Atlanta is a pepper pot of Caribbean cultures

Atlantans’ ties to the Caribbean are often unknown, but hopefully that changes

Atlanta's Caribbean vibes

Photograph by Melissa Alexander

There’s a Jamaican saying that I love: We likkle, but we tallawah. Roughly, it translates to: “Though we may be small, we are mighty and strong.” I refer to this proverb often when I’m describing the local Caribbean community.

With numbers steadily increasing since the 1970s, Caribbeans officially account for 85,000 of metro Atlanta’s 6 million people. That number will shock some readers for a couple of reasons. The first is what I like to call “undercover Caribbeans.” There are a lot of people in this city who you would never know are Caribbean.

Case in point: I was sitting at Poor Hendrix, where I’m a regular, and I asked Q, the bartender and owner of local clothing company PDGC, what Caribbean people he knew, and he said, “Myself.” Sir, what? I’ve had countless conversations with him, and not once did he give me any inkling that he was Caribbean. Turns out his dad is from Trinidad and migrated to Atlanta from New York in the ’80s. Q grew up in Stone Mountain and, while that town has always been a huge Caribbean enclave, he identifies mostly as an Atlantan.

The other reason people are surprised is that there is no central Caribbean community here like there is in New York, Miami, Toronto, or even Boston. Sarah Pierre, owner of 3 Parks Wine Shop in Glenwood Park, brought this up to me when I discovered that she is Haitian.

In fact, there are definitely more than 85,000 Caribbeans in the metro area. While the census finally started allowing people to indicate their Caribbean ancestry in 2020, it still doesn’t account for all the ways Caribbean culture and heritage manifest and intersect. For example, Honduras, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica are all considered part of the Caribbean. These countries are bound to their island counterparts by more than crystal clear blue waters. Their languages and cultures are a melding of tongues, traditions, and histories. You need look no further than the food. Whether it’s called rice and peas, rice and beans, peas and rice, arroz con gandules, or pelau—it’s all rice, cooked with some kind of bean and maybe a little coconut milk, and it’s found everywhere in the Caribbean.

In Atlanta, these intersections play out at Continent Restaurant on Buford Highway. The area has long been a major corridor for Caribbeans from Spanish-speaking countries. However, this restaurant, co-owned by Jamaican chef Scotley Innis, does a deft job of highlighting ingredients that bridge many nations. Its high-profile opening in 2021 was a reminder that Caribbean culture is truly having a moment in Atlanta.

But Continent was just one example of the modern interpretations of Caribbean cuisine taking root in this city. Vivian Compton kicked off this trend when she opened Stir It Up in 2011, though her place has since closed. Restaurants like Rock Steady, APT 4B, Belle & Lily’s, and Negril have followed, proving the region can inspire powerhouse culinary institutions in addition to its famous jerk shacks.

Atlanta's Caribbean vibes

Photograph by Melissa Alexander; Model: Nikki Kotero; Makeup: Karess Emme Dee; Costume: Entice Mas Band

There is just as much progress and innovation on the beverage side. The first time I looked at the concoctions on Gilly Brew Bar’s menu—with sorrel, ginger, and other familiar stems—I knew someone in that building had Caribbean roots. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that owners Daniel Brown and Nephthaly Leonidas are Jamaican and Haitian, respectively. Mambo Zombi opened in October 2022 and finally put longtime bar vet and Jamaican Kysha Cyrus front and center. Sheldon Johns-Harris, the cofounder of Greenwood Whiskey—one of the few Black whiskey companies in the country—is Jamaican. Camaran Burke—who has his hands in several beverage programs, most notably Holiday Bar—is also Jamaican. So is the city’s beer and lager guru, blogger Ale Sharpton (née Dennis Byron).

ONE Music Fest produced its first Caribbean music set, presented by DJ Kash, in 2022. After dancing madly for 20 minutes, I went up to J Carter, the founder, and told him how much that music meant to me. He surprised me by saying how much it meant to him. His family is from the Virgin Islands; his wife is Panamanian.

Atlanta’s Caribbean Carnival reported that tens of thousands jumped up alongside “mas” bands at Carnival in 2022—the first since Covid hit and the highest attendance since Atlanta’s first Carnival-style parade under the name Caribbean Folklife Festival in 1989.

Now we have nearly an entire issue of Atlanta magazine dedicated to this culture. Some people, businesses, and organizations will inevitably be left out of these pages—not intentionally, of course, but because, as I said earlier, Atlantans’ ties to the Caribbean are often unknown. Hopefully, these stories encourage them to yell a little louder and to wave their flags. Because there’s another saying that comes from my native Jamaica that applies here as well: Out of many, one people.

Read the full feature: Atlanta’s Caribbean Vibes

This article appears in our May 2023 issue.