Breaking down Atlanta’s newfound passion for mahjong

Meet the new Bunco

Breaking down Atlanta’s newfound passion for mahjong
This mahjong set, Rose’s Classic Tile Line, was designed by Atlanta artist Rose Rotunda

Photograph by Martha Williams

Brookhaven resident Melissa Cott remembers the click-click-click of her mom and her friends playing mahjong. She loved the nights when it was her mom’s turn to host and recalls sneaking out of bed to the kitchen where the women were playing. “I vividly recall bowls of strawberries and M&M’s—there wasn’t any fancy charcuterie in the ’80s,” she laughs. As she drifted off to sleep, she was comforted by familiar voices discarding tiles. One bam, five bam, and then eventually someone would shout, “Mahjong!” “There would be laughing and groaning, and the shuffling would begin for the next game,” she says.

Those memories came back to her in 2020, when Cott started playing with her neighborhood friends Bethany Smith, Valerie Parente, and Molly Levinson. The foursome recently launched Mahjong Social ATL, which will provide private instruction and merchandise.

The friends turned business partners are in the process of developing their own tile line. It will nod to their Georgia roots, incorporating peaches and regional flowers, while also staying true to the classic Chinese symbolism. The three suits—bamboos, characters, and dots—represent Chinese currency. “We like the idea of keeping the game the way it was intended to be,” says Parente.

Shawn Martin, a local mahjong instructor, says a game once dominated by seniors is now reaching a new, millennial-based generation, thanks to pop culture references in movies and shows such as Crazy Rich Asians and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. (Martin herself was inspired to learn how to play after seeing 1993’s The Joy Luck Club.) Add to that Instagram-worthy new tile sets, and you’ve got a recipe for success. Martin says, “Now there are many options that are a whole package, from a beautiful mat to corresponding wine glasses.”

Martin and her daughter, Faye, launched their line, Two Sparrows Mahjong, last fall, with tiles that showcase work by local artists. The first set, Rose’s Classic Tile Line, was designed by Atlanta artist Rose Rotunda (see photo above).

Stephanie Vaughn lives in Duluth and is a mahjong veteran who has been playing for more than a decade and travels for games across the country. She describes mahjong as a particularly welcoming community. “There is a high proportion of LGBTQ+ members, which is personally relevant to me,” Vaughn says.

As the first person in his extended family since his maternal grandfather to play any form of mahjong, Kevin Tran says he’s especially drawn to an online version called Japanese Riichi Mahjong. “I love it because modern computerized versions have made it significantly more accessible for younger, English-speaking audiences,” he says. After his online introduction, Tran began playing in person in Atlanta: “I enjoy the tactility of real tiles, as well as the presence of being around people again after years of isolation.” Meeting a diverse crowd helps, too. “Mahjong was always perceived [by me] as the kind of game that’s only played by a bunch of elderly Asian folks, but I’m regularly meeting new people to play with of all ages and walks of life,” Tran says.

This article appears in our January 2024 issue.