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Why Lemon Pepper Wings Reign Supreme in Atlanta

No food inspires more debate than chicken wings.

Drums or flats?

Ranch or bleu cheese?

But there’s one thing that every wing eater in Atlanta can agree on… 

Lemon pepper reigns supreme.

lemon pepper wings from JR Crickets
J.R. Cricket’s Lemon Pepper Wings

What is Lemon Pepper?

For the (somehow) uninitiated, lemon pepper is a dry rub made of dried lemon zest and pepper. It’s zesty and sweet with just the right amount of sour.

Most people associate wings with the narrow perspective of “buffalo or bust”, but here in Atlanta we’re a more open-minded folk. 

When you ask the average ATLien about lemon pepper wings, there’s more than just enthusiasm…there’s pride.

This led me to wonder: why have lemon pepper wings been so impactful to Atlanta? 

Let’s find out.

The Origins of Lemon Pepper

According to Spiceography (a website very much worth a deep dive), lemon pepper seasoning likely originated in India, as a result of its native lemons and black peppercorns. It is commonly found in Indian cuisine, as well as a spice for salmon and other seafoods. 

So what connects this droplet to the lemon pepper wing monsoon that has captivated Atlanta?

The answer, like the ending of Inception and Tupac’s whereabouts, are unconfirmed.

My internet searches only took me so far, so I decided to ask some questions myself. There’s no shortage of lemon pepper experts around ATL, so I knew there was wisdom to be learned.

The Rise of Lemon Pepper Wings

In the olden days before the development of written communication (or at least before most people could read or write), stories were passed down in the oral tradition with conversations and telling tales around the campfire. While certain details were lost in the ebb and flow of time, the important details endured. Since I was facing a lack of written information, I opted for the spoken medium (minus the campfire) and reached out to several Atlanta natives who had plenty to say about lemon pepper wings.

I started with FRKO (AKA Freako Rico AKA Richard Montgomery), a daring artist whose work is unapologetically bold and unapologetically Atlanta. (Heads up: some of his work is explicit)

“Here’s a photo of me sitting in a car where I usually eat wings.”

He grew up here and is a massive wing fan, to the point that he actually created a comic book character named Flat Wing.

FRKO was a firsthand witness to the rise of lemon pepper wings, and can remember how it first came into his life as a kid.

“I remember getting a little plastic container of lemon pepper seasoning and sprinkling it on my mild wings,” he recalls. 

Like every innovation, it was the result of necessity. “Kids couldn’t handle the spice,” he explains. “We used to dip our thumb in the lemon pepper seasoning and put it in our mouth if it was too hot. We’d do this with sugar too.” I for one am glad that only lemon pepper caught on.

He eventually began seeing wing spots actually put the lemon pepper seasoning onto the wings themselves. He concludes, “that’s when buffalo wings became hot wings.

Lemon Pepper Wings in Pop Culture

Atlanta’s reputation as the Lemon Pepper Capital of the World has far exceeded the bounds of I-285. This eclectic offering has grown from hidden gem to sensation, thanks to several ATLiens with a national platform.

Undoubtedly the biggest impact came from the second episode of Donald Glover’s hit show Atlanta. In the pivotal scene, the rapidly-ascending rapper Paper Boi orders lemon pepper wings from J.R. Cricket’s, but…could it be…? The cook, in a demonstration of real recognizing real, adds buffalo sauce to the wings, creating the earth-shattering phenomenon of “lemon pepper wet”. 

Just look at the way the wings are portrayed, like a 10-pack of hidden treasure. No wonder the floodgates burst open.

Even though this scene caused J.R. Cricket’s to blow up, the irony is that this was not one of their menu items at the time, based instead on a menu item from the American Deli chain. As Stephen Glover, Donald’s brother and co-writer told the AJC, “We just thought it would be funny to see somebody get hooked up at J.R. Crickets by getting that option that isn’t even really available.” After the scene, however, owner Paul Juliano decided to add them to the menu full time under the Lemon Pepper Wet moniker. 

Writing this piece inspired me to get an order and they do NOT disappoint.

Another huge story that familiarized the world with lemon pepper wings came early in the 2020 NBA Playoff Bubble. Lou Williams made headlines when he was allowed to leave the bubble to come to Atlanta for a funeral but made a pit stop at Magic City, a gentleman’s club known for their unbelievably good wings (along with a few other things). While the NBA wasn’t pleased, locals were thrilled to see such a beloved institution getting widespread coverage. 

The story sent such ripples through the national scene that in the fall of 2020, Williams registered a trademark on his new nickname, Lemon Pepper Lou, a title even more on the nose since he was traded back to the Atlanta Hawks before the 2021 season. Now he can enjoy an order of Louwill Lemon Pepper BBQ wings whenever he wants.

Photo Credit: MagicCity.com

Lemon pepper wings have even taken the music scene by storm. 

Atlanta rappers have been peppering their lyrics with lemon pepper references for well over a decade. Gucci Mane repeats the line “Lemon pepper wings and a freeze cup” in his 2009 song Lemonade. Rick Ross references them enough to warrant a list titled Every Rick Ross “Lemon Pepper” Lyric, Ranked (An Absurdly Detailed Investigation), quite fitting for the proud owner of over 25 Wingstop locations. He’s become so associated with lemon pepper that Drake paid tribute to him by inviting him onto his Lemon Pepper Freestyle track in 2021. 

The Impact of Lemon Pepper Wings

Lemon pepper wings are about much more than the taste.

The more I spoke to folks around Atlanta, the more amazed I became with the impact that a simple seasoned piece of fried chicken has. And it doesn’t feel far fetched by any stretch. 

Lemon pepper wings are uniquely ours.

FRKO expressed this view. He reflected, “they’re important because they give Atlanta a new sense of identity. ‘Hotlanta’ is played out. The 1996 Olympics are played out.”

But lemon pepper wings are anything but played out.

They’ve transcended a mere flavor and are now a robust subgenre of the hot wing universe. You’ve got hot lemon pepper, honey lemon pepper, Cajun lemon pepper, Korean BBQ lemon pepper, Jerk lemon pepper, honey garlic lemon pepper….(I’m starting to sound like Bubba from Forrest Gump).

The louwill lemon pepper bbq wings from Magic City.
Magic City wings | Photo Credit: Twitter – @zsoskin

This part of the zeitgeist has extended into the political sphere as well. 

I reached out to several candidates for the Atlanta mayoral race and it was obvious they were way more excited to answer questions about wings than about fixing potholes. I asked Andre Dickens and Felicia Moore why they think lemon pepper wings are so important as well as their go-to orders.

Council-member Andre Dickens posits their tastiness is “because they’re little tangy fried chickens.” City Council President Felicia Moore says it’s because they’re “zesty like our people!” In this increasingly divided political world, it’s rare to find any candidates (even of the same political party) who have the same opinions on anything, but lemon pepper wings are the exception. 

Both of their go-to orders are 10 lemon pepper wings with celery and bleu cheese.

Some things are bigger than politics.

This is a small sample size, though, so I reached out to the most food-crazed group I could think of… our Instagram followers.

I asked a simple question: what’s your favorite wing sauce or rub?

With a completely open-ended prompt, well over half of the responses were some variation of lemon pepper (refer to the list above).

Atlanta’s love affair with lemon pepper is clearly no joke.

Why Lemon Pepper?

Even after reflecting on the history and impact of lemon pepper wings, it’s worth pondering just how they have soared to such prominence in Atlanta.

The answer is unsurprisingly complex. 

They’re one of the few tangible items that give our city a unique identity. Philadelphia has the Philly cheesesteak. Chicago has deep dish. Cincinnati has Skyline Chili. We have lemon pepper wings.

Like many of the most beloved foods, they’re unpretentious and comforting. When I spoke with the team at J.R. Cricket’s about it, they shared with pride that “only in the A will you hear people talk about lemon pepper wings as the Holy Grail of flavors.”

As FRKO said with a laugh, “Atlanta’s got the flavor.”

In the simplest explanation, lemon pepper wings are just tasty as hell. 

And isn’t that all that matters?

The Local - Buffalo and Lemon Pepper Wings | Photo: Yelp
The Local – Buffalo and Lemon Pepper Wings | Photo: Yelp
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