless you have some institutional memory.

The city’s food scene serves as a clear metaphor for Atlanta at large. Yes, there’s a thriving culinary movement. Yes, most delicacies (Southern and otherwise) can be found with exquisite authenticity in the South’s most important city. But that also creates a world in which Atlanta falls into the trap of the jack-of-all-trades, master of none. You can find every kind of signature southern BBQ in the city, for example, yet it's one of the few parts of the region without a well-known signature spin on the genre.

Through all of these changes, there has long been one dish just sitting there—hiding in plain sight—waiting to be officially recognized as Atlanta’s most singular food: wings. There are places as far as Arizona, New York, and Texas with establishments called “ATL Wings,” because of the city’s reputation—one rightfully deserved when the occasional stroll in town will have you seeing the bones of discarded flats littering the sidewalks, as if they were cigarette butts. But it's not just wings, generically. After a lengthy hiatus from Atlanta, it was an episode of television and a pilgrimage home for the holidays that served as a reminder that, above all types of wings, it was lemon pepper in Atlanta that stood above the rest. Because they were ours.

**

lemon pepper wings
Image via First We Feast Original

Driving down from Washington D.C. to Atlanta this past Christmas in a 1997 black Chevy Tahoe nicknamed Nasty, three black twenty-something boys sat, eagerly awaiting their moms, their city, and the ensuing feast. I sat shotgun, complaining about home fries and how hard it was to get some good hash browns in New York City. The other two—brothers, both also from the southside of Atlanta—immediately brought up wings.

“Lemon Pepper WET,” Mike said, driving the cruise ship of a car. Immediately, we launched into a conversation of the FX show Atlanta. One of the Golden Globe-winning show’s iconic first season moments was in the second episode, when Darius and Paper Boi, two of the show’s primary characters, go to famed Atlanta wing spot J.R. Crickets. Newly released from jail, they excitedly go celebrate their freedom by way of flats.

It is hilarious, I’ve been told, if you have no context for the scene. But for those of us from Atlanta, those of us who have a storied history with J.R. Crickets, the interaction was borderline triggering—like the Thanksgiving family conversation somehow going viral, but for good.

The high point of the scene is an interaction with an employee, who gives the two men a treat:

Server: “My boy hooked you up. He made you the lemon pepper joints. But these got the sauce on ‘em.”

Paper Boi: “LEMON PEPPER WET”

[Opens the box, a light shines out.]

Darius: “Oh my god”

Scrolling through Twitter following the episode, my timeline was essentially an aggregator of everyone I knew who was from or spent a significant portion of time in Atlanta. And the only thing people were talking about—Atlanta and an unboxing that made rare Jordans look like Air Currys.

Just like that, the phrase “Lemon Pepper Wet” instantly became a thing, beyond I-285. In the car, trucking down the East Coast, we discussed both sides of it: how great it felt to be on the ground floor of something the nation was suddenly obsessing over, and then how we were anticipating the moment that people started ruining it, the phrase “lemon pepper wet ” falling somewhere between the food equivalent of a joke on black twitter that suddenly went white, and people saying “HOTlanta” and thinking they did something cool. In Atlanta, it had long been a way of asking for your lemon pepper wings drenched in butter sauce—not because it was an option on the menu, but simply because it was something you knew to do if that was your thing. But due to the popularity of the show and the phrase, this March J.R. Crickets officially added “Lemon Pepper Wet” to their menu. Online hype made it to real life.

Discussing this scene dominated the next 20 minutes of our trip. We’d already stopped at two of the primary southern food staples, Chick-fil-A and Waffle House. But even though they were multitudinous in Atlanta, they weren’t ours.

We needed lemon pepper wings. As soon as my friend said the phrase aloud, I could see them and smell them and taste them. That first bite, fresh out a styrofoam tray, only minutes since they left their beautiful mixing bowl of a home, tossed up and down until perfection had been achieved. Chances are, with that first bite you burn the roof of your mouth because you’re so excited to eat them. But also in that first bite, you get all three words. First, the lemon. A lemon pepper wing is the closest thing you can get to biting into a lemon, that nanosecond of tart hitting your jaws, suggesting something is wrong—but no. Because there’s the pepper. I don’t know if it was Martin or Coretta who invented these, but when lemon hits that pepper it does nothing short of twinkle and glisten in your mouth. And then the foundation: the holy spirit to the lemon father and pepper son, the chicken. God bless the chicken. 

When our car arrived in Atlanta, I raced first into my friends’ childhood home. There were an assortment of family members present, with mom in the middle of the kitchen. Right in front of her, the singular thing that could make three homesick Atlanta boys from the southside stuck in New York, Wisconsin, and Connecticut teary-eyed: an army of lemon pepper wings.

“I thought y’all might be hungry,” this black queen in the kitchen said to us. “And they’re from LT's.”

There was nothing left to do but hug her, and then eat. Because not only was I eating lemon pepper wings, but, as she said, they were LT's wings.

**

lemon pepper wings
Image via First We Feast Original

There’s an innumerable list of places to get lemon pepper wings in Atlanta, and a handful of spots to get great ones. There’s local chains like J.R. Crickets and American Deli, bars like The North Highland Pub, Hudson Grille, and Dugans, and national chains like Wingstop—which, in Atlanta, is like voluntarily getting Taco Bell in Mexico City.

But then there’s LT’s Wings.

Opening in 1996, LT’s Wings was named after the original owner’s two daughters, Lauren and Taylor. In 2002, the current older, George Jeter, bought LT’s from his former business partner but kept the same name, changing the meaning of the LT's to “the Loving Touch.”

The restaurant sits atop a short but steep diagonal parking lot on Fairburn Road, right next to one of Southwest Atlanta’s biggest streets, Cascade Road. There’s many wing places in the neighborhood, but for those that grew up in the area, LT's has always been the pinnacle, especially if you were in the market for lemon pepper.

“The lemon pepper wings, whenever we have a party, they’re always the first to go,” Mr. Jeter says.

It was a trip speaking to him, mainly because many of us always thought his name was LT. It was also interesting tracking him down, struggling to find his number, but then getting it from my childhood tennis coach (the man that often took me there during the summer as a kid) who happened to be around the corner and drove by to ask Mr. Jeter if he'd be willing to talk. That connection, however, sums up what type of place LT's is in the majority Black southside of Atlanta—people keep coming back, because of the food and the people. It’s one of the many examples of why LT's has survived in this one location, through both competition and a recession, for over 20 years.

“There used to be a Wingstop across the street from us. But Wingstop does a poor job of lemon pepper. They try to do to much to it," laughed Jeter. "It’s just not a good taste. When you have a taste that stands out and blows up in your mouth, that’s what you want to feed your customers, not just something that looks close.”

Jeter said the lemon pepper wings they make, ultimately, were Atlanta’s wings. And for many, LT's was the epitome of Atlanta’s wing culture, responsible for Atlanta’s best dish.

“In three hours and two minutes, I will be calling LT's Wings for my Friday order: 30 lemon pepper,” City Councilwoman Bottoms said, at 2:58pm. “This is what we eat every Friday, it’s like Sunday dinner.

About to end the call, Ms. Bottoms had one more story to tell me, both about LT's and lemon pepper wings.

“A delegation from the city took a trip to China, once. We were gone probably ten days and when I came home from China I called LT's as soon as I got cell service. I called my mama and was like ‘I just want some Lemon Pepper wings.’ And I stopped on my way home,” she said.

“I was dreaming about lemon pepper wings in China.”