I’m strolling through Centennial Olympic Park on a warm spring day, rocking a crop top for the first time—at age 42. It’s black with the word MANIAC scrawled in thin, neon pink font. As I soak up the sun, I pass many others in the same shirt. The K-pop group Stray Kids is in town for their “Maniac” world tour, and Atlanta is overrun by STAYs—the official name for Stray Kids fans like me.
You can spot us STAYs a mile away, dressed in outfits inspired by the group’s music videos and performance gear. Some wear neon green and black vinyl, others pink and white cotton over shredded denim. Plush animal keychains dangle from clear purses, and many concertgoers clutch light sticks to pulse during the show. I’m wearing shiny gold shorts under my sassy top. Twice, people stop me on the street to ask about the thousands of people, dressed louder than a bullhorn, milling outside State Farm Arena.
During the show, I barely sit, dancing for three and a half full hours. When Bang Chan, the leader of the group, asks where people are from, I scream out North Carolina, where I live, outside of Asheville. The roars are loudest for Atlanta and Florida, but people have come from Alabama, Virginia, even Winnipeg, Canada. It all confirms what I already knew: Atlanta is the K-pop capital of the South.
“I’ve traveled to Chicago and LA for shows, but Atlanta really brings a different atmosphere and vibe,” says my fellow fan Mercedes Yap, who was born in Riverdale and now lives in Duluth—the metro area’s “epicenter” of all things Korean and K-pop. She should know. She’s seen MONSTA X, BLACKPINK, ENHYPEN, KARD, Stray Kids, Mamamoo, and more.
Living in Atlanta, she can get her fix of Korean culture anytime. The day we chat, she’s headed out with friends to Hanshin Pocha to get seafood pancake and bossam, boiled pork meat wrapped in cabbage leaves. She also loves BB Myun’s food, especially the kimbap (rice rolls wrapped in seaweed) and dduk bok ki (stir-fried chewy rice cakes shaped like string cheese and soaked in sauce).
Atlanta K-poppers can buy merch at three brick-and-mortar locations. There’s the first and biggest KPOP STORE in USA, in Doraville; Kpop Story, in Suwanee; and KPOP NATION, in Duluth. Yap used to live only five minutes away from KPOP NATION, and she’d stop in every week for new albums (deluxe packages that include photo cards, posters, and stickers), Korean fan magazines, clothes, and other goods. “All of them have impeccable customer service,” she says.
Yap’s favorites, though, are the pop-ups that accompany concert dates and album releases. There are low-tech markets where local vendors sell homemade K-pop goods, plus high-tech events, like the one for ATEEZ at Underground Atlanta before their last concert. Fans wrote notes on a message board, and some of their words and images were broadcast in a music video during the concert.
The more we talk, the more I fantasize about my next visit. (Too bad ENHYPEN didn’t include an Atlanta stop on their current world tour.) Mercedes promises to take me to BB Myun for dduk bok ki, to a fan event, and to shop at Kpop Story. It’s adding up to a delightful DIY K-pop weekend getaway.
Stray Kids has a motto: “Stray Kids all around the world / you make Stray Kids stay.” Atlanta’s tagline could be “K-pop fans all around the South / we make sure you keep coming back.”
This article appears in our November 2023 issue.